During my senior year of college, there was an Alternative Spring Break program focused on eating like a locavore in Durham, NC. My interest in food was piquing then, and it wasn't exactly practical to fly across the country to be home for just a week); I signed up. I was curious what it meant to eat local. That week, we were exposed to so many farmers on their actual farms, invited to eat on the land or at a restaurant serving their food, and cooked meals only from farmers' market ingredients. It was fascinating and an eye-opening experience. Unfortunately that seemed more attainable out in North Carolina than back here in Orange County. However, I got a unique step back into that world the other day when I was invited to the Edwards Ranch Estates' Farm-to-Table Sunday Supper and what a treat that was! Duc and I reveled in it all.
The Edwards Ranch Estates is the farm property of Andrew Edwards, the owner of the popular The Ranch Restaurant and Saloon in Anaheim. We were graced by the presence of Master Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Michael Jordan (also Vice President of Beverages at The Ranch) and Executive Chef Michael Rossi that beautiful afternoon who led us through the culinary experience with such passion and joy. The grounds were well-tended and sported more than a handful of produce. From seed to ground, their farm goods are nurtured to produce viable yields and some of the most gorgeous fruits and vegetables I've seen. Michael also prided himself in choosing more exotic varieties of common greens so we definitely saw some produce we haven't ever seen or heard of before. Of course, to put them to the test, we had to eat them up.
What we didn't expect when we arrived at the farm was their tomato obsession. The property was home to nearly 100 varietals, each of which Michael could easily identify from memory. Each type possessed its own unique personality - some tart, some sweet, some just plain spunky. I found the deep purple globes some of the most beautiful tomatoes I've ever seen (with a lovely taste to boot!). What also drew us all in was the fervor that Michael drew up upon himself in talking about his bountiful beauties out on the grounds. If this is how he gets about them in the soil, what wonders would turn out on our plates?
Once we finally were able to contain ourselves to our seats (the excitement of an expansive garden had Duc bobbing and weaving between rows to look at everything), our tabletop was graced with an enormous and impressive board of their Housemade Charcuterie (pickled farm vegetables, grain mustard, country toast, duck andouille, country ham cooked by applewood, vegetable terrine, chicken truffle mousse, rabbit rillettes, and duck pastrami). What would you do if this exquisite spread was laid in front of you? We barely held off from overstuffing ourselves because of the 14 courses left to come. The vegetables crunched delicately, the toast and bread from O.C. Baking Company cracked musically with each bite, and each piece of meat made us swoon. To cleanse the palate just a little, out came the sweet Grilled Peaches (La Quercia speck, di Stefano burrata, wild arugula, and lemon verbena honey), oozing natural fruity syrup and topped with creamy, smooth burrata. We would have easily been satisfied with just these first offerings.
Recall that story I started this post with about missing North Carolina? Well, I never mentioned just how much I also missed real Southern sweet tea. To my surprise, it was at Edwards Ranch Estates. Who would have believed that? The drink where you put tea in your sugar instead of vice versa was beckoning my sip, and after exposing Duc to it too, he was hooked. It was a good starter but once the masterfully-picked pairings were poured as chosen by Michael Jordan himself, we had to wave off the cloying goblet and pick up the elegant stemware. Unique wines were picked for the evening including a rare treat of a Harlan Estate wine. Nary a drop was wasted.
Next out was a shallow small bowl of their Chilled Cucumber Soup (serpent cucumber, hot smoked Skuna Bay salmon that had been cured & brined 24 hours before being smoked on Cedar, and buttermilk in vichyssoise fashion). The soup was gentle and nearly as delicate as the edible flower petals adoring its surface. It was hard to believe such a rich but light flavor could have been extracted from cucumber but the buttermilk brought out its distinct flavor. The salmon bent unto our spoons' will easily and flaked off in gorgeous red-orange pieces. Hardly had our utensils hit the edge of the bowls before two heaping salads were brought out - the Heirloom Tomatoes (sea salt and Napa Valley olive oil) and Farm Beets (Lola Rosa, watercress, Red Flame grapes, Marcona almonds, Manchego cheese, and farm Valencia oranges). Bursting with flavor, each of these were carried forth by the ingredients themselves. Who needs dressing when you have nature's juices? My preferred of the two was the latter which satisfied so many of the textures you want in a bite.
The savory starters were the next to line our stomachs. A plate of Tempura Squash Blossom filled with Muscovy Duck Confit sat atop fresh garbanzo beans, zucchini, eggplant, and spring onions to give us a taste of 'crunchy' stuffed with 'soft and juicy.' One of my absolute favorites for the entire supper was their Country Fried Petaluma Quail (fingerling potatoes, homemade agave mustard, and warm BBQ bacon dressing), a menu item they swear will never leave their repertoire due to its popularity. I can understand why. Not only is it a surprise to see quail flattened and country-fried but the complexity of flavors playing together in a nostalgic way teeters the diner between memories of childhood (fried chicken strips anyone?) and preferences of gourmet-loving adulthood. If you are going to visit the restaurant, this dish is an absolute must. The same goes for our next taste: Asparagus Cavatelli (homemade extruded pasta, grilled homemade pork sausage, Calabrian chile, yellow squash, ricotta salata, and ham hock broth made by steeping Parmesan rinds). Fresh pasta gets me just about every time but when you infuse it with asparagus and couple it with a spicy sausage, you have a masterpiece in your hands. Slip them gently into a bath of the most savory broth, and you have a table of 30 people sold. I encourage everyone to try this morsel out as well.
Despite all of those aforementioned dishes, we were barely through the menu for the evening. Luckily our cleanser came out then in the form of a dainty glass of Compressed Farm Melons (cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon in Valencia orange juice). It was as bright in taste as the colors floating in the citrus; the melons had been compressed to sustain their vibrant colors and compact their flavors. Once that was quickly taken care of, we were plated with one of their most popular dishes (and the winning taste for last year's Riviera Magazine's "To Live & Dine" event): Certified Sustainable Chilean Sea Bass (Maine lobster risotto, farm English peas, farm spinach, and Meyer lemon and vanilla in the sauce). They warned us not to finish the plate because of more food coming but how do you deny such a beautiful fish? Each bite melted in the mouth and was good enough in itself without the joy of the creamy risotto. The barest hint of salt graced the sides of the fish and gave us all a kiss of seasoning before giving way to the fish's natural flavors. Our stomachs were understandably full but we polished the plate off without regret.
Then came a hunky stud on a cart. A rack of uncooked and intact Cowboy Ribeye (served with horseradish cream, bordelaise, and oregano chimichurri) rolled out causing jaws to drop and cameras/phones to be whipped out. Chef Michael beamed as we snapped shots of what he claimed would only produce seven steaks, each of which would contain approximately 36 oz of meat, 8 oz of fat, and 8-10 oz of bone. Sliced and seasoned with their own master blend of spices, the enormous steaks were cooked right outside in plain view. We inhaled the scent of sizzling steak and eagerly awaited our turn to slice into them. It was well-seasoned and juicy, perfect with any sauce of choice. We even took home the large bone to my dog Rusty for his chewing pleasure (under supervision so as not to splinter anything in his mouth). This was served alongside The Farm Panzanella (jalapeno cornbread, Picholine olives, heirloom tomatoes, yellow corn, and purple basil) and Peas N' Carrots (snow peas, sugar snap peas, lincoln peas, purple dragon carrots, and sweet treat carrots). The panzanella was dressed well and the peas n' carrots snappy. We were nearly bursting so only managed one bite per type.
It was a form of unusual punishment, the amount of food they were feeding us. Were they making foie gras of us? I jest but it was truly an honor to receive so many wonderful dishes from such a hospitable staff and hosts. We ended, finally, with dessert: Black Mission Figs (California almond cake, Drake Family Farms goat cheese, and figs) and Hand-Crafted Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches (caramel popcorn, mint 'n chip, and strawberry swirl). The almond cake was moist and airy, a welcome guest in the glass with sweet figs. The ice cream sandwiches were each lovely on their own but we preferred the mint 'n chip the most though the caramel popcorn was unique and delicious. Both desserts left us feeling a little cleansed (though certainly not any lighter). Each guest also came away with homemade zucchini bread and tomato jam - yum.
Our sincerest thank yous go out to our wonderful hosts (Andrew Edwards, Michael Jordan, and Michael Rossi), the mindful staff, our good company at the table, and Melissa for having us both. It is a supper I will never forget and one to look forward to if done again next year. It's refreshing to experience a full farm-to-table meal but also a strong reminder that one really needs to think about food sources when eating. Hopefully we'll be more locavore-oriented after all of this.
Photography by Duc Duong who had a hard time not eating before photographing. More photos on Facebook here.