Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort: ‘Six California Kitchens’: Wisdom for the home cook | Food Columnists

The late Sally Schmidt never attended a culinary arts school, but she collected a lifetime of cooking knowledge that she passed on in the voice of a skilled, patient educator in her new book “Six California Kitchens.”

Sally’s cooking and entertaining helped change the Napa Valley into the tourism dynamo it is today. She learned the basics in her mother’s homestead kitchen, ran a small kitchen at what was Vintage 1870, later buying a rundown home in Yountville that previously had been a laundry and transforming it into the French Laundry restaurant.

After 16 years she decided to “stop cooking for others. Instead, I wanted to pass on the techniques, habits, knowledge and recipes I’d acquired through the years.”

This led to another kitchen: a renovated farmhouse in the rustic town of Philo, Mendocino at their Apple Farm, where she taught cooking to small groups.

Eventually, she and her husband, Don, retreated to a cottage on the coast of Mendocino, where she only had to cook for themselves. After six years, she and Don moved back to Apple Farm to be with their family. Don passed away in 2017 with Sally passing away on March 5, five days after celebrating her 90th birthday, but not before she was able to set her wisdom down in this beautiful book.

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As she did with every project she took on over her life, Sally relied on the help of her family, ranging from the book design by Byron Hoffman, her grandson, and her daughters, plus a couple of grandchildren, pitching in for the food and prop styling.

By the way, one of her grandchildren, Perry Hoffman, followed Sally into the professional kitchen, earning his first Michelin Star at 25 at the now-closed étoile at Domaine Chandon; then he was culinary director at Healdsburg’s farm-to-table marketplace, Shed, which is also now closed. When the chef left the Boonville Hotel in the Anderson Valley owned by his uncle, Johhny Schmitt, he came back home to where he had worked after high school under his uncle. Except now he is chef/partner. Recently, Perry also opened up Offspring, a wood-fired pizza pop-up at the Farrer Building across the street.

One pleasure of the book is the additional voices of Napa Valley before it became a tourist destination, such as Thomas Keller, who purchased The French Laundry from the Schmitts when they wanted to slow down.

Cindy Pawlcyn wanted to become a chef but saw no females in that position until her sister-in-law found an article in Sunset magazine that featured Sally and her cooking at the French Laundry. This eventually led Chef Pawlcyn to the Napa Valley to open Mustards Grill and other restaurants.

Robin Daniel Lail, who grew up as part of the Inglenook winery and founded Lail Vineyards, remembers the pleasure of Sally’s Chutney Kitchen during the 1970s.

Another fan was Lissa Doumani, who, with her husband Hiro Sone, eventually opened the Michelin-starred restaurant Terra (sadly gone) in St. Helena.

The erudite Gerald Asher, longtime wine writer for Gourmet magazine (again, sadly gone) is quoted from his book, “A Vineyard in My Glass”: “The evenings I spent at their Yountville restaurant were among my most memorable in California.”

While she did not attend culinary school, she did learn from a wide world of sources, including the famed Time-Life cookbooks on “Foods of the World,” and Sunset magazine, which printed an impressive list of recipes in those days.

From a lifetime of cooking in her six kitchens, she passes along a bit of insight on almost every page. She devotes a whole page to Cleaning As You Go, another whole page on Keeping It Simple.

She learned one of her most valuable lessons from the years she cooked the monthly luncheon for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, back when all the membership could sit at one long table. While the vintners had a discerning palette, she discovered: “Simple food, without fancy frills, was what pleased them the most.”

Other knowledge she shares includes “Start the day clean. Don’t have things piled up to be washed from the day or night before,” to “my restaurant years taught me to be prepared (always planning the next meal) plus “I’ve also learned not to fixate on measuring much, unless I’m baking” teaching herself what measurements of dry ingredients looked like in the palm of her hand. The list goes on, so you’ll have to read the book to learn more.

I loved the tone of the writing and the mix of historic images and illustrations with photos of the finished dishes. The only thing that made me raise an eyebrow was the frequency cream was incorporated in the recipes, particularly most of the soups. Most classes I’ve taken have emphasized a vegetable base as healthier. But she and her husband lived long lives, so maybe they’re on to something there.

In my column, I always try to give readers a wide choice of books/websites by listing three recipes from three different sources, but I feel it would be a shame not to share at least three recipes from Sally’s cookbook. She uses the format often seen in professional kitchens, with instructions on the left-hand side, ingredients on the right-hand side, so I’ll follow her lead here.

One more tip from Sally: “I recommend you read through it at least three times before you start cooking.” Long ago I discovered that piece of advice on my own.

Tuna Tartare

“Six California Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt

Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer

This is an easy starter for a meal to add to your repertoire of dishes.

Slice and cut gently not very small dice, 1 pound of the very best ahi tuna avoiding the connective tissue:

Transfer to a bowl and add: 2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil

1 Tbsp. finely chopped jalapeño

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh ginger

1 Tbsp. finely chopped green onion

Use your finger or a fork, toss gently until combined. Serve on toast rounds or very crisp cucumber slices. Garnish each serving with 1 little sprig of cilantro and Maldon salt.

Zanzibar Duck with Rice and Papaya

“Six California Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt

Sally had an admitted love affair with duck so she includes a whole chapter of duck recipes. She credits the African Cooking, volume of the Time-Life series, as the inspiration for this dish, which was a favorite when she cooked her monthly Friday night dinners at the Chutney Kitchen in Vintage 1870 from 1970 to 1978.

Note: She allows 1 hour for preparation and 2 hours of cooking time so this is not a spur-of-the-moment dish. Rice also needs to be made.

Preheat the oven to 400°

On a rimmed baking sheet: 6 whole duck legs

Arrange them skin-side up and season with: Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roast in the oven until they re very brown, but not dried out, about 45 minutes

While the duck legs are cooking, prepare and set aside 2 green or red bell peppers, charred, peeled, and torn into strips.

In a medium saucepan, combine and bring to a simmer: 2 cups chicken stock

2 jalapeño peppers, halved

Drain the fat from the duck legs and lower the oven temperature to 300°F. Reserve the flavorful duck fat for another use (this makes great fried potatoes). Pour the prepared stock over the duck legs and cover the pan with parchment paper. Return to the oven and steam until tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour more. Discard the cloves and jalapeños. Carefully pour off the cooking juices into a large saucepan.

Add: 4 cups of chicken stock

Return the duck to the 300°F oven, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes to let the skin crisp up. At this point, it can sit in a very low oven up to 30 minutes more until you are ready to serve. Bring the stock and juices to a gentle simmer and keep it simmering until it reduces to about 3 cups. After the stock is reduced, taste for salt and add more if needed.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over low heat, melt: ¼ cup butter

Peel, seed, cut into cubes and add to the pan: 2 fresh papayas

Gently warm and sprinkle with: ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

When ready to serve, place a generous spoonful of rice on each plate. Add a duck leg and scatter the reserved pepper strips over the leg. Place a serving of the warmed papaya on the side and spoon the reduced stock overall. Be very generous. There should be enough liquid to really soak into the rice. Garnish with lime and orange zest.

Coffee Pots de Crème

Makes enough for 6 to 8 ramekins or 8 to 10 ovenproof espresso cups

I love fruit desserts but every so often, you need chocolate. The classic flavoring is vanilla, but the chocolate variation is my favorite.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, scald, and remove from the heat:

3 Tbsp. instant espresso coffee

In a medium bowl, beat gently to avoid having too much foam: ½ cup egg yolks from about 6 eggs

Add the hot half-and-half mixture slowly to the bowl in a thin stream, stirring constantly. Strain the mixture into a large heatproof measuring cup. Fill the ramekins or espresso cups and place them in a roasting pan

Pour enough hot tap water into the pan to come about two-thirds up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custard is barely set, 30 to 50 minutes, depending on how warm the mixture was to start. It should jiggle in the middle.

Let cool a little, and then lift the ramekins out of the pan, using a jar lifter if they’re still too hot. Then cool before serving or refrigerate to serve cold.

To serve, top each with: A spoonful of softly whipped cream, chocolate-covered coffee beans or chocolate curls.

Trisha Anderson

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