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A passion for endless flavor

Times Staff Writer

The best way to get to Paula Wolfert’s house is to start out by the duck pond in the Sonoma town square. Drive east through a neighborhood of beautifully maintained Victorian and Craftsman-style homes. After a couple of blocks, you’ll hit vineyards. Turn north and drive through more vineyards. Follow the winding road up the mountain. The vineyards give way to expanses of rolling hills dotted with California oaks. Eventually you turn onto another small road and then a long driveway. You’re there.

Wolfert hollers through the screen door to come up. It’s a modern structure, all unlikely angles and walls of windows looking out onto uninterrupted vistas of gorgeous hillsides. You can’t see another house; it’s a neighborhood rule. She’s in the kitchen, which seems to occupy half of one floor. There’s a tile-faced wood-burning fireplace, double ovens, a six-burner range with grill and a central island that seems as big as most living rooms, topped with rough marble tiles.

It’s an idyllic spot Wolfert has found, an isolated bit of Sonoma heaven that, even with all the twisting and turning and climbing, is only about a 10-minute drive from town. The only catch is that Wolfert doesn’t drive.

Welcome to Paula Wolfert’s World, where a little inconvenience means next to nothing -- whether it’s an obscure ingredient, a time-consuming technique or being stranded halfway up a mountain -- as long as there is sufficient payoff.

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“It’s like the line from ‘Streetcar,’ ” she laughs. “I depend on the kindness of strangers.”

That could be her motto. Wolfert has spent the last 45 years wandering into unfamiliar kitchens from Marrakech to Istanbul and emerging with recipes that her new friends have entrusted to her. “You kiss each woman on each cheek, and you touch your heart. Then she’s at ease,” she once said.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. After the rough sketch has been collected, each recipe takes on a life of its own. Wolfert doesn’t rest until it has been honed to its best possible version, thoroughly annotated with every possible bit of advice that could make its preparation easier, and then credited to everyone who contributed to it.

Through seven books, her readers (an ardent if somewhat obsessive bunch) have delighted in following Wolfert every step of the way, even if that means making couscous from scratch, putting up quarts of duck confit or tracking down sources for the newest dried pepper from Aleppo.

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Compared with that, what’s a little ride down a mountain?

Tomorrow Wolfert is cooking lunch for a few friends, who just happen to include Bob Sessions and Jean Arnold Sessions, of Sonoma Valley landmark Hanzell Vineyards, and Wolfert’s old pal Judy Rodgers, chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe, and her husband, mystery writer Kirk Russell.

Most of the preparations are already finished and tucked away in her beloved food-saver bags in the refrigerator and freezer, waiting for finishing. But there is still some last-minute shopping to do, so off we go.

If you know Wolfert’s recipes, you probably can guess a lot about her personality. She’s alternately bossy and generous, scholarly and gleeful, and always passionately involved and obsessively consumed with getting things just exactly right.

It must be said that Wolfert is almost as bad a passenger as she is a driver, given to apparently spontaneous emergency braking maneuvers even on deserted country roads. But you get used to the sudden flailing of arms and the stomping of feet on where she imagines the brake pedal might be.

And you get used to that peculiar sense of direction -- or lack thereof -- that comes with being a constant passenger. On a tour of her Sonoma, Wolfert never can seem to pin down whether the place you’re going is to the right or the left, ahead or behind.

But somehow you always get there, and it’s always worth the trouble. There’s the Friday farmers market, where she picks out some early tart-sweet Bing cherries. This is her stopgap market. The big one is at the Sonoma town square on Tuesday evenings.

“It’s really a wonderful thing,” she says. “Everybody turns out for it. There’s music and food, and people eat on picnic tables or just spread a sheet on the ground and drink wine.”

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This works out well because Tuesday is also Wolfert’s day to meet with her collection of fellow East Coast expatriates for vodka tonics on the porch at the Swiss Hotel. (“Their pizza is very good, and the bartender gives a very generous pour; they know better than to give me more than two.”) A friend in the neighborhood gives her a ride.

A New Yorker relocated

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Wolfert shocked her friends by moving to California nine years ago, following her husband, bestselling crime writer William Bayer, who had always been fascinated by San Francisco. Six years ago they bought the place in Sonoma. She fell so deeply in love with it that now he lives and works in the city during the week and drives up on the weekends to join her.

From the market, it’s on to Ramekins, an extremely well-appointed cooking school where Wolfert teaches hands-on classes twice a year. After decades as a touring teacher, she is slowing down now, and these are among her few appointments left. She stops in to say hi and is greeted like a visiting celebrity.

But there’s still shopping to do, and right around the corner (after a few wrong turns) is the Sonoma Market, one of those neighborhood food shops that could only exist in the wine country. Wolfert prowls the aisles, pointing out the eight kinds of butter, the bread from Bouchon and Acme bakeries, the old-fashioned meat counter and the very good cheese selection. (“We may not have very many good restaurants, but we must have a lot of good cooks, because somebody is buying this stuff,” she says.)

For lunch we stop at LaSalette, a little Portuguese place off the town square run by Azoreans. Wolfert lusts after the recipe for their rolls, but they won’t let it go. Just give her a little more time. “I know it’s got cornmeal and flour, and there’s a spice mixture in it,” she says, pulling it apart and taking a taste.

Then it’s one last visit at the Cheesemaker’s Daughter, a carefully edited store owned by Wolfert’s friend Ditty Vella, a third-generation cheesemonger whose dad just happens to be Ig Vella, the legendary maker of Monterey Dry Jack. To go with the cherries, Wolfert selects a cave-aged Gruyere, a perfectly runny L’Edel de Cleron and a chunk of a Manchego she sampled the week before.

Along the way she squeezes in a stop at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art for another look at the collection of digital photographs by John Paul Caponigro, from whom she recently took a master class in Photoshop software. “I’m 67 years old,” she says. “By the time I’m through with my next book, I’ll be 70. I don’t want to have spent my whole life writing cookbooks. I think it’s time I tried something new, don’t you think?”

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At 10 the next morning, Wolfert is already up and working. Bayer has driven up from San Francisco and is alternately playing host and setting the table on the porch, under the screening branches of an oak.

They have been together since 1970. He took the photos for her first book, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” and, by her account, helped raise her two kids from a previous marriage while she was off doing research. Four of her books are dedicated to him.

She stands at the counter peeling fava beans from a stack of small bags. Acknowledging that preparing favas is one of the more tedious tasks in cooking, Wolfert has come up with a solution: She buys them a few at a time throughout the spring, then shucks them into bags that she seals with her Tilia FoodSaver Professional II, a machine sold on television infomercials that sucks the air out of the bag and then seals it tightly -- just like the sous-vide machines so beloved of chefs these days. She freezes the bags and then, when the recipe calls for them, takes out the required amount of favas. After freezing, they peel easily even without blanching.

Wolfert loves her FoodSaver with an awesome passion. Her freezer is stocked full of goodies preserved this way, and in the manner of a true zealot, she constantly finds a way to drop this into conversation.

She also prepared the confit using the machine -- she sealed seasoned duck legs in a bag, then poached them slowly in hot water so the fat gently rendered. It’s a radically easier way to make confit; she is including full instructions in her completely revised “The Cooking of South-West France,” which will be available this fall.

She’s got duck stock in the freezer too, and pork belly and even pigs’ ears. If you want, she says, she can make a salad of them in no time. There are apples braised in orange flower water as well, and she quickly volunteers to prepare a little croustade to go along with the other two desserts she’s serving this afternoon. “It will take me three minutes, really.”

“Between this machine and the Internet, I’m taken care of,” Wolfert says. “You have to do this when you live on a mountain and don’t drive.”

In fact, most of today’s menu was prepared well in advance. Bayer baked the madeleines earlier in the morning. They’re denser than most and less sweet, more cakelike than airy, like the difference between a great doughnut and a Krispy Kreme.

Wolfert made the stuffed grape leaves, plump with bulgur and bits of chopped dried figs, a couple of days ago and kept them in the refrigerator. The delightfully peppery, piquant green herb jam, a coarse puree made with spinach and herbs and black olives that will be spread on crackers, was put up a couple of weeks ago.

“Look at my books and you’ll see I’m always telling people when they can stop and put things in the refrigerator or in the freezer,” she says. “That’s the only way I can cook. I can’t do it all in one day because I’m such a crazy person. I have to take it a little at a time.”

The duck confit was put up three months ago. Now she steams it and then, because it is nearly falling apart, browns it under the broiler before adding it to the favas. She pulls off a piece and peppers it liberally. The flavor is amazing, so deep it’s almost bottomless. This is to most confits what an old Bordeaux is to a young Cabernet. “This is good, but when you get to five months, it’s out of this world,” she says.

The other dessert is caneles, which are baking in the oven. Wolfert is particularly proud of this recipe, from her most recent book, “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.” Though it’s all the rage in France and among au courant pastry chefs in this country, she insists that no one else has the real thing.

The story, as she relates in the book, is that 20 years ago, the mother of her friend Ariane Daguin (proprietor of D’Artagnan, the East Coast foie gras producer), sent her the recipe from a friend who was a baker. Wolfert filed it away and forgot it. Then when it began to become popular several years ago, she pulled it out. In the meantime, members of the bakers’ guild in Bordeaux, where the recipe comes from, had joined together and agreed to keep the technique a secret -- a vow that they have apparently held to, leaving her in sole possession of the true recipe.

She dropped everything else and spent the next three months perfecting it. The secret is in mixing the butter and the flour at the beginning, she says. “Nobody else has gotten that right. I know [pastry chef and cookbook author] Pierre Herme knows to do that, but he didn’t put it in his book.”

Indeed, they are superb, crisp on the outside and almost custardy on the inside. “Like a creme brulee you can eat out of your hand,” Wolfert says. “Thomas Keller called to ask me if he could use my recipe. Can you believe that? Thomas Keller!”

Besides the FoodSaver, Wolfert’s favorite kitchen equipment is almost startlingly primitive. She’s got good French copper pans and carbon steel knives but doesn’t seem to use them. For cutting, she prefers paring knives and scissors, the way women in the Middle East do.

For cooking she prefers clay. No, wait, “prefers” isn’t nearly strong enough. Wolfert believes passionately in the singular qualities of foods cooked low and slow as only these pans can do.

The working title of her next book is “Confessions of a Claypot Junkie,” and the walls of her kitchen are lined with evidence of her addiction. There must be dozens of pots of all shapes and sizes -- gratins, tagines, daubieres, triperies and couscoussiers, made of earthenware and ceramics and glazed in nearly every color and finish imaginable. The best are tucked securely into their own cubbyholes like art objects; others are stacked in piles.

The table is set

It’s noon, and lunch is just about ready. The ramps and asparagus are braising in cream; the favas and duck are marrying in a warm pan. The table outside is set in Provencal tones of dark red and gold. Wolfert frees the caneles from their molds by firmly rapping on them with a granite pestle.

As the guests arrive, they gather in the kitchen, sipping wine, helping cook and generally milling about. “I wrote all my books in tiny little kitchens,” Wolfert says, “and when we moved here, I thought, why not have a big kitchen so I could entertain in it while I was cooking, since that’s where everybody seems to end up anyway?”

Eventually everyone gets to the table. Conversation ambles on the way it does on sunny afternoons; everyone talks of friends and food and murder mysteries. (It tickles Wolfert that she and Rodgers are married to crime writers.)

Of course there is much oohing and aahing over the dishes and the wines (the Sessionses bring Hanzell’s current 2002 Chardonnay and 2001 Pinot Noir, and the 1989 Pinot from their cellar). But Wolfert isn’t entirely comfortable with praise. It’s not enough that her food is enjoyed; she wants to make sure her intentions are understood.

“Cooking this food is not a matter of showing off; these recipes are not trophies,” she says. “I love to cook them. Otherwise, what have I been doing with my life? I mean, was I just collecting recipes and publishing them?

“These are dishes that are meant to be cooked and shared. And this is the kind of food that restaurants don’t take the time to do anymore. This is something special I can do for my friends, and at the same time, I feel like I’m helping to keep this food alive.

“This is what I do.”

*

Herb jam with olives and lemon

Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling time

Servings: About 6 (makes 1 cup)

Note: Adapted from Paula Wolfert’s “The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.”

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and halved

1 pound stemmed baby

spinach leaves

1 large bunch of flat-leaf

parsley (about 1/4 pound), stemmed

1/2 cup coarsely chopped celery leaves

1/2 cup stemmed cilantro leaves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil,

divided

12 oil-cured black olives (about 1 ounce), pitted, rinsed and coarsely chopped

1 1/4 teaspoons Spanish sweet smoked paprika (pimenton de la Vera)

Pinch of cayenne

Pinch of ground cumin

1 tablespoon lemon juice, or more to taste

Salt and pepper

1. Put the garlic cloves in a large steamer basket set over a pan of simmering water. Top with the spinach, parsley, celery and cilantro. Cover and steam until the garlic is soft and the greens tender, about 15 minutes. Cool, then squeeze the greens dry, finely chop and set aside. Mash the garlic cloves.

2. In a medium cazuela (earthenware pot) set over a flame-tamer or in a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the garlic, olives, paprika, cayenne and cumin. Stir over medium high heat for 30 seconds. Add the greens and cook, mashing and stirring, until soft, dry and somewhat smooth, about 15 minutes.

3. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Add the remaining olive oil, mashing to combine. Refrigerate, tightly covered, for 1 to 4 days. To serve, return to room temperature. Stir in the lemon juice; season with salt and pepper. Serve with crackers or semolina bread.

Each tablespoon: 153 calories; 3 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 5 gram fiber; 11 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 245 mg. sodium.

*

Ramps, asparagus and ham

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: From Paula Wolfert’s upcoming clay pot cookbook. You may substitute 3 pounds green garlic or baby leeks for the ramps. Plantin black truffle oil is available online at www.plantin.com. Sunflower sprouts are available at farmers markets.

2 pounds (about 5 dozen) ramps, trimmed and cleaned like green onions

4 tablespoons butter

Salt

Pepper

4 pounds thin asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces

4 tablespoons creme fraiche or heavy cream

4 ounces Serrano ham, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon Plantin black truffle oil or other top quality oil, divided

1 tablespoon sherry wine

vinegar

3 tablespoons walnut oil

1/4 pound baby tender sweet salad greens, washed and dried

1 package sunflower sprouts, rinsed and patted dry

1. Place a shallow flameproof casserole (preferably earthenware), or an enameled cast-iron pan over low heat, add the ramps with the butter, cover with a sheet of crumbled wet parchment and cook gently until the ramps soften, 5 to 10 minutes.

2. Lift off the parchment, add three-fourths teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper, the asparagus, cream and ham; gently toss, cover with the same parchment paper and a lid and cook for 5 to 10 more minutes, or until the asparagus and ramps are tender. Add one-half teaspoon of the black truffle oil; stir to combine.

3. Remove the asparagus, ramps and ham from the pan with a slotted spoon. Divide among 8 plates. Cook the cream and cooking juices to thicken and reduce to about 2 tablespoons, about 2 minutes.

4. Make a light vinaigrette by whisking together the vinegar, salt and pepper, walnut oil and the remaining one-half teaspoon truffle oil. Add the reduced cream-cooking juice to the vinaigrette.

5. In a mixing bowl, toss half the vinaigrette with the baby greens. Dribble the remaining vinaigrette over the ramps and asparagus.

6. Divide the salad evenly among the 8 plates. Garnish each serving with a sprig or two of sunflower sprouts and serve.

Each serving: 206 calories; 8 grams protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 31 mg. cholesterol; 182 mg. sodium.

*

Madeleines from Dax

Total time: 40 minutes, plus overnight chilling

Servings: 18 (3-inch) cakes or

24 (2-inch) cakes

Note: From Paula Wolfert’s “The Cooking of South-West France.” She recommends using Plugra butter, which does not need to be clarified.

2 large eggs

Pinch of salt

5 1/2 tablespoons superfine sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons orange flower

water

1 teaspoon pure vanilla

extract

5 1/2 tablespoons unbleached

all-purpose flour plus 5 1/2 tablespoons cake flour,

combined and sifted twice

3/4 teaspoon

baking powder

5 tablespoons clarified butter, melted and cooled

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1 tablespoon softened unsalted butter

1. One day in advance, using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, combine the eggs, salt and sugar. Beat until thick and light, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the orange flower water and vanilla; whisk to combine.

2. Sift the flours with the baking powder. Gradually stir into the egg mixture; do not overbeat. Add the butter and the cream. Stir gently until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

3. The next day, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush the hollows of a madeleine pan with softened butter. Use a teaspoon and a small spatula to fill each hollow about two-thirds full. Tap the mold on the table to allow batter to settle. (It is not necessary to smooth the surface or fill the bottom of each hollow.)

4. Bake for 5 minutes on the upper middle oven rack. Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake 6 to 10 minutes longer.

5. When the madeleines are golden and just turning brown around the edges, remove from the oven. Use the tip of a knife at the base of each to loosen; turn out onto wire racks to cool. Serve warm with fruit compotes, sorbets and granitas. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight tin and heated gently before serving.

Each serving: 84 calories; 1 gram protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 5 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 37 mg. cholesterol; 37 mg. sodium.

*

Stew of quick duck confit and fresh fava beans

Total time: 1 hour, after making quick duck confit

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from “Paula Wolfert’s World of Food.”

*

Quick duck confit

6 to 7 pounds fresh unshelled favas (about 4 cups shelled)

1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots

1/4 pound salt pork, cut into 1/4 -by-1-by-1-inch pieces

to make 3/4 cup, blanched

in boiling water for 10 minutes, rinsed and drained

2 small thinly sliced artichoke bottoms

1/2 small fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3/4 cup low-salt chicken stock

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1. About 4 to 5 hours before serving, remove the duck confit from the refrigerator. Shuck the fava beans and discard the pods. Drop into boiling water; allow the water to return to a boil and drain the favas. Rinse under cool water; peel off the skins. Cool, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

2. About 1 to 2 hours before serving, scrape off any congealed fat from the duck confit. Place the duck skin-side up in a 12-inch nonstick skillet; cover and fry over medium heat until lightly browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Carefully remove the duck skin and return it to the skillet to render any remaining fat. Drain the skin. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the skillet. Cover the duck and skin with foil to prevent drying out.

3. Add the shallots and salt pork to the skillet. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking until the pork and shallots are light brown around the edges. Add the artichoke slices, fennel and sugar and cook 2 minutes, stirring. Over high heat, deglaze with one-fourth cup of water and reduce slightly. Remove from the heat. (Recipe can be made to this point 1 to 2 hours ahead. Set the skillet, uncovered, in a cool place.)

4. About 10 minutes before serving, preheat the broiler. Meanwhile, add the stock and favas to the skillet and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, reduce the heat and cook until the favas are fully cooked, 4 to 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

5. Put the duck on a broiler pan. Replace the skin on each piece, crisp-side up and dab with the oil. Heat the duck under the broiler and crisp the skin, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Arrange in a deep, warm serving dish and pour the favas over. Sprinkle with the parsley and thyme. Serve at once.

Each serving: 632 calories; 48 grams protein; 89 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 21 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 45 mg. cholesterol; 378 mg. sodium.

*

Quick duck confit

Total time: 25 minutes active time, 24 hours marinating, 3 hours baking, plus cooling and chilling time

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from “Paula Wolfert’s World of Food.”

6 (1-pound) fatted duck legs

1/4 cup coarse salt

1 tablespoon lightly cracked juniper berries

1 1/2 tablespoons lightly cracked black peppercorns

1 teaspoon lightly cracked coriander seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons roughly chopped garlic

2 bay leaves, crumbled

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

1 lightly cracked clove

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 cups rendered fat (any combination of homemade lard, goose fat and duck fat)

1. Begin 2 to 7 days in advance. Trim the ducks of fat but leave as much skin intact as possible. Render the duck fat; cool, cover and refrigerate.

2. Mix the salt, juniper berries, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, garlic, bay leaves, thyme leaves, clove, nutmeg and parsley in a small bowl.

3. Rub the duck with the spice mix. Place in a glass or earthenware dish; cover and refrigerate 24 hours.

4. The next day, wipe away all the flavoring and juices with a dry towel. Place the duck in a deep baking dish; add the rendered fat. (It should cover the meat fairly well; more fat will render out in cooking to submerge it.)

5. Place the dish in a cold oven; set to 275 degrees and cook about 3 hours, until the duck is very tender. Remove the dish from the oven and allow the duck legs to cool in the fat.

6. Transfer the duck to a deep container. Ladle fat over the duck to cover. When cold, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. (The confit keeps up to 6 days, submerged in its cooking fat in the refrigerator. Scrape off all fat before using.)

Each serving (fat removed): 62 calories; 8 grams protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 33 mg. cholesterol; 32 mg. sodium.


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