Burt Wolf's Menu: Show-Northern California - #104

Northern California ... at one point in time it was Russia's major outpost in America, and it still shows its influence.  We'll take a look at their original fort ...  and pick up some great tasting recipes from the neighborhood.  We'll visit the home of America's most important horticulturalist and find out how he changed the way we all eat.  So join me in Northern California for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

During the 15 and 1600's, European governments sent their ships across the Atlantic to establish colonies in the New World. At the same time that the Europeans were expanding their influence across the Atlantic, the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, started moving his explorers to and across the Pacific. Vitus Bering, a Russian admiral, sailed across the area that is now called the Bering Straits and claimed Alaska for his Tsar. Russian trading companies began to make big money in Pacific seal skins and otter fur.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In 1799, the Tsar, the Tsar’s family, the Tsar’s friends, and the Tsar’s friends' friends invested in a new stock company called "The Russian-American Company". The Tsar also gave that company an exclusive  monopoly to conduct his business and trade in North America.  They didn’t do too much of the “trading” thing; they were a lot more interested in the “taking” thing.  The most southerly outpost of this company was just north of San Francisco, right here at a spot called Fort Ross.

Today Fort Ross is a state historic park.

DAN MURLEY:   ...and what we’re gonna do is, all of us here, in order to warn everyone else that it’s gonna fire, we’re gonna yell three times “Fire in the hole,” and so that everyone knows that we’re gonna do something here so we don’t catch anyone by surprise.

Park Ranger Dan Murley has been working here since 1978.

DAN MURLEY:  Okay, so are we ready?  One, two, three.


DAN MURLEY (to Burt):  The reason the Russians came here initially to this location, they came to California to get food for their people in Alaska, which is kinda right up your alley, that food angle.  So here we are inside the stockade, and this is where the upper-level managers and clerks of the Russian-American Company lived.  A majority of the population actually lived outside the stockade.  And it was in here where most of the business was transacted, but I think most of the interesting life that went on here at Ross was actually outside the walls.  ... This building we have here is the only original building left here at Ross, and this house was built, probably, in about 1832.  And it’s one of only four Russian-built buildings left in North America; the other three are in Alaska.

BURT WOLF:   What went on in here?

DAN MURLEY:  This is the house where Alexander Rotchev, the final manager, and his wife lived with their children.  And they lived here, and, it was said, in quite high style.  They had piano, they had French wines; an interesting place to have been during the final days at Ross.  I don’t know how -- what it was like in the early days, but in the final days it was pretty nice.  And eventually, in the future, hopefully we’ll have the actual rooms built and furnished the way they were during the time of Alexander Rotchev.  That’s a dream now, but hopefully someday it will become a reality.

BURT WOLF:   It’s nice to see a building still standing.

DAN MURLEY:  Yes, yes, and one of the interesting things about this building is the architecture.  This building is similar to many of the ones that are preserved still in Siberia.  The interesting thing here is the way that they overlapped these two redwood logs to join them together in the middle of the wall.  There are no nails used, and it’s quite an interesting piece of architecture that’s been preserved here in California. ... This building is a reconstruction of what was called the Officials’ Barracks or the Officers’ Quarters, and in here, visiting dignitaries or visiting company executives, so to speak, would stay here while they were visiting Ross.  Within this building, what we’ve tried to represent is what it might have been like to live back in those days, how it would have been to stay here, to come and visit Ross.  And you can see we have the pantry here, where some of the items would have been stored, and the oven, where the bread might have been baked, and these are all modelled after authentic Russian interiors.  The people that were in this building probably ate domestic beef, sheep, pork; whereas the diet on the other side of the stockade walls was totally different.

BURT WOLF:   What did they eat on the outside?

DAN MURLEY:  The outside, probably a lot of what they ate was related to the sea.  They ate sea mammals, sea lions, and in some of our excavations, our archeological excavations here in front of the stockade, we have actually found whale vertabrae and other whale bone to show that at least one whale was killed here and taken, because the California Gray Whales do migrate directly by here in front of the fort. ... You’ll notice that on two of the corners of the stockade, they had what are called blockhouses.  And in them they had ships’ cannon that were pointed in directions to cover each wall and to cover out to sea.  They never had to fire the cannon in a battle; there was never a battle at Ross, but they did use these cannon to signal ships off-shore.  And so it was highly fortified and fortunately they never had to use these defenses.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   A last-ditch effort was made to save the Fort in the late 1830's when Russian Baron von Wrangell went to Mexico for help. The Mexicans had just won their independence in the Mexican Revolution from Spain, and they were perfectly willing to help.  And they only wanted one thing in exchange. They wanted the government of Russia to recognize the new government of Mexico. At the time, the government of Russia was Tsar Nicholas I, and he was an unwavering believer in the absolute power of a monarch.  It just wasn’t in his nature to recognize a government that had come into existence as the result of a revolution against a king.  And so he decided to give up Fort Ross.  In 1842, the Russians sold Fort Ross and moved back to Alaska.  They sold it to a man named Sutter, who lived back there over the hills.  Bad move. Seven years later, in 1849, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill and the California gold rush began.  And the Russians didn’t have any part of it.  That’s pretty much what happened to them a few years later, when they sold their Alaska holdings to the United States government just before the Alaska gold rush.  It’s so important in life to get the timing right.

For thirty years, starting in 1812, the Russian government maintained its most distant outpost in North America at Fort Ross. And during that period, it conducted a series of detailed explorations of the area. The explorations began along a river that ran inland from the region near the fort. The river eventually became known as the Russian River because the Russians were always on it. Today California's Russian River is one of the most picturesque spots in the country... with a stretch of water that offers some of the nation's best canoeing... canoeing that takes you past acre after acre of famous vineyards. This is prime California wine country. It's also home to the Armstrong Woods, which is one of our largest preserves of ancient trees... Mother Nature at her most beautiful. The main town along the river is called Healdsburg.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Harmon Heald came to California from Ohio during the gold rush years. He’d hoped to strike it rich, but he found no gold... so he took his next best shot and founded a town. In 1852 he built his home and a general store here and laid out the town to which he gave his name.

The center of Healdsburg is the beautifully restored plaza... the perfect spot to spend a restful afternoon. Across the street is the Healdsburg Museum, housed in a 1910 Andrew Carnegie Library... and packed with historical collections, much of which have been donated by local families.  Healdsburg is also the home of the well- respected Samba Java Restaurant, and its talented chef... Colleen McGlynn.  Today she's making a vegetable chili.  A cast iron pot goes onto the stove. A little corn oil goes in... a diced onion... a cup of diced celery... some stirring... a chopped green bell pepper and a chopped red bell pepper. Five minutes of cooking.

BURT WOLF:   You know, up until the 1900s, when we did all our cooking in cast iron pots like that, women never had iron deficiency anemia, because every time they cooked, they got a little iron in a totally usable form from the pot.

Next in... 6 serrano chili peppers, minced. Followed by 6 chopped garlic cloves... a tablespoon of chili powder... a tablespoon of cumin... and 6 cups of pre-cooked beans. You can use pinto beans or garbanzo beans... or northern white beans.  A little stirring.  Four cups of vegetable stock or canned broth.  Salt and pepper and 15 minutes of simmering.  At that point the chili is thickened with a quarter of a cup of masa harina which is a flour made from specially treated corn.

COLLEEN McGLYNN:  Masa harina is the ground corn meal that’s used in making tamales.  Most Mexican markets will carry it, but if you don’t have that, you can also thicken this by adding a little cornstarch mixture, cornstarch and water.  It’s just to give it a little better viscosity.  But if you have access to this corn meal, it’s a nice flavor and it thickens it quite well.    

Then 2 cups of corn kernels go in and one grilled zucchini that's been sliced.  When all the ingredients are fully heated, the finished chili goes into a serving bowl where it’s garnished with some slices of Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese and some Tortilla chips.

Colleen's second recipe is based on California rice, which is grown just over the hills from here in Sacramento.  It is Colleen’s version of a New Orleans Jambalaya.  Two pounds of sausage, cut into 1 inch pieces are browned in a large pot. In a second pot Colleen puts the shells that have been taken off of four cups of medium shrimp... followed by two quarts of fish stock and then two quarts of chicken stock, or, if you like, all four quarts, chicken stock. Bring the stock to a simmer and hold it there for ten minutes.  Into the pot with the sausages... two cups of diced celery... four cups of minced onion... two cups of green bell peppers that have been cored, seeded, and diced. Ten more minutes of cooking. The recipe continues with two tablespoons of minced serrano chiles and two tablespoons of minced garlic.  All that sautés together for about 15 minutes. A cup of chopped canned tomatoes go in... and a cup of tomato juice.  A few bay leaves.  A cup of tomato paste.  Then the soup stock goes in through a strainer, which removes the shrimp shells. Cooking the stock with the shrimp shells adds a rich shellfish flavor that makes the small extra step worth the effort.  Next... A few red chili flakes... pepper... salt... three cups of long grain rice... the cover... and 15 minutes of simmering.  Then the four cups of shrimps from the shrimp shells finally make their appearance.

COLLEEN McGLYNN:  This isn’t going to take much longer now... shrimp won’t take but a few minutes to cook through.  We don’t want to overcook them, so it’s important that your rice is almost done.

BURT WOLF:   Boy, does that smell good!


Five more minutes of cooking ... a few torpedo onions or scallions and the Samba Java Jambalaya is ready to serve.

The cultivation of rice in the United States began in the early 1700's. A ship sailing off the coast of South Carolina was damaged in a storm and headed into Charleston for repairs. The ship had been carrying some Golde Seede Rice as part of its cargo and the Captain used some of the seed as part payment for his visit and the repair work.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A local planter placed the seeds into the area’s fertile soil, and by 1726 the port of Carolina was exporting over 4,500 metric tons of rice... rice that soon became the world standard for quality.  Like everything else in North America, rice farming began to move  west. The Gulf Coast states planted rice, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800's, when mechanized farming techniques were introduced, that rice farming really took off. The states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas became major areas for rice production.

When gold was discovered in California, hundreds of thousands of people rushed in, including 40,000 Chinese. Some were prospectors, some worked in supporting crafts, but all of them held on to their traditional Asian diet.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Rice was a major element in the meals of the Chinese, and soon the California farmers were producing rice to meet the new demands. The hard clay soil around the city of Sacramento was not ideal for most crops... but it was perfect for rice. By the 1920's California was a major rice producing state. Today the United States is probably the most advanced and innovative rice producing nation on the planet, and after years of trade negotiations we are actually exporting rice to Japan.

Healdsburg is about as picturesque a northern California town as you could find.  The physical center of Healdsburg is the town square... the gastronomic center is the Downtown Bakery & Creamery.  Opened in 1987, it is exactly what a real down-home bakery should be... good bread... sticky buns... great coffee in the morning... pies... cakes... desserts... and ice creams made fresh all day long. And everything made from scratch. Kathleen Stewart is the CEO of the company which stands for Chief Eating Operative... she's also the boss baker.  Today she's making a fresh fruit pie in a corn meal or polenta pastry. 

KATHLEEN STEWART:  We start with some softened sweet butter...


She starts by creaming three and a half ounces of sweet butter together with one half cup of sugar, and scraping the mixture down the inside of the bowl as the process goes on.  Two egg yolks are added... a half teaspoon of salt... a cup of all-purpose flour and a third of a cup of fine corn meal or a medium-fine polenta. The flour and the corn meal are added in a little at a time.  Then the pastry is taken out... divided into two pieces... one slightly larger than the other... and wrapped in plastic.  Then the dough goes into the refrigerator for an hour. When it comes out it goes onto a floured surface. The larger piece is rolled out to a thickness of a quarter of an inch and shaped to fit a nine inch loose bottomed tart pan.  The dough lined pan sits in the freezer for twenty minutes which will help prevent the dough from shrinking when it goes into a hot oven.  Which is precisely what it does next... 350 degrees for 15 minutes.  When it comes out, three tablespoons of flour go onto the tart plus a single tablespoon of corn meal. That forms a base to absorb the moisture from the fruit.  Then the fruit mixture goes on... today it's poached peaches and raspberries.  A sprinkling of sugar.  Then the second piece of dough gets rolled out and placed on top.  The edges get pressed down.  A quick paint job with heavy cream... a dusting of granulated sugar... and an hour in a pre-heated 350 degree oven.  When it comes out... it cools down... and it’s ready to be served.

Kathleen’s second recipe is for a honey nut bar. A sweet pastry crust is pre-baked in an 8 inch loose bottomed tart shell.  The filling is made by taking a large sauce pan... and melting four ounces of sweet butter, together with four tablespoons of honey... and a half cup of brown sugar.

KATHLEEN STEWART:  You can use any flavor honey for this; a lavender-flavored honey would be wonderful, any... any kind you prefer, but something with a flavor really adds another dimension to it.

That mixture is brought to a boil and held there for two minutes.  Then the pot comes off the heat and two tablespoons of cream gets mixed in... followed by one and a half cups of chopped nuts.

KATHLEEN STEWART:   Today we’re using sliced almonds.  But you can use any kind of nut you like with this tart... pecans, cashew nuts, macadamia nuts for a tropical-type tart, use bits of dried fruit if you like, dried cherries, dried cranberries...

The filling gets spooned into the pastry shell.  Make sure the nuts float evenly in the filling and not just on the top.

KATHLEEN STEWART:  It’ll bake thirty minutes at 350 degrees...   

When it comes out of the oven it comes out of the tart shell and onto a serving plate to cool.  Then into a mouth!

Honey has been part of the human diet for over three million years and has always had a special spot on the menu. In ancient Egypt it was a form of money. It was also used as an offering to the gods and as a food for sacred animals.

Honey has always been a favorite ingredient for bakers. It not only sweetens a recipe, but because honey has a high fructose content, it has a higher sweetening power than standard sugar. It also retains moisture, so the final product stays fresher longer.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When you’re substituting honey for granulated sugar in a recipe that you normally use, there are two you should do. First of all, start by choosing a mild-flavored honey.  Second, only substitute honey for half the granulated sugar in the recipe until you see how the recipe works out.

Reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by a quarter cup for each cup of honey used. Obviously, honey is a liquid ingredient and granulated sugar a dry one, and you need to adjust the recipe accordingly.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Add an extra half-teaspoon of baking soda for every cup of honey that you are using, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees to make sure that whatever it is you are baking does not over-brown.

The trick to measuring honey accurately and easily is to spray a little cooking oil into the measuring cup or spoon before you pour in the honey. The oil sets up a non-stick surface and the honey comes out easily and accurately measured.  And that will ensure a honey of a result.

The county seat of Sonoma is a town called Santa Rosa. About 100,000 people live here which gives it a manageable size. Quiet but not sleepy... stimulating but not stressful. When General Vallejo was sent here in the 1830's to distribute the land to loyal followers of the Mexican government, he granted this area to his mother-in-law.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Some people felt that was the act of a generous and devoted son-in-law, and other folks thought it was a really cheap shot to get her off his ranch down the valley. Cheap shot because the land that he gave her belonged to the native American tribes. You know, it’s really easy to be generous with somebody else’s land or  money... most politicians can prove that to you. Be that as it may... the first Americans to show up here came in 1846... they built a trading post and set the tone for the town.

Now this is a rather unusual building. It's a church that was built from one tree. The entire structure was erected in 1873 from the lumber that was cut from one giant redwood. The tree was 275 feet high and 18 feet in diameter. When it was cut, it produced 78,000 feet of board. These days the building is a museum dedicated to the work of Robert L. Ripley.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   My local newspaper carried the Ripley strip, and when I was a kid, I read it every day... Believe it or Not.

Just across the street from the Ripley Museum is the home of Luther Burbank. If you're interested in food or flowers, old Luther is a mighty important character. He was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1849 and studied horticulture. When he moved to Santa Rosa at the age of 26 he announced that Santa Rosa was "the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned."

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well... he should have known; he turned out to be one of the great all-time   horticulturalists.  And it was in these gardens that he conducted many of his experiments.  He developed over eight hundred new varieties; two hundred of them were fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts. And the all-time great baking potato, famous under the Idaho or Russet name?  It was a Burbank.

Cheryl Harris is the garden curator.

CHERYL HARRIS:  So Burbank introduced a whole lot of vegetables, and one of them was the elephant garlic, which he spent a number of years at.  They were really fine seeds, so it was hard to get going.  And he crossed it many times with regular garlic and came up with huge heads...


CHERYL HARRIS:  And each clove is very large, but they’re very mild in flavor, and so you can actually use several of them in your stew or soup. 

BURT WOLF:   Ah, that’s what an artichoke looks like when it’s let go.

CHERYL HARRIS:  Yes, that one’s being allowed to bloom to show that it’s in the thistle family.  It makes a beautiful flower, and nice for dried arrangements.

BURT WOLF:   Ahh.  So if you don’t get to it before it’s ready to go in the pot, then you get beautiful flowers afterwards. 

CHERYL HARRIS:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:   I like that. ... What were the most popular fruits and vegetables that he developed?

CHERYL HARRIS:  Well, he was really interested in plums; of course, he worked on apples and pears and quince and a lot of other fruits too, but he introduced over 110 varieties of plums.  Santa Rosa plum is still popular today.  Peppers and eggplant and tomatoes, all the things we like today -- rhubarb is maybe one of the ones he’s most well-known for, yeah... and --

BURT WOLF:   I always think of him in connection with the Luther Burbank Potato.

CHERYL HARRIS:  Oh, yes.  Of course.  I tend to forget about the potato... (Laughter)

BURT WOLF:   Why?  Wait, what do you mean --

CHERYL HARRIS:  Well, it was one of his first developments...

BURT WOLF:   Ohhhhh.

CHERYL HARRIS:  ... and, uh... it was...

BURT WOLF:   You don’t like potatoes.

CHERYL HARRIS:  I don’t like potatoes.  (Laughter)

BURT WOLF:   Okay, then let’s just say it right the way it is.  I mean, speak the truth. 

CHERYL HARRIS:  (over)  Pasta!

BURT WOLF:   “I don’t like potatoes, I don’t want to talk about potatoes.”  Okay.

CHERYL HARRIS:  (Laughing)  Sorry.

BURT WOLF:   Nope.

CHERYL HARRIS:  ... This is Burbank’s spineless cactus.  He worked for fifteen to seventeen years in developing a spineless form, with the idea that maybe some of the vast areas, arid areas of the world could be planted in cactus for cattle grazing.

BURT WOLF:   And it had no points and nothing to hurt the cattle.

CHERYL HARRIS:  Right.  So they wouldn’t cut their mouths.

BURT WOLF:   How’d it work out?

CHERYL HARRIS:  Not too well.  They ate it down to the quick so there was nothing left. 

BURT WOLF:   So he was half right.  They liked it.

CHERYL HARRIS:  Right.  They loved it. ... Well, this was Burbank’s office; this is where he did all of his work, and you can see, these are copies of his original notes.  He would actually trace around the fruit and then give a brief description.  And then the number of stars tells how much he liked it, whether it was somewhat good or wonderful.

BURT WOLF:   Same technique we use for movies.  Or restaurants, actually.  Right?

CHERYL HARRIS:  (over)  Yes, yes.

BURT WOLF:   This was a three-star food. ... He was really quite a character, wasn’t he?

CHERYL HARRIS:  Really.  A very interesting man.  He was so interested in trying new things and larger flowers and new colors and whatever he could come up with.

Thanks for being with us here in Northern California, and please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.