“It looks like dinosaur skin,” said Martha Stewart from behind an elegant white kitchen counter, referring to the handful of kale leaves she was cutting in a chiffonade. “Like we know what dinosaur skin looked like.” The audience burst into a loud, raucous laughter. Shortly, a gentle breeze ushered a heady, nutty scent—hints of sautéed onions, garlic, zucchini and tomatoes. It came in waves, stronger and stronger each time.
When a few audience members took note of the delicious smell, (especially those in the front rows who could get a good whiff), it became clear—Martha wasn’t kidding when she said she can make ingredients sing in a slow cooker. Because this ribollita, a hearty vegetable soup native to Tuscany, was hitting all the right notes.
Fresh off the plane from New York, Martha gave the lowdown on taking full advantage of an appliance that’s long been attributed to lazy cooking, and punctuated the cooking lesson with jokes and personal stories about her family, farm and life in New York. The demonstration was one of three planned for the day at The Ventura County Start Food & Wine Experience, an event that’s a part of the 10-city USA Today Network food-and-wine event series.
On Oct 1, the grounds of the 200-year old Olivas Adobe in Ventura turned into a picturesque hub of gastronomy. The wine flowed, the conversation swelled, and a live band performed a spot-on playlist. And feasting on those delicately plated, carefully thought-out bites was akin to walking through the culinary landscape of Ventura County. Not only did local chefs boast their culinary chops, some even paid homage to fall’s bounty, and none failed to astound.
Among those goosebumps-inducing indulgences was Tierra Sur’s Gabe Garcia’s terrine, a classic French pâté-like mixture made from different kinds of meat. Gabe’s version packed up oxtail, beef cheeks, neck and sweetbread in one glorious creation that was breaded and then fried like a croquette. “We wanted to embrace some of our local farmers so we have local kabocha from Ojai,” he said, “and we just roasted it in some garlic oil, made some pickled redcurrants—just warm spices like cloves, cinnamon, coriander, sugar and vinegar.” Topped with a dollop of faux Béarnaise, the bite was an explosion of flavor—the heartiness of the terrine tempered and brightened by pickled redcurrants and fresh herbs. The Cave, a Ventura-based small-plate restaurant helmed by Chef Alex Montoya, served up frozen pumpkin custard pie with a crumbly ginger crust, finished with a smattering of vanilla whipped cream on top—another delicious nod to fall.
And speaking of nods, J Wolf Catering’s pork belly banh mi, a beloved Vietnamese staple, had everyone’s approval. And for good reason: the daikon sprouts, carrots, cucumber, cilantro and green onions, all tossed in ginger-soy sauce, lent the dish a little something extra. But pork belly itself, which was smoked for 12-14 hours and slow cooked for six, was a standout, because empty trays were in constant need of replenishment. In other words,blink, and the sandwiches were gone.
La Dolce Vita Ristorante in Oxnard, run by Chef Michelle Kenney served a heaping of portobello Florentine pasta with spinach, all smothered in a comforting marsala cream sauce. Tony Sewell—the chef behind Main Course California– Ventura-based, farm-to-table catering company—from Main Course California offered a melt-in-your-mouth bite of brisket braised in Belgian Amber sitting on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes. That was only a small taste of the full lineup.
But to really intensify the enjoyment of chowing down on those gluttonous noshes, a little vino was in order. Considering that libations were an integral part of what the occasion was all about, there was a slew of wineries to choose from, with several experts on hand to discuss their products. A few loops around the sun-dappled courtyard was enough to hear buzz about Franknvine-Lodi, and the folks at Cantara Cellars were quick to mention that it is usually everybody’s favorite. It’s easy to see why. The full-bodied drink is every bit as rich and complex as Franken-anything is expected to be, with hints of chocolate, cigar box, rose petal and black licorice.
Attendees who opted for an upgraded, albeit more expensive ticket got to spend time sipping their way through the plethora of vintage wines offered at The Cellar, a separate tent dedicated to wine connoisseurs. And for those with a hankering for some beer, 14 Cannon’s IPA (found at Barrelhouse 101’s booth) was tropical, bright and fruity. In other words, just what the hot afternoon called for.
At a little past two, as lines shortened and all the booth hopping winded down, guests took their seats by the tables near the live band. Others made their way to the kitchen stage pavilion, where Tony whipped up salsa verde. Following Tony’s tutorial, Duff Goldman’s—celebrity chef and baking maestro—name was announced, and he broke into a dash toward the stage kitchen, greeting his audience with enthusiasm. “You guys are in for a treat,” he said.
The treat he was quite literally referring to was apple pie, or more precisely, “the best apple pie ever.” The secret? It’s all in what Duff called “the goo.” As he stirred the sauce, which thickened into an ooey, gooey concoction on the stovetop, Duff talked about his first job at McDonalds, Chinese food and his love for Taco Bell. “See how dark that is? It’s going to have a ton of flavor,” he said, then broke out apples for the filling, cooked them and poured them with the sauce into a pie crust he’d made earlier from scratch.
“I was going to let you guys have some, but here’s the thing,” he said, swapping the uncooked pie for a cooked version. “It’s really good, and I haven’t seen my girlfriend in a month and a half…” Even though the audience never got a taste, the apple pie was the topic of all chatter as crowds lined up to hop onto the shuttle. Because if it had turned out as good as any and every bite offered at the festival, it would certainly be worthy of all manner of praise.