While checking out Instagram, looking for fellow foodies, we couldn’t help but notice that @abisfarmhouse often complimented our social media posts. So Tracy, our SVP of Marketing, asked National Chef Joel to reach out to Abigail and find out a little more about her food journey. After one phone call it was clear: Abigail was one of us. Abi’s story about how she started cooking and found her passion is inspirational, and we feel so privileged and excited to be a small part of that story.
Sur La Table “Bigwig Cool Chef Man” Joel Gamoran (I’m pretty sure that’s his title) asked me, “So Abi, how did you come to cook?” I’d flown up to Seattle to tour Headquarters and talk shop. We wore sweaters and munched cookies freshly baked by icon Dorie Greenspan as the TV cameras cooled from her demo.
The painter in me watched purple-gray rain clouds roll in and my food-geek side wondered, how in the world did I get here? I’m a stay at-home Mom. With two kids. And a fat, lazy dog. Sure, I make a little wine and I LOVE to cook. But a trained, professional chef, I am not. I stifled crazy-person laughter, for I am sure the hallowed halls of Sur La Table ought to command more reverent reactions than idiotic giggles.
I’ve written my answer to Joel some nine times, happy with none. Tonight though, I poured myself a “local pour” of our Sauvignon Blanc and envisioned women and men like me, out there wielding spatulas and tongs. COOKING—alone or for family. (Hopefully) loving the very act of taking raw ingredients and creating something lovely. Nourishing. How carrots feel freshly peeled or how broccolini crisps up with solid amounts of salt. That duck confit is surprisingly easy to make. And that if you add green peas to anything starchy, kids love it.
I looked back on how I learned to cook in my kitchen—this gorgeously old Victorian farmhouse remodeled last sometime before 1939. First cooking with my now-husband and then alone with my cookbooks, pencil and post-it notes at hand. Now repopulated with toddlers under foot. And I gave renewed thanks to Sur La Table salespeople for helping me learn the ropes around my own kitchen.
*Big side-note: Please know this piece is in no way sponsored—only written in appreciation from this home cook to a store that helped me answer my questions. And still does.*
Readers of my column Abi’s Farmhouse Kitchen know that I quit NASA after 10 years in public service, took about a 92% pay cut and embarked on new life as a “Cellar Rat” making wine. In October of 2007, I traded high-heels for steel-toe Wolverines and a pallet jack. Committed myself whole-hog to a healthier, seasonal, fully artistic life in Sonoma Valley. I literally could cook one thing then.
You laugh, but really, it was not even my recipe. My grandmother, Mima, made buttermilk waffles every Sunday (recipe and tribute)—traditions we continue today, albeit with champagne vs. Folgers crystals instant coffee.
It was love that brought me “home” to cooking when Dean and I met one summer night at the Farmers Market. I’d gone to town to buy flowers, and instead I met the most handsome man (ever). Tall. Strong. Wearing long shorts and a Stetson with just the right amount of sweat on the brim. Searing blue eyes… I stood there in wine-stained work boots. Smelling like Chardonnay lees. Remembering my deodorant had failed hours before when cleaning barrels with a gamma jet.
Dean and I moved in four days later.
And started cooking.
First, I cooked to flirt. Food can be quite the passionate exercise—have you noticed? But lust and love soon expanded into one powerful marriage, babies and circadian life built near the cycles of our Vineyard.
I really do consider myself a kitchen cook. A mom and wife, trying to keep up with the day. Mapping out my grocery list by quadrant, according to the market floor plan (that NASA side lives on). Nerding out on food, cooking away earnestly in our farmhouse here at Annadel Estate Winery. We literally live “Between Wars”. Our walls are horsehair and plaster, and my 1941 Occidental Automatic—which we found in the Carriage House—we modernized to a six-burner, two-stove Wolf Range.
At first I cooked mostly Italian, because Dean is first-generation American-Italian—though I first stepped out when our daughter, Anni, was little to make Julia Child’s Cassoulet from scratch. It took me 28 hours. I fell asleep at the table.
Then fellow home cook and neighbor a few vineyards down, Gail Ross, started working part time at Sur La Table and brought me Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. “Try it!” she said. “You’ll love it.” And I did. I still make Roast Chicken for les Paresseux (p 200) most weeks (+extra garlic and garden-cut herbs). More importantly, Dorie’s cookbook expanded my home cooking horizons. It was a beautiful gateway to French food. Which then led to curries, Thai or Mexican, Japanese, jams and canning, Southern, and yes, Italian once or twice a week: much new fare mixed in with Dean’s family heritage dishes.
I then started to write from my pre-War, ghost-winery kitchen, first urged by TV food star Heather Christo who visited Annadel some years back. More recently, I was encouraged by Indian Chef sensation Asha Shivakumar to really take up Instagram (@abisfarmhousekitchen) Thanks to social media—and writing about food, food history and winemaking—I’ve connected with such wonderful food lovers, like Naomi’s The Cooks in the Kitchen series, or finding Susana’s best Carnitas recipe, discovering fennel and leek soup at Jen’s Lemon Apron, enjoying Malaysian-style fish stew by Hazel, and many others. All sharing our beloved home kitchens and earnest cookery. I’m not talking “perfect shot” kind of bloggers, but rather warm-hearted, apron-clad souls similarly appreciating good living, wine and home cooking. “Shaking hands” by proxy from our very agrarian spot in northern California’s wine country. Which is how I came to meet the wonderful directors at Sur La Table.
Sonoma County—really, the whole national food movement—is a return to basics. One giant step away from gridlock and desks and clocked-in/clocked-out days. A blue-skies return to the clean rhythms of seasons and harvests in grapes, vegetables, olives and foodstuffs. Eating “close to the source” has increasingly become a way of life. How we cook. Shop. Menu plan. Even potluck.
Through reading food (and art) history, I’ve also learned that we American cooks did not pioneer this approach to cooking. I now research (and write short pieces on) how famous artists curated their own tables, if you will. How their respective art directly influenced their food. Frida Kahlo cooked strictly indigenous Mexican dishes tied closely to the seasons, using mainly pre-colonial foodstuffs. Claude Monet gave up the opulent food and comfort of his childhood for a cold, single-room apartment to paint and marry his muse. He only enjoyed the monetary benefits (and culinary opulence) from those decades of Impressionist painting starting in his late 40’s. His painting schedule then revolved around 5am breakfast, a hearty Noonday meal and lavish dinner after sun had set. Georgia O’Keeffe will be my next study.
As for me and my little family, good food, art and real wine are proof of love. For each other. For our family and friends. And thanks to Sur La Table, I’m living proof that real food knowledge makes all the difference. I say this as a mom who has come so far from asking “timer questions” between blanched and oversmushed asparagus. I was glad Julia’s words, below, read warmly from the Test Kitchen walls, making me feel like just another cook talking shop, eating cookies. Global icons or not, all of us ardently still in love with food. And our kitchens.
“Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun.” ~ Julia Child
Easy Weeknight Lasagna:
3 cloves garlic (peeled) (We use 5)
1 carrot (peeled & quartered)
1/4 yellow onion (peeled & quartered)
1 stalk celery (quartered)
1 26-28-oz. jar/box of fine Italian diced tomato, or puree
1 bunch broccolini (5-10 stalks) (can substitute spinach or kale)
1 bunch asparagus (5-10 pieces trimmed)
2 handfuls dried pasta shells or five lasagna sheets
1 16-oz. bag shredded mozzarella
2 balls fresh mozzarella
Handful shaved Parmesan
Dried Italian herbs
Handful chopped Italian parsley and basil, if you have it.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Set pot of water to boil (do NOT salt it).
Puree garlic, carrot, celery, onion and drizzle of olive oil. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté this veggie mixture for 3-4 minutes. Stir in a dash of Italian herbs. Cook until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Add tomato puree, stir well for 2-3 minutes to brown sauce. Remove from heat.
Pot of water should be boiling. If not, wait. Then add one giant pinch of salt. Add pasta and briefly pre-cook according to directions (about 4 minutes). Drain quickly. Do not rinse with cold water!
Chop broccolini and asparagus. Briefly sauté in butter or olive oils until greens brighten but retain crunch.
Slick casserole dish with olive oil. Layer a smear of your quick tomato sauce. Toss in half the pasta (or three of the lasagna sheets). Layer half of the vegetables and evenly distribute half of the hand-torn mozzarella. Lightly layer with half of your shredded mozzarella and dust with shaved Parmesan. Repeat for a second layer and top with chopped Italian parsley.
Wrap with tin foil. Bake 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake 20-25 minutes more, until cheese is browned. Remove from oven and let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.
Originally published December 5, 2016, on Abi’s Farmhouse Kitchen