Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Grilled Vegetables and Grilled Vegetable Salads

Although most of the world thinks there are no seasons in Southern California, those of us who are natives know that isn't the case. In the winter, we are very definitely cold. When my wife and I walk on the beach, she wears a full compliment of winter wear: fur lined hat, gloves, sweater, and jacket.

We also feel winter's grip when the sun disappears in mid-afternoon, requiring lights to be turned on before 5:00pm. With the cold and darkness, these are not easy times. Certainly there are pleasures to be gotten from a crackling fire in the fireplace, hot soups filled with savory bits, and braised meats surrounded by an array of root vegetables. Admittedly those are sweet comforts, but they are brought front and center because our sagging spirits need propping up.

Spring in Southern California is a different matter altogether. Although there is still fog aplenty at the beach where we live, the days benefit from the warmth of the sun's strengthening rays.

Besides sensing the increase of daylight and warmth, we also know that spring has arrived because the local farmers' markets welcome back long forgotten friends. Corn on the cob, green garlic, all manner of flowers, squash blossoms, and stone fruit beginning with plums, pluots, apricots and apriums.

With the abundance of locally grown produce, the high points of my week are visits to the Wednesday Santa Monica and the Sunday Pacific Palisades Farmers' Market.

As a child I avoided contact with vegetables as much as I could. My mother's treatment of produce was ungenerous. String beans were boiled in salted water and then extracted, limp and submissive. Corn and English peas were taken from the freezer and overcooked in the same salted water, their flavor saved only by the large pat of butter that joined them in the serving bowl.

Leaving home, I pursued a different path, exploring the local farmers' markets and experimenting with vegetables I had only heard about but never eaten. One of my chief discoveries was that vegetables, like hamburgers and steaks, benefited from grilling.

Who does not love carrots drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and black pepper and cooked on a hot grill? Their carrot-essence acquires a caramelized sweetness that is irresistible. And what about the improvement of artichokes, Japanese eggplant, broccoli, corn, squash, zucchini, and even thin slices of Yukon Gold potatoes similarly coated with seasoned olive oil and placed on the grill?

So powerful are those flavors, I have to restrain myself from grilling every night.

Just about any vegetable can be grilled. Some, like tomatoes and asparagus, cook quickly and require an attentive hand to prevent charring. Others, like corn on the cob, take a bit longer and need to be turned frequently for even cooking. A few, like artichokes, require fifteen-minutes in boiling water before heading to the grill.

Grilling pulls out the essential flavor of each vegetable. Those qualities are enhanced by a simple dredging in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Once grilled, the vegetables can be served straight off the grill as a finger-food appetizer, a side dish, or even as an entree. But they can be so much more.

Chopped up, grilled vegetables can fill out a parsley salad. Mixed with couscous they make a savory side dish.

Once you start grilling vegetables, they'll become a secret weapon in your culinary adventures.

Grilled Vegetables

Yield 4 servings
Time 45 minutes


4 large carrots, washed, peeled, cut into slabs 1/4" thick, 2" long
2 broccoli crowns, washed, cut into slabs 1/4" thick, 2" long
1 bunch asparagus, medium sized or thick, washed, white ends trimmed off
1 ear of corn, husks and silks removed, washed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of black pepper


Turn the grill on to medium and preheat for 10 minutes.

In a bowl, toss the vegetables and season with the olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Using tongs, put the vegetables on the grill.

Close the cover and cook for 2-3 minutes. Turn and cook another 2-3 minutes, checking frequently to prevent burning. How long each vegetable takes to cook depends on your grill, the vegetable, and the thickness of the slices.

Have a serving plate handy so you have a place to put the cooked pieces when they're ready. Serve hot as a side dish or room temperature as finger-food appetizers.

Grilled Vegetable Chopped Salad

Cut the corn kernels off the cob. Roughly chop the other vegetables. Toss together. Add a bit more olive oil, taste, and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Grilled Vegetable and Parsley Salad

With the grilled vegetables as a starting point, the salad can be expanded by adding elements. In this case, parsley.


3 cups grilled vegetables, roughly chopped
1 bunch Italian parsley, washed, most of the stems removed, leaves finely chopped
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Mix together the chopped vegetables and parsley. Add more olive oil as needed, taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper.


Add 1 avocado, peeled and chopped

Add 10 fresh cherry tomatoes, quartered

Add 1 tablespoon chopped scallions or red onion

Substitute cilantro for parsley

Add 1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped

Couscous Salad with Grilled Vegetables and Parsley

The salad becomes more substantial with the addition of easy-to-make couscous.

Yield 4 servings
Time 20 minutes


1 cup whole wheat couscous
1 1/4 cups water, boiling
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper


Mix together 1 cup whole wheat couscous, the heated water, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir well, cover with plastic wrap and set aside 10 minutes, then fluff and cover again until needed.

In a bowl, mix together the chopped vegetables, parsley, and prepared couscous. Add a bit more olive oil, taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt and pepper.


Add 6 grilled mushrooms, roughly chopped

Add 1 fresh avocado, roughly chopped

Add 10 grilled shrimps, roughly chopped

Add 1/4 cup crumbled feta or goat cheese

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Villa Rental 101: A Visit to Beautiful Places in the Sonoma Valley

If you're planning a couples' getaway or a family reunion, you might think about a rental villa as an alternative to a hotel.

The last time I traveled with a group was for a family reunion on the Jersey shore. The resort was lovely, but when we wanted to be together, we had to find space in the lobby with the other guests or break up into small groups to meet in our cramped hotel rooms. We missed having a private space where we could hang out and not deal with other people.

Recently my wife and I planned a weekend with four other couples. We were going to meet in the Sonoma Valley where we like its bucolic mix of small towns, cafes, vineyards, dairies, farms, and ranches.

For foodies, with hundreds of organic farms, world famous wineries, and access to fresh seafood, the valley is nirvana. We only needed to decide where to stay. At first we considered one of the luxury hotels in the area: Meadowood, Auberege du Soleil, or the Calistoga Ranch.

There's no question a hotel has advantages. Fresh towels every day. Someone else making up your bed. Room service whenever you're hungry. Little chocolates on your pillow at night. Those luxuries are a treat. So is having easy access to the hotel's restaurants, bars, pool, spa, and recreational facilities.

But for all that convenience there are trade-offs. As we learned at the family reunion, the public spaces aren't your own. Your room will be small. And with room rates ranging from $550-850 per person, per night, the cost of all those luxuries and conveniences can be pricey, even with the discounts many hotels are currently offering.

The other option was a villa rental.

Getting Started

Until you've taken your first rental-vacation, the idea can be daunting. Will you have to give up the ease and comfort of a hotel? How difficult will it be to find the right place? What about pricing?

The first step is to send around an email work sheet to your group and ask some basic questions.

Where do you want to go? In the U.S. or out of the country? Do you want to be in a big city, in the country, or somewhere in between? For how long? A long weekend, a week, a month, or longer?

How much do you want to spend a night? What amenities do you want at the house? A pool and a spa? What about tennis courts? What kind of activities do you want for the visit? Do you want to focus your vacation at the villa or would you rather use the rental as a jumping off point to explore the area's recreational, cultural, or culinary opportunities?

Once everyone is on the same page, begin your search. Go on line and look for "vacation rentals" in an area or city of interest. Or try one of the many web sites that arrange rentals. Each site has a different profile. Some focus on specific areas of the country or foreign locations. Some target upscale travelers.

For properties in the U.S., check out Zonder (, HomeAway (, GreatRentals (, and WeNeedAVacation ( Owners in the U.S. and around the world also list their homes at VRBO ( and VacationRentals (

Beautiful Places ( specializes in high end properties in the U.S., Mexico, Italy, and France. Sanctuary Villas ( and In Villas Veritas ( offer luxury accommodations in Europe and along the Mediterranean coast.

Prices are as varied as the properties. On a recent check of HomeAway, there were no-frills 1 bedroom houses for under $130/night, while luxury accommodations with 4-6 bedrooms were priced twenty times that amount. The location, number of bedrooms, and amenities will all affect price. You can find a house in just about any price range, but no matter what, traveling with a group, you'll save money.

When you go can also make a big difference. Generally speaking, you'll pay full fare during the high season, 10% less in the shoulder, and another 10% discounted in the off-season.

One region's high season is another's off season. In Napa and Sonoma in the California Wine Country, the Low Season comes at the end of the harvest (November - March). The Shoulder Season is in April and May. During the High Season (June - October) Napa and Sonoma are busy with activity as tourists fill the valley. For skiing areas like Aspen and Park City, their High and Low Seasons follow a reverse calendar.

Finding the Right Place

When you stay at a hotel you pretty much know what you're getting. Renting a private home is different because the house reflects the personality and taste of the owner.

Look carefully at the photographs you see on line or receive from the broker. Do you like the furniture? What about the art on the walls? Pay attention to details. They could affect the quality of your vacation.

If you can talk with the broker or the owner, ask questions. Is the pool heated? Are pets allowed? And kids? If you want to cook while you're there, ask about the kitchen. If you want to barbecue, does the property have a grill? What is the neighborhood like? Is the house close to shopping areas? Will you need a car? Get as much information as you can. The more you know, the happier you're more likely to be during your vacation.

Ask about support as well. Is a rental agent available during your stay? If there is a problem, will you get help or are you on your own? Some web sites offer reimbursement and replacement guarantees if you aren't happy, but that would be cold comfort for any group on a short visit. As a rule, the more you pay for the rental, the more services and support you can expect.

Where We Stayed: Villa Andrea in Glen Ellen

With the Sonoma Valley as our objective, we looked through the web sites that had listings for the area. We chose Beautiful Places because they had a wide range of properties, from smaller, idiosyncratic homes to large estates with vineyards, tennis courts, pools, and spas.

The agent at Beautiful Places asked how many bedrooms we wanted, were we bringing children or pets, did anyone in our party have physical limitations that should be taken into account, how long did we want to stay, did we want to be in town or in the country, what amenities did we want, and what was our price range?

As we considered several properties, we spent a lot of time on the phone and in emails with the agent. She seemed to understand exactly what would make us happy, but, of course, we would only know if we had made the right choice once we arrived and opened the front door.

On the web site, Villa Andrea ( looked amazing. Surrounded by a thirty acre vineyard, the villa had all of the amenities of a luxury hotel: beautiful grounds landscaped with native plants, an elegant pool, and a patio that overlooked the estate's private vineyard.

The description of the villa said that in addition to the outdoor jacuzzi, there was a spa with a steambath, sauna, and relaxation room. For entertainment, almost every room had a flat screen tv. Because the owner is a movie buff, we could use his state-of-the-art screening room. For exercise there was a bocce ball court and a tennis court fitted out with bleachers, in case we wanted to rally a crowd.

Three of the bedrooms were in the main house. The other two were in separate bungalows for added privacy. Since we wanted to cook together, we needed a large, well-appointed kitchen. Beautiful Places promised us a "dream kitchen." We were told that there was an 8-burner stove with two ovens, two dish washers, and two plate warming drawers. Clearly the owner loves to entertain and he expected we would as well.

Besides brokering the rental, Beautiful Places offered concierge services. They would arrange any number of activities: hang gliding, a ride in a hot air balloon, a private tour of a winery, difficult-to-get reservations at well-known restaurants like the French Laundry or Ubuntu. They could arrange golf packages or a helicopter tour of the valley. Their goal was to make our trip memorable. Once, they told us, for a NASCAR fan's birthday party, they arranged for race car driving lessons at nearby Infineon Raceway.

Many of these activities would add to the cost of a visit but not all. Because of their relationships with local businesses, Beautiful Places arranged tastings and private tours at no additional cost.

They could also provide in-villa services: massages, wine tasting, or a chef to cook on the premises. Daily maid service was also available and, split five ways--another advantage of traveling with a group--added very little to our costs.

How We Spent the Weekend

In the hills above Glen Ellen we turned off the two lane blacktop onto a narrow private road. We drove for five minutes through stands of trees draped with Spanish moss interspersed with views of the valley below where the green fields were covered with brightly flowered mustard plants. As we rounded a turn, we were stopped by a wrought-iron gate. We punched in the security code, the gate swung open. For the first time we could see Villa Andrea on the crest of the hill.

Arriving at a property you've only seen on line is the moment of truth.

We were welcomed by representatives of Beautiful Places who took us on a tour of the property. Given that we worried the villa wouldn't live up to the on line description, we were very happy that the photographs didn't do it justice.

Everything about the house was both comforting and visually stunning. Balconies run the length of the house on the main and second floors, the better to enjoy the view of the pool and the mountain behind.

The living room furnishings were elegantly cozy. Newly installed European bathroom fixtures with spa-style showers added to the sense of luxury. By painting the dining room a deep red, the owner proved he wasn't timid about using color. Clearly, he had given great thought to every detail and he had done this for himself. Now we were the beneficiaries.

In the kitchen a fruit and cheese plate and a selection of wines were waiting for us. While we snacked and enjoyed a glass of Benziger Family Winery's Merlot, we reviewed the plan for the weekend.

Since part of our group wanted to spend the vacation enjoying the villa, their time revolved around reading, eating, watching movies, and spending time in the spa. For those of us who wanted to explore the valley's incredible culinary bounty, Beautiful Places put together a comprehensive itinerary.

We started our tour of the valley with a stop at the Sonoma farmers' market a few blocks from the town square. Then we drove out to the very organic Green Spring Farm ( in Petaluma where chickens fertilize the fields and weeds control the insects.

At the Benziger Family Winery (, Bob Benziger gave us a private tour of their Glen Ellen vineyard where he explained the principles of biodynamic farming which were similar to the techniques practiced at Green String Farm.

In Sonoma, we took our time walking around the amazing Sonoma Market ( looking through the extensive collection of local cheeses, wines, organic produce, dry aged beef, free range poultry, fish, and shellfish, including Dungeness crabs freshly cooked in the market's kitchen. We filled our shopping cart with food for the weekend and were tempted by the block long counter of prepared foods and the bakery with enough freshly baked breads and upscale desserts to satisfy an army of foodies.

At Jack London Village in Glen Ellen we had a really informative tasting of artisan cheeses at Raymond Cheese Monger ( Next door at Figone's of California Olive Oil and Press ( we sat at the bar and tossed down shooters of the locally produced olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

Back at the villa, we unpacked our goodies. Everyone gathered in the kitchen. Those of us who wanted to cook, cooked. The others kept us company and were available to sample what we had bought.

A wine tasting happened spontaneously. We still had our welcoming gift of Benziger's delicious Merlot and, when we toured the winery, we picked up bottles of the Chardonnay 2006 (Sangiacomo Vineyards, Carneros) and Pinot Noir 2006 (Sonoma Coast, Quintus Vineyard).

We didn't cook anything overly complicated. With such fresh, high-quality ingredients, simple preparations were best. We started off with Hog Island oysters from nearby Tomales Bay. The body meat from two Dungeness crabs added sweetness to a parsley-tomato-avocado salad dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar we bought at Figone's. Freshly made tagliarini pasta from Wine Country Pasta was tossed with garlic sauteed kale raabe we picked up from Oak Hill Farm ( at the farmers' market in Sonoma. A dry aged ribeye steak from the Sonoma Market found its way onto the outdoor grill. Dessert was a delicious wedge of Ig Vella's ( locally produced Dry Jack and a jar of summer peaches from Green String Farm.

Beautiful Places suggested that we have a private chef come to the villa so we didn't spend all our time cooking. The cost would be the same as a dinner at a restaurant, but how much more fun to have Margie Tosch and Willy Brooke of Meadow Brooke Catering ( prepare a wine-paired meal in the villa.

Adding to the evening, Beautiful Places arranged for a screening of Bottle Shock. The film dramatizes the 1976 competition in Paris when two California wines were judged better than their French counterparts. Marc and Brenda Lhormer, producers on the film, told us behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film in the valley (and all the wine that had to be tasted along the way). They brought a selection of Sonoma wines for us to sample.

For our last night we had a private wine tasting with Garrett Day of Provino ( who introduced us to Sonoma Valley's smaller and very remarkable vintners.

Having a kitchen turned out to be the best part of the trip. Hanging out together where we could cook, eat, sample wine, and just talk made our vacation so much more memorable. We connected in ways we wouldn't have if we had stayed in a hotel.

With Beautiful Places' concierge services, we had much more fun, because we experienced the valley from an insider's view.

At the end of the visit we totaled up what we spent. Ultimately the weekend cost less than it would have if we had stayed in a hotel. We saved money on the room and by cooking most of our meals.

Staying in the villa we had all the advantages of a luxury hotel with the added privacy and spaciousness of a private home.

For more about our Sonoma trip, please check out:

Off Season Bargains in the Sonoma Wine Country

Sprouted Broccoli from Green String Farm in Petaluma, California

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Summer Vegetable Risotto

With summer vegetables appearing in the farmers' markets, a vegetable risotto is a perfect way to feature the bounty of the garden.

This past Sunday at the Palisades Farmers' Market, we picked up several ears of fresh corn and some baby zucchini. We also bought carrots, spinach, Italian parsley, scallions, green garlic, squash, asparagus, English peas, spinach, and broccoli, any of which would be good in the risotto.

To make risotto requires a variety of rice--Carnaroli, Violone or Arborio-- with a high starch content, the source of risotto's distinctive creamy quality.

For the liquid, you have a lot of choices: vegetable, chicken, meat, or fish stock, wine, even water with a pat of butter added for flavor. You'll achieve the best results if you use homemade stock with its fresher taste and lower sodium content.

Risotto likes a steady hand, stirring frequently for 18-20 minutes. Because the rice both releases starches into and absorbs the stock, there is a window of a few minutes when the rice is simultaneously al dente and the broth creamy. Past that point, the grains bond together, becoming gummy like porridge, which still tastes good but isn't risotto.

Those last moments are crucial and the rice wants all your attention. Whatever you want to add to the risotto should either cook in a few minutes like spinach or be prepared ahead and added in those last moments.

Serve immediately because the rice will keep absorbing the broth even after you've removed the risotto from the stove.

Risotto with Farmers' Market Fresh Vegetables

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes


1 large tomato, washed
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 ear of corn, shucked, kernels removed
4 baby zucchini, washed, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups risotto
3 1/2 cups homemade stock, vegetable, chicken, fish, meat, or wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 teaspoon sweet butter (optional)


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut out the stem part of the tomato. Put the tomato on an aluminum foil covered cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and roast for 30 minutes. Remove, let cool to the touch, peel off the skin and discard, tear apart and reserve the pulp and juice in a bowl. The tomato can be roasted ahead and frozen. That way it is ready and waiting whenever you need it to spice up a sauce or stew or, in this case, a risotto.

Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil into a frying pan. On a medium flame, saute the onions, garlic, and corn kernels until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Drizzle the 2nd tablespoon of olive oil in the pan, season with sea salt and pepper, add the rice, stir and cook for 2 minutes, then add 1/2 cup of stock. The stock will deglaze the pan, adding the caramelized flavors of the vegetables to the rice.

Continue stirring. Add another 1/2 cup of stock as the rice absorbs the stock. Continue adding a 1/2 cup of stock at a time, stirring, and adding more stock. Do this for 18-20 minutes until the rice is al dente.

When the rice is almost cooked, add back the sauteed vegetables and roasted tomato pulp. Stir well, taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper, a drizzle of olive oil or a pat of butter.

Serve with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.


To the saute add 4 mushrooms, brown or shiitake, washed, dried, thinly sliced

To the saute add 1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley leaves

Add 1 cup grilled chicken breast, cut into small pieces

Add 1 cup asparagus cut into 1/2" pieces to the saute

Add 1 cup grilled Italian sausage, cut into small pieces

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale

From May 4-17, Il Fornaio celebrates the food of Campania. One of the better known regions of Italy--home to Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, the island of Capri, and the Amalfi Coast--Campania enjoys a warm climate and a long growing season. Mario Lombardo designed the regional menu, pulling favorites from his mother's kitchen and the dishes his father prepared as a chef in Campagnia at O'Parrucchiano-La Favorita.

At Il Fornaio's Santa Monica restaurant (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800), we enjoyed another tasting as we continue our exploration of Italy through its regional cuisines.

As befits a coastal region, the Campania menu features seafood. There were mussels with breadcrumbs (Tegamino e Cozze), linguine with clams (Linguine cu e Vongole), risotto with shrimp, mussels, and clams (Risotto e Amalfi), and seabass baked in parchment paper with shrimp, mussels, and clams (Spigula Dinto o Cuoppo).

Our starter was the cannelini bean soup (Menesta Schitana). The beans thickened and sweetened the broth, which was complimented by barely cooked fresh tomatoes and crisp pieces of pancetta. With the soup we were served the Fiano di Avellino, D'Antiche Terre (2007) a dry white with strong fruit notes. At first it seemed counter-intuitive to have wine with soup (who does that?), but they worked well with one another.

The second appetizer was a beautifully plated selection of heirloom tomatoes (Pummarole e Capri) with first-of-the-season Pineapple and Brandywine tomatoes, topped with soft cubes of mozzarella di bufala. With the Pummarole, we had the Greco di Tufo, D'Antiche Terre (2007), a white wine with a touch of sweetness to leven the acid of the tomatoes.

For our pasta course, we had crepes filled with ground beef (Cannelloni e Pascale), mixed with a trifecta of cheeses--ricotta, mozzarella, paremesan--and seasoned with fresh basil. Resting on top was a coating of tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. When my Jewish mother cooked comfort food, dumplings were usually involved, which always made me very happy. I have to imagine that cannelloni have a similar effect on the children of Campania.

The menu offered a meat course of veal (Scaluppine a Caprese), a mixed grill of lamb, game hen, and sausage (Carne Mista 'Ncoppa a Griclia), or seabass in parchment paper (Spigula Dinto o Cuoppo). We decided to try the Scaluppine.

Thin slices of veal were sauced with lightly cooked chopped tomatoes and melted fresh mozzarella, accompanied by fresh English peas sauteed with pancetta and roasted baby Yukon Gold potatoes. A richly flavored Aglianico, Terredora (2007) was served with the veal. One of our friends described the aroma as "almost like you're drinking it inside a wine cask." Deliciously musky, the Aglianico was perfectly paired with the veal.

Well-known as a citrus growing region, for our Campanian dessert we had half-glasses of chilled limoncello and a serving of light-as-air lemon sponge cake with lemon pastry cream inside (Delizia a Limone). All too often lemon's tartness is counterbalanced with a heavy addition of sugar. Not so with the limoncello and sponge cake. Sweetness softened lemon's edge but didn't overwhelm its flavor.

One of these days we'll take a long postponed trip to Italy, but until then we look forward to Il Fornaio's monthly Festa Regionale.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio