In 1995, John Ash’s new cookbook was FROM THE EARTH TO THE TABLE, (subtitled John Ash’ s Wine Country Cuisine) was accompanied by so much fanfare that I was, in all honesty, more than a little intimidated. It was written up In Publisher’s Weekly, featured in Cooking Light, heartily praised in the Lo Angeles Times by Dan Berger, the Times wine Writer) and given a warm write up in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, perhaps understandably since Mr. Ash’s restaurant is in Santa Rosa.
I wondered –was this cookbook too highbrow for the likes of you and me? The answer was no!
What I did was set aside any preconceived notions about what I think makes up a GOURMET COOKERY and then began checking out the recipes.(although I do a lot of cooking and baking—I have never considered myself a ‘gourmet’ cook).
You have to admit, this gourmet chef comes with great credentials. Not only does he have his own restaurant in Santa Rosa which has gotten many rave reviews, he has written or co-authored several other cookbooks.
Mr. Ash, to quote Publisher’s Weekly is “a passionate advocate of cooks knowing where, when, and how their food is grown and raised…he urges readers to eat seasonally and locally, instead of using tasteless tomatoes in a salad in December , he suggests the likes of Warm Red Cabbage Salad.
“FROM THE EARTH TO THE TABLE: John Ash’s Wine Country Cuisine” was nominated for both a 1996 Julia Child Cookbook Award and a 1996 James Beard Foundation Book Award.
Mr. Ash is also Culinary Director of the Fetzer Vineyards’ Wine Center at Valley Oaks, California, where he draws from the bounty of Fetzer’s five-acre organic biodynamic garden to invent recipes that are high-flavor, innovative and healthy (and where he has the pick of a thousand varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and edible flowers grown there) and although he is no longer involved in the day to day operation of John Ash & Co. Restaurant (adjacent to Vintner’s Inn, just north of Santa Rosa, about two hours north of San Francisco) he retains the title of consulting chef, working with the executive chef on recipe and menu development.
This is probably a far cry from the John Ash who, according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, was once too shy to leave the kitchen to meet diners who wanted to compliment him.
Prior to embarking on a restaurant career and writing cookbooks, John Ash was a photographer and medical illustrator in San Francisco. He eventually was hired by Del Monte Foods to head up new product development (and where he came up with the idea of pudding-in-a-cup). He tired of corporate life, however, and then toured Europe, taking courses at cooking schools such as the Cordon Bleu in London. When he returned to San Francisco, he operated a small catering company, which in turn led to the opening of John Ash and Co., his restaurant in Santa Rosa.
Describing FROM THE EARTH TO THE TABLE, the publishers explain that the book contains over 300 recipes featuring fresh, seasonal ingredients in distinctive flavor combinations. The book is organized by course and main ingredient, with sections devoted to Salads and Soups, Pastas, Pizzas and Risottos; Poultry, Fish and Meats, Vegetarian Main courses and of course, Desserts, Breads, and Beverages.
One feature I especially like about this cookbook is the author’s informal explanations of things which sometimes overwhelm us – for instance, he says there is really no difference between focaccia and pizza…both are flat round breads seasoned with oil and cooked in the oven or over embers—and are called pizza in the south and focaccia in the north. Semifreddos, he explains, translates to ‘half frozen” in Italian….mmmm check out the recipe for Ginger, Fig and Cranberry Semifreddo!
Since this is a cookbook from the wine country, many recipes feature the judicious use of wine and there are some good lessons to be learned by all of us. Ash says that cooking for a winery has taught him to cook differently, to be more sensitive to what the food will taste like with different wines and specific wines. We can all benefit from the lessons learned by the master chef.
One lesson I learned many years ago is that a pantry or refrigerator filled with sauces chutneys, vinaigrettes – things I make myself and keep on hand to dress up meals – makes all the difference between a simple unadorned meal and one that looks fancy, tastes great and impresses the heck out of dinner guests.
Consequently, one of the features I appreciate most about FROM THE EARTH TO THE TABLE are the many wonderful new ideas to incorporate in my own culinary repertoire. There is, for instance, a red pepper chutney, wonderful marinades such as mustard, Thai-style and basil-parmesan…a sun dried cherry sauce, poblano chile sauce – or how about a warm garlic dipping sauce?
In 2008, my Canadian girlfriend, Sharon, and I took a California Adventure road trip which started at the coast in Ventura and took us all the way to the redwoods where we spent a couple of days exploring—but reading about Santa Rosa made me think—Sharon and I spent a night in Santa Rosa when we were unable to book a room anywhere in San Francisco and continued north until we reached Santa Rosa where we found a nice motel and wonderful restaurant food, telling ourselves this was a place that deserved more exploration—but after the Redwoods we traveled south and then inland to go to Yosemite, so we didn’t make it back to Santa Rosa – much to my regret, especially after reading about John Ash’s Santa Rosa.
John Ash is the culinary director of Fetzer Vineyards’ Wine Center, which happens to have a huge organic culinary garden. With that as well as the produce and other ingredients available in abundance in California’s wine country, he creates dishes like Orecchiette with Red Wine-Braised Chicken, Fresh Cherry Flan, and other delicious combinations. There are lots of sidebars on ingredients, and Ash suggests substitutions for seasonal or hard-to-find ingredients. Most recipes are accompanied by informative wine notes that explain the particular food-wine match.
COOKBOOKS BY OR CO-AUTHORED BY JOHN ASH:
FROM THE EARTH TO THE TABLE, by John Ash and Sid Goldstein, originally published in 1995 originally sold for $29.95. Reprinted 2007, available pre-owned starting at one cent on Amazon.com. Shipping/handling $3.99 on all books sold by private vendors.
THE WINE LOVERS COOKBOOK: GREAT RECIPES FOR THE PERFECT GLASS OF WINE, Sid Goldstein, Paul Franz-Moore and John Ash, published 1999, available at $4.14 new on Amazon.com, or starting at one cent for pre-owned copies.
COOKING ONE ON ONE, John Ash, published 2004, new copies available $5.50 or pre-owned starting at 1 cent. Add $3.99 for shipping and handling.
SALMON: A COOKBOOK by Diane Morgan, John Ash and E.J. Armstrong, published in 2005, pre-owned copies available on Amazon.com.
WILD ALASKAN SEAFOOD: CELEBRATED RECIPES FROM AMERICA’S TOP CHEFS, BY James O. Fraioli, Jessica Nicosia-Nadler and John Ash, 2011, hardcover new $11.98 & up, preowned $3.41 & up
CULINARY BIRDS: THE ULTIMATE POULTRY COOKBOOK, by John Ash, to be published September, 2013 – can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com
–Review by Sandra Lee Smith