It’s Tuscany, with cowboys.
That’s how Paso Robles author Brigit Binns describes the Central Coast in her newest cookbook.
“It’s considered a less pretentious, more real version of wine country than the ones we see up north,” Binns said.
“You can’t afford to go to Tuscany and you don’t want to stay at the $500-a-night hotel up in Napa,” she added, so people travel to San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties instead. “This (area) is so beautiful, so young, so frolicking. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
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Published earlier this month by Andrews McMeel Publishing, “The New Wine Country Cookbook: Recipes from California’s Central Coast” is packed with mouthwatering recipes that showcase the region’s natural bounty and rustic-yet-refined approach to gourmet cuisine — from grilled flat-iron steak with yellow pepper-caper rouille to raw oysters with saffron and sauvignon blanc granita to zinfandel-poached pear tart with almond crust and frangipane.
The 290-page book, which features glossy, glowing images by New York City photographer Colin Clark, includes 25 profiles of local farmers, fishermen, ranchers and winemakers from San Simeon to the Santa Ynez Valley.
“I think of it as a hyper-local book that has wide appeal,” said Binns, who moved to the Central Coast with her husband, actor and Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance spokesman Casey Biggs, about three years ago.
Growing up in Brentwood, Binns said, “I saw how it gave people comfort to eat good food.”
While majoring in Chinese studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, she’d collect money from her housemates to whip up home-cooked meals. Her passion for cooking blossomed during a 10-year stint in Europe, where she attended England’s Tante Marie Culinary Academy and ran a catering business in Spain.
Back in Southern California, Binns made her first foray into cookbook writing with 1996’s “Polenta: Over 40 Recipes for All Occasions.” She credits Los Angeles radio host Evan Kleiman, cookbook author Diane Rossen Worthington and Ellen Rose, owner of the now-closed Cook’s Library bookstore in Los Angeles, with helping her launch her career.
In addition to the dozen cookbooks she’s written or co-written for culinary powerhouse Williams-Sonoma, including, “Bride & Groom Entertaining,” “Let’s Do Brunch” and “Pizza and Other Savory Pies,” Binns has also co-authored several cookbooks with chefs.
“There’s a lot of testosterone floating around in restaurant kitchens,” she said, noting that older chefs tend to be more considerate while younger chefs can be brusque.
In her own work, she favors recipes that put a fresh spin on time-honored traditions.
“The New Wine Country Cookbook,” for instance, combines the no-frills mentality of Mexican vaqueros with the Old World customs of immigrants from France, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere. It’s the kind of cuisine that reminds her of childhood trips to Hollister Ranch.
Take Binns’ recipe for Tuscan-cowboy quail with red grape jus, which features 12 whole quail roasted on a spit with rustic bread and thick-cut smoked bacon. “It’s messy and gorgeous,” she said.
According to Binns, the Central Coast’s flavor profile is “led by the incredible ingredients we have here,” from almonds, avocados and citrus to chanterelles, abalone and lavender. Wine is another key ingredient, she acknowledged.
In fact, Binns dedicates the first chapter of her cookbook to “Magic-Hour Grazing” and wine-friendly snacks such as smashed avocado toasts with sundried tomato jam and black lava salt. (“It’s visually stunning,” she said, and takes just five minutes to put together.)
Each recipe comes with two wine suggestions — one from the Central Coast, the other from “farther afield.”
For instance, she recommends serving dandelion salad with soft-boiled eggs and crispy bacon with a glass of chardonnay from Kinero Cellars in Templeton. Wood-grilled bass with heirloom tomato fondue is paired with “Contrarian White,” a blend of viognier, roussane, grenache blanc and picpoul blanc from Linne Calodo Cellars in Paso Robles, while syrah from another Paso Robles winery, Terry Hoage Vineyards, is paired with grilled lobster with syrah butter and orange sea salt.
“That was a real eye opener,” Binns said of the latter dish, which was inspired by Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure Winery in Paso Robles. “It’s a real flavor extravaganza.”
With “The Wine Country Cookbook,” Binns hopes to draw attention both to her own culinary career — she started offering cooking classes at her home’s outdoor kitchen, Refugio, roughly two months ago — and to a region with real “star potential.”
“This is the time for this area,” the author said. “It’s taking off like a rocket.”
In “The New Wine Country Cookbook: Recipes from California’s Central Coast,” Paso Robles author Brigit Binns celebrates mouthwatering gourmet meals made with local ingredients that are rustic yet refined.
A perfect example is her grilled flat-iron steak with yellow pepper-caper rouille. Paired with a cabernet sauvignon or merlot, it’s the perfect dish to serve at a sit-down dinner.
Grilled Flat-Iron Steak with Yellow Pepper-Caper Rouille
Flat-iron steaks are the new darlings of the meat world, but there are only about four per head of beef, so they will always remain relatively rare no matter how popular. The steaks are cut from a very lean area of the shoulder/chuck — normally quite fatty. Cooked correctly (think flank steak), this is a delicious and economical cut. Most butchers make “shoulder-tender medallions” from this area of the animal; ask him or her to cut flat-iron steaks for you instead. Just like flank steak, flat-iron takes well to marinating. Don’t cook past medium-rare, or there will be tears.
- 6 flat-iron steaks, 8 to 9 ounces each, about 2 inches thick
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing the steaks
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons, approximately, roughly chopped fresh oregano
Yellow Pepper-Caper Rouille:
- 1 small orange or yellow pepper, washed, quartered lengthwise, seeded and cored
- 2 egg yolks
- 4 large garlic cloves, minced or pushed through a press
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper, or cayenne pepper
- 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/3 cup capers, drained and chopped
Brush the steaks generously on all sides with olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper; rub in the oregano. Let stand while you make the rouille.
To make the sauce, preheat a broiler to high heat and place a baking sheet on the top rack. Place the pepper quarters on the sheet skin side up and broil until charred and blistered, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn over and broil for 1 to 2 minutes more, until tender. Immediately transfer to a bowl and place the bowl inside a plastic bag. Twist to seal and let steam for 10 minutes. Slip off the skins, roughly chop the flesh of the pepper, and transfer to a food processor with a tiny hole in the feed tube (for making mayonnaise), or a blender. Add the egg yolks, garlic, salt and ground chipotle; blend until almost smooth. With the motor running all the time, drizzle the olive oil into the feed tube (or blender) slowly, until the oil has all been absorbed and the rouille is thick. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the capers.
Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for medium-hot grilling or preheat a ridged griddle pan over high heat until very hot. Scrape most of the oregano from the steaks and grill for 2 minutes on each side. Move the steaks to a cooler part of the grill (or turn the heat down to low) and continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes more per side, to your desired doneness. Let rest for 5 minutes, then carve crosswise into thin slices. Fan the slices on warm plates and spoon a river of rouille down the center, or serve the rouille on the side.
Note: If using grass-fed beef, reduce both the cooking time and the cooking temperature by 10 percent to 15 percent (grill over medium coals instead of medium-hot coals).