On a magically crisp fall day, I set out with a friend to revisit one of my favorite rides through the mountains of northern Sonoma county.  I knew we would pedal through remnants of the fire, but I was still unprepared when our ride transitioned from the tapestry of vineyards in autumn; to the shy, but striking mountain backroads; to charred forests still carrying the overwhelming scent of campfire.  But like an aging woman, whose weathered and wrinkled skin is useless in hiding the vestige of true beauty, Sonoma’s hills may be scorched and charred but they are beautiful even in their morning attire.  

Gazing across these blackened hills recalls all of their origins—all of the history they have stood to witness—all at once.  While the verdant beauty of these hills suits our play, the scalping of their protective layer of oak and chaparral reveals their soul—old, wise and lasting.

They remember back some 65 to 36 million years, when California was still pulling herself together.  Before, the Farralon Plate fancied an offshore collision with the North American plate, lifting the whole smoldering mass to give rise to their existence.

They remember when white tule elk grazed their slopes and their rivers pulsed with the muscle of gleaming salmon, fighting against their last hour of life to make it back upstream, driven with a blind determination to continue life itself.

They remember the icy, cleansing caress of snowflakes and they remember the heat of many prior fires, ancient and recent.  They remember how their ecosystems evolved to be defined by those fires and looming fire-adapted and fire-dependent redwoods and closed-cone pines grew. Yet again, giving overwhelming evidence to the prescience of life.

They remember the dreams of every man and woman who gazed across their vastness and felt their hope expand. They remember every utterance of the words “possible” and “opportunity” said when observing their gentle grandeur.

They remember the first vines planted by wild adventurers.  They remember bud-breaks, and harvests, hard work, hope and the clinking of glasses.

They remember being hotter than ever this summer, giving rise to too-recent fires.  They remember the animals that ran in fright and whom they are now sheltering in their diminished forests.  They remember the lives and homes lost.  Come spring, statement-making neon green grasses will grow from the carbon-rich soil and tender new trees will burst from the seeds dropped in the fire, but today, on this beautiful fall day, the hills wear black.

They are here to witness the joy in coming together after the fires to give thanks for all the land untouched by flames, now particularly resplendent in its fall attire.  This land is gracious and giving—persimmons, pumpkins, guava and olive harvests.

They remember.  There is a soul to this land.  It is bigger than any of us.  Big enough to make our dreams feel possible, and big enough to take our pains and make us feel whole again.

And there are some of us who will kiss the flanks of these hills with our feet and our tires, regardless of the color of its dress.  We come for the soul.  It’s communion.

The recipes below are a direct result of the land; of coming home with a haul full of fall produce and flowers.  They are a reflection of appreciation for the simple things. 

Roasted Cabbage with Walnut Parmigiano Salsa

The winter months of farm boxes and farmers markts, cholk-full of cabbages and onions may not seem particularly sexy, but there is hidden appeal in the humble cabbage.  Roasted, steamed or turned into a soup, the sweet, earthiness of the cabbage becomes exact what you want on a fall night.  This is perfect with a roasted chicken.  Crank the oven up and put in the cabbage in when the chicken comes out and both will be ready at the same time.

  • 1 head savoy cabbage
  • 4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2/3 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
  • 2/3 cup dried beadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • juice of 1 lemon

Heat the oven to 475F.

Rub the cabbage quarters with the butter and season generous with salt and pepper and arrange on a baking tray.  Roast in the hot oven until browned and crisped, about 10 to 15 minutes.  

While the cabbage is roasting, combine the garlic, and 1/4 cup olive oil in a small bowl.  Add the walnuts, bread crumbs, Parmigiano and lemon juice and season generously with salt and pepper. Mix to form a loose salsa, tasting to see if more brightness (lemon), saltiness (cheese) or toastiness (walnuts) are in order.

Remove the cabbage from the oven and sprinkle with the balsamic vinegar.  Either leave the cabbage quarters intact, or roughly chop them and toss.  Arrange on plates and dress with the walnut salsa and drizzle a tab more balsamic on top.  Serve soon.

Fall Harvest and Chicken Pot Pie with Tarragon

You could call this chicken pot pie a compromise.  While my husband finds the decedent combination of cream sauce and puff pastry to be god's gift to man, I prefer a little more restraint and a lot more veggies.  We're found a middle ground where all parties are more than happy--a handful of roasted fall vegetables get mixed in with the chicken and a classic cream sauce is subsituted with a little more refined Madiera glaze.

  • 1.5 cups butternut squash or pumpkin, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 2 medium-sized parsnips, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
  • 6 ounces pancetta, cut into small cubes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 large carrots, roughly chopped
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, such as button or cremini, thickly sliced
  • 1 tsp white wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  •  Salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 pound boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 ½ cups rich chicken stock
  • ¼ cup Marsala, Madeira or sherry
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • 1 cup green peas
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped tarragon, more for garnish
  • 2 sheets puff pastry
  • 1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Heat the oven to 400F.

Toss the butternut squash with a swig of olive oil and a heafy pinch of salt.  Roast for 20-25 minutes, until slightly soft, but not mushy.

Meanwhile, heat oil and garlic together in a large saucepan over low heat. When it sizzles, add the pancetta, onions, carrots and celery and cook about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the fat is rendered and bacon is golden brown.

Remove the onion and pancetta mixture from the pot, leaving the residual oil, and add the mushroom and white wine vinegar. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms are browned and slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the pan and add to the onions.

In a sealable plastic bag, combine flour, thyme, paprika, 2 large pinches salt and 1 large pinch pepper. Add chicken and shake well to coat.

Melt the butter in the same pan the mushrooms were in over medium heat. Add chicken pieces and any flour that remains in the bag. Cook, stirring, until all sides of the chicken pieces are golden and the flour on the bottom of the pan is browned. Pour in the Marsala to glaze and scrap the bottom of the pan. Next add the vinegar stock and the onion-mushroom mixture and stir. Scrape the bottom of pan, and let simmer about 5 minutes, until thickened. Taste for salt, pepper and vinegar and adjust the seasonings. Turn off heat and stir in the peas and tarragon.

Transfer the chicken mixture to a 9"x12" baking dish. Strech the puff pastry with you hands as you would pizza dough and drape the dough over the filling, making a few slits or decorative holes on top. Tuck edges down around filling and brush the crust with the beaten egg. If the dish is piled high with filling, place on a baking sheet to catch any overflow before transferring to oven.

Bake until the crust is browned and filling is bubbling, 20 to 30 minutes.

Let cool slightly, at least 10 minutes, before serving with a big spoon and enjoy.


If you would like to support the rebuilding of the human-side of wine country, consider contributing to the Sonoma County Resliency Fund, or UndocuFund, supporting the many undocumented fire victimes who do not qualify for FEMA aid.