Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Someone's in the Kitchen (and Up-Valley)

   Over the years, I've been in long discussions that revolve around a mental game: Vocation, Avocation, Hobby. Basically, your vocation is what you do to make money; your avocation is what you do for love, but also what you'd like to for money; and a hobby is what you do, but don't love it enough (or love it too much) to get paid for doing it. Most recently, my vocation was teaching (what I did for a living), and my avocation was the fiber and textile arts (what I would be willing to do for money). That has changed, and now my avocation is my vocation.
   That brings me to my "hobby": food. I like to cook. Correction: I love to cook. Not enough to do it for other people--except on an occasional basis--but enough that it's been a major hobby most of my life. I'm also blessed with an excellent palate, a curious soul, and a large collection of cookbooks, so I'm not boasting when I state that I'm a very good cook. My kitchen is lined with framed culinary awards , and I've taken just enough (mostly professional) cooking classes that I can turn out everything from a cozy dinner for two to a sumptuous banquet for two hundred. I also have a great place to "play:" when the house was turned from a duplex into a single-family home, the downstairs unit's kitchen and bath were demolished to make way for a large (12'x18'), eat-in kitchen and a tiny downstairs bath. After living here nearly ten years, I designed a complete remodel of the kitchen and adjoining mud room, and we spent about 10 months creating efficient, comfortable storage and work spaces. It's pretty nice: I have a walk-in pantry with access to the dye yard and the grills; lots of cupboard space (something sadly lacking before the remodel); an 8-foot island with electrical outlets and a small "breakfast bar" for meals; good appliances that can handle my style of cooking; and a French country theme. We have a dining room, but we eat most of our meals in the kitchen.
   At this time of year, the kitchen takes center stage. It begins as the weather changes from October's heat to November's crisp days and cold nights. Like a squirrel preparing for winter, I take stock of what's in the pantry, and what I'm going to need to turn out pies, cakes, cookies, savory delights of all kinds, two large meals (Thanksgiving and Christmas), and the food for our annual "open house" cocktail party. There are lists, and lists of lists, and cookbooks and recipes spread everywhere as I design menus and look for bargains on ingredients. By early December, the pantry cupboards, pantry freezer, and the kitchen refrigerator are crammed, and extra bottles (and cases) of wines and spirits litter the dining room sideboard and window seat.
   The week of Thanksgiving marks the start of the holiday cooking. This year, Thanksgiving was just the two of us, so I cut back a bit on the preparations: a brined and roasted game hen, paired with roasted new potatoes, and Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and pancetta. Some appetizers before, and a mince pie (with hard sauce, of course) after, all washed down with a lovely wine (Saintsbury 2006 Brown Ranch Chardonnay), and we had a fine feast.
The old press house, Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co.
in St. Helena. The old olive press is now used for
displaying flavored olive oils.
   Other people can spend Black Friday in crowded shopping malls: our tradition is to head "up Valley" for comestibles. Our first stop is usually the Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co. in St. Helena. Tucked away on a side street near downtown, the Guidi family has been making the best local extra virgin olive oil since 1931. They sell it--along with a selection of Italian groceries--out of the old press house. One grabs a little basket and shops: olive oils, both plain and flavor-infused (I'm partial to the garlic-infused); squat bottles of balsamic vinegar; pastas and canned goods from Italy; candies; paper-wrapped amaretti cookies; cheeses; and olives. This year, we came away with two bottles of garlic-infused EVOO, a quart of plain EVOO, a tub of feta cheese-stuffed green olives, and a slab of torrone, that luscious, nut-filled nougat.
   After a stop at
Taylor's RefresherGott's Roadside (OK, who am I kidding--it's Taylor's) for al fresco burgers, garlic fries, and a glass of wine, it's on to Dean and Deluca. That world-famous purveyor of overpriced products opened a "Napa" branch in St. Helena a while back, and it's fun to wander around, watch the tourists spend too much on kitchen gadgets and picnic nibbles, and buy the occasional item I can't get anywhere else. I particularly like their cocoa for baking, so there's a fresh tin in the pantry.
Shackford's. The best place for kitchen stuff in the Bay Area.
   A couple side-trips to wineries to pick up waiting orders or try new selections, and we work our way back down Hwy 29 to Napa and Shackford's Kitchen Store. Let the tourists and wine country parvenu spend their money at Dean & Deluca or NapaStyle: locals know the only place to pick up needed kitchen utensils is Shackford's. Started about the same time Chuck Williams took over the hardware store in Sonoma, Shackford's is what Williams-Sonoma was: a local store that specializes in good housewares at reasonable prices. Fancy and "fou-fou" it's not: cramped, ill-lit, and sometimes it's hard to find things, but if Shackford's doesn't carry it, you probably don't need it. The best time to visit Shackford's is mid-afternoon: the tourists have moved on to wine tastings, and the staff have time to talk, and swap recipes and cooking techniques. This year's haul included three new paring knives (easier to replace than sharpen), two new Y-peelers, a couple small souffle dishes for French onion soup, a new tool for cleaning the microwave oven, a couple of olive wood non-directional spatulas, and "sprinkles" for this year's Christmas cookies.
Sometimes, I talk to grapes. Tast-
ing among the casks of Pinot Noir
and Chardonnay at Saintsbury.
   Some years, our Up-Valley foraging trip includes a stop at the Oxbow Public Market, Trader Joe's, or a couple more wineries. This year, we finished up at Saintsbury in the Carneros. Started and owned by David Graves and Richard Ward, this small winery produces pinot noir and chardonnay in the Burgundian style. Yep--they're that good. We had a half-case of different bottles waiting for us to pick up; after sampling some of the newly-released wines, we came away with more than a case to lay down in the cellar for future meals.
   So here we are, with a well-stocked pantry, spice cabinet, freezer, and wine cellar. I'm ready.

Places I mentioned:

Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co. 835 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena. (707) 963-4173.
Taylor's Refresher/Gott's Roadside. 933 Main St., St. Helena. (707) 963-3486.
Dean & Deluca. 607 St. Helena Hwy (Hwy 29), St. Helena. (707) 967-9980.
Trader Joe's Market. 3654 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa. (707) 256-0806.
Shackford's Kitchen Store. 1350 Main St., Napa. (707) 226-2132.
Oxbow Public Market. 610 & 644 First St., Napa. (707) 226-6529.
Saintsbury Winery. 1500 Los Carneros Ave., Napa. (707) 252-0592. (Wine tastings by appointment only, so call ahead.)


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