The late Sally Schmidt never attended culinary school, but she did glean all her cooking knowledge, which she passed on in the voice of a seasoned, patient educator in her new book, Six California Kitchens.
Sally’s cooking and entertainment helped transform Napa Valley into the tourism dynamo it is today. She learned the basics in her mother’s homestead kitchen, ran a small kitchen in the vintage 1870’s, later bought a run-down house in Yountville that had previously been a laundry and turned it into the French Laundry Restaurant.
After 16 years, she decided “to stop cooking for others. Instead, I wanted to pass on the techniques, habits, knowledge and recipes that I had acquired over the years.”
This led to a different kitchen: a renovated farmhouse in the rural town of Philo, Mendocino, on her Apple Farm, where she taught small groups how to cook.
Eventually, she and her husband, Don, retired to a cottage on the Mendocino coast, where she only had to cook for herself. After six years, she and Don moved back to Apple Farm to be with her family. Don passed away in 2017 and Sally passed away on March 5th, five days after celebrating her 90th birthday, but not before she was able to capture her wisdom in this beautiful book.
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As with every project she took on in her life, Sally relied on her family for help, from book design by Byron Hoffman, her grandson and daughters to a couple of grandchildren helping out with meals and prop styling .
Incidentally, one of her grandsons, Perry Hoffman, followed Sally into the professional kitchen, earning his first Michelin star at 25 at the now-closed étoile at Domaine Chandon; then he was culinary director at Healdsburg’s farm-to-table marketplace Shed, which is also now closed. When the chef left the Boonville Hotel in the Anderson Valley, owned by his uncle Johhny Schmitt, he returned home to where he had worked for his uncle after high school. Except now he’s a chef/partner. Perry also recently opened Offspring, a wood-fired pizza pop-up in the Farrer Building across the street.
A delight of the book is the additional voices from Napa Valley before it became a tourist destination, like Thomas Keller, who bought The French Laundry from the Schmitts when they wanted to slow down.
Cindy Pawlcyn wanted to be a chef but didn’t see a woman in the position until her sister-in-law found an article in Sunset magazine featuring Sally and her chef at the French Laundry. This eventually led Chef Pawlcyn to the Napa Valley to open Mustard’s Grill and other restaurants.
Robin Daniel Lail, who grew up as part of the Inglenook winery and founded Lail Vineyards, recalls the delight of Sally’s Chutney Kitchen in the 1970’s.
Another fan was Lissa Doumani, who eventually opened the Michelin-starred restaurant Terra (sadly gone) on St. Helena with her husband Hiro Sone.
The learned Gerald Asher, longtime wine writer for Gourmet magazine (again sadly deceased), is quoted from his book A Vineyard in My Glass: “The evenings I spent at your Yountville restaurant were among my most memorable in California .”
Although she didn’t attend culinary school, she learned from a variety of sources, including the famous Time Life cookbooks on Foods of the World and Sunset magazine, which printed an impressive list of recipes at the time.
On almost every page she shares a little insight from a life full of cooking in her six kitchens. She dedicates a whole page to the subject of Cleaning As You Go, another page to the subject of Keeping It Simple.
She learned one of her most valuable lessons from the years she cooked the monthly lunch for the Napa Valley Vintners Association, back when all members could sit at one long table. While the winemakers had a sophisticated palette, she noted, “They liked simple food without the fancy frills best.”
Another knowledge she shares is “Start your day clean. Don’t pile things up for washing from the day before or the night before,” to “My restaurant years taught me to be prepared (always planning for the next meal) and “I’ve also learned not to fixate on measuring a lot, unless I’m baking,” teaching herself how to measure dry ingredients in the palm of her hand. The list goes on, so you’ll have to read the book to find out more.
I loved the tone of the writing and the mix of historical images and illustrations with photos of the finished dishes. The only thing that made me raise an eyebrow was the frequency cream that was included in the recipes, especially most of the soups. Most of the courses I’ve taken have emphasized a plant-based diet as being healthier. But she and her husband have lived long lives, so maybe they’re on to something.
In my column, I always try to give readers a wide range of books/websites by listing three recipes from three different sources, but I think it would be a shame not to share at least three recipes from Sally’s cookbook. She uses the format often seen in professional kitchens, with instructions on the left and ingredients on the right, so I’ll follow her here.
Another tip from Sally: “I recommend you read it through at least three times before you start cooking.” I discovered this advice myself a long time ago.
“Six Californian Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt
For 8 to 10 people as a starter
This is an easy appetizer for a meal to add to your repertoire of dishes.
Cut and cut carefully not very small cubes, 1 pound prime Ahi tuna Avoiding the connective tissue:
Pour into a bowl and add: 2 TBSP. toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon. finely chopped jalapenos
1 tablespoon. finely chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon. finely chopped spring onion
Using your finger or a fork, gently toss them until they connect. Serve on slices of toast or very crispy cucumber slices. Garnish each serving with 1 small sprig of coriander and Maldon salt.
Zanzibar duck with rice and papaya
“Six Californian Kitchens” by Sally Schmitt
Sally admittedly had a love affair with duck, so she includes a whole chapter of duck recipes. She cites African Cooking, the volume of the Time Life series, as inspiration for this dish, which was a favorite when she cooked her monthly Friday dinners at the Chutney Kitchen in Vintage 1870 from 1970-1978.
Note: She allows 1 hour to prep and 2 hours to cook, so this isn’t an impromptu dish. Rice must also be made.
Preheat the oven to 400°
On a rimmed baking sheet: 6 whole duck legs
Serve skin side up and season with: Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Roast in oven until very brown but not dried out, about 45 minutes
While the duck legs are cooking, prepare and set aside 2 green or red bell peppers, charred, peeled and torn into strips.
In a medium saucepan, mix and bring to a boil: 2 cups chicken broth
2 jalapeño peppers, halved
Drain the fat from the duck legs and lower the oven temperature to 300°F. Reserve the flavorful duck fat for another use (makes great friend potatoes). Pour the prepared broth over the duck legs and cover the pan with parchment paper. Return to the oven and steam until tender, another 45 minutes to 1 hour. Discard cloves and jalapeños. Carefully drain the pan juices into a large saucepan.
Add to: 4 cups chicken broth
Place the duck, uncovered, in the oven at 300°F for at least 30 minutes to crisp up the skin. At this point it can be left in a very low oven for up to 30 minutes longer until ready to serve. Bring the broth and juices to a gentle simmer and continue to simmer until reduced to about 3 cups. After the broth has reduced, taste for salt and add more if needed.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over low heat, melt: ¼ cup butter
Peel, deseed, dice and add to the pan: 2 fresh papayas
Warm slightly and sprinkle with: ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
When ready to serve, give a generous spoonful of this rice on every plate. Add a duck leg and sprinkle the reserved strips of pepper over the leg. Set aside a portion of the heated papaya and spoon the reduced broth over it. Be very generous. There should be enough liquid to really soak up the rice. Garnish with lime and orange zest.
Sufficient for 6 to 8 molds or 8 to 10 ovenproof espresso cups
I love fruit desserts, but every once in a while you need chocolate. The classic flavor is vanilla, but the chocolate variant is my favorite.
In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, scald and remove from heat:
3 TBSP. Instant espresso coffee
In a medium bowl, beat gently to avoid creating too much foam: ½ cup yolks from about 6 eggs
Slowly pour the hot half-and-half mixture into the bowl in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Strain the mixture into a large heatproof measuring cup. Fill molds or espresso cups and place in a roasting pan
Pour enough hot tap water into the pan to come up about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until pudding is barely set, 30 to 50 minutes, depending on how warm the mixture was to begin with. It should wobble in the middle.
Allow to cool slightly and then lift the ramekins out of the pan, with a glass spoon if they are still too hot. Then chill before serving or refrigerate to serve cold.
To serve, top each with: A spoonful of whipped cream, chocolate-covered coffee beans, or chocolate curls