It’s not often that I am so taken with a person that I find myself immediately professing my adoration at every turn.
Recently, however, I met one such someone — a man named Dan, a chef who fed me well for a month in the mountains of California and who wowed me each day with the meals he set on the table.
For those who don’t follow me on Twitter, I just spent a month in Northern California at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, an artists colony that offers the gift of time and space to create. The program invites artists from various disciplines (musical composition, fiction, poetry, choreography, visual arts) to spend a month on the property — close to 600 acres of some of the most beautiful hills and forests I’ve seen — with nothing to do except wake up every morning, have a cup of coffee and start working.
Such colonies have been a lifesaver for me — I wrote the bulk of “A Tiger in the Kitchen” over seven weeks at Yaddo in 2010. (My book never would have made it out on time had it not been for my time there.) As many artists will testify, you can often accomplish in weeks at a colony what would likely take you months or more at home.
And this certainly was true for me at Djerassi …
The colony, founded in 1979 by Carl Djerassi, the chemist who developed the birth control pill, is considered among the best in the United States. In its 33 years, it’s offered more than 2,000 artists time on the property, all free of charge. (Want to support the arts? You can donate here.)
Artists are treated incredibly well — the lodgings are comfortable and the vistas, just unbelievable.
This was my writing view on some days (yes, that’s the Pacific Ocean in the distance):
And if you get stuck while working (or even if you don’t), there are lovely hiking trails that are perfect for a little breather.
And dotted along these trails are sculptures that previous Djerassi artists created. Tori (below) is just one of dozens of these sculptures.
Of course, the most important thing for me was the writing.
But in order to do that well, the eating was essential. And that’s where Dan was my lifeline.
Now, I can be hard to impress when it comes to food — but Dan had me from my first taste of his cheesy casserole packed with asparagus, broccoli, plump juicy bits of artichokes and more at our very first dinner. (Anyone who knows me at all will know how remarkable this is — I am not the biggest vegetable fan.)
Now that I’m back in Brooklyn and have to fend for myself once again, I often think about the terrific Dan dinners I had. So, without further ado, here were some of the highlights. (Note: These pictures aren’t great since they were super quick snaps — hey, you try asking hungry artists to wait just so you can photograph the food they’re circling.)
One of my favorites: Chicken piccata, which looked very simple to make. (Just pound chicken cutlets flat, season with salt and pepper, coat them with flour, saute and then finish off with a lemony sauce that’s just packed with capers. Dan made a vegetarian version of this with tofu that was outstanding, too.)
And there were ribs — tender, falling off the bone, deliciously smoky ribs, paired with a peach bourbon sauce that Dan makes at home and bottles for friends and lucky folk like Djerassi artists.
This was a delight — corn zucchini pancakes, which Dan served as a side to spicy baked salmon filets, topped with sour cream and a cherry tomato chutney.
(Dan says you can take any corn hoe cake or pancake recipe and just add grated zucchini to it if you want to try this at home. Whatever the amount of fresh corn kernels is, just halve that and substitute grated zucchini for the rest.)
I discovered a love for fish — Dan’s perfect salmon burgers won me over.
Dan even got me eating vegetables — lots of them. With (almost) no complaint.
This was just one of the countless amazing salads he made — a California caprese featuring avocado and arugula along with the usual tomatoes and mozzarella.
And he introduced me to the wonder of fiddleheads — a fab addition to any salad or stir fry. I couldn’t get enough of them. (I’m pretty sure we even ate that stray one that fell on the counter.)
I was even happy eating greens in soup. Dan makes a seriously mean minestrone that tastes even better the next day.
And just when I thought this man could not get more perfect, out came the deep fryer. I would include a picture of Dan’s rosemary fried chicken here except it’s the one meal I didn’t photograph — even I was too eager to eat to spare a moment for a snap.
But I did show some restraint around his falafels, which were absolutely delicious (packed with spices; a lovely consistency) and fried to perfection.
There are many more items you’re not seeing here — just about the best blueberry-blackberry cobbler I have tasted; refreshing strawberry shortcake. But I could go on for ages. (As it is, this Dan homage is getting lengthy enough to almost be a book proposal.)
So, here’s to Dan, who fed me so well. A girl couldn’t have asked for a better month of good eats.
And thank you, Djerassi.
To find out more about the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, check out this link.