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TUSCANY? LOOK AGAIN

“Mexiterranean” is Eileen Gregory’s word for Las Brisas del Valle--not only the inn, but the fusion cuisine of its 26-year-old chef, V. Omar Garcia Salazar, and the wine country setting. It’s a taste of Italy in Baja California, and it’s also home. The idea of living surrounded by a vineyard had always appealed to Eileen and her husband Phil, a former recording studio manager. So in 2002, after Eileen left Innergy, which she co-founded as a European lifestyle cable channel that focused on social consciousness, self-improvement and organic farming (“like a green Martha Stewart,” she says), they decided to settle down, grow grapes and enjoy life. A colleague had told them about a wine region somewhere south of the border, but on their first visit, no one they asked knew where it was. A Rosarito Beach Realtor finally directed them to the Guadalupe Valley, about eight miles north of Ensenada, off Highway 3 leading to Tecate. Eileen compares first seeing the valley to “Brigadoon” and “the notion of turning a corner and discovering a magical place.” Her idyllic universe is just 90 minutes from San Diego, in a slightly drier locale than the verdant Scottish paradise the musical evokes. They purchased 70 acres, and two years ago built an ochre-hued villa on a hill. The south-facing portico of arches and wrought-iron balconies overlooks a field of lavender and olive trees, recalling the Mediterranean lands they both love. But step backward too quickly and the Nopal cactus remind you that you’re in Mexico.

Embraced by mountains on the east and west, the valley’s quiet beauty is usually disturbed only by the braying of a neighbor’s burro or a boisterous rooster. Mostly you hear the breezes rustling the artemisia, buckwheat and sage that pepper the rocky plain. Indeed, they are the inspiration for the name Las Brisas del Valle. “A soft wind begins about an hour and a half after sunrise,” Eileen says, “and then the evenings are quite still. Often a mist will settle. We watch the sun rise on one set of mountains and set on the other. It’s magical.”

The inn, which has six guest rooms, is decorated like a sophisticated hacienda with contemporary Mexican art and custom furnishings, including cowhide-covered equipales, soft leather sofas, terra-cotta pots and indigenous Indian baskets. Outside, though, is where the Mexi-Med fusion really gets going. In an herb garden, Mexican chiles, cilantro and yerba buena mingle with thyme, oregano, rosemary, basil and other Mediterranean herbs.

The Gregorys’ estate reflects the gastronomic revolution in the 14-mile-long valley, which is about two-thirds the size of Napa. Avant-garde restaurants offer dishes based on local produce, much of it organic, and the bounty of the nearby Pacific. The valley is rich in wine grapes (first planted by the Spanish as early as the 17th century) and, of course, wineries. Some are calling it Mexico’s nascent Napa.

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When Eileen and Phil invite local friends for a Mexiterranean cocktail party, Omar relies on his personal organic farmer’s market just outside the kitchen door. Herbs are only the start. The inn’s ever-expanding orchard (70 citrus trees have been planted to date and 40 more are on the way) boasts lemons, Mexican limes, tangelos, Valencia, navel and Mandarin oranges, pomelos and grapefruits. Then there are the vegetable and flower gardens, thousands of lavender plants, olive grove, flock of araucana chickens supplying fresh blue eggs and, of course, the vineyard, with 3,700 vines.

Formerly a chef at Ensenada’s Embotelladora Vieja (which means “old bottling plant”), Omar says that at Las Brisas he combines Mediterranean food with “la toque Mexicana.” Because there are no set menus at the inn, “Cada dia yo invento"--every day I invent.

He devises fusion creations for the party: sopes, mini-pizzas made out of cornmeal topped with rosemary-scented valley quail, and quesadillas with homemade fig jam--"a winning combination,” says guest Benito Molina, owner and chef of two of Baja California’s best restaurants, Manzanilla and Silvestre.

For the ceviche, a popular Latin American seafood appetizer, Omar trades a traditional onion-tomato-green-pepper marinade for an updated mix of avocado, mango, cucumber and purple onion. Placing it on top of a thin round of homemade Italian focaccia gives it a Mediterranean twist and the look of a pretty little layer cake.

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“We usually eat our ceviche with chips or tostadas,” says architect Claudia Turrent, who with husband Alejandro D’Acosta recently designed the winery Paralelo.

To go with the hors d’oeuvres, Omar prepares cilantro lemoncello margaritas--a Mexiterranean combination if ever there was one. Lemoncello, an Italian aperitif, stands in for the traditional orange-flavored Cointreau. “At first I didn’t think I would like it,” says Leonora Velasco, an English professor at the University of Baja California and co-owner with Pau Pijoan of the Vinas Pijoan winery. “We use cilantro in so many Mexican dishes: chopped on top of salsas, in our enchiladas, we even have a sopa de cilantro. But this is a first.” Molina’s wife, Solange Muris, a chef at Silvestre, known for its rustic Mexican food cooked over a wood-burning stove, likes Omar’s cilantro lemoncello blend. But, she says, “I think I prefer cilantro on top of my salsa rather than in my drink.”

Artisanal Ramonetti cheese, a local favorite, is served with fig jam and Omar’s sweet bolillos (little rolls) on the terrace. The Ramonetti is made by Los Cuatro Quesos owner Marcelo Castro, a fourth-generation cheese maker whose grandfather brought the tradition to Mexico from Italy in the early 1900s. “It’s typical of what’s going on in the valley,” says Eileen. “Everyone is experimenting with food and wine.”

For the party’s sweet tooth, Omar prepares his version of chocolate truffles. One, with pico de pajaro chiles, makes for some real hot chocolate. He infuses others with lavender, then rolls them in chopped pistachios. “Deliciosos” is the common refrain.

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The polvorones, a traditional Mexican wedding cookie infused with rosemary, also go over well. The colorful tissue-paper-wrapped cookies, reminiscent of Italian amaretti, make a tiny mountain on the table.

“The rosemary gives a little extra touch to something very classical,” says Solange. “I like it, but I love the truffles with chile. Chocolate and chiles--now that’s pure Mexican!”

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Cocktails at Las Brisas:

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Herbed Olives a la Mexicana

Cilantro Dip

Shrimp Soup Shots

Focaccia and Scallop Ceviche Crostini

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Quail Sopes

Fig Chutney and Cheese Quesadillas

Polvorones (Mexican Wedding Cookies)

Chocolate Lavender Truffles

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Cilantro Margaritas

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Shrimp Soup Shots

Makes 14 to 16 1/2-ounce shots

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1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 pound shrimp shells (from about 2 pounds shrimp)

1/2 carrot, coarsely chopped

1/3 white onion, coarsely chopped

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1 garlic clove

1 cup white wine

8 cups water

4 Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped

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1 to 3 serrano chiles (depending on how hot you want the soup), chopped

2 bay leaves

Pinch of oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

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Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 6-quart pan. Cook the shrimp shells until they turn red and golden. Add the carrot, onion, garlic and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the wine, water, tomatoes, serrano chiles, bay leaves, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Drain the liquid and reserve, discarding the bay leaves. Blend the solids in a blender until smooth. Slowly add small amounts of the reserved liquid and blend until the mixture is the consistency of thick soup. Strain and return to the pot until boiling. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper if needed. Serve in shot glasses 3/4 full.

TOPPING

1 cup whipping cream

Juice of 3 limes

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3 sprigs cilantro, chopped

Salt

Lightly whip the cream, slowly adding the lime juice and cilantro until blended. Season to taste with salt. Add a dollop to the top of each shot glass.

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Herbed Olives a la Mexicana

1 cup black or green olives, drained

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

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Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus two strips of peel

3 dried small arbol chiles, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh thyme, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

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2 sprigs fresh rosemary, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 garlic cloves, peeled

6 whole blanched almonds, optional

Combine the ingredients and serve.

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Fig Chutney and Cheese Quesadillas

Makes 36 servings

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

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1 medium purple onion, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons sugar

7 ounces fresh figs, quartered (fig jam may be used instead, but omit the sugar)

12 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

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12 fresh tortillas

In a saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring often, for about 15 minutes until they are golden brown. Add the sugar and stir for 10 more minutes until the onions caramelize. Reduce the heat to medium low. Add the figs and and cook for about 10 minutes, or until they become runny. To assemble, add 1 teaspoon of the fig chutney and about 2 tablespoons of grated cheese to each tortilla and fold in half. In a small frying pan, heat the remaining olive oil and cook each quesadilla until golden, about 1 minute per side. Drain on paper towels. Cut into thirds to serve.

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Polvorones

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(Mexican Wedding Cookies)

Makes about 4 dozen

1 cup finely ground walnuts

2 cups sifted flour

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1 pinch salt

8 ounces unsalted butter, softened

2 cups powdered sugar, divided

1/4 cup rosemary-infused olive oil or regular olive oil with 1/2 teaspoon finely ground rosemary

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Brightly colored paper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the ground walnuts, flour and salt in a medium bowl. Mix in the softened butter little by little. Add 1 cup of the powdered sugar. Once all is incorporated, add the oil. Thoroughly mix all the ingredients and form into a tight ball. Cover and refrigerate. After 30 minutes, remove and make 1-inch balls with the dough. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool. Roll each cookie in powdered sugar and wrap in colored paper, twisting the ends to seal.

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Chocolate Lavender Truffles

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Makes 3 dozen

14 ounces semisweet chocolate

1 cup heavy cream

6 sprigs lavender

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1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup finely chopped pistachios

Chop the chocolate into pieces and place in a wide metal bowl. In a saucepan, heat the cream with the lavender, vanilla and sugar to the boiling point. Remove from the heat and let cool 20 minutes, until the aroma of the lavender is absorbed. Remove the sprigs and gently reheat the cream, but do not boil. Once heated, pour over the chocolate and begin to stir until it is fully incorporated and the chocolate is completely melted and acquires a glossy look. Lightly coat an 8-by-8 pan with olive oil and pour the chocolate evenly into the pan. Freeze for 10 minutes, then cut into 1-inch cubes or roll into 1-inch balls. Return to the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Remove and roll the truffles in the chopped pistachios to coat. Keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer for up to two weeks.

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Variation: Replace the lavender sprigs with 4 dried hot red chiles or 2 habanero chiles.

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Quail Sopes

24 servings

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1 1/2 cups maize flour

1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups warm water

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2 cups vegetable oil

8 deboned quail breasts

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

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2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup white wine

1 bay leaf

1 cup cooked black beans

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1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon dried California chile, roughly chopped

1 avocado, finely diced

Cilantro, for garnish

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Sopes: In a medium bowl mix the maize flour, flour and salt. Add the water little by little until the dough forms a ball. Add more water, if necessary, until the dough is uniform and soft but holds its shape. Roll the dough into 24 3-inch balls and flatten to 1-inch thick, making a 1/4-inch indentation to hold the topping. (The sopes should be about 2 inches in diameter.) In a large saute pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Fry the sopes, in four batches, in the hot oil until golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes. Let dry on paper towels to remove the oil, and cool.

Quail: Season the breasts with the rosemary, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook in a medium saute pan until golden, about 4 minutes per side. Add the butter to the pan and cook for 1 1/2 minutes. Add the white wine and bay leaf, lower the heat and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the quail from the pan, reserve the juices, and shred when cooled.

Mash the beans until they form a soft paste. Saute over low heat with the garlic, chile, salt and pepper.

To assemble, place a dollop of the bean paste in the center of each sope, followed by 1 teaspoon of shredded quail. Drizzle each sope with the reserved quail juices. Top with diced avocado and a sprig of cilantro.

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Cilantro Dip

Makes about 1 cup

1 bunch cilantro

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3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

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1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Multicolored tortilla chips

Wash and dry the cilantro. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Serve with tortilla chips.

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Cilantro Margarita

Serves 1

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

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4 sprigs cilantro, chopped

2 ounces tequila

1 1/2 ounces lemoncello

1/2 ounce water

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Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon simple syrup

1 cup ice

Mix the salt and cayenne in a shallow dish. Rub the lime around the rim of each glass and dip into the mixture. Blend the rest of the ingredients in a blender until the ice is crushed. Freeze for 30 minutes, or until slushy. Pour into a glass and serve.

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Focaccia

Makes about 30 pieces

10 cups flour, divided

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2 1/2 cups warm water, divided

2 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast, divided

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped

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2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

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1 tablespoon chile powder

In a large bowl, add 2 cups of the flour, 1 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon yeast. Knead for about 8 minutes. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 35 minutes in a warm area. Meanwhile, on a flat surface spread the remaining 8 cups of flour along with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons yeast, garlic, rosemary, basil, salt, sugar and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the starter and knead while adding the remaining water a little at a time until the dough is firm and flexible. Brush with a bit of olive oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest for 1 hour. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Divide the dough into four parts and roll each part into a 1 1/2-inch-thick rectangle. Place each on a lightly floured baking sheet and let rest for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with chile powder and brush with olive oil. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden. Let cool. Cut into squares.

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Scallop Ceviche Crostini

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30 servings

PURPLE ONION MARINADE

1/2 purple onion, thinly sliced in half moons

Juice of 2 limes

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Pinch each of salt and pepper

Combine ingredients; marinate 20 minutes.

CEVICHE

1/3 pound bay scallops

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Juice of 2 limes

1 1/2 teaspoons ginger, finely chopped

1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped

Combine the ingredients and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.

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TOPPING

1/2 cup cucumber, skin on if not too tough, cut in half-inch cubes

1/2 avocado, cut in half-inch cubes

1/3 mango, cut in half-inch cubes

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Salt and pepper

Combine the ingredients and add salt and pepper to taste.

DRESSING

3 tablespoons soy sauce

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11/2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 cup sesame oil

Combine the ingredients and set aside.

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Focaccia bread

Cilantro leaves for garnish

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Toast or grill the focaccia until golden. On each piece, put 1 teaspoon of the scallop ceviche and top with 1 teaspoon of the avocado, cucumber and mango mixture and a piece of the marinated onion. Dash with the dressing and garnish with cilantro leaves.

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RESOURCE GUIDE

Las Brisas del Valle, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico (52) 646-113-3629 or (818) 207-7130; www.lasbrisasdelvalle.com. Page 39: Ten-inch “trays,” $40 each, green square dinner plates, $56 each, round berry bowl with dots, $36, and dipping dishes, $14 each, all at Luna Garcia, Venice, (310) 396-8026, www.lunagarcia.com. Gorky Gonzales platter and round plate, $135 and $45, and carved Oaxacan gourds, $22.50, at the Folk Tree, Pasadena, (626) 795-8733. Twenty-piece flatware set by Genko, $49.95, at Sur la Table, Farmers Market, Los Angeles, (323) 954-9190. Kumiai willow coil basket (with salsa), $35, at Las Brisas del Valle, info@lasbrisasdelvalle.com. Page 40: Mother-of-pearl tray/charger, $78, at Williams-Sonoma Home, West Hollywood, (310) 289-2420. Page 41: Peach with sienna dot platter, $130, and square berry bowl, $40, both at Luna Garcia. Embroidered square Peruvian textile (napkin), $24.50, and small ceramic Oaxacan bowl, $14.50, at the Folk Tree. Buri-wrapped bowl, $22, at Crate & Barrel stores, www.crateandbarrel.com. Page 42: Gorky Gonzales platter, $135, from the Folk Tree. Page 46: Hand-woven Guatemalan napkin, $16.50 for six, at the Folk Tree. Page 47: Glass pastry dishes with dome lids (not shown), $18 and $20, at the Folk Tree Collection, Pasadena, (626) 793-4828. Page 49: Ten-inch tray, $40, at Luna Garcia.


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