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“secret recipe” guacamole

And then, all of a sudden, I had a full-time job.

“You learn the value of wine when you work,” my mom whispered conspiratorially as she handed me a glass. I was at the stovetop preparing the third “work-week dinner” of my life, a stew of canned tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and farro. By the time I’d reached the end of my week I’d learned the value of quite a few things: sleep (hello, 6:30 a.m. conference calls!), well-packed lunches, thermoses that keep tea hot for more than 30 minutes, and cheese (which I now devour straight from the wax paper within 5 minutes of arriving home).

All in all I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working. My first week had me so engrossed I ate only one lunch a day instead of my customary three,  and when I did eat it was with a ravenous craving for comfort food. Of course comfort food carries slightly different connotations here in Southern California, and when the weekend arrived I was ready to make not macaroni or mashed potatoes, but guacamole.

Oddly enough, my South African family has a rich and varied history with guacamole. Sometime after my uncle traveled to Mexico we instituted guacamole competitions at our family reunions, and the culminating event took place last October at my mother’s 50th birthday celebration. While taco meat sizzled and margaritas circulated widely, relatives and friends thronged round the competition table, where each contestant set to work with their allotted 4 avocados. There were the regular ingredients—garlic, onion, lime, tomato—and then there were the heralds of innovation—sriracha, corn, curry powder and Parmesan. The winner enjoyed first pickings from the piñata, not to mention a brief moment of honor in which all the guests reverently (and irreverently) bestowed slaps on the back and applause.

My original recipe—avos from the garden and limes from a neighbor’s donation bucket, with a squeeze of crushed garlic and a bit of chopped tomato—is still a favorite, but I’ve recently adapted it to include a few secrets from past competition winners. Up to now I’ve only held second place, but when the next family gathering rolls around I plan to be ready…

Guacamole with Garlic, Cilantro, Cumin and Parmesan

I love adding cumin to my guacamole (a secret tip from my uncle) and if you’re feeling adventurous give the Parmesan a go as well, courtesy of our family friend Mark.

4 ripe avocados

juice of half a lime

2 cloves garlic, crushed

half a large ripe tomato, chopped

half a medium onion, chopped

handful cilantro, chopped

1 tsp. cumin

salt & pepper

freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Peel and gently mash the four avocados. Add the lime juice, garlic, tomato, onion and cilantro and stir to combine. Add the cumin with the salt and pepper, then taste and season accordingly. Add the Parmesan if desired and enjoy with chips!

flat-roasted chicken with caramelized oranges and truffled polenta with parmesan

I don’t use the word feast lightly.

My family has always been a feasting one, and if images of Arthurian banquets pop to mind you’re not terribly off the mark. Reunions are planned with no thought for where cousins will sleep or what outings will be had, but everyone knows precisely what and who will be cooking each night for months in advance. Christmas Eve is marked by a giant, flaming pudding (soaked in brandy and ignited with a match); “Birthday Eves” are occasions for multiple courses and—alas no more—once featured homemade cakes fashioned into corrals for model horses or voluminous skirts for Barbie. It’s no surprise that the most-requested Christmas carol in our home is “Good King Wenceslas,” which features the good king’s spirited declaration, Bring me flesh and bring me wine!

Wine is all-important when it comes to the family feast. Bottles are purchased with care and hoarded with zeal until the appropriate occasion, which is, if not Saturday dinner, then certainly Sunday supper. The wine is swirled, inhaled, tasted, exclaimed over and discussed, each step partaken of with great earnestness and animation. “There are no great wines, only great bottles of wine,” my grandfather likes to say, hinting that a golden evening of fellowship infuses the chosen bottle with an added glow. That being said, I have had some truly wonderful wines in my life, and last night’s was memorable indeed.

The evening began, as it often does, in the early afternoon. I had selected the 2009 Cilla’s Blend from local winery Cimarone (a Syrah and Bordeaux blend from their Three Creek Vineyard estate collection) and planned a menu to match. Now, at 2 p.m., I was out in the garden picking kale and fresh herbs, which I rinsed and laid to dry before pulling a chicken from the fridge to prepare for flat-roasting.

Studying wine pairings recently I was interested to read that when it comes to Syrah, it’s often not so much the type of food you choose as how you prepare it. Grilled foods (preferably with a bit of char) pair particularly well, and strong herb flavors like rosemary and thyme play up complimentary flavor elements in the wine. Texture is also important, and grains like polenta make for friendly sides.

When I put our meal on the table at 8 p.m. (never fear—I took my time but the cooking could easily have been done start-to-finish in two hours) it was greeted with enthusiasm by family and wine-loving friends. We poured the blend and savored it with each dish: flat-roasted chicken with caramelized, charred oranges, creamy polenta with parmesan and a hint of truffle, kale and cabbage salad tossed with lemon and avocado and a platter of crispy grilled turnips and broccoli. We sighed deeply over the delicious complexity and peppery finish of the wine, which our friend Ken declared was like a “balanced portfolio.”

“It doesn’t just have one strong note,” he mused as I reached again for the bottle, “It’s like a major 7th chord.”

Flat-Roasted Chicken with Caramelized Oranges and Truffled Polenta with Parmesan

This wonderfully simple and delicious recipe for flat-roasted chicken is adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, David Tanis’ Heart of the Artichoke. The truffle-infused oil I used for the polenta was from La Tourangelle and relatively inexpensive, and a pinch of truffle salt would likely do the trick as well. The chicken and polenta went well with a creamy kale slaw and simple grilled turnips and broccoli.

For the chicken:

1 whole chicken

1 large handful fresh rosemary sprigs, plus 1 Tbsp. rosemary, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh thyme, minced

1 Tbsp. fresh sage, minced

1 orange, sliced into rounds

olive oil

salt & pepper

Rinse the chicken and remove the innards. Pat dry and lay the bird on a cutting board with the breasts facing down, then use large kitchen shears (or powerful scissors) to remove the backbone, cutting along one side and then the other. Spread the chicken out until it is lying completely flat, cutting the collarbone if necessary. Rub the bird with olive oil, salt, and pepper and lay breasts-up on top of rosemary sprigs, then rub the breasts, thighs, and legs with the chopped rosemary, thyme, and sage. Arrange the orange slices on top of the bird, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator, discard plastic, and slide into heated oven, roasting until juices run clear (about one hour, or until your meat thermometer registers 160 degrees). If orange slices start to burn you can cover the chicken loosely with foil, but some char on the fruit is good. Remove from oven, let rest 10 minutes, and serve.

For the polenta:

1 1/2 cups course-ground polenta

6 cups water

olive oil

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 tsp. truffle-infused oil

salt & pepper

In a medium saucepan, salt the water and bring to a boil. Add the polenta and a glug of olive oil and whisk quickly and thoroughly to prevent lumps, then turn the heat to medium low and simmer uncovered until the polenta is cooked to your liking, 10-20 minutes. Turn heat to low and stir in the butter until melted, then add the parmesan a bit at a time, whisking after each addition. Add the teaspoon of truffle oil and taste: the truffle flavor should add depth, but not be too obvious or overpowering. Season with salt and pepper, then remove from heat and keep warm until serving.

garden beignets

It was 6:15 on a foggy Friday morning and there I was, crouched over an orange bucket with my hand plunged up to the elbow in icy water mixed with ground quartz. Next to me Zach and Ross knelt hand-stirring the mixture in their buckets, and eight other apprentices and farm staff stood silently around us waiting their turn, Cynthia holding the cow horn in which the quartz had been buried for six months. We were completing the final stage of biodynamic prep 501, a soil preparation used in the biodynamic system of farming that Love Apple is committed to following. The preparation is stirred and applied at dawn, when the light filtering through the morning clouds can illuminate the quartz mixture as it is sprayed above the plants in the garden.

Biodynamics is the agricultural practice developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and while creating preparations for soil health out of stuffed cow horns and intestines may seem strange to some, when Cynthia told us the quartz prep had to be stirred clockwise and counter-clockwise for an hour to combine order and chaos, it made sense. In the past two months I’ve been on the farm I’ve acutely felt the balance of order and chaos in my life—the order of milking the goats each morning, eight-hour farm days, and sitting around the kitchen table each night, and the chaos of being thrown into a new place and life where you live, work, eat, and drink with an ever-shifting group of people. At 6:45 that morning as we stirred, Ellen—the baby of our group at 19, the greenhouse pro from Maine who’s been here seven months—quietly went round and said her goodbyes, and we were still stirring as she left the garden for the last time. That afternoon we saw off Tory, a two-week volunteer from Manresa who made us breakfast sandwiches and seemed to always have been here, and this week we say goodbye to Phillip, our constant source of new music (listen to this) and amazing grilled food. There’s order and chaos in all relationships, and in life, Cynthia said softly as we continued to stir, and it made me realize that letting go of people who’ve become such good friends—both on the farm and off it—is a chaos that’s never easy to be prepared for.

Part of spraying the soil prep is investing it with energy and positive thought, so as I misted our quartz mixture over the garden beds I decided I would do just that. I thought of the night before, when Tory made Manresa’s famous garden beignets for farm dinner while we laughed as everyone at the table had to put on their best foreign accent. I thought of Ellen and Tory and Phillip, the things they’ll go on to do  in college and culinary school and landscape architecture, and then I thought of all my other apprentice friends, the people they are now and the people they’ll be after they leave. I thought of people I love outside the farm, friendships I’ve let lapse as I’ve become more rooted here. Did I feel a little bit corny? You bet. But when I was done I felt as though a bit more order had been restored to the chaos that  always comes with saying goodbye.

Manresa’s Garden Beignets

The recipe for these delicious savory beignets was just added to the Bon Appetit website as a part of the story on Love Apple and Manresa in the August issue. They are absolutely amazing, and having made them every night at the restaurant for the past few months Tory was an expert. They may look tricky, but don’t worry–the process is actually not as intimidating as it may seem, and the results are well worth the effort. Enjoy!

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