Troy Hightower

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Bringing Etxebarri Home

Ever since that fantastic lunch of charcoal-grilled foods at Asador Etxebarri in Basque Spain, I've been musing on grilling and smoking. I've dabbled here and there with things, and then decided to re-create a full meal, matching the conditions in Victor Arguinzoniz' grill-kitchen as best I can. We don't have a crankable stainless steel grill, but do have a raised outdoor hearth and a trusty Lodge cast-iron grill. No laser-drilled pans, but a stainless wire mesh splash guard and collander might serve. Oxygen-controlled charcoal oven? No 'check' there, but we do have seasoned branches of oak, madrone, olive and manzanita from our property, all of which provide wonderful coals. And we do have access to some pretty darned fine fresh foodstuffs. So we invited some close friends, and settled in to a grilling and smoking experience in the Sonoma Valley.

Explorations in home-made chorizo are out, but Paul Bertoli's Gentile salami from his Berkeley Fra Mani salumeria serve adeptly as an appetizer with a glass of Paul Bara Champage. Bryan's Meats in Corte Madera gets fresh Louisiana white prawns flown in Tuesdays and Fridays from a shrimper down there who fishes Mondays and Thurdays--these slightly blueish beauties were in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday. They marinate simply in Meyer lemon juice, our own very fruity 2008 olive oil, and fleur de sel for a half hour, and then go on the grill over glowing coals of madrone and manzanita for about three minutes. Served on their own, the prawns are incredibly fresh tasting--sweet, succulent and lightly redolent of smoke. (I'll save every scrap of shell, leg and head for a smoky shrimp bisque).

The Red Barn farm stand, which sells just-picked produce from Ann Teller's Oak Hill Ranch just south of Glen Ellen, had baby fennel, little gem lettuce, small yellow and variegated summer zuchinni, and the last of spring's green garlic to offer. Local Petaluma egg yolks went into hand-made tagliatelle pasta--the sheet finally so thin the countertop's marble veining could be seen through it. The green garlic and fennel were finely diced, sauted in Clover organic butter and dusted with lemon thyme and chives from the herb pot. The multi-colored zuchinni were julienned, tossed with a bit of oil and salt, and set atop the stainless mesh splatter-guard over the coals, and tossed and moved around in the heat and smoke for just a few minutes, as the fresh pasta cooked briefly in salted water. As I took the squash off the heat, I added some branches of oak and manzanita to reinvigorate the coals. All these ingredients were combined into a coil on black plates hand-made by a local potter friend, and the combination was silky, slightly smokey, with a hint of garlic and a subtle kick from the fresh herbs. A dish simple and complex, subtle and earthy all at the same time.

Scott, the head butcher at Sonoma Market, who fills in a couple days a week at our local Glen Ellen Market, ordered for us some 2-inch rib eye steaks of American Wagyu beef from Masami Ranch in Corning. The thick steaks are beautifully marbled--maybe around grade 7/8 on the Japanese 12 point (12 is more fat marbling than beef) scale. They dry-aged in the back of the fridge for about 5 days, and then were salted and rubbed with a bit of garlic and soy. These are some bad-boy steaks. When the coals were again at the right searing heat, the steaks went on the cast iron for about 8-9 minutes, flipped every two, then wrapped and rested for long enough to open the 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape Vieux Telegraph--a wine that always has a hint of smoke in the nose. I sliced the steaks crosswise thinly, and served the meat naked, with absolutely nothing else, save salt and pepper on the table. It was both tender and dense, juicy, intensely beefy, with just the right overtone of woodsmoke. Awesome steak, right up with what we've had at fine local establishments such as Stark's Steakhouse and Cole's Chophouse.

To bring our grill-extravaganza to a close, I quickly grill-marked quartered little-gem lettuces from Oak Hill over the last of the coals, and drizzled them with a creamy Laura Chenel goat cheese dressing, and tossed on some bacon shards and avocado dice. A refreshing wrap-up.

Re-creating all that Chef Arguinzoniz does in Axpe is simply not possible. But this repast, acclaimed by the diners that enjoyed it--shows that our local ingredients combined with some skill, restraint and ingenuity can result in a pretty darned fine repast.

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