It has been years since I last visited Big Sur on California’s Pacific coast. When I returned recently, I found that nothing has changed in this wild and wonderful wonderland. Mother Nature was kind to this region when she created an impenetrable wilderness that could not be conquered by the vagaries of mankind.
The Spanish explorers named the region “Big Sur” as a derivative of their native language “el sur grande,” meaning “the big south,” or “el pais grande del sur,” “the big country of the south.” And big it is and powerful, awe-inspiring and a natural wonder.
For years Big Sur slept peacefully as the rest of the western territories attracted settlers. This nearly inaccessible wilderness would remain untouched had it not been for the construction of Highway 1 in 1937. Even then and until recent times Big Sur remained largely unpopulated and undisturbed by developers. The population remains at a scarce 1,000 inhabitants.
It proved to be an ideal location for the emerging spiritual retreats. A Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage, was established in 1958, followed by the Esalen Institute and a Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery.
Writers, poets, artists and nonconformists found Big Sur ideal for contemplation, inspiration and an environment free of the stresses of modern life. Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and Robinson Jeffers found inspiration in the loneliness and isolation of Big Sur.
This same atmosphere and cinematic beauty soon brought Hollywood to Big Sur. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the 1965 film “The Sandpiper.” The film is now available on DVD and features a lecture by Richard Burton about Big Sur in which he recites the poetry written by Jeffers.
The hippies of the 1960s found Big Sur an ideal retreat from civilization and the mores of the times. Many remain, enjoying solitude and the demands of society.
Although there are few tourist accommodations, Big Sur is one of California’s leading attractions. There are three upscale resorts in the area, a few motels and a number of restaurants.
Friends in Carmel insisted that we spend the day in Big Sur and eat at one of the state’s most interesting restaurants, the Big Sur Bakery. This establishment takes on the personality of an untouched and totally natural environment.
Eric Schlosser wrote the foreword of the “Big Sur Bakery Cookbook” and he describes the restaurant:
“Like so many of our favorite spots, the Big Sur Bakery is hiding in plain sight. You could drive past it a thousand times without noticing it. There’s nothing mass-produced about it, nothing predictable or pretentious. The bread and the baked goods are as good as they get; the food leaving the kitchen rivals the best in London and New York, without the attitude. The Big Sur Bakery is a little gem, set beside the road. And it is without question the finest restaurant in America with gasoline pumps out front. Mike, Phil and Michelle have created a space where anyone is welcome — local, out-of-town, rich poor or strange. There’s humility to the whole operation that fits perfectly with the grandeur all around it. I think Henry Miller would’ve loved it and would’ve gone there almost every night (as long as someone else was picking up the bill).”
The restaurant is the dream child of three escapees from the culinary challenges of the Los Angeles food scene. Philip Wojtowicz is the chef, his wife Michelle takes on the baking tasks while Michael Gilson is in charge of the front of the house. All three are dedicated to creating simple, wood-fired cooking that is organic, fresh and grown locally by dedicated farmers.
The “Big Sur Bakery Cookbook” contains wholesome and taste-tempting recipes from many of those who provide the ingredients for the restaurant’s menu. They include stories of Big Sur and the challenges of growing food in an unfriendly environment and introduces the reader to dedicated farmers determined to provide fresh and healthy food to the public.
One of the most popular items on the menu is this one:
5 tablespoons canola oil
1 small yellow onion, sliced
5 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced chives
2 whole scallions, rimmed and thinly sliced
-- Heat a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat and drizzle 2 tablespoons of the oil into it. Add the onions and cook until caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes.
-- Deglaze the pan with ¼ cup water, scraping any brown bits from the bottom. Cook until the water is evaporated and the onions take on a uniform brown color, about 5 minutes.
-- Transfer the onions to a roasting pan and toss with the potatoes. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and the remaining 3 tablespoons oil to the potatoes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
-- Cover pan with aluminum foil and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Set aside to cool for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees.
-- Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, herbs and scallions together and season them with salt and pepper. Add the potatoes and onions to the egg mixture.
-- Heat a 9-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in the skillet and add the egg and potato mixture. Cover the skillet with aluminum foil and transfer to the oven.
-- Bake for 30 minutes; remove the foil and continue baking for 10 more minutes. Slice and serve directly from the skillet, warm or at room temperature. Serves 6 to 8.
Meyer lemons are abundant here in South Florida and are also plentiful in Big Sur. I use the dressing on salads and broiled and baked chicken.
Grilled salmon with Meyer lemon dressing
4 salmon fillets (6 to 8 ounces each)
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Meyer lemon dressing (below)
Preheat grill until you have a red-hot coal base. Brush salmon will the oil on both sides, sprinkle them with parley and season with salt and pepper. Place salmon on grill, skin side down. When fish has grill marks, flip the fish over the cook to your desired doneness. Arrange the salmon on a platter and drizzle generously with the Meyer lemon dressing.
Ingredients for dressing
½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (white or golden)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoon freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
Grated zest of 1 Meyer lemon
¾ cup canola oil (although this recipe calls for canola oil, I would use olive oil)
-- Put orange juice into a small saucepan and reduce it over medium-high heat until syrupy, 5 to 7 minutes (there should be about 1 tablespoon). Place the reduced orange juice, vinegar, mustard, salt, lemon juice and lemon zest into a blender. With the blender running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream, blending until dressing is thick and emulsified.
-- Transfer the dressing to a plastic container or glass jar and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 1 cup.
“The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook” ($40; Morrow Publishers) is available through local bookstores and online at www.HarperCollins.com. Contact the bakery at bigsurbakery.com
Last week I mentioned that the mint julep was invented in Virginia. According to Don Smith, a native Kentuckian, that state was part of Virginia until it became a separate state. Thus, Kentucky may still be credited for originating the famous libation.
Q: My favorite restaurant was Hilde’s Tea Room, and I miss the borscht she served. A friend told me that you had a good recipe, and I would appreciate having it.
— Mae Beth McManus, Bonita Springs
A: I never could get Hilde’s recipe from her. This is the closest I could come.
2 1-pound cans diced beets, drained (or 2 pounds cooked fresh beets)
3 cups rich beef stock
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
¼ cup Burgundy wine (optional, but will add much flavor)
1 tablespoon onion juice
½ teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons celery salt
8-ounce carton sour cream (low-fat or plain yogurt may be used)
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley
-- Combine half the beets and a small amount of the stock in a blender or food processor and process until the beets are pureed.
-- Repeat the process using the remaining beets and a small amount of the stock. Combine the pureed beet mixture, the remaining stock, vinegar, wine, onion juice and seasonings.
-- Chill for several hours and serve in individual soup bowls with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, sprinkled with parsley. Serves 8 to 10.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available for sale is a 4-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” For comments and questions regarding today’s column, contact Doris Reynolds at email@example.com.