Advertisement

RANCH-STYLE, AND VERY RELAXED

Mark Morris breezes into Sandy Hill’s Los Olivos ranch house, necklaces dangling, a shawl draped loosely about his shoulders and dance company directors Nancy Umanoff and Lauren Cherubini in tow. Once dubbed “our Mozart of modern dance” by the Washington Post, Morris is the first speaker in a series of Sunday lunch-salons at Hill’s ranch and Oak Savanna Vineyard. No matter that it’s Wednesday--plans have a way of bending to Morris’ schedule; he’s in town for a midweek performance in Santa Barbara.

Guests begin to gather, and beyond the patio, in an allee of old olive trees, chairs have been set up in neat rows. Rancho La Zaca, the Santa Ynez Valley setting for Hill’s fetes, is a former Spanish land grant nestled in a rolling savanna of oaks and golden grasses. Hill and her husband, commodities trader Tom Dittmer, purchased the modern home eight years ago.

The ranch includes 30 acres of vineyards--planted in Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Sangiovese and Tempranillo. Hill won’t disclose the size of the property. “Never ask a rancher the size of his spread,” she says. But ask her anything about how to throw a great party and she’s eager to share.

Hill has an impressive list of speakers lined up for the summer--authors, historians, ethicists and columnists, including Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Starr and Esther Dyson. Hill likes her guests--and her friends--to be accomplished, intelligent and provocative. So Morris is the perfect kick-off speaker.

Advertisement

“Guests are always the main impetus for a party,” Hill says.

On one occasion, 25 sari-clad friends were invited to lunch in an open-air pavilion by the pond to celebrate the Hindu deity Ganesh--and were treated to rides through the vineyard on the backs of two elephants. For the Hills’ Independence Day blast, several hundred friends and family members participate in a rodeo held in her private arena and feast on the likes of grilled lobster with green mango butter and antelope with a coffee-chili crust.

Hill, a fourth-generation Californian, approaches entertaining as extreme sport--much like riding horseback across the Masai Mara or climbing the highest peaks on seven continents, both of which she’s done. In fact, Hill became a controversial figure after she was portrayed critically in Jon Krakauer’s 1997 book, “Into Thin Air.” (In his account of the 1996 Mt. Everest ascent that left nine dead, Krakauer blamed the commercialization of Everest climbs, which each year draw more amateurs. Hill was making her third attempt.)

--

Advertisement

Living the ranch life

Hill has chronicled 18 of her extravagant gatherings in a cookbook, “Fandango,” with recipes from her chef, Stephanie Valentine. The title, Hill says, was inspired by the impromptu gatherings that were an integral part of California Spanish Colonial ranch life in the 19th century. Neighbors who lived hours away by horseback would come to visit, then stay to party--sometimes for days.

The allee, where three dozen olive trees create a silvery-green canopy of leaves overhead, is an idyllic spot for a long, lingering lunch. “There’s a really important interaction that happens with people when you are facing them across the table, eating and drinking together outdoors,” Hill says. “It always seems that the best conversations occur there. It’s the most meaningful type of entertaining we do.”

She sets the mood with drinks on the patio overlooking a meadow of nasturtiums, wildflowers and indigenous grasses. Guests are offered peach coolers--made with raw honey from Valentine’s own hive--served in silver-rimmed glasses with glass straws.

Advertisement

For Morris, Valentine has poured a flute of Death in the Afternoon, a Champagne and absinthe cocktail dreamed up by Ernest Hemingway and a few sailor friends. (Absinthe, the green anise-flavored spirit with a touch of wormwood, was a favorite of 19th century poets and painters. Banned in the U.S. in 1912, it was approved for sale last year.) “Mark Morris loves good food and wine,” Valentine says, “and it was a little quirky. It seemed like something he might like.”

Or not. The irrepressible Morris takes a sip, then says: “Not for me--tastes like Good & Plenty!”

When it’s time for Morris to sing for his supper, he begins by choreographing the guests. “Loosen up the chairs a little bit, people,” he directs. Then, crowd arranged to his liking, he describes his latest project, “the long-lost-forever manuscript of Sergei Prokofiev.” What intrigues him about the reinterpreted “Romeo and Juliet,” he says, is the story’s twist. “The ill-fated couple don’t die,” he says, “but then don’t live completely happily ever after, either.”

He takes questions from the group, and pronounces, “OK, I’m done.” Then, “Yay!” he sings, clapping his hands in delight. “Time to dine.”

Advertisement

Hill ushers the group to the nearby table set in her monogram H-shape grove of olives. Suddenly, the wind comes up. Napkins with silver rings blow off the table, an unfilled glass tumbles over, women hold down their hair. Unflustered, Hill toasts Morris, then tells everyone, “We’re moving to the patio.”

Leave it to her to be able to smoothly re-seat 13--around a redwood table overlooking a dramatic infinity pool. Morris is sandwiched between Hill and Kate Firestone, a former soloist with England’s Royal Ballet and one of the founders of Firestone Winery. Firestone’s daughter, Polly Firestone Walker, chats with artist David Florimbi, as her husband, David Walker, co-owner of Firestone Walker Brewing Co., talks with Hill. Accessories designer Kendall Conrad and landscape designer (and hairstylist-to-the-stars) Art Luna are deep in conversation.

Lunch starts off with a wonderful cool heirloom tomato soup with bacon croutons and a crumble of Point Reyes blue cheese. It’s followed by pork tenderloin with an Argentine spin--Valentine pounds each serving into a thin paillard, grills it quickly over oak and tops it with a beguiling herb salad. Freshly dug roasted fingerling potatoes and a summer salad of Romano, wax and French beans complete the menu. Offerings of Foxen Pinot Noir and Hill’s Oak Savanna Chardonnay are poured all around. For dessert: a summery almond cake with a compote of perfectly ripe apricots and sour cream ice cream.

Conversation sparks around the table as the afternoon winds on.

Advertisement

The secret to the lunch’s success? Perhaps it can be found in the 1920s leather Hermes hostess seating chart Hill uses to arrange her guests. “I like to make pairings that create a spontaneous combustion,” she says. “It creates energy and interest for the whole group.”

And on this windy afternoon at Rancho La Zaca, clearly the chemistry’s just right.

--

Ranch Style

Advertisement

All recipes adapted from chef Stephanie Valentine

Chilled Tomato Soup With Bacon Croutons

Serves 10

2 1/2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, divided

Advertisement

1 small onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

Large pinch red chili flakes

Pinch fennel seeds

Advertisement

Leaves from 1 small bunch (about 3/4 ounce) basil

Leaves from 2 sprigs (about 1/4 ounce) tarragon

Leaves from 2 sprigs (about 1/4 ounce) dill 6 cups chopped ripe tomatoes,

about 2 pounds

Advertisement

2 cups good-quality chicken broth, or homemade light chicken stock

or vegetable stock

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Advertisement

1 1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Croutons with Bacon-Blue

Cheese Crumble (recipe follows)

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, red chili flakes and fennel seeds and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the onion is softened slightly and the garlic is aromatic. Add the herbs and cook 30 seconds longer, until wilted. Cool slightly and place in a blender with the tomatoes, broth or stock, salt, a couple of grinds of pepper and the sherry vinegar. Blend on high speed for 1 minute, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Chill at least 2 hours before serving; adjust seasoning. To serve, ladle a generous 1/2 cup of soup into each of 10 bowls. Divide the croutons among the bowls and sprinkle with the bacon and blue cheese mixture. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and serve.

Advertisement

--

Croutons with bacon-blue cheese crumble

8 ounces sourdough bread

( 1/2 of a 1-pound loaf)

Advertisement

6 ounces bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 shallots, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

3 tablespoons olive oil

Advertisement

Large pinch salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces blue cheese*

2 tablespoons chopped chives

Advertisement

2 tablespoons minced basil

Remove the crust from the bread, cut into 1/3-inch cubes and set aside. Place the bacon in a single layer in a medium saute pan and slowly cook over medium-low heat until almost crisp, about 8 minutes. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Drain the bacon fat into another large saute pan, add the olive oil to the bacon fat, and cook over medium heat. Add the cubed bread and saute until it’s golden brown on all sides. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and set aside. Just before serving, add the crumbled blue cheese and herbs to the bacon and toss to combine.

*Stephanie Valentine recommends Point Reyes Blue.

--

Advertisement

Pounded Pork Tenderloin

Serves 10

4 pounds pork tenderloin, trimmed of silverskin and excess fat and cut into 10 4-ounce portions

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon best-quality olive oil, divided

Advertisement

4 teaspoons lemon juice, divided

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard, divided

1 3/4 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped basil

Advertisement

2 shallots, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Advertisement

Freshly ground black pepper

Light the grill--you’ll need a hot, even bed of coals when you’re ready to cook. Or heat your gas grill to high 20 minutes before cooking.

Place a portion of pork between two sheets of plastic wrap. Pound with the flat side of a meat mallet until the tenderloin is a paillard about 1/4-inch thick and about 6 inches in diameter. Repeat for all portions.

Combine 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon mustard, the thyme, basil, shallots and garlic in a small bowl. Rub both sides of each tenderloin with this marinade and stack or layer the portions on a nonreactive platter; cover with plastic wrap. Hold at room temperature for up to 30 minutes, or refrigerate overnight (remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling).

Advertisement

Make a vinaigrette by combining the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, the red wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper in a small bowl. Loosely cover and set aside.

Season the paillards with pepper and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt. Oil the grill and lay the paillards on it; do not overlap. Grill for about 1 minute until slightly charred, then flip the paillards and continue to cook for 1 minute more. Remove to a platter or onto individual plates.

Place a small serving of the market summer bean salad (recipe follows) next to the pork. Place a large pinch of the herb salad (recipe follows) on top and drizzle a bit of the reserved vinaigrette over all.

--

Advertisement

Summer Bean Salad

Serves 10

1 pound French green beans,

stem ends removed

Advertisement

1 pound young wax beans,

stem ends removed

1 pound Romano beans, stem

ends removed and cut on the bias into 2-inch lengths

Advertisement

1/2 cup loosely packed tarragon leaves

3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil

3 shallots, peeled and sliced 1/8-inch thick

1 clove garlic, minced

Advertisement

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a full, rolling boil. Cook the French green beans until just tender, about 3 minutes; drain and cool. Repeat with the wax beans and the Romano beans, cooking till just tender. Add the tarragon; set aside. Warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small saute pan over low heat and add the shallots and garlic; cook until the garlic is pale golden. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining oil, vinegar, salt and a couple grinds of pepper; pour the mixture over the beans. Toss gently and set aside until ready to serve.

Advertisement

--

Market Herb Salad

Serves 10

1 small bunch tarragon (about 1 ounce)

Advertisement

1 small bunch mint

(about 1 ounce)

1 small bunch basil

(about 1 ounce)

Advertisement

1/4 bunch dill

(about 1 ounce)

1 small bunch chives

(about 2 ounces),

Advertisement

cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths

1 head frisee, pale inner leaves only, torn into bite-sized pieces

1 tablespoon best-quality olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Advertisement

1/8 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Pick the leaves from stems of the tarragon, mint, basil and dill and toss them with the chives and frisee. Cover with a damp towel and chill. Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Just before serving toss with just enough of the dressing to dress lightly.

--

Advertisement

Almond Cake With Apricots and Ice Cream

Serves 10

for the almond cake:

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Advertisement

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup almond meal/flour

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus additional for buttering the cake pan

Advertisement

1 cup sugar, plus additional for

sugaring the cake pan

2 eggs

Heat the oven to 350 degrees; butter and sugar a 9-inch round cake pan. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a medium bowl. Whisk in the almond flour. In a separate large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light in color and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in one egg, then half the flour mixture, then the other egg, then the rest of the flour mixture, being careful not to overmix.

Advertisement

Gently spoon the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake 35 minutes, or until the cake is golden brown and set in the center. Remove from the oven and let cool 5 minutes. Run a paring knife around the edges of the pan, then release the cake from the pan.

for the apricots:

2 pounds ripe apricots (about 12 large or 24 small)

1 cup sugar

Advertisement

Pinch salt

5 sprigs of thyme

1 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

Cut small apricots in half (or large apricots in quarters) and discard the pits. Place them in a single layer in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Sprinkle the sugar on the apricots, add one cup of water and the salt; submerge the thyme and ginger in the pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, then remove from heat and allow the apricots to cool in the liquid.

Advertisement

--

Sour Cream Ice Cream

The ice cream can be made up to a day before serving.1 cup milk

1/2 cup half-and-half

Advertisement

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 vanilla bean, split

6 tablespoons sugar, divided

4 egg yolks

Advertisement

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream

Advertisement

Place the milk, half-and-half and cream in a heavy 3-quart saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan, drop in the pod, and add the salt; stir to combine. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the sugar over the top; do not stir. Bring the mixture just to a boil over medium-high heat.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the remaining sugar. When the milk mixture comes to a boil, temper the yolk mixture by whisking in about half of the milk mixture into the yolk mixture, pouring it into the yolks in a slow, steady stream. Pour the tempered mixture back into the remaining milk mixture, whisking, and set it over medium-low heat. Cook the custard, stirring it constantly with a wooden spoon, until it just starts to steam and thickens slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Be careful not to overcook or the egg will curdle. Strain the mixture into a clean bowl set over an ice bath, stirring until it cools. Stir in the salt, lemon juice, vanilla extract and sour cream until thoroughly combined. Cool completely before freezing in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.

To serve, place a slice of almond cake in the center of the plate. Place a scoop of ice cream on top and spoon some warm apricots with their juices over the top of the ice cream.


Advertisement