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Preston of Dry Creek

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Spring Lamb with Stinging Nettle Foam

lawn topper

We get a lamb a week from the Preston's, lovingly grazed on their biodynamic farm, and while I’ve seen the hours that go into breaking down the animals and prepping an incredible range of veg (much of it from Preston Farm and Vineyard as well) all chef will say about the beautiful spring entrée we shot last week is:

lamb shank

We had assembled some amazing ingredients.  We did not mess with them too much.   We let them fall naturally on the plate.

The most elegant preparation of the whole animal is the chop and saddle, grilled like this was, to perfection. But when Ryan says the ingredients ‘fell’ naturally on the plate, don’t believe him. His mastery of all the colors in his culinary paint box only make it look easy. I ate the dish with my fingers, the better to enjoy every morsel, though a spoon was in order for the stinging nettle foam. The color reminded me of what my mom used to call new spring grass ~ a singing green. It's everywhere you look right now.

veg delivery

Later that night Chef sent me this:

Here are some other gifts the lamb gives us. Braised shanks Crispy meat balls Rillettes Fresh ground burgers (with feta & olive) Rosemary roasted & sliced leg of lamb Braised tail salad (with frisée) Little tiny tenderloins (wrapped in chard or green garlic) A wonderful rich natural jus Sautéed liver (and onions)

A man of few words our chef. But when it comes to food, they seem to be always the right ones.

Enjoy the rest of Spring.

spring lamb

A Special Sunday

mothers day bouquet
mothers-day-brunch

All text Jil Hales. Photos © Jil Hales

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Notes from the Ridge

ridge topper2
greenwood ridge
soup

The New Bar Menu!

THE BARNDIVA BAR MENU

DUNGENESS CRAB SALAD avocado, mandarin, pickled chili 20

 ALL KALE CAESAR pickled pearl onion, tapenade crostini, boquerones 12

 Yellowfin Tuna SASHIMI sticky rice, avocado, pickled chili, ponzu 18

 Crispy PORK BELLY asparagus tempura, organic hen egg, gribiche 16

 ‘FRIED CHICKEN” crispy chicken leg confit, shaved endive & apple slaw

caper berries, calabrian chilis 12

 HALIBUT CHEEKS mussels, fava beans, chorizo, potato, saffron tomato broth 28

 FILET MIGNON potato purée, asparagus, caramelized onion jam

bone marrow “tater tot” 38

 BD FRITES crisp kennebec potatoes, spicy ketchup 12

 Goat Cheese CROQUETTES wildflower honey, lavender 12

Putting a new kitchen in Studio Barndiva means we never have to close the restaurant again when we host a wedding or private party ~ a long time coming. It also means the new kitchen affords us the space and extra hands on deck to offer new menus and hours of service. I love this bar menu because it has something for everyone. Some of the dishes are favorites pulled from the lunch and dinner menus; others, like Ryan's fabulous new fried chicken over spring slaw, are built for speed and lighter dining (by lighter in this case we mean incredible crust, but no gluten). Over the years we've had to say no to so many guests who dropped in for a late lunch or early dinner. No more!

fried chicken2

All text Jil Hales. Photos © Jil Hales

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Wednesday at the Barn Menu.....Dish of the Week: A Niçoise Worthy of Dufy.....

Dish of the Week

Seared Tuna Niçoise with Saffron Aioli

Before I tasted this dish on Sunday, the best Salade Niçoise outside of France I ever had was at Wolfgang Puck’s old Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue. It was a revelation, every wonderful Mediterranean flavor on the end of the fork: the sea, briny olives, crispy haricot vert, boiled potatoes glistening in virgin olive oil.

If you are a Niçoise fan like me you've probably suffered through innumerable misguided versions through the  years trying to get back to the one that made you fall in love with this dish in the first place: overcooked fish the consistency of cardboard, sodden haricot vert, heavily sauced greens, quartered (sometimes halved) hardboiled eggs so dry they made swallowing a chore. What seems a simple dish is anything but.

Wolfie came to prominence the same time as Alice Waters, one of the first chefs who really knew how to source, though he worked his end of that passion down in Southern California. Sourcing is crucial to the dish but you also need a deft hand: each and every one of the ingredients needs to be treated with summertime love.

It starts with the fish, which should have the texture of fine silk with a  color somewhere between an overripe plum and Dior Rouge Blossom (a great lipstick color, check it out). Whether you poach it or flash sear it (as we do), when you finally glide a fork through the center the fish should be the texture and glorious color it had when it first came out of the sea. Chef uses Yellowtail, sushi grade. That's half the secret, the other is a light hand with the oil. I have a friend who swears canned tuna packed in OO makes a great Niçoise because "it is all about the oil," but while it's a dish that calls for an oily fish, I disagree. A light olive oil based dressing (ours is made with sherry vinegar and fresh basil) pulls all the ingredients under the same umbrella but each stands out ~  new potatoes, confit garlic, blanched haricot, green olives, ripe tomatoes. Ryan likes to add a spoonful of finely diced mirepoix which adds a bit of earthiness to the mix.

All the ingredients are cooked separately, warmed together in olive oil at the last minute which sets off the fragrant magic of their particular compatibility. There's a reason this dish became the go to for 'ladies who lunch' as it manages to be both incredibly rich, yet healthy (their version of not fattening) ~ rumor says it was created for Balanchine one summer as he was knocking about by the seaside in Nice. Makes sense.

As for that egg, Chef is not interested in dumbing down the palate by either hard boiling then slicing or grating it so it disintegrates into mush- his serendipitous play on a Niçoise uses a single quail egg, lightly fried in OO. It's just big enough for the yolk, once broken, to give you a few creamy mouthfuls as it settles down into the acidic tang of the dressing without upstaging a sublime saffron aioli on which he mounts all the ingredients.

For the next few months we are serving this Niçoise as a warm first course on the dinner menu. The single Calabrian pepper that sits on top, whose heat triggers the delight of everything that follows, reminds me of a flag on one of the little fishing boats in a Dufy painting. You can't see the sea from the Barn, but like Dufy, Ryan's edible semaphore makes me smile.  Summer has arrived. Eat the View.

Coming Soon...

Speaking of Eat the View, we're just about to release our 4 minute video of the same name. Working with Drew Kelly as we traveled across Sonoma County to Preston Vineyards, Bellwether Farms, Mix Gardens, Earlybird's Place and Daniel's Flats has been one of the most memorable experiences of the past few years. Even knowing all I do about the quality of work our staff is capable of, watching the footage we shot in the kitchen was a revelation. There's something about seeing action on film that heightens the small gestures you take for granted, in this case isolating the grace and skill they expend with every dish. We may have a small kitchen at Barndiva but, boy, do we make big memorable food.

Crowds at the opening reception for Salon des Sens were blown away but we can't wait to hear what you think, dear reader.  Coming your way later this week!

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted.)

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Dish of the Week.......Singing the Praises of 2011.......

Dish of the Week

Early Bird Omelet with Caviar Crème Frâche

I think it was Julia Child who once said the single hardest dish she ever mastered was “a perfect omelet,” but I bet more than one great chef would proffer the same reply. Ryan, who’s both intuitive and technique driven in equal measure, believes the secret to a light, fluffy and oozy omelet lies in patiently stirring over constant heat, and while this is true, it's only part of the equation. Even if you start with great eggs (ours were from Early Bird's Place), the right pan, and a perfected wrist action that keeps the eggs from scorching, making the perfect omelet is no walk in the park. If anything it’s a dance. One whose music you need to listen to long and hard before you know the rhythm well enough to move to it gracefully.

To the extent that science plays a role, for an omelet that’s smooth as silk on the outside but filled with creamy wet curds, don't be tempted to mix dairy into the eggs. Though it seems counter-intuitive ~ cream should make something more creamy, not less ~ eggs don't need anything to bind to themselves, in fact, any ingredients you add will affect the omelet's ultimate viscosity. The balance at play is air, heat and time. Whip the eggs to a consistent froth and once they hit the heat (we use olive oil, not butter), drag a rubber spatula (or wooden spoon or fork) slowly front to back and side to side. Watch the edges. You will know from the look of them whether your heat is too high, or if you are dragging too slowly or too fast. When the eggs are at the soft curd stage, stop mixing. Now comes the crucial moment. You want a soft skin to form on both the top and the bottom surface while keeping the heat constant throughout. To accomplish this you can either pop the omelet under a brazier where the top will finish while the residual heat from the pan continues cooking the bottom, or stay on the burner while carefully flipping the omelet over in the skillet. Do neither and you risk the bottom sticking (or worse, turning brown). Whichever method you prefer, don't overcook the eggs.  This is essential.

Omelets stuffed with fixings like cheese, asparagus, crab, (you name it) are fun, but if we’re talking perfect omelet you don't want any other ingredients that will affect the perfect storm of  silky skin containing billowy curds.  As a topper, Caviar and Crème Frâiche are an inspired pairing ~ the cool of the crème combines with the pop of salty ocean to compliment, without overwhelming, the eggs, which should arrive to the plate as delicate in taste as they are in texture.

A word about caviar: while the name caviar can be used to describe the roe of almost any fish that produces eggs ~ salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish or whitefish ~ anyone who's tasted roe from the wild sturgeon living in the Caspian or Black Sea knows Beluga, Ossetra or  Sevruga are to lumpfish what cashmere is to boiled wool. That’s not to say that domestic caviar isn’t a wonderful and affordable addition to any dish that calls out for an oceanic bite. But stay away from pressed products. No matter where they come from,  no matter what size or shape the eggs, caviar needs to be fresh, to explode against your upper palate with a fresh briny snap.

Omelet with Caviar Crème Frâiche is the last Dish of the Week for the Blog this year. Looking back at the dishes we documented in 2011, we hope we managed a few Aha! moments that bridged the gap between the professional and the home cook, showcasing superior ingredients while finding the key to dishes that were both simple and elegant. No matter how labor intensive they were, and some of them were doozies, our hope was to delight your eye with finished dishes where the chef’s hand was all but invisible, his talent subsidiary to taste. The best dishes we eat in any year are usually the ones that don’t shout so much as fervently whisper, overwhelming neither the palate nor the stomach.

Because we think the first meal of the New Year should be as memorable as the last, Early Bird's Omelet with Caviar Crème Frâiche will be one of the stars of our New Year’s Day Brunch Menu this Sunday,  Janurary 1, 2012. On the drink side, for those of us who intend to party hard on New Year's Eve, the New Year's Day menu also brings back two classic Barndiva hangover cures:  Bite the Dog and the Fernet Old Fashioned.

2011: The People Who Made It All Possible

It takes a lot of hard work (not to mention talent) to keep Barndiva going all year. Even more to keep it growing in the ways we care about most. At the end of the day, ironic as it may sound, great restaurants aren’t about food as much as they are about people.  A lot of people ~ from the farmers and ranchers who grow and raise our ingredients, through the chefs of various stations who clean, cut, cook and plate,  to the servers, hostesses and bartenders who deliver our drinks and food to the table with a skilled flourish that honors the work and love that's goes  into every dish.

We are truly blessed to have talent in abundance here at Barndiva. And it isn’t just the professionalism our purveyors and staff have that is ultimately so remarkable; it's the way they rock it, with an abundance of humor and good will.

2011 was a great year for us, hard but truly wonderful.  We have always had great heart for what we do but I’m the first to admit our best intentions haven't always gone hand in hand with perfect timing. If you’ve eaten here in the past year, or shared the excitement of an event, you know we are on a roll.

None of us knows what lies ahead this year. It's hard to ignore the fact that most mornings the world outside feels like it is going to hell in a handbag. There’s too much greed and fear around, coupled with the uneasy but pervasive message from on high that even if you do a good job in life, an honest job, you’re going to end up with the short end of the stick. Don’t believe it. There are wonderful things happening all around us, they just need to be acknowledged and supported. Fought for. Enjoyed.  Joy should be at the heart of  what gets us out of bed every morning ~ even if some days it's just the fumes of the possible. But joy is like a fire, it needs kindling to get started. Constant feeding to keep it going.

So here's a Big Thank You to our kindling makers and fire builders of 2011 ~ starting with the singular farms and ranches that have supplied Barndiva throughout the year, especially the ones (you know who you are) that do not mind bringing in only one or two crops that meet Ryan’s exacting standards. Special shout out to Bonnie at Dragonfly who lets me fill the barn with the most impossibly beautiful blooms from her gardens while never failing to kick me in the ass when I need it; Alex and all the guys at Mix Gardens, Myrna and Earl at Early Bird's Place, Vidal and Daniel (and of course Lukka) at the farm, Lou and Susan Preston for writing the manual on how to raise happy pigs and sheep and besides great wine, produce some of the best olive oil around.

Thank you to our incredible Kitchen Staff  (special shout out to The Incredible Flying Wycoff Brothers, the irrepressible Pancho, Manny, Danny, Octavio, Shale,  and expediter extraordinaire Katie) and our charming and informed Front of House, now lead by the eminently able and urbane Bennett and the lovely Catherine.

To Dawid, who has taken the gallery on by storm, and to Amber, who helped Lukka fulfill all our wedding couple's dreams.  And last, but hardly least, my assistant and new mum K2, who keeps the blog (and the website) fresh, even when Chef and I threaten to run out of steam.

All of us here wish you a New Year that’s easy on the eyes, fulfilling and just plain filling ~ some of which we hope you will do here. Thank you for reading Eat the View this year (we know a lot vies for your attention) and for your support in person, here in the restaurant, the gallery, and at our weddings. Your continued health and well being matters greatly to us. Have an exciting year. Keep the home fires burning.

Salute!

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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Dish of the Week.......Xmas In the Gallery.......A Holiday Greeting......

Dish of the Week

Serendipity Farm Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad with Crispy Lamb Neck Croquettes

This is the perfect Early Winter dish that delivers all the satisfying meaty flavors we long for as the nights turn cold. The persimmons and pomegranates come from Bruce and Vicki Pate, who graciously opened their farm in Geyserville to us last week. If you think a single leafless persimmon tree with its gloriously colored fruit is Christmas beautiful this time of year, imagine an orchard full of them.

Admittedly, the lamb aspect of this dish would be a bit tricky for the home chef unless you have access to whole animals or are a member of a meat buying club. The beauty of nose to tail cooking goes beyond honoring an animal (and value for money); in great part it's rediscovering cuts like this.  The first thing Chef did after breaking down the animal was to get a great stock going with roasted bones and cuts like the neck and shoulder. His braising liquid for lamb consists of white wine, fennel, tomato, rosemary and loads of fresh parsley.  After a few hours in this braise, the succulent meat all but falls off the bone.

Neck meat cooked this way has marvelous flavor, redolent of the braising liquid and the free range life of the animal. Our two lambs this week were raised at Lou and Susan Preston's biodynamic Family Farm on West Dry Creek where they played an important role fertilizing the soil as they grazed the fields and vineyards.  To make the croquettes, the meat from the bones was rolled in saran wrap and refrigerated just long enough to hold its shape.  Just prior to cooking, Ryan brushed the chilled 2” croquettes with Dijon mustard and rolled them in lightly seasoned Japanese breadcrumbs.

Because the meat is fully cooked before hitting the pan, the croquettes only need a few minutes in grape seed oil over high heat,  just long enough for the breadcrumbs to turn golden and crunchy.

Ripe but firm persimmons have an unusual flavor that isn’t sweet so much as fragrant, with a silken honeydew quality that pairs beautifully with the richness of the lamb. Use non-astringent varieties for taste and ease of cutting. I think Serendipity Farm’s persimmons were Jiros, but Chef was going with Fuyus, which are everywhere this time of  year.  Chef shaved the persimmon into semi-translucent overlapping slices which he used as a canvas for a composition of baby roasted artichokes, pickled red pearl onions, red and yellow endive and one of his current favorites ~ exquisite tiny radishes. A sprinkling of red pomegranate pips completed the dish. Pomegranates are lovely this time of year but always a bit fiddly. Ryan showed me a quick way to extract the pips from their membranes: slice them in half and, using the wider end of a big kitchen knife, whack away, holding the cut side over the plate. Depending on how your day went, you can have a nice therapeutic moment as pips rain down like a shower of rubies.

In the Gallery

We always try to fill the Gallery with unique smaller gifts at Christmas time, and this year is no exception. Besides a (rapidly diminishing) table of ornaments, we have cotton tea towels from Portugal, hand-loomed scarves from India and Ethiopia, Alpaca throws from Peru, votive holders made from cinnamon bark and a small but highly eclectic selection of books and hard-to-source cocktail bitters.

One of our favorite items back in the Studio after a long, post-tsunami wait are the exquisite hand-blown blue and yellow whiskey/cordial/ you-name-it glasses from Sugahara.

Out of time to shop? Not sure what to get for that certain someone you don't know all that well (or perhaps know all too well)... The ever popular Barndiva Gift Certificate may be the the most thoughtful gift you give all season. If you can't make it into the Gallery, call (707.431.7404) and we will be happy to take your information and send the the gift certificate anywhere you want. They can also be purchased at the bar, where you can have a glass of wine or a cocktail while you contemplate how clever you are  ~ really, how much easier can we make this?

The Countdown for 2011 has begun...

We are always fully booked for our fabulous New Year's Eve soirée, with the rush for tables coming right about now.  Last I looked, we were almost out of space ~ so book now if you are thinking of joining us for a "classic" six-course menu culled from what Chef feels are the best dishes he has cooked all year.  Don't say you weren't warned! If you already have plans for NYE but would like to join us for a glass of bubbly or taste one or two of the  dishes on the NYE menu, we will serving them à la carte from noon to seven.  Seating for NYE (dressing up not required, but encouraged) starts at 8:30. Take a look! 

And Finally...

Barndiva wishes all of you a joyous holiday season. We thank you for your continued support without which we could not and would not find the vision and resolve to do what we do. Make a joyful sound, friends, for truly we have no time to waste.

Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah from all of us at BARNDIVA

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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Holiday Cocktail of the Week.......Xmas In the Gallery.......New Year's Eve Menu......

Cocktail of the Week

Barndiva Holiday Nog with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Foam

The recipe for the elegant and light(ish) Egg Nog we will serve in the Barn this Christmas Eve comes to us courtesy of our new star behind the bar, Rachel Beardsley. Actually, it comes thanks to a desire on Rachel's part to continually up her game at Holiday time so her Japanese grandmother Masuyo ~ not a big fan of heavy cream and alcohol ~ can enjoy one of the richest traditions on offer this time of year.  Masuyo's not alone in craving the wonderful flavors of yule time without the cloying, hangover-in-the making qualities that too often come along with them.

All the usual suspects are here: spiced rum, full cream (cut with milk), nutmeg, vanilla and eggs. By reducing the amount of cream and using only the finest ingredients, in this case Madagascar Vanilla and whole Jamaican nutmeg, Rachel's small but significant swaps result in a wonderful Holiday concoction.  Crucial to the drink's success is using organic free range eggs in the Nog, then hand frothing the egg whites for a foam that is light but creamy. (Blenders tend to flatten and compress the ingredients.) With this Nog, less is deliciously more, a refinement you don't have to be a Japanese grandma to applaud.

Mix the ingredients together in a shaker or blender and chill.  Just before serving, add the vanilla to the egg white and whip until you produce a cloud-like frothy foam. We use a spiral whip in a glass shaker which is more a pogo move, easier on the wrist.  Pour the chilled Nog into a pretty glass, spoon on the vanilla foam, grate the nutmeg. You can make this Nog in batches but don't foam more than two egg whites at a time.  (Save the yolks for Christmas cakes or stuffing.)

Rachel will be whipping up her Holiday Nog behind the Bar on Christmas Eve ~ consider this an invitation to come by the Barn for a tipple, whatever your plans are for the night!  It's a real treat.

Recipe for Rachel’s Holiday Nog with Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Foam

1 oz brandy (Korbel) 1 oz spiced rum (Sailor Jerry) 3 oz whole milk 2 oz half & half 1 whole organic egg 1 1/2 oz simple syrup

Vanilla foam: 1 egg white Scant 1/4 oz Madagascar bourbon vanilla (most vanilla comes from the same varietal ~V. planifolia ~ from Madagascar and the West Indies, but quality varies. As with any spice, invest in the best you can find.)

Grate a light sprinkling of nutmeg over the drink

In the Gallery

There are a lot of knives in the world ~ and almost as many opinions as to what constitutes a great one. Weight and balance, type of steel, heat forged or stamped ~ they’re all critical components. But for us, in deciding what to sell in the Studio, where the knife is made and by whom is the deal breaker.  We are not mindless fanatics that just because something is old it’s good, but with certain objects ~ textiles and knives especially ~ traditional fabrication techniques carry the fingerprint of history, traces of who we once were and what we knew, which we would be wise not to lose.

Berti knives have been made by the same Italian family since 1865. While they have kept up with the times by continually refining their sinuous ergonomic designs, they have done so while adhering to a founding principal that reverently guides how each knife is made: every Berti knife is signed by the single artisan that handles it from start to finish. Perfectly balanced Valdichiana steak knives and carving sets have honed Ox handles; all Berti knives are made from the finest high carbon steel which come with a lifetime guarantee that includes repair and sharpening ~ at no cost ~  in the workshop in Firenze.

The first Laguiole knives date back to the early 1800’s ~ named for the area in Southern France where they were made. Because the name and the ubiquitous insect on the mount (most think of as a bee ~ but could very well be a horse fly) could not be copyrighted, knives trading on the Laguiole history are now made without the same regard to craftsmanship all over the world (mostly in China and Taiwan). Of the original 18 villages around Thiers, only one village collective ~ in Aubrac ~ still follows the original fabrication techniques which made these knives and wine keys remarkable. There are 109 production steps to make a single Aubrac Laguiole steak knife, over 200 for the three piece folding knives and wine keys.

Every year we are lucky to get a few mixed wood dinner knife sets (each handle is kiln dried for its specific wood species). We also carry a limited number of  harlequin pocket knives and horn handled wine keys.

A Very Special Menu For New Year's Eve

We will accommodate à la carte reservations until 7:30, with  the official party beginning at 8:30 (give or take a few glasses of bubbly).

New to the Barndiva Family

There was a very good reason we did not publish Eat the View last week as K2,  crucial to uploading all the images and pictures for the blog  (in addition to creating many of Barndiva's stunning graphics) was rather busy plating her own Dish of the Week... one she's been cooking up for  the last nine months.  Meet Atticus Gordon Petrie,  the newest member of our ever expanding, extremely beautiful Barndiva family. Well done K2. Now get some sleep!

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).  NYE artwork k2pdesigns.

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Dish of the Week.....Barndiva on the Cooking Channel....Holiday Parties Begin.....

Dish of the Week

Puff Pastry

I don’t know if it's true or not that puff pastry was “invented” by one Claude Gellée, AKA Claude Lorrain, the man John Constable called “the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw,” but it certainly makes for a damn good story. Food lore has it that Gellée stumbled upon the method one afternoon when trying to bake bread for his ailing father. Up against the clock, instead of waiting for his dough to rise he began to just fold and roll, fold and roll. The rest is history, the flakey kind in at least one sense of the word, as it eventually inspired thousands of savory and dessert classics. As Gellée’s father is known to have died when he was 12, one can only extrapolate that the 17th Century painter ~ born into poverty, soon to be an orphan in charge of his five brothers ~ was a savant baker long before he picked up a brush.

Of course centuries before Gellée’s discovery, across the Mediterranean Basin bakers were making a flatter version of puff pastry we came to call Phyllo Dough. Two salient differences: the type of fat used, and, crucially, the number of layers in the final product. Where Phyllo traditionally uses oil, a classic French Puff Pastry usually relies upon butter…a not inconsequential amount of it. And while the perfect Baklava may look like it has tons of layers, it doesn't have anywhere near 730, the number needed, according to the mathematical equation offered by none other than Julia Child in Vol II of The Art of French Cooking, for a perfect pâte feuilletée fine.

Still, the science is the same: unleavened pastry is repeatedly folded, rolled and chilled. When the pastry shell hits the heat of a hot oven, moisture in the dough forms steam causing the pastry to rise on the seam lines of the folds as the water evaporates.  Shortening or lard can be used to make Puff Pastry ~ with a higher melting point than butter they allow the pastry to rise faster ~ but for that rich buttery mouth feel, Ryan believes you need…well….butter.

Vol-au-vent ~'windblown' ~ is the lovely French name for the pastry shell, which can be filled with just about anything. Our Vol-au-vent this week is a savory dish that is all about the taste and beauty of vegetables. To make the Puff Pastry shell Chef cuts chilled Puff Pastry into rounds with a fluted edge, brushing each stack with a little egg white as he works. Toy Box carrots and radishes are shaved and lightly dressed for a raw salad condiment while the rest of the ingredients ~ artichoke hearts, oven roasted tomatoes, brussels, pearl red and yellow onions, garlic confit, spinach, carrots, celery and fines herbs ~ are whittled or minced to within an inch of their life before being sautéed à la minute, while the shells are baking. Assembly takes place just before the dish leaves the kitchen.

A word about the labor-intensive job of getting our vegetables into the shape and size you see here: it’s not folly. Just like a diamond needs to be precisely cut to show its facets to greatest sparkle when light hits it, the cut and size of vegetables has a great deal to do with how they taste, and even how they feel, in the mouth.

Served on Onion Soubise with a pillow of Puff Pastry on the side, this Vol-au-vent is an elegant dish which makes a beautiful entrée this time of year. Using the same vegetables you have on hand to accompany the bird, with a little extra effort you can serve your vegetarian guests something even the diehard carnivores ~ and the odd landscape painter ~ will look down the holiday table at with envy.

The Big Cheese

Don't miss Barndiva and our wonderful friends at Bellwether Farms on the Cooking Channel this week. Filmed a few months ago for the exciting new series called The Big Cheese, (no, it doesn't refer to Ryan, but after we see the episode maybe it will), the program follows several types of cheese being made at Bellwether Farms which Chef then prepares and serves in Barndiva's upstairs studio. (Above: Chef Ryan getting ready for his close up, and with Big Cheese host Jason Sobocinski)

Barndiva and Bellwether on The Big Cheese November 17 @ 9:30PM and 1:30AM (program your TIVO!) or November 19 at 6pm.

Holiday Parties

The holidays are upon us, the first with Dawid at the helm of the Gallery. Though we've told him he absolutely cannot put any Christmas decorations out before the 'official' launch of the season, the day after Thanksgiving, we fear his naturally infectious enthusiasm ~ which he informs us only gets heightened at Christmas ~ may be getting the better of him.

Studio Barndiva, along with the entire town of Healdsburg, will celebrate the holidays together on Friday, November 25th, from 6-8.

Join us for Cocktails and Croque-en-bouche.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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Dish of the Week........ In the Garden......In Our Glass...In the Press

 

Dish of the Week:

Strawberry Salad

I forget how crazy busy summer gets until Friday rolls around and we haven’t shot or even discussed Dish of the Week. Last Saturday I found myself shooting it guerrilla style in the middle of the hot line during a busy dinner service which had come hard on the heels of a wedding in the gallery.  More than my nerves got singed.

So when I drifted into the kitchen on Wed morning and saw Lou Preston had just dropped off a box of the most beautiful strawberries anyone had seen in a long time, Chef and I jumped on the idea of a super quick summer salad that would star these glorious babies, grown in some of the most loved soil in the county at the height of their season.  We momentarily toyed with the idea of just putting them in a bowl and calling it a day but that begged the question of why berries, especially strawberries, are often just so much better on their own. The truth is they don’t mix well with proteins, or most vegetables, which is why they are almost always relegated to the desert column.

There’s nothing wrong with a natural sweet food profile but it needs a foil to stop it going flat on you after the first few bites. Chef used the strawberries themselves to provide this counterpoint by compressing half of them in verbena, which took most of the sugar out, replacing it with a nice soury kick and a woody floral aroma. Not quite pickled, a step before fermented.  The process of compressing the strawberries deepened their color to a bruised red which saturated the berry all the way through, creating a nice confusion between the brain, expecting sweet, and the taste, which was uniquely savory.

Edible flowers, with their delicate shapes, colors and earthy taste profiles, were a natural bridge between this Janus-like strawberry presentation and the other ingredients:  the purslane, the gentle heat provided by the arugula and the radishes, the creaminess of the avocado and the great crunch of the tempura squash blossom.  We are particularly proud of the bachelor buttons, which we grew from seed here at the Barn.  I thought vibrant saffron Calendula petals would have been a nice touch as well, but Chef demurred ~ he was on a groove with his muted color palette.

All this attention to detail isn't just about taste, and the tiny petals are a case in point: most chefs in the middle of a hectic service would have just sprinkled them on, but that wouldn't satisfy Ryan's belief that we eat with our eyes first.  No matter how involved you are in conversation when you're dining out and a plate arrives there's always a moment when you pick up your fork and look down.  The eye really does luxuriate in color and form and the result of Ryan's artistry in that moment~  brief as it may be ~  has the effect of slowing everything down.

A few days ago Sandra Jordan dropped off a precious allotment of her exceptional balsamic which Chef used as Morse code on the plate, instead of dressing the salad. Jordan’s balsamic is a thing of wonder, not cheap mind you, but like everything this classy lady does (her exquisite alpaca fabric line, sandrajordan.com, is now sold worldwide), worth every penny. We use it sparingly to finish dishes ~ it’s so full flavored it even works with desserts ~ and the bar uses it in Sandra’s Ballsey, a sparkling cocktail we created for Sandra because, well, she is.  Whatever it takes.

Enjoy the fine weather.

In our Glass

We’ve gotten a lot of offers over the years from winemakers who want to collaborate with us on a Barndiva label wine. And we’ve been tempted, boy have we been tempted. But we suffer from this particular disease ~ passionitis controleria ~ which strikes whenever we put our name on something. And wine, most especially, is not to be trifled with around here.

There is one winemaker we have believed in so much our own label Cabernet is all but a standing order.  Dan Fitzgerald was a very young winemaker when we met him a few months after opening Barndiva when he came to tend bar. We saw character twinned with talent which was remarkable.  He was just finishing school, after some years working in vineyards in France. Through his tenure at Williams Selyem until he landed at Pellegrini, where he is now head winemaker, we have been proud (but not surprised) at his progress in this most competitive industry. In partnership he now has his own collection of wines under the Ellipsis label ~ which dad Chris markets (stepmom Honor Comfort is the power behind Taste of Sonoma) but the wine he makes for Barndiva is a singular accomplishment.

The grapes are grown exclusively in the Fitzgerald's 55 year old Deux Amis vineyard, which sits behind their beautiful home on West Dry Creek. A true vin de terroir made the way they made wine 200 years ago, grapes are handpicked and fermented with wild indigenous yeast from the grapes, hand pressed in a basket press in six tiny loads. Aged in neutral oak for two years, this is a cabernet made in an elegant old world European style.  It has an extraordinary ruby running to purple color that speaks of rich black and red fruit, which you get instantly from the nose, along with a hint of green that rises like mist from the berry patch. Tommy says there is a slight intimation of cigar box in the nose, and that he gets lots of fresh acidity framed by oak in the 2008, which we all agree is the finest vintage yet.

This is more than Barndiva’s house wine, it’s a family collaboration even down to the label, which was designed by Geoffrey's goddaughter Elly and her talented mate Charlie who, like Dan, have risen to the top of their profession in London in only a few short years.

Love the wine, love the story, worth the wait. By the glass and by the bottle, while it lasts.

To learn more about Ellipsis go to www.ellipsiswines.com

To learn more about Campbell-Hay Design Studio (and yes, after the bubba is born they will once again travel for work) go to www.campbellhay.com

In the Garden

Final words this week: check out the ‘new’ Tractor Bar Trio soon. Last Wednesday they played two extremely mellow sets in the garden and it was  Gypsy Jazz at its finest, folks.  We are now serving lunch and dinner in the rear gardens throughout the week, weather permitting, but be warned, the summer's already flying by.  Catch it.

In the Press

Sylvie Gil, one of Barndiva's favorite photographers, recently posted a few pictures of a Barndiva wedding- Congratulations Sarah and Ted!  Click here to enjoy.

All text Jil Hales. All photos, Jil Hales, Dawid Jaworski  (unless otherwise noted)

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Wednesday at the Barn Prix Fixe Menu........ Dish of the Week........ At the Farm

Wednesday at the Barn

Dish of the Week

Early Summer Vegetable Plate

When Chef Ryan went to pick strawberries and a load of other beautiful vegetables at Quivira early Thursday morning, he took Justin along, younger brother of his entremetier Andrew Wycoff. “Jr”   is the youngest and newest member of the kitchen brigade, currently working the garde manger station. The trip made such an impression he couldn’t stop talking about it. He was especially blown away by "how much food" could be grown in such a (relatively) small area.  You have to know what you are doing, of course, but when you do ~ as Andrew Breedy, Quivira’s lead gardener certainly does ~ it’s hard not to be impressed with the variety and abundance of what we can grow here in Sonoma County. For a young chef it’s particularly important to understand at the beginning of a career how essential it is to get to know a few great farmers and endear yourself to them, the better to get up close and personal with what they grow.  Back in the kitchen, Ryan decided to create a vegan vegetable starter for guests dining with us that night, which is not as easy as it sounds. Put a few delicious veg on a plate and call it a day, right? Not around here.

Look up the definition of Haiku in the dictionary and you will find it is a classic Japanese poetic form which traditionally has 17 distinct phonetic units, concluding with a lingering message. Historically, it adheres to a strict format that relies on the juxtaposition of  key words to describe images, separating them by what the Japanese call "Kireji"or ‘cutting words’.  I was reminded of Haiku as I watched Ryan ~ with Jr. eagerly assisting ~ begin to plate an edited version of the bounty they’d collected at Quivira. One of the hallmarks of a good Haiku is that it leaves you with a single resonating thought. With his Early Summer Vegetable Plate from Quivira Gardens, the message of this visually arresting Vegetable Haiku was clear: when it comes to great produce, less really is more.

While Ryan's creation was only comprised of 13 "elements" for me it captured  the spirit of the Haiku form, and what I love most about Japanese culture in general.

Theirs is a pared down sensibility that goes hand in hand with a reverence for spare lineal form, with a profound, if understated, message that often takes a reverence for the natural world into account. While Chef seemed to place the ingredients on the plates swiftly, he did so in a way that allowed each to “speak” to one another ~ in color, shape, and most certainly in taste. As you ate across the plate each element played against the next, yet each, in its own way, remained completely distinct.

The rhubarb was peeled before being steeped in boiled water with a bit of grenadine, the ‘secret’ prep I mentioned last week that Octavio, our talented pastry chef, also employs for the rhubarb batons we serve with the Layered Rhubarb Financier we currently have on the dessert menu. To get the most out of its unusual flavor profile, rhubarb needs to be peeled (the skin is stringy, and can be bitter) then treated with care. Never boil it. Don’t let it get too friendly with sugar. Slipping it into water that has boiled and been infused with grenadine allows this faux fruit to cook just enough as the water cools. The grenadine helps hold and even enhance its extraordinary color. The strawberries were cored and slivered; the fennel was shaved, thinly, then lightly dressed in a few drops of Preston OO and champagne vinegar.

Ryan’s generosity as a chef is always present in the way he encourages those on the brigade that show an interest (and a propensity) for visual artistry to try their hand. It’s NOT as easy as it looks. I have seen him change one thing on a plate that shifts the entire visual balance of the dish. I can’t say how much this ultimately affects the diner but if you believe, as we do, that you eat with your eyes first,  his talent provides an vital conduit to our guests that truly expresses what we feel about the primacy of our exquisite ingredients.

No matter how complex or how many steps Chef takes to complete a dish  ~ initially it's the integrity of those ingredients which inspire each plate of food.

At the Farm: Quivira

The interest our young chef showed for his experience at Quivira is a good lead-in to a subject I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now, as the dialogue over whether or not it’s a good thing for wineries to grow food heats up.  Not simply because I have strong feelings about the subject  ~ whatever your viewpoint, I hope you’ll agree it’s an important discussion that should not be dominated by fear.

When Quivira was denied a space at the Healdsburg Farmer’s Market last year we understood why ~ growing food is not the main thing they do and we could see the argument that coveted space at Farmer's Markets should be allotted to farmers whose main source of income is food. The revenue generated from market sales is often crucial to their thriving, if not surviving. But. It’s a far step from that thought to not supporting wineries with a genuine interest in expanding their business model from the mono-culture of grapes into a diverse ecology that includes vegetables, fruits, and even animals. Quivira has done an exemplary job in this regard. Their single acre garden is open to the public, laid out and 'explained' in such a way as to make a trip to the winery, whether or not you are imbibing, worthwhile.  In addition to the educational piece of having the veggie beds, the chickens, the bees, and the fruit trees all up front and accessible to the crowds that visit the winery all year, they sell fairly priced produce to a select number of farm to table restaurants, as well as hosting events throughout the year that make a direct connection between their wine and food grown sustainably right alongside their grapes.

And that’s not all.  A few years ago when Quivira first started their food growing program in earnest, they invited restaurants that shared a commitment to superior local sourcing to each subsidize a raised bed that could be grown exclusively for that restaurant. The worthy sub-text to this plan was that in addition to the publicity it afforded both ends of the collaboration, all the money raised from the restaurants was donated to the Northern Sonoma Healthcare Foundation.

That Quivira could afford such largess because the owners are not struggling farmers doesn’t take away from the merit of this ongoing program, nor does the grape component dilute an authentic ‘how food is grown’ experience their garden offers to thousands of visitors who thought they were only heading out to West Dry Creek to sniff and sip.

To our mind, it’s always a good thing to see more land turned over to growing food  ~ especially when it’s done properly, which Andrew and his crew are certainly doing at Quivira. We fail to see a down side to it.  Can every winery go the distance to the extent Lou and Susan Preston have as they literally 'grew' what was once Preston Vineyards into the bio-dynamic farm+vineyards that is now Preston of Dry Creek?   Of course not. But does that mean we shouldn’t encourage more wineries to have a go?

On the one side you have farmers who do not have the benefit of a potentially lucrative cash crop like grapes feeling threatened that they are up against deep pocket dilettantes who are using produce gardens and a few farm animals to romanticize their core business to the public.

On the other you have the oft-criticized mono-cultural business model of the vineyard/winery diversifying into food ~ allowing the wine obsessed public to be exposed and educated a bit about how food is grown, as well as making more sustainably farmed crops available to restaurants who want to source locally. Least we forget ~ restaurants, especially those committed to buy from the food shed, also struggle with small profit margins.

Barndiva welcomes relationships with wineries that grow food, especially when they also extend ethical farming practices to their vineyards. At the end of the day, we will always try and support those who have a vested interest in seeing local farm to local table sourcing thrive.

But dinner on the house to anyone out there who feels a Haiku coming on that might further clarify this complicated and often vexing issue .

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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Dish of the Week........ Wedding of the Week

Wednesday at the Barn

Dish of the Week

Mother's Day Brunch

Mother’s Day for me has always been about honoring up…it’s nice to hear the great things your kids feel compelled to say about you, but at the end of the day all you really want is your own mom to hug. Mine is not with us anymore, so Mother's Day is bittersweet, but in the most important ways ~ how I choose to conduct my life every day ~ in spirit she’s still very much here.  Mother's Day is a great time to celebrate the most important lesson she taught me ~ life is short. Love with an open heart. What you get in return, even after those you cherished are physically gone, is indelible.

As there wasn't a free table until after 2 on Sunday,  by the time we finally did sit down brunch service was almost over and the calm before the dinner storm had settled over the lounge.  The room was flooded with sunlight, tall windows filled with trees shaking their green tresses in a blustery wind. Music was jazzy, upbeat and cool, champagne cocktails arrived swiftly, flowers from Dragonfly ~ which I’d gotten up early to arrange ~ graced every table. As my absent and missed daughter might say, Barndiva was chill.

In addition to stalwarts like Eggs Benny and Chef Ryan’s infamous duck hash,  brunch has started to encompass an English approach to Sundays, especially if you choose the three course prix fixe menu that always includes a roasted joint and loads of veg. Mother's Day is a great tradition but it's only once a year, while Sunday Lunch at Barndiva can now be savored every week. Which is what Geoffrey, Lukka and I decided to do.

I started with a lovely carrot soup, carrots from Early Bird’s Place, which had been braised in organic carrot juice. The goal with such a simple soup is that it arrives at the table tasting of pure carrot. Whipped crème fraîche was flavored with Mix garden chervil, Preston OO, and Barndiva Garden chive blossoms ~ which gave a nice bite that played against the sweetness of the carrots.  A swirl of balsamic and a spear of tempura asparagus finished the bowl.

Lukka and Geoff ordered the halibut, a beautiful dish chef had finished with a single perfect artichoke ravioli and some of the tiniest radishes I’ve ever seen.  Seeing it arrive,  I had a moment of indecision that I’d chosen the wrong entrée, but once Tommy had carved the lamb (tableside) and spooned fresh peas and baby purple and yellow potatoes all around, I was a very happy camper indeed.

The leg of lamb had been trussed and whole roasted at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, basted during the cooking process with butter, garlic, shallot and tarragon. A ladle of Paloise finished the dish. Paloise takes the best thing about a good Jus, clarity and a perfect balance of herb to salt, and the best thing about gravy, heft, something to cling to the meat, and marries them together.  Ryan’s is perfect. He makes it by first cooking down a lamb stock for six hours ~ roasted lamb bones, mirepoix, tomato, aromatics like thyme, black pepper and garlic.  This stock is then poured over a second round of roasting bones in a large saucepot, with more aromatics.  The final sauce is strained through a chinoise and reduced to the desired consistency, finished with a knob of butter.

Dessert celebrated the return of Rhubarb ~ more about this vegetable that usually masquerades as a fruit, in next week’s blog. Also in next week's blog, a proper introduction to our remarkable new pastry chef who has been working with us for a few months now. We are moving into a new phase with our dessert program that is generating a lot of excitement in the kitchen and the dining room, and this dessert was no exception.  The thinly layered (as if pressed) Frangipane Tart with almond streusel crumble and crème fraîche ice cream had lightly poached slices of rhubarb on the side that nailed what is, to my mind, rhubarb's truly unusual taste profile.  My gripe with rhubarb ~ which I have a love hate relationship with ~ is that it’s too often served soft, mushy and stringy. And overly sweet.  The crunch of these batons was a revelation, bittersweet and delightful.   Along with a visually stunning, almost balletic presentation of a frozen Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta, the desserts on Sunday were a fitting end to a lovely afternoon with two of my favorite people in the world.

Wedding of the Week

The kick off to wedding season for us happily starred a couple we’ve fallen in love with during the past year, as Lukka worked with them putting all the pieces for the big day and night together ~ Taya and Sean, aka Schmoops and Poops.  Every step of this couple’s planning was filled with inspired choices and the least fretting we’ve seen in a long time. They 'got' what too many other couples sadly forget in the hectic run up, weddings are supposed to be serious and joyous, yes, but the planning should be fun! Aside from the glorious weather, it wasn’t chance that everything came together for them: the great menu they had chosen (more couples should opt for lamb as an entrée), the casual elegance of the table decor, and the surprises that just kept coming were all down to their style and confidence as a couple. They just take such joy in each other it was infectious.

True to form they each had a classy surprise for the other that in both cases turned out to be musical. Lukka and Taya had managed to smuggle the Oakland Interface Gospel Choir into Healdsburg without anyone spilling the beans to Sean. He was stunned when they marched out just after the vows to sing heartfelt praise that blessed the day and everyone in attendance. Then the meal kicked off in the gallery with drinks and appetizers and the choir doing a full set. During dinner in the Studio Gardens Sean got his own back when his surprise guest arrived ~ a  French accordion player who took over where the choir left off.  This was all music to make you smile. I trundled off  early, just as guests were dividing into two groups: some dancing in the gallery to a DJ while others lingered in the garden as Edith Piaf’s spirit hovered beneath the trees.  Lukka tells me at the end of the evening the accordion serenaded the couple through town as they and a few dozen happy friends made their way across the plaza to continue the party back at the cottages. Schnoops and Poops rocked it.

All text and photos, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

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Charlie Palmer's Pigs & Pinot ~ A Healdsburg Favorite

OK, so Dish of the Week was actually Bite of the Week ~ a Proustian breakfast moment Chef served to 300 Friday night at Pigs & Pinot, Charlie Palmer’s sold-out signature food event that takes over Healdsburg in mid-March. For those of you who grew up in the age of Top Chef ad infinitum and innumerable  foodzines and foodblogs, it may be hard to believe that once upon a time the cult of the celebrity chef didn’t exist. Charlie Palmer didn’t invent the concept, but he was one of the first American chefs to draw crowds to his restaurant Aureole in NYC by sheer virtue of his talent alone.  Back then (no, I wasn't going to say "in the good old days”) reputations could only be built by reviews and word of mouth. Palmer generated a great deal of both. In the years since he has built a mini-empire of restaurants and hotels that rivals Nobu’s in size if not influence. What Nobu is to black cod (basically on the back of one recipe), Charlie is to pork (significantly, the entire animal).

I like Pigs & Pinot. It supports a number of worthy charities while functioning as it was primarily intended ~ a two day publicity venture for Palmer and Co. What I like best about it is the classy way it goes about making the connection between food and wine while strengthening a good swath of the local economy. Even as he burnishes his own brand, Palmer manages to advance a quality driven definition of the word sustainable in an age where even the best restaurants are struggling with the temptation to fudge standards in order to survive. Any week of the year around here you can throw a stick and hit a food or wine event; few of them put the whole animal in focus to the extent Pigs & Pinot does. This is a message not lost on the 500 ticket holders that flooded the Hotel Healdsburg 1 & 2 this past weekend, with reportedly double that number on a wait list every year.  The remarkable world-class selection of Pinots guests get to taste are the sizzle, but make no mistake, the meat of this event ~ literally and figuratively ~ is the whole hog.

Most of the press Palmer generates focuses on Saturday, when “celebrity” Chefs from all over the country land in Healdsburg to flex their culinary muscle. But if you live here the real fun is watching the local talent go head to head on Friday night. Though every one of these participating local Chefs will tell you it's not a competition, that they are just ‘doing their thing,’ with few exceptions each secretly hopes theirs is the best pork mouthful of the night. And why shouldn’t they?  Our Chefs are a remarkably convivial group, but the fun at these events is upping your game as you coolly hang out in the hood with guys you compete with on a daily basis. The fact that there is an abundance of talent to go with a healthy dose of competition is what makes Healdsburg a dining Mecca. That nobody cops to being competitive is just part of the charm of living in the country.

In this respect Ryan is no exception, except to the extent that his competitive drive comes more from pride, than ego. He always defers when appreciative diners  ask him to come out and meet them, and while he's forthcoming with the press he never goes in search of them either. Quite the contrary.  Yet he’ll cook a dish over and over again to get it spot on, then think about it some more before Pancho and the team are put through their paces so it's served consistently the same way, every time, for each and every diner. As chuffed as he was when he won the Top Chef competition at Taste of Sonoma two years ago, he couldn’t wait to get out of there the minute it was over. I  suspect that when (though no fault of his own) he couldn’t defend his title this year, his worry wasn’t what people would think when he didn’t show so much as missing an opportunity to go head to head again with another talented Sonoma County Chef.

Americans have a funny relationship with what is, culturally, our inherently competitive nature. Because we always seem to equate success with money (or its corollary, fame) we are congenitally guilty of making the mistake that whoever has the most marbles when the bell rings has “won.”  I’d go as far as to say that our obsession with money and fame ~ no matter how many ‘unhappy’ rich and famous people are paraded before us ~ borders on being a national illness. The mistake here, to my mind, isn’t so much that we haven’t learned money and fame can’t engender happiness (which deep down we probably know) it’s overrating the ephemeral entity of happiness in the first place. Between happiness and true satisfaction I'll take satisfaction any day of the week. Happiness is a beautiful vagrant, its perfume a scent in the air, music that lifts your heart, the touch of someone you love. All good, but for it even to exist it needs someone to blend the perfume, write the music, become the person you love. True accomplishment, whether building character or just a better mousetrap, is complex, and while luck can play a role it's not a sustaining ingredient the way a combination of passion and patience is. The satisfaction that comes from accomplishment ~ whether it brings you happiness or not ~ resides in the way something is made,  how long you spend refining an idea, how many times you paint over a figure before its heart ~ of joy or darkness ~ appears.

Until six years ago when I took on my latest career incarnation as “restaurateur,” I managed to fashion my life in such a way that whether I succeeded or failed (and I did a lot of both) it was always on my own terms.  Even as my game changed over the years, from academia to photography and journalism, ultimately to design, I mostly avoided the world’s judgment in a way that allowed me to work on the quality of what I was producing without fear an audience of strangers wouldn’t like it. Many people don’t see a problem basing their success on something that’s been copied or stolen from its original source. Maybe that's why the world is filled with such derivative crap.

But food doesn’t wait for that certain someone who understands your aesthetic to fall in love and take it home. What takes years to learn and untold hours to source and cook is consumed in the span of a few minutes. Wham, Bam, the verdict is in.  In the past if someone did not like what I created I could console myself that it "just wasn’t to their taste”, or take the time to improve it. With food every dish and every meal must suit a diners taste each and every time…. because with food the customer is always right. That Ryan knows this and works at making our food ‘right’ for every customer, yet does so in a way where he is consistently challenging himself, pushing his own creative boundaries, is remarkable to me.

As for who actually produced the best pork inspired dish last Friday, while I did not taste everything (an understatement considering how much incredible food was being offered) Dino Bugica’s (Diavolo) black sausage was about the best I’ve ever eaten. This man’s talent in all things charcuterie is a wonder.  Ari Rosen (Scopa) had the most beautifully roasted whole baby pig which, in his inimitable style, he served simply. Cyrus’ Chinese bun was perfect respite just at the moment I was suffering from serious pork fatigue. I did not taste Charlie’s dish ~ his lines were moving at a snail’s pace ~ but the burnished pork bellies turning on the spit behind him in the central courtyard looked utterly mouth-watering.

It was not until I returned to our station that I fully registered how our contribution was going over. Until that moment I hadn't put Barndiva into the competitive mix I had running in my brain, which made it all the more delightful when I saw the faces on the crowds inundating our station. This was a different set of folks than we’d had during the first hour of the evening, when everyone was moving through the rooms tasting things for the first time. While many had returned hoping for another taste, most were new faces, that all opened with the same heartwarming gambit: “I heard from everyone this was the best thing here tonight.”

Very cool, right? But the most enjoyable moment of the night was still to come. As I stood watching I was approached by a couple from San Francisco who had returned to our station for “the final bite of the night.”  I had never met them before and they had never eaten at Barndiva, though the woman  ~ dark haired, very pretty ~ said she read the journal. They were extremely knowledgeable about food ~ off to Chicago in a few weeks “just to eat ” ~ but it wasn’t their erudition on all things culinary that struck me as the conversation moved swiftly from our favorite SF haunts through greatest meals ever, to a surprisingly honest appraisal of why eating out had come to comprise “some of the best moments” of their lives.  Though they were obviously passionate about food, they weren’t precious about what they ate. While the room and the ambiance of a restaurant mattered, connecting with informed but not overbearing servers mattered a great deal more.   Though they weren’t in the business they had, through their travels, begun to understand how hard good restaurants had to work to get it right, especially when it came to sourcing. They were, in short, critical but sympathetic. Standing there in the beautiful din of Charlie’s world the possibility suddenly occurred to me that along with the age of the celebrity chef we may be entering the age of the enlightened diner, people who see their patronage as team support, as crucial to the game as the crowds in a grandstand. Dining out is a collaborative experience; diners should be honestly invested in its outcome. Because it's true, progressive diners ~ like the best fans ~ are  the first ones to tell you when you make a bad play (or dish) but it's their cheers, when they come, that are the ones you most long to hear.

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Winter Fruit Salad

Dish of the Week:

Bright jewel colors in the dead of winter are nothing short of magical and Chef Ryan's Winter Fruit Salad with Honeycomb is a case in point.  Check it out: Navel Oranges, Blood Oranges, Page Mandarins, Ruby Red Grapefruit, Fuji Green Apple, chervil, chive, edible pansies, rapini, radish,  & last but not least, slivered kumquats from Chef's own backyard tree.  Interesting combinations result as the taste buds pick out fruity, floral and fresh green notes in the dish.

The dish also celebrates Chef's deft hand with Gastriques ~ sweet or savory reductions which are the result of sugar, often combined with fruit, caramelized until nutty brown, then cut with either vinegar or wine.  Despite their reliance on sugar as a catalyst, gastriques are often savory for as sugar cooks, its sweetness subsides.

Most bistro dishes are a result of the classic line up: Marbled cuts of meat using salt and herbs to heighten flavor, wine to mellow, starch to carry the sauce.  But the ultimate brightness in many of Ryan's classic French country dishes comes from his love and use of vinegar.  Two gastriques here rely upon vinegar ~ the mandarin and the apple ~ to bring a brighter nose and sharper initial taste before they mellow on the palette.

When we can, we serve honeycomb with our artisan cheese plates to remind folks honey doesn't start out refined in a jar.  The honeycomb served with this fruit salad comes from Hector's here in Sonoma County.

Bees have been much on our mind as of late, as the mysterious 4 year-old crisis of disappearing honeybees deepens.  While a new heavy bee die-off this winter may be the result of extreme weather, no one really knows yet what's causing a worldwide hive collapse.  Pesticides surely play a role, but sometimes I think ~ between CAFOs and suburbs ~ bees have just had enough.  Say it isn't so.

all photos and text, Jil Hales, unless noted otherwise.

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In the Fields with Friends

Barrel tasting weekends are a mixed blessing for those of us that depend upon the food and wine that has made Sonoma County a gold standard in destination travel. On the one hand we are thankful for the tribes of wine lovers that infiltrate the area for these events, as they fill our waning winter coffers. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that by mid-day many of them begin to weave and talk in extremely loud voices. How and when those not staying in town will find their way home becomes a real concern.

But my mixed feelings about Passport and Barrel Tasting weekends don’t only come down to a dichotomy that pits revenue against safety. I’ve heard it said with increasing frequency that’s it a good thing more and more people are staying in town to focus on tasting rooms they can walk to. But while that thought ~ especially for those groups that do not have designated drivers ~ makes sense, it runs counter to the initial spirit of these events which was to bring wine lovers into the countryside where they could connect a product they love with the place it is grown and the people who make it.

If you ventured to the last stretch of West Dry Creek in search of wine to taste this past weekend, just before the bridge and  bend in the road that leads to Preston of Dry Creek,  you would  have come upon a vineyard that made your journey not a detour but a main event. Adjacent to fields where pigs and chickens roam and fertilize  some of the oldest vines in the valley, guarded over by Guisippe, the Preston's magnificent sheep dog, a flock of new lambs took their first baby steps.

I’ve written about this family farm and vineyard often in the past, not simply because they are dear friends, but because they are working toward a bio-dynamic definition of farming that any fool can see should go hand in hand with the growing of premium grapes. When Lou and Susan pulled a great many of their vines out years ago to make more room for hedgerows and crops, revenue focused vintner’s shook their heads. The value of the land was in yield of a crop that made the most money, right? Depends on how you define that ephemeral word value.

Preston, Quivira, and forward thinking wineries like them have built large and loyal followings. They have started and continue to happily stir conversations about how food is grown and distributed, and what diversity can bring, on so many levels, to the monoculture of just growing grapes.

On Saturday I was struck by the various stages the baby lambs were going through in order to survive their first perilous days. Some were still sunk into the grass, huddled right where they had been birthed, weakly taking stock of their new surroundings. Others gamely tried to follow mum and the source of food, on legs that kept failing to hold them upright, while still others, only a few hours older, gamboled around with a joy of movement that was a blessing to behold. With the exception of the ones that did not have the strength to walk from birth, the lambs followed an age old journey all of us make ~ taking baby steps before they ran. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere I kept thinking, for all the vineyard owners who look at the rich magnificent balance the Preston’s have managed to achieve through the dint of mindful hard work, and think “sure, I’d like for my vineyards to look like that, but I don’t know where to start.” Unlike sheep, we should be able to figure out what happens next if we don't take those first wobbly steps, no matter how unprepared we think we are.

To read more about the Preston's and all their multifaceted endeavors, check out their beautiful new website and visit their blog.

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Lamb Shank

Dish of the Week:

Preston Lamb Shank with Parsnip Purée, Caramelized Endive & Fennel Marmalade

As soon as we took possession of this beautiful sweet-grass fed* animal from Lou Preston, we broke it down and began to slow roast the bones intended for stock.  The next day we sautéed the shank along with the shoulder, tongue, neck, and tail until golden brown adding white wine, carrots, tomato paste, garlic, fennel and the stock from the roasted bones.

We love it when we get an opportunity to serve a bone-in cut of meat: the shank is especially delicious as slow cooking enhances the flavor in each bite.  Lou’s animals are leaner than most, which imparts a subtle meaty flavor with an unmistakable hint of sweet-grass in the finish.

The final sauce, with its rich caramel color, is the result of further reduction with sherry vinegar, butter and herbs.

The earthy trio of shank, parsnip purée and caramelized endive, all saturated flavor profiles, call for contrasting notes to brighten and lift the dish to a higher level.  We’ve added two ~ a quenelle of fennel marmalade is made by combining diced caramelized fennel, champagne vinegar, reduced vegetable stock, a pinch of sugar and fennel pollen.

Then, just before the plate is wisked off to the dining room, a light shower of fennel fronds and Rapini flowers completes this perfect winter dish.

*sweet-grass fed: Everyone wins with biodynamic farming as practiced by the Prestons.  The animals are moved daily fertilizing the soil from pasture to pasture, orchard to orchard, and in Lou’s case, vineyard to vineyard.  The animal gets to eat the sweetest top grass and the diner gets to enjoy superlative taste from a life well grazed.  Last but certainly not least, Barndiva gets to honor its commitment to supporting a sustainable food shed.

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Barndiva Quiche

Dish of the Week:

Barndiva Quiche with Beet & Citrus Salad and Rapini Flowers

Rapini (the flower of Broccoli Rabe) are a joyous addition to any mid-winter salad. They also taste as good as they look ~ bright and floral.

In this dish they accompany the Barndiva Quiche, which over the years has become lead lunch chef Danny’s signature dish.  Both the Appareil* for the quiche and the salads we serve with it change frequently as the gardens wax and wane with the seasons.  We always aim to make the accompanying salad fresh and light as a foil for the richness of the quiche.

The salad: red and gold beets marinated in champagne vinegar and wonderful Preston of Dry Creek Extra Virgin VOO gently tossed with endive, avocado, red radish, arugula, fines herbes (in this case tarragon, chive, parsley, chervil), and last, but certainly not least, juicy Satsuma Mandarin oranges, sliced on end.  A shower of Rapini flowers completes the salad.

Danny’s Quiche combines sautéed arugula, roasted baby artichokes & feta in a classic savory custard: •3 whole eggs *500 grams of Clover Organic Cream *fresh nutmeg dust *Maldon Salt *Madagascar Pepper (always use a good quality peppercorn)

There are 3 steps to baking our Quiche: Roll and pre-bake the Pâte Brisée tart shell Fill and bake until just set Finish under the broiler to caramelize the top. *Appareil- A French term for the mixture of various ingredients when commonly placed into a cake or pastry.

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and the winner is...

(originally posted December 22, 2010)

For the second to last newsletter of the year, we thought it would be fun (and relatively easy) to take a quick look back at all the ‘dish of the weeks' we compiled and choose a winner. Fun yes. Easy? Not a chance. We were blown away with the sheer volume of mouthwatering images and fascinating cooking tidbits chef and I managed to compile in one short year. Choosing a dish each week is not based on science (discovering a new technique) or math (what sold the most), it's an ephemeral decision made a few days, sometimes a few hours, before compiling ingredients and shooting them. We did not set out to build what has turned out to be a fascinating food journal (a calendar? The start of a cookbook?). Only two things mattered: the joy of working together and the connection each dish had to a built-in reverence for great raw product, which always guides us.

What began as a bit of entertainment, a way to make the newsletter a more enticing read for you, turns out to be the best Christmas gift we could have given ourselves ~ a grace note to a year that, while it tested us in every way possible, ended up being more nourishing ~ in all senses of the word ~ than any that has preceded it.

Dish of the Week is very much a collaborative project ~ just as every dish we send out to the dining room must be. In this, Chef Ryan, Lukka, Geoff and I are supported by an insanely talented kitchen staff. A special call out to Tommy, who has brought so much to the table (literally and figuratively) this, his first year with us, and to Pancho, Danny and Drew, who always have our backs. A special note of thanks as well to my incredibly talented assistant, K2, who patiently works with me every step of the way to capture the essential spirit of each dish.

In the end, we could not come up with a single winner ~ so we give you our favorite meat, fish and vegetable entrées. While each in a special way contributed to the food narrative we try to tell here at Barndiva, a remarkable taste profile combined with the beauty of Ryan’s plating ultimately won our vote.

2nd Runner Up...

Compressed Watermelon Herb Salad This dish was the height of elegant simplicity, but only one of many that hummed with glorious local color, matched by a wonderful taste profile that brought the farm right into your mouth. We are blessed to have many produce partners, thanks in part to Fork & Shovel speed dating events we host here at the barn every year. Two of our favorite veg and fruit producers, Early Bird's Place and Mix, also contract plant for us, a business partnership more thoughtful restaurants are discovering. One of our most popular blogs this year was the one about Myrna and Earl Fincher (October 6th) whom you can buy from at the Healdsburg Farmers Market.

Herbs for these dishes, like most coming out of our kitchen, were grown right here in our raised beds behind the gallery, or at Barndiva Farm in Philo where we also get our dry farmed apples, pears, figs, and chestnuts.

1st Runner Up...

Fritschen Vineyard's Lamb's Liver & Onions 2010 marked the beginning of our collaboration with the Fritschen Family, whose vineyards boast the grapes that Thomas DeBiase, our sommelier, makes into fine wine here in Healdsburg. For three weeks in July we chronicled a nose to tail cooking project that utillized almost every part of a beautiful animal raised for us at the Fritschen Family Farm. Whenever we can, we will continue to work with local farmers to procure excellent animal proteins for Barndiva. We do this despite a lack of local humane slaughterhouses that make these purchases more expensive than it need be for both farmer and chef. In the coming year, look forward to more lamb from Fritschen and the wonderful Preston Family Farm, along with goats and rabbits from new farms. Every season we list on our menus at Barndiva the primary purveyors who inspired us to create that specific menu. Some can be found at your local Farmer's Market if you live in Sonoma, Marin, or Mendocino County.

AND now...the winner is...

Escabèche! Keeping the fish and shellfish selections interesting for our customers continues to be a challenge for us as we try to honor a commitment to primarily source from waters within 100 miles of the restaurant. Though we keep an open mind to ongoing science about the safety of farmed fish, we do not serve it in Barndiva for a variety of reasons (taste being only one). When I spoke at a Seafood Symposium at the U.C. Davis Bodega Bay Marine Aquarium a few years back, (a wonderful event, the brainchild of my good friend Randi Seidner produced by Slow Food Russian River,) I made the point that some responsibility must fall on the diner when it comes to helping restaurants source sustainable fish and shellfish. If you say you want local, do not turn your nose up at varieties you are not familiar with when a restaurant you trust serves it! Happily, there is such faith in anything Chef Fancher sends out of his kitchen that we are able to stretch with less familar local selections without fear it will hit our bottom line. The dish here, Escabèche, is a case in point. It sold out every time it appeared on the menu, often as a result of someone just seeing it come to an adjoining table or hearing our servers talk about it. Make no mistake: when a line caught wild salmon walks in the door in the arms of one of our fishmongers, we grab it. We love local halibut and sole. In the coming year we may cast our net as far as Oregon and Washington's coastal waters, but no fish served at Barndiva will have taken a plane ride to get to your plate, or ever been frozen.

The full collection of our Dish of the Weeks, are available in the Barndiva Journal Archives- or keep reading...

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Cat in the Orchard

(originally posted October 13, 2010)

The compulsion to make art has been with us for 17,000 years. For most of that time, the foremost question asked of the artist (perhaps second only to where’s the rent) has been why do you do it ~ where does this unstoppable urge to create come from? It’s a fascinating question especially if you’ve never had the calling, but beware the loquacious artist ~ Picasso pops to mind ~ who can come up with what sounds like a dazzling answer to what is ultimately a goose chasing question.

“You might as well ask me why I get out of bed in the morning,” an artist friend once explained, to this day the most refreshingly honest answer I’ve heard. By and large, art is made by people because ~ excuse the double negative ~ they can’t not make it. Doesn’t matter whether the art they make is good or bad. In your or anyone else’s opinion. They make art because, just like getting up in the morning, there is simply no alternative for them. Even in an extreme case, like van Gogh, anybody out there really think he wouldn't have flicked the switch in exchange for a normal, but art free life? He couldn't, not didn't. And constant use of his messed up mental health by art critics the world over as an explanation of his work is not just a ruse, it’s an insult to his genius.

An infinitely more interesting question is why we need art, what we see in it that is so intrinsically different from what we see just walking around, living our lives. Surely art explains the world to us, but while we can’t argue that context is unimportant, don’t trust history alone for an answer as to why you respond so deeply to one artist’s work, while you are left cold by another’s. In any case, the historical “reasons” we make art change every few hundred (or thousand) years. Since we’ve been keeping track we’ve gone from religion (with God the Über curator) to documentation (Vermeer and the Camera Obscura onward) to a need to explore the psyche (Freud and the Surrealist Movement did a nice tango on this one). For the last few decades art has been obsessed with finding meaning in materialism ~ you can thank Andy Warhol for the soulless Jeff Koons generation. My point is that while context is important, something else is up with our fascination, our need to look at and experience art. Is it finding grace? Is it looking in the mirror? Is it seeing our worst fears exposed?

A few years ago I dragged the family to NYC to see a Gustav Klimt exhibit, 8 paintings and a 120 drawings, at the Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder’s exquisite private museum on the edge of Central Park. Though one of the most published artists in history, endless squabbles over Klimt’s legacy has made viewing more than one painting at time nearly impossible. The exhibit did not disappoint, but what happened unexpectedly while I was there set me thinking about context in a whole new light. Starting out in poverty, Klimt trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, immediately gaining acceptance and public commissions by Emperor Franz Joseph I. But instead of following a proscribed career, in 1887 he founded the Vienna Secession, a controversial group that encouraged unconventional artistic expression, invited exhibits by foreigners, and published a manifesto that debunked the myth that any one artistic style ~ especially what was in vogue at the time ~ should rein supreme. In short, at the turn of a century that would see two world wars change the map of Europe and, not least, the direction of art forever, Klimt helped push the envelope. Even when briefly shunned by society ~ his work deemed pornographic by every quarter that had once supported him ~ he defied conventions of the day, broke from tradition and become one of the most successful artists of all time.

Towards the end of the day I found myself standing in front of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting, which had been purchased by Lauder for $135 million ~ the highest price ever paid for a single work at the time ~ depicts a beautiful, fragile Jewish woman engulfed in a gilded, intricately decorated world that we know from history was on the precipice of extinction. Lush, subdued color draws the viewer into a universe that cossets yet distinguishes the female form from the fabric of her history. Light skims off the surface of burnished gold leaf, while intricate ornamental detail is eloquently rendered with flowing sinuous lines. Egyptian, Byzantine, Japanese influences, arguably all present, are subsumed by techniques that speak to no known style at all. What seems a sharp edged nod to a Dürer engraving catches in the light and disappears, only to be replaced by a soft tonal mosaic that brings ~ of all people ~ the neo-impressionist Seurat to mind.

As I stood there, a nine-year-old girl who had pulled away from her mother in another gallery came to stand beside me. While all these thoughts were going through my mind, she shifted uncomfortably from side to side. Like it, I asked? Yeah, she said, gnawing at her sleeve, but why is she so sad? Is she, I countered, to which the girl’s eyes, which had been darting around the canvas, looked directly into mine and held for a good five count ~ eons for a nine year old. The only thing free of her body is her mind, she replied. A non-contextual response, to be sure, but she had nailed it. In that moment, somewhere between the two of us, Klimpt’s ghost stirred.

In a few week’s time the question of context will become particularly relevant as the studio mounts Susan Preston’s “One Button Off,” the last show of this exciting and transitional year for us. Susan is one of the most well known and ~ though she would be the last to admit it ~ beloved members of our community. She and her husband Lou have created, in Preston of Dry Creek Farm and Winery, a living agrarian document that eloquently tells a deeply political story which has been instrumental in helping to inform Sonoma County’s embrace of sustainability. The edible gifts of their working farm, which exist so successfully alongside their vineyards, winery and tasting room, have also helped expand a previously limited viticultural agenda for Sonoma that was up to now scarily Napa bound. If you’ve visited the winery, walked the grounds, been lucky to share in their hospitality on any Guadagni Sunday or at any one of a number of public events they host, you cannot have missed how a refined artistic presence infuses everything they do. We live in a county where great wealth has spawned many extremely beautiful wineries, but few speak so fully of an independent artistic vision.

What we haven’t yet seen, though it has been much anticipated, is a full viewing outside the framework of their family endeavors of Susan Preston’s work as an artist.

The one-woman show will consist of 14 pieces. The hallmarks of past work will be there ~ the use of wordplay and talisman; the almost mystical transformation of the most common materials ~ but there is a great deal more here as well. A sense of universal themes with rousing, if slightly disturbing narratives. Susan Preston has what I can only describe as a lovers gaze for the animal/people that live in her world, an understanding of sensuality as distinct from gender, a belief that a battered nature is still capable of rocking us to sleep at night. This is a world where fools are kings and art has all the power of the confessional.

The greatest thing about starting with the premise that art need not document anything other than itself is that it enables the viewer to cauterize the aesthetic experience, allowing all the blood to flow back into what you have in front of you. This, at the end of the day, is really all you need to react, feel, reject, or love a work of art. While it may be hard to separate the Susan Preston for whom all actions have consequences (the better to eat you my dear) with Susan Preston, the artist, go for it. The exhibit, which opens on November 10th will run through December. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a nine year old if you happen to have one lying around.

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Complicated Lives

(originally posted November 10, 2010) Simple lines…complicated faces, the man next to me mumbled. He was talking to himself, but I followed his gaze to a poster across the underground track on the wall just beyond where we were standing, waiting for the train. London was awash in great art shows that winter but the Giotto Exhibit, which the poster was touting, was not high on my list. Religious painters are not my thing really. Yet once the stranger had drawn my attention to the image of the Madonna and child I found I could not look away. Beneath a film of soot the face of a woman who lived centuries before me glowed with incandescent dignity. I felt a better person just being in the same space with her.

I thought about that moment a few weeks back as Susan Preston and I moved through her studio on West Dry Creek looking through a collection of paintings that would comprise her one-woman show at Studio Barndiva, which opens November 10th. It may seem like a stretch to compare the work of a woman living today in a small farming community in Northern California with a man who, in wrestling with how to present the human form realistically on a flat surface, developed his own language for three-dimensional space that changed the course of art history. But that’s the thing about remarkable art: its capacity to capture the singular attributes which make us human transcend both time and providence.

Susan Preston is also an artist who begins with an extremely shallow picture plane that she fills, sparely, with ‘naïve’ characters who challenge our notion of what it means to be spiritually relevant. Whereas artists of Giotto’s time painted from a place infused with religious certainty, Preston, a woman very much of our time, poses a series of complex moral dilemmas. She does this through the development of a mixed-media/mixed-message language that is both literary and textural, resulting in work that, very much like the great Italian master, leaves us believing that the spiritual is ever present.

Take the half naked woman sheltering beneath the waves of Just Drops, Really. Is she the artist viewing history from a distance, or mother nature herself surreptitiously controlling the faceless monks as they make their Canterbury-like way down the mountain, catching rain drops any which way they can? She views the scene with a curious detachment from her self-contained envelope, neither strident nor embarrassed in her nakedness which, despite her age, radiates a rakish charm. Step away from the canvas and you are left contemplating an utterly contemporary question Giotto never had to consider: resources and who controls them. This confrontation without violence is a recurrent Preston theme, one that hints, if not confers, contemplative power.

This is especially true of her babies. These old souls, wise as Buddhas, complacent as cool California dudes, resonate without having to interact with the spare natural order that surrounds them. The caped baby in On Top of the Mountain and little boy on the back of a yak in Upward Tears are all but oblivious to the crow and farm woman who respectively share their world, yet the artist manages to convey that a powerful connection exists between them. The babies of Heaven of the Milk Tree pay little or no attention to the forbidding tree that dominates their landscape, yet their direct but unreadable expressions challenge the viewer to wonder if those dripping fruits which loom above them are filled with milk, or poison (life-giving or deadly). I Can’t Decide, the artist avers, in the title of Milk Tree’s companion piece, leaving us forced to engage with the work on yet a deeper level if we want to arrive at an answer. Which, I would hazard a guess, is precisely what she had in mind.

As for the Preston women, indecision reigns here as well. Motionless while dangerous insects creep into their hair (Hold Still), sanguine and naked in the face of traveling monks, (Just Drops, Really), even with a spike coming out of the head (We’ll Never Do That Again) they persevere with lacerating visual humor co-joined with word play used subversively in the title, or directly written onto the canvas. Whatever the animal is in One Button Off, it is surely female, and dressed for tea and sherry with Dottie at the Algonquin. With Comb Your Hair Jezebel the absent Jezebel, represented by two suspended combs, tines facing inward, answers the exhortation (by her mother?) not with words, but with a solid wall of black that vibrates affirmation in the negative. Black is often used as a conduit for Preston’s question and answer games. Take the portrait of the woman who dominates We’ll Never Do That Again, who for all the nostalgia implied by the use of the silhouette is not only disconnected from her body, but has that alarming bolt driven straight into her elegantly coiffed head. Which of the two calamities that has befallen her will “We” not do again?

Yet for all the unsettling questions that go unanswered in these paintings, they are not sad pictures, not by a long shot. With an irreverent and politically charged sense of the absurd the artist creates a strange band of characters and anthropomorphic animals that challenge our perceptions of what it really means to be alive, to be hungry. They also give us the chance to reflect on a universal truth: no sooner do we gain command of life than circumstances beyond our control will no doubt shake the ground we stand on.

This shifting sense of reality is made manifest visually with Preston’s collage technique which relies heavily on the use of distressed recycled paper. The brown paper ~ a supermarket variety which we all know so well from a lifetime of carting groceries home ~ is put through a time consuming process in which she buries, drowns, irons, and over paints it with watery gauche, the better to see through. This alchemy transforms the uniform brown into a gorgeous tonal pallet that brings to mind sun-baked earth, cracked leather, butterscotch, wheat, parchment, and sand. Under her hand, ordinary paper becomes all but unrecognizable, yet somehow retains the very essence of itself.

As wonderful as her use of paper is, it is but half a visual pas de deux that takes an archaic reference of reflective gold, once used for its resplendence and to confer both spiritual and political power, and turns it on its head. Here, beneath a cracked pavement of cut and torn paper, a silvery world beckons. The inference, that there is nothing to stop us finding magic in the most prosaic of materials (in this case chewing gum wrappers) goes well beyond the trope that all that glitters is not gold. Viewed straight on, the juxtaposition of textural organic earth tones edged with silver registers as a flat opaque surface, but the moment the viewer commits ~ an eye moving across the canvas, a shift of the body ~ light catches along the irregularly cut edges of paper igniting a grid of luminous intersecting lines, electrifying the entire canvas.

Though they have the power to haunt you for days, these are not, to my mind, personal pictures. The artist herself remains very much a mystery to the viewer. The one exception is Goodbye Pina, painted after the death of the great dance choreographer Pina Bausch. With an initial nod to Giotto’s God in the heavenly direction Pina’s body takes in her contorted dance of death, Preston then refuses to relinquish her beloved muse to an idealized heaven. Pina dances into eternity only after she has risen through an undulating landscape and crossed over into a searing black monolithic sky. Relieved of her pain and made whole again, the power of this simply drawn figure in danceflight is remarkable.

A versifier of the highest order (she could easily have been a poet) words are used to great effect throughout the pieces in One Button Off. We Killed The Wrong Twin begs two questions: our complicity, and why the wrong twin needed to be killed in the first place; Bring It Back may be a refrain from the kid issuing the baby bottles from his mouth, or again, from the artist to the viewer about our inability to feed ourselves in what Preston, in her other life as a organic farmer, knows full well are dire times. The elongated goat in I Never Told You I Was A Contortionist, clearly is, while the caped baby in On Top Of The Mountain, clearly is not. Are these titles lies, or, by being put on notice to suspect all words, are we simply being cajoled into making new meanings from them? Take your pick. By consistently sneaking up on the viewer and whispering discreet possibilities in our ear, on both an intellectual and a sensual level Susan Preston has made it clear in this collection that we are free to consider all options. Art that exhibits this level of profundity seeks not only to claim the epicenter of our attention, but creates its own morally complex force field. To the man in the train station I would say “Simple faces, complicated lives.” Much like our own.

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