There is a magnetic pull to the holiday table, as if the wooden slats or available metal are somehow charged for the season with memory and expectation, with love and hunger. In many households, this pull comes first to the kitchen. This isn’t only because the engines of the meal are there but because the kitchen is where both the conversation and the actual meal begins — especially when the family is built of farmers and chefs, bakers and restaurant veterans.
At Andrea Crawford’s house in La Crescenta, in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, where her family assembled on a recent bright December day for a holiday dinner, the locus was the marble-topped island that fills the center of her kitchen. A few steps outside the glass doors of that kitchen an enormous live oak rose like an umbrella, woven with lights, above a Craftsman long table set for a holiday feast. Crawford’s family is itself a complex gathering, composed of people whose personal and professional history threads through Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse restaurant and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago to the restaurant that Crawford’s son Nathan Peitso is opening this March in L.A.’s Beverly Center. Its name, Farmhouse, could apply to the La Crescenta home as well as to the memory palace of the entire extended family.
Crawford and her husband, Robert Dedlow, own and operate Kenter Canyon Farms, growing greens, herbs and fruit for wholesale and farmers markets. Peitso owns Maggie’s Farm, a smaller farmers market mainstay showcasing greens and herbs, which he inherited from his late father and Crawford’s first husband, Dennis Peitso. The two farms are as intertwined as their fields, their history tracing back to the lettuces that Crawford grew for Chez Panisse over 35 years ago, when she was an art student in Berkeley. The family is intertwined too: Crawford and Dennis Peitso moved to Los Angeles in the early ’80s at the invitation of Wolfgang Puck, who wanted them to grow specialty greens for his newly opened Spago. After Crawford and Peitso divorced, they split Kenter Canyon and Crawford later married Dedlow, whom she knew from Chez Panisse; Dedlow worked at Alice Waters’ restaurant as a server and manager for seven years.
A few years ago, Crawford and Dedlow also began growing heritage grains, milling flour and making breads and pastas as part of a related project called Roan Mills. Their Roan Mills bakery recently opened, near Kenter Canyon’s fields, in Fillmore. The bakery is about 50 miles northwest of La Crescenta and in the path of the devastating Thomas fire, which has grown to become the second-largest wildfire in California history. The bakery, now only open on Wednesdays, “has been a bit of a refuge,” said Crawford, and the fire and smoke’s affect on the crops is still an open question.
A bag of Sonora flour sat open on the marble counter like St. Nicholas’ sack. Persimmons and pomegranates spilled over from bowls, a farmer’s actual tree ornaments. As Crawford rolled out dough for whole grain flatbreads that would be stuffed with greens, Dedlow filled a pie crust with Meyer lemon custard bright as the sun outside. The flour and greens, persimmons, lemons and herbs all came from the family’s fields, but the tart had its own provenance — it’s from longtime Chez Panisse pastry chef Lindsey Shere — and one that reflects the many invisible guests that gathered around the dinner table along with the family.
The guest list had grown to include Crawford’s sons Elof Peitso, a Boeing structural engineer, and Charles Dedlow, a manager at Kenter Canyon who also mans the Roan Mills stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, often next to his brother Nathan at the Maggie’s Farm stall; and Charles’ girlfriend, Daniela Hernandez. As Elof’s young daughter Suvi and one of the family’s dogs, a chocolate-brown Vizsla puppy named Gus, scampered through the kitchen trailed by Suvi’s mother, Kristin Myllenbeck, a fashion stylist, Charles sliced Fra’ Mani salumi for a snack of open-faced sandwiches made with his mother’s bread.
That salumi’s maker was another of the invisible guests: Paul Bertolli, a longtime Chez Panisse chef. “I met Paul Bertolli when I was 18,” Crawford said. “I was there for Jeremiah,” she continued, adding Jeremiah Tower to the list of Chez Panisse alums, along with chefs Judy Rodgers, Joyce Goldstein, Jean-Pierre Moullé, David Tanis and David Lebovitz. “It was a hell of a party,” she said as she spun radicchio and romaine in a salad spinner. “Steve Sullivan was baking bread downstairs,” noted Robert, adding the founder of Berkeley’s famed Acme Bread Company to the catalog.
Meanwhile Crawford had griddled the flatbreads and was cutting them with garden shears. As Myllenbeck artfully arranged the table outside, Sherie Farah, Nathan’s wife and a chef who runs the catering business Chef Sherie, composed the winter salad, adding thin slices of persimmons to the plates.
“Everything in the salad is from our farm, except the walnuts — I mean, they’re California walnuts,” Crawford said. On the stove, a Donabe pot the size of a hubcap held a simmering stew of kabocha squash, red peppers, tomatoes and garbanzo beans. While Nathan fired up the grill outside, Crawford threaded slices of steak onto stalks of rosemary (“You can use any protein, even tofu”). The rosemary “looks kind of like little Christmas boughs,” she noted of the herbs that were lately part of a thick forest 50 miles away.
Three generations moved around the counter like the spokes of a wheel, then reassembled at the table outside — wine in the glasses; a tisane of lemon verbena, also from the family’s fields — pulling up chairs and passing plates.
Pastry crust dough
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt and lemon peel, mixing together by hand. Cut the butter into the mix and work it, using your fingers or a pastry cutter, into the dry mixture until the whole resembles cornmeal. Add the water and vanilla extract and work until the dough holds together. Shape the dough into a flattened disc and wrap it in plastic wrap, leave it to chill in the fridge for 20 minutes or up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.
Filling and assembly
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Form the tart shell. Press the dough into a tart pan and line it with a piece of parchment paper and weigh the pastry with pie weights. Bake the shell for 25 minutes, then remove from the oven. Carefully remove the parchment paper and pie weights, and set aside.
Grate the peel from the lemons, then juice the lemons and combine the peel and juice in a glass bowl.
Over medium heat, beat the eggs and the yolks with the sugar in a heavy, non-reactive saucepan just until mixed. Combine milk and cornstarch and add to the mixture, stir well and add the juice. Keep stirring as you add the butter, a little at a time and cook until the butter is combined and the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat. Set aside for 5 minutes to thicken and then whisk to smooth it.
Pour the filling into the prebaked tart shell and return to the oven for 20 minutes. Cool before serving.
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