Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tuscany in Sausalito – At Cavallo Point with Judy Witts Francini

It's funny where some things lead. In this case it started with my favorite olive.

Last month I was working on a
post on Castelvetrano olives when I came across another cuisine blog recounting a cooking class conducted by Judy Witts Francini at the Becchina estate, Antica Tenuta dei Principi Pignatelli, on the outskirts of Castelvetrano. Although I had been a regular visitor to Judy’s Divina Cucina website, I was prompted to subscribe to her blog, Over a Tuscan Stove.

A couple of days later I received an email with Judy’s latest blog post which indicated she was going to be here in the Bay Area in February and would be giving a cooking class at Cavallo Point featuring some Tuscan favorites. The Cavallo Point resort (officially “
Cavallo Point – The Lodge at the Golden Gate”) just opened last year in Fort Baker at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Although we had stopped by the resort’s Farley Bar (named after the late Phil Frank's comic strip character Farley) one afternoon last Fall for a drink and enjoyed the view from their deck, we had never taken advantage of the resort’s other resources, including the Murray Circle restaurant (awarded a Michelin star at the beginning of this year) or their cooking school headed by Kelsie Kerr who carries major Bay Area cuisine cred with stints in the kitchens of both Chez Panisse and Cafe Rouge and a contribution to Alice Waters’ recent book “The Art of Simple Food.”

Judy’s program looked great and, since distance was hardly a factor (Cavallo Point being about a 4-minute drive from our home in Sausalito), after a family consultation I contacted Jayne Reichert, the Cooking School’s manager, and signed Alex, Cass and me up.

The program was scheduled to run from 4PM to 8PM yesterday, and Alex, Cass and I arrived at Cavallo Point’s Building just before the appointed hour. Upon our arrival we were greeted by Judy together with Kelsie Kerr, Jayne Reichert and the rest of the Cooking School crew. We also met Judy’s nephew, Benjamin, who is a professional photographer living here in the Bay Area and who came along with Judy to take some pictures of the class that evening.

The Cooking School is in a large, pleasant room on the second floor of the resort’s “Building 602” (a bit of a sterile designation, but together with the original structures, resort seeks to preserve the ambiance of the historic Fort Baker).

When we arrived, the ingredients for the evening’s adventure were already laid out beautifully in the cooking area.

We were poured a glass of Col Vetoraz Prosecco from the Valdobbiadene area of the Veneto – one of my favorites – and enjoyed some appetizers, including some burrata from Gioia Cheese in Southern California (not buffalo milk but nevertheless not bad) and CASTELVETRANO OLIVES warmed in oil which somehow, given the background of how we got there, seemed most fitting.

Kelsie started off the evening by introducing Judy, and Judy then told us a bit about her background. She has lived in Tuscany since 1984. The bulk of that time was spent in Florence where she ran a cooking school, although she has now closed that school and moved with her husband to the town of Certaldo, to the southwest of Florence near Siena.


We then got down to business. Judy had selected the following as the menu for the evening:

~ Squash Soup, inspired by the “Passato di Zucca” of
Fabio Picchi, the owner/chef of Cibreo Restaurant in Florence;

~ Arrosto Fiorentino with a Tuscan Herb Marinade, inspired by
Dario Checchini, the famous owner/butcher (and subject of the latter half of Bill Buford's book "Heat") of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano, a small town between Florence and Siena [Nancy and I stopped off to visit the Macelleria on our trip through Tuscany in 2006 - for a video that reflects some of Dario's enthusiasm for beef and general showmanship, see here];

~ Oven Roasted Beans Infused with Garlic; and

~ Hot Apple Tart inspired by
Giovanni Cappelli, a now-deceased Tuscan character who among other things produced "salsa di mosto,” the Tuscan equivalent of balsamic vinegar, with Gelato and Balsamic Vinegar.

The participants split up and Alex, Cass and I ended up as part of the group working on the Arrosto Fiorentino. The cut we used was an eye-of-round from Marin Sun Farms, a relatively tough cut if over-cooked.

However, according to Judy, that was the point of the technique we would use – a technique which barely cooks the cut and results in a very tender and flavorful dish. We immediately threw the meat into a couple of roasting pans and into the oven. We then got to work on the marinade which included chopping rosemary, sage, garlic, chilies and sea salt into a fine mix and then adding a LOT of olive oil and whisking vigorously.

Hard at Work - Our Team at This End of the Table Preparing Herbs

Work Product - Chopped Herbs, Chili, Garlic, Salt, Prior to Adding Olive Oil

When the meat was just done, it was removed from the oven, the marinade was ladled over it and it was then left to rest under tinfoil for about 10-15 minutes. It was then sliced very thinly, put back in the pan, sloshed around a bit in the marinade, and served.

Judy Ladling on the Tuscan Marinade - the Meat has Just Come out of the Oven

Meanwhile, a lot of other work was going on around the room, including the cooking and caramelization of a soffritto (onion, celery, carrots) that was to form the basis of our soup.

The dinner was great!! Below are photos of our soup, main course and apple tarts.

Of everything we had, the dish which made the biggest impression on me was the oven-roasted beans. Although Judy’s recipe called for cannellini beans, Kelsie had gotten butter beans for us to use. They were meaty and the garlic flavor was great (no worries about any vampires last night!). A whole head of garlic, with the top cut off, was thrown in with the beans and those of us who had a particular fondness for garlic were permitted to squeeze the cooked cloves onto bread!

To accompany the squash soup, Kelsie served us a crisp white 2007 Falanghina produced by Feudi di San Gregorio in the Irpinia region southeast of Naples. For our main course she selected a 2003 Chianti Classico (95% Sangiovese and 5% Merlot) produced by Brancaia, a producer in the Chianti Classico area south of Florence. I had enjoyed Brancaia’s “Super Tuscan” “Il Blu” (a 50% Sangiovese, 45% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon blend) before, but had never had their Chianti. Although I am not in general a big fan of Chianti wines, the Brancaia was great and a perfect match for the Arrosto Fiorentino and the garlicky beans.

The Room Just Prior to Dinner Being Served

Alex and Cass

Our "Elves" - The Cooking School Gang - Jayne on left with Kelsie Next to Her


PavlovianDoggy said...

FANTASTIC. It really was a treat of an experience when I got to go, but the tuscan meal looks absolutely fantastic. Thanks for such a great documentation of the event! - MH

connie said...

So jealous! We very briefly considered Cavallo Point as a potential wedding venue after reading about it in the LA Times ... It's a little bit beyond our budget (OK, a LOT beyond our budget), but glad to see you've made a couple of visits already!