From High Heels to Muck Boots

Friday, August 5, 2016

Homemade cavatelli. 

Christy Larsen, a city girl from Los Angeles, used to spend her days in high-level meetings rubbing shoulders with fellow executives in the finance industry. These days, she's traded in her heels for muck boots and you'll most likely find her getting down and dirty on the 60-acre ranch she and husband, Mike, own in the Central Coast region of California. Located in the picturesque Indian Valley next to the mission town of San Miguel, the ranch is a dream come true for this couple who chose to leave the frenetic pace of the big city for slow living in the country.

Christy, who is a certified pastry chef in addition to having a strong business background, grew up in a large Italian family where food - and knowing where it came from - was at the core of their lifestyle. With abundant childhood memories of cooking with her grandmothers and Great Aunt Rose to spreading a table for all the relatives and anyone else who happened to stop by, it seemed only natural for Christy to carry on this tradition.  And the ranch provides a perfect place for this.

Read on for my interview with this true pioneer woman.

Christy Larsen, banking executive turned rancher, and ZsaZsa, one of their Mangalitsa breed of Hungarian lard pigs. 

Tell me about your life currently, what you do, and how you came to own a ranch.  The ranch is a bit of a switch up for me and my husband.  I was an executive in banking and my husband was/is a graphic artist in publishing.  We had hit a moment in our lives where we wanted more space, a bit of a relief from the city life, and more control of our food source.  In California we have fresh produce year 'round, but our markets and even farmer's markets don't really have the variety I remember as a kid.  I wanted that variety back.  I'm also a big advocate of eating seasonally, so I wanted to be able to have access to food that tastes delicious and isn't loaded with chemicals, or been shipped across two continents.  It is a luxury to grow my own food.  I understand that.  This ranch is a gift my husband and I have given ourselves for the second half of our lives.  It is just the two of us on the ranch.  We employ interns that are hired for 3 month stints, which gives us some help and an occasional opportunity to have time off.  

"This ranch is a gift my husband and I have given ourselves for the second half of our lives." 

The newest addition to the ranch family. 

Where did you grow up?  Tell me something about your childhood.  My paternal grandfather was a butcher and my grandma was a lunch lady. My maternal grandfather found work as a New York cabby and a construction worker on the Empire State Building and my grandmother was a factory seamstress.  My parents came from humble means with strong family ties, moving from place to place until finally settling in California, where our family has lived since I was 3. I grew up in a small suburb of Los Angeles with 3 brothers and a sister.  We had a typical childhood of big family gatherings, sports, sibling rivalry and 2-parent household.  Both sets of grandparents would visit every summer, arriving with suitcases filled with Italian delicacies and plans for a summer of "filling the freezer."  Those summers are some of my greatest memories. Our house was over-filled and my siblings and I would give up our rooms for guests.  I loved it!  I would sleep on the couch, waking up to the smells and sounds of activity in the kitchen.  I was the first kid up, and would spend a few minutes with my grandparents drinking my "french coffee" (warm milk with a splash of coffee), listening to stories, and helping plan the meals for the day.  My mom cooked a full dinner every night.  We all sat together. Usually there was a friend or neighbor or someone joining and there was always enough for "one more".  

Dried apple chips made with apples from the orchard.

How did you come to love cooking and baking?  One of my earliest memories is when I was five years old.  We were visiting my great aunt Rose in New York.  She came walking into the dining room with a tray of just-picked, ripe, red tomatoes from her small garden and placed them on the table next to loaves of freshly baked bread, a shaker of salt and bottle of olive oil.  This was how my family snacked, and it was magic.  

Fresh eggs. 

Was there an early influence in your life?  My mother is an amazing cook and always put a freshly made meal on the table.  Our cupboards were rarely full because my mom didn't fill them with prepared goods.  We ate healthy, wholesome, freshly-made food.  My maternal grandmother taught me not to waste. She used everything, and was a master soup maker.  My paternal grandmother showed me how to de-bone and spatchcock a chicken decades before "chicken under a brick" became a restaurant staple.  My great Aunt Rose was a baker, and never let me lick my fingers or the spoon, instilling great habits in the kitchen.  I made my first full meal for the family when I was 8: Chicken Cacciatore with homemade Cavatelli, and chocolate mousse for dessert.  I haven't left the kitchen since.

Jams and preserves made from the fruit in the orchard. 

In one of your posts a while ago, you showed a picture of tent glamping on your ranch. Is this available for guests?  Originally our plans were to put up a few tents and open it up as a small B&B (barn and breakfast).  We had even grander plans to put in a commercial kitchen and have cooking classes as well.   It didn't take long to realize that there is little time left in the day to entertain paying guests and that if we wanted to really enjoy the life we were building, we had to give ourselves a break.  So we scrapped the idea of farm-stays for the general public. Our house is very small, so we use the tent as our guestroom.  We have family and friends (and friends of friends) staying over year-round.  We have a really comfortable bed in there and it has been rumored that I occasionally stow away with a good book.

Glamping on Vicarious Ranch in the Indian Valley of California's Central Coast region.

You obviously know how to cook for a lot of people with all the activities you have on the farm. Do you have tips to share?  Aside from growing up in a big family, I have a lot of experience in feeding people.  I did attend culinary school after I left my corporate job, and did some of my externship work with Wolfgang Puck Catering.  I love to throw big parties and have been catering for my friends for years. I do have some tips...lots of them!

1.  Prepare.  That is my girl scout training.  I fully plan my menu, reviewing and revising before I go to the grocery store.  When I plan my menu, I write a grocery list, and I list the serving pieces needed. 
2.  Simplify.  Review the menu and simplify where you can.  This is not the time to showcase your mad kitchen skills in every dish.  Have one show-stopper, if you must, but the rest should taste great and be simple, easy-to-prepare dishes.  

3.  Delegate.  Have a list of tasks that need little supervision or that won't "ruin" the meal if someone has terrible knife skills or doesn't know the difference between balsamic and rice vinegar.  When someone asks if they can help, just point to the list and let them pick something.  

4.  Be flexible.  Sometimes things don't work out as planned.  If the potatoes for the salad get over-cooked and are falling apart, make mashed potatoes.  If the meat isn't falling-off-the-bone tender for your pulled pork, slice it thinly and proceed as normal.  Know how to adapt.

5.  Leave it be.  Part of the joy of entertaining is being able to enjoy the event.  If something doesn't get on the table, or if there is a kitchen full of dishes. Leave them be.  Grab a plate and sit with your friends.

6.  Use mess kits!  I hate buying loads of disposables and filling trash bag after trash bag with garbage.  I also don't like to be washing dishes all night long, so I use mess kits (just like in my Girl Scout days) for when we have weekend guests at the ranch.  Every person gets a mess kit for the duration of their stay. At each meal, after I put out the food, I put out 4 bins:  one for compost, one for hot rinsing, one for hot washing and one for cold rinsing, with a bit of vinegar in it.  Everyone washes their own dishes, then puts them back in the mess kits and hangs them up to dry.  I use an organic bio-degradable soap, so we use the water on our garden.

Mess kits make for easy clean-up and are more Eco-friendly than disposable products. 

Do you have a favorite quote?  I have a few mottoes: "Life is not a zero sum game" and "Don't take more than you give."  I have so many quotes I love, but as far as one that helps guide my daily life I like:  "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.  Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." - Marcus Aurelius. 

Aging goat's milk cheese. 

Are you involved in your local community?  I'm marginally involved in my local community.  I was working on trying to get a farmer's market started in our little town. We tried for a year to get something going, but were unable to make any inroads, both because of lack of community desire and costs.  My partner in trying to get it off the ground moved out of the area, so we are back to square one.  But I'm not giving up! For my work with the greater community, I run a small family foundation which gives me an opportunity to work with organizations and individuals in arenas I am passionate about which circle around education for the under-served. I also sit on the board of trustees of a university and am very involved within its organization. 

One of these things is not a plant. 

Have you had to overcome fears in changing from a city girl to a country girl?  I was ready to move out of the city.  I really didn't have any fears associated with that other than some lingering doubt as to whether I could actually handle what I thought I wanted.  I guess that is a fear. I questioned whether I really wanted the change, or had just talked myself into wanting it.  I love what we are doing, but I have to be honest, I carry a lot of anxiety about it.  Every day we have fields full of animals that are relying on us to keep them fed, safe and alive.  It is a lot of responsibility.  I can not  move through a day on the ranch like I did in my corporate job.  Things aren't resolved by apologies, open dialog, or throwing money at them.  We have to constantly anticipate the reaction to our actions.  We are responsible for these lives and the financial burden that comes with it.  Weather changes, feed prices, drought and illness are mostly out of our control but they have a great impact on our daily lives.  It is a nightmare for a control freak like me. 

An outdoor pizza oven. 

How did you meet your spouse?  Mike and I met on e-harmony, back when it wasn't a popular way to meet a significant other.  Because we lived in different states (a glitch in the system that allowed his profile to come through although I had specified local applicants only), we started out as more of friendly pen-pals.  We communicated for about 6 months before we decided that we should meet.  I had torn my Achilles tendon just a few weeks before our initial meeting and needed to be in a wheelchair. This guy wheeled me around Los Angeles while I showed him the sights in 100-degree weather.  After that, I knew I could safely grow old with him.  Apparently, he felt the same way!  We met late in life and chose not to have children. 

Homegrown lamb chops provide a typical farm supper. 

What are your plans for the future of the ranch?   Right now we milk a few of our goats and make our own yogurt, cheese, ice cream and other goodies.  I am just finishing the business plan for our dairy and creamery.  It is highly regulated in California which makes the process long and expensive.  We also raise a unique pig from Hungary (Mangalitsa) that is prized for its fat-back and mostly used in charcuterie. The pigs are raised on pasture and a special no-corn-no-soy-no-gmo feed. These special hogs are currently marketed toward restaurants and gourmets on the central coast and sold in shares before going to an approved USDA facility for processing. Interested parties are encouraged to contact us to get on the waiting list!  The last of our shorter term goals is to become humanely certified.  We follow the practices, but have not yet formally entered the process.

A new litter of rare, Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs.


Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

1 whole fryer chicken–cut into parts (or 8­-10 of your favorite pieces)
Tabasco sauce
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp dried parsley flakes
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp dried marjoram leaves
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4­ - 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
Peanut oil for cooking

Clean and dry the chicken pieces. Place in a large freezer/storage bag. Give the Tabasco Sauce about 5 or 6 shakes into the bag, then put enough buttermilk in the bag to coat all chicken pieces. Mix it around a bit to insure every piece gets coated with Tabasco and buttermilk. Place in the fridge and let “marinate” for 4 hours or overnight.

Remove chicken from fridge about an hour before cooking to bring to room temperature (if it is a very hot kitchen, use your judgment on this). You do not want to put ice cold chicken into the hot pan, but you also do not want it to sit out for more than 1 hour.

Heat peanut oil in a heavy bottomed pan (U use a cast iron skillet), to about half­way up the sides.

 Meanwhile, prepare the flour. Mix the flour, turmeric, sugar, onion powder, parsley flakes, thyme, marjoram, pepper, salt, cayenne, and garlic powder in a shallow dish. Remove chicken pieces from the buttermilk and immediately drop into the flour mixture. Coat evenly and generously.

Drop into the hot oil and be patient. Do not crowd the pan.  Do it in several batches, if necessary. The chicken will take about 10­ - 13 minutes per side, depending on the size of each piece. Dark meat takes a bit longer, so put it in the oil first. Turn each piece only once and keep the oil below 375 degrees F, but at or above 350 degrees F.  Remove from oil and drain on brown paper or other kitchen paper.

Strawberry Balsamic Shrub 

Strawberry­ Balsamic Shrub

2 cups ripe strawberries­, cleaned, hulled and sliced
1 tsp fennel pollen (optional)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
10 black peppercorn­s, lightly crushed
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
Club soda or sparkling water (to serve)

Place strawberries, sugar, fennel pollen (if using) and peppercorns into a glass crock or wide mouth jar. Allow to sit for about an hour, then macerate to break up the strawberries. Cover and allow to sit 24 hours. (I let mine sit at room temperature, but if you are concerned, it is okay to put in the fridge). After 24 hours macerate the mixture again, aiming to crush the strawberries. You can move onto the next step, or allow to sit another 24 hours at this point.

 Add to the mixture the balsamic vinegar and the cider vinegar and stir well. Allow this to sit 7­9 days at room temperature, stirring daily. The sugar should eventually “melt” into the liquid. It is important that you tend to the mixture daily. After 7­9 days, strain the mixture using a fine mesh strainer (if you don’t mind a few bits in it) or a strainer with cheesecloth (if you do) and bottle for use. For longer shelf life, I recommend storing in the refrigerator.

To Serve: Mix with cold sparkling water at most in equal measure, but at any lesser strength you prefer. I also use this with a mild olive oil, a splash of wine vinegar and a bit of shallot for a delicious dressing.

All photos by Christy Larsen and used with permission. For more information on Vicarious Ranch, click here to view their website.

1 comment:

  1. So inspiring! We are so thrilled (and so lucky) to be able to call you two neighbors!

    Kathleen and Scott