Monday, March 22, 2010

Reconnaissance Tour

Have you ever had one of those weekends away in which everything seems to click perfectly into place? It’s as if the stars align and the universe conspires, filling every moment with an unusual amount of very good karma. Weekends such as these are what personal legends are made of, providing stories that will be remembered and retold for years to come. I’ve been blessed with several such holidays over the past few years, some resulting in stories that sound like the far-fetched imaginings of a chick-lit author; so good, the most gullible would be skeptical. This past weekend was another one for the books, but I have no qualms in saying, it was better than any other. It was perfect; but not in the way you might expect. It wasn’t idyllic, although many moments were. It was momentous, and it was personal, and it was real. It had all the characteristics I value most in my life, and I really mean ALL.

The plan was for my roommate Ang and I to head up north Thursday night via the 101, to stay with a dear friend in Ventura and continue up the coast the next morning. On Friday afternoon, we were to meet my sister Kathy, her husband Rob and their friends Cleve and Gloria, in Paso Robles. But the three weeks prior to our little getaway had kicked our asses, both of us sick without respite, both of us utterly exhausted from our emotionally draining jobs inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. So from the get-go we had to adjust, and we were a phone call away from backing out of the trip altogether. Instead, we canceled our first rendezvous in Ventura, leaving a morning later than planned. That choice was dripping in disappointment for me, as I’d been longing to see my friend, but I knew in my gut that if I ignored what my body was telling me, the weekend would be over before it began. After a good night’s sleep, we were raring to go, ready for the jaunt up Interstate 5.

Road trips are my favorite way to travel, as I love to connect home to destination. I’m mesmerized by the patterns of changing terrain, and am grounded by observing the realities that exist outside my protective little world. The trip between LA and Paso Robles offered it all: breathtaking beauty, and depressing reality. Whether the LA Aqueduct, giant beef lots, agri-business farms, or oil fields that look like something out of Mad Max, each reminded me of the daunting issues of our time. But at the same time, there was blue sky and there were hills covered in wildflowers; there were snow-capped mountains, and orchards in full bloom. At every stop there were kind people, and along the way I was with Angelina. Ang and I travel well together, and our car trips are always epic, with just the right balance of fun and depth. We talk and laugh hard, we listen to great music, read aloud, or quietly watch the road. And of course, we snack. For this trip I packed homemade rosemary cashews, farmer’s market tangerines, and a chard and goat cheese tart that just might make you swoon. It's that good.

As we neared our destination, the conversation changed, and I began to get butterflies in my belly. Paso Robles, and its environs, has been calling me for a while now. Oh, I’ve been there countless times…in fact, it’s a place I’ve spent key moments of my life, with the significant people of my past. It has always drawn me close, and felt greater than the sum of its parts, and in my gut I’ve suspected it would someday offer more than a simple weekend away. But I’m getting ahead of my story, because the reasons I feel called to Paso is a tale for another time. Suffice it to say, that lingering in the background of this trip was much hope and expectation, and I was looking for signs in and around the events of the weekend.

Our little travel group was eclectic, and hilarious. We range in age from late twenties to somewhere around fifty, and our political and philosophical beliefs are probably as expansive. With some, such differences can get in the way of connection, but with this group it simply felt like it enhanced the dynamics. Belly laughter was abundant, as was engaging, thoughtful conversation. We drank more good wine than I thought was humanly possible; we ate heavenly food at surprisingly great restaurants, met the loveliest people, and soaked up the general good energy that Paso has to offer.

After seven hours straight of luxurious wine tasting on Saturday, I thought I might puke if I looked at another glass of red. With dinner reservations set for 7:30, Ang and I thought a nap was in order, and I prayed a second wind would greet us on the other end. Not surprisingly, we passed out hard, and didn’t stir until a knock on the door signaled it was time to leave. It is not an understatement to say I felt disgusting at this point, but there was no time for showers and primping, or careful outfit planning. We threw something on and ran out the door. The restaurant was lovely, and although the thought of wine and rich pastas made me queasy, I was a trooper and survived yet another delicious meal. After dinner we debated about whether to check out one of the bars our limo driver had recommended. Honestly, I think I can speak for Angelina and say we were both longing to climb back into bed and pass out cold. But we always say we need to go out when an opportunity presents itself…I throw so many bloody dinner parties, we never meet anyone outside our established circle of friends, which is apparently not a good dating strategy. So feeling anything but Saturday-night-sexy, we dragged our hung-over selves to Level 4, we sat at the bar and ordered a vodka gimlet.

I was sure this wouldn’t last more than an hour. We sat there talking about our day, laughing over the adventures we’d had, while observing the locals doing their Saturday night thing. The gimlet went down pretty easily considering, but I was about ready to crawl back to the hotel when Ang’s voice got strangely serious and she told me not to turn around; for a certain handsome gentleman was standing right behind me. He and I had chatted earlier in the day at a winery, and frankly, I’d been a bit smitten. The second wind I’d been waiting for suddenly arrived, and at the same moment a drastic change in music occurred. The first notes of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean came on, Ang and I exchanged a glance, and nearly sprung to the empty dance floor. For thirty minutes or more we danced our hearts out to a steady stream of 80’s tunes, and at the same time I kept my eye on the lovely man across the room. It wasn’t until I was resting on a couch, that he came and sat beside me. We flirted and talked, and before I knew it we were on the dance floor busting a serious move: tall, dark and handsome...and he dances. Ten points - sexy stranger.

After the first bar the gentleman took us on a tour of Paso night life that included a cowboy bar with live music, more dancing, two satisfying games of billiards, a Scottish bar, several pints of beer, and a bar that was closed, but supplied us with shots of tequila anyway. I should’ve been falling down drunk, yet somehow I was fine. The three of us crossed the street to our hotel, dropped off Angelina, and he and I took a walk to procure a nice bottle of Justin Cabernet. It was a beautiful night and the sky was ablaze with stars. While walking through a park we were simultaneously inspired to jump on the swings and pump our way to great heights. There was a magic to the night, which had now turned to morning, and we meandered our way through several more hours of great conversation and mindful intimacy. It wasn’t until 8:30 Sunday morning that the man with smiling eyes and kind hands parted my company, leaving me to begin the day content, but exhausted.

Our final day was a delirious whirlwind of activity. We all hit one more winery, shared a lovely lunch and managed to stay awake for the ride back home. Our last experience wine tasting was something special, and it brought me right back to my core, and the reason I’d taken this trip in the first place. This was a reconnaissance tour, and I was looking to the universe for direction. I can’t say the weekend brought a moment of epiphany, or that the answers I was seeking were handed to me on a silver platter. Clarity rarely shows up in the form of a step-by-step To-Do List, or a treasure map leading to the destination of our dreams. But shining light onto one new insight can lead to a hundred more, and one step taken with confidence can fashion a whole new path.

There was a special energy propelling us through our weekend in Paso Robles, to be sure. Yet, what strikes me most is the way events seemed to reflect a poetic integration of so many disparate parts of myself. Integrity is my highest ideal, something I strive for in every moment, and so the hint of it here seems a positive sign. I don’t know exactly what is waiting around the next bend, but I don’t think I need to; I feel confident I’m headed in the right direction, and one step at a time, I’ll get there. But, as one Paso local wisely stated, “Sometimes you’ve just gotta grab your balls and jump.” Next task: discern which cliff is mine for the taking, and leap for my life.

From Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin

1 frozen sheet all-butter puff pastry (8x12 inches)
2 egg yolks
1 large bunch Swiss chard, cleaned, center ribs removed
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup sliced shallots
1 tsp. thyme leaves
½ cup whole milk ricotta, drained if wet
¼ cup crème fraiche
6 oz. semi-aged goat cheese (I used a mixture of Bucheron and Chevre)
Currant-pine nut relish (recipe below)
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Make the Currant-Pine Nut Relish (recipe below), set aside, and then turn the oven up to 400 degrees.

Defrost the puff pastry slightly and unroll it on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use a paring knife to score a ¼ inch border around the edge of the pastry. Make an egg wash by whisking one egg yolk with ½ teaspoon water, and brush the egg wash along the border. (You won’t need all the egg wash.) Chill the puff pastry in the freezer until ready to use.

Tear the chard into large pieces. Heat a large sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil, the shallots, and the thyme. Saute a few minutes, and add half the Swiss chard. Cook a minute or two, tossing the greens in the oil to help them wilt. Add the second half of the greens, and season with a heaping teaspoon of salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook a few more minutes, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender.

Spread the greens on a baking sheet to cool. (Or refrigerate to cool more quickly.) When they’ve cooled squeeze the excess water out with your hands.

Place the ricotta, remaining egg yolk, and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. (Vigorously whisking is probably fine.) Puree until smooth, and remove to a mixing bowl. Gently fold in the crème fraiche, and season with a healthy pinch of salt and pepper.

Spread the ricotta mixture on the puff pastry within the scored border. Crumble half the goat cheese over the ricotta, arrange the chard on top, and sprinkle the remaining goat cheese over the tart. If you aren’t ready to bake, cover the tart with plastic and chill.

Bake the tart for 20-25 minutes, rotating the baking sheet halfway through, until the cheese is bubbling and the crust is golden brown. Check underneath the tart to make sure the crust is really cooked through (if you under-bake the tart, it will be soggy).

Cool a few minutes, and then transfer the tart to a cutting board. Spoon some of the currant-pine nut relish over the tart and serve it on the cutting board at the table. Pass the remaining relish in a small bowl for anyone who would like a little more.


½ cup pine nuts
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ sprig rosemary
1 chile de arbol
¾ cup finely diced red onion
1/3 cup dried currants
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
kosher salt and fresh black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toast the pine nuts for about 8 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they’re golden brown and smell nutty.

Heat a small sauté pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium, and add the olive oil, rosemary, and chile. When the rosemary and chile start to sizzle, add the onion and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Turn the heat down to low, and let the onions stew gently for about 10 minutes, until tender. Transfer to a small bowl to cool and discard the rosemary sprig and chile.

While the onion is cooking, place the currants in a small bowl and cover with hot water. Let the currants soak for 10 minutes, and then drain well.

Add the balsamic vinegar to the pan the onions were in, and reduce it over medium-high heat to a scant 1 tablespoon. Stir the reduced vinegar into the onion mixture. Add the toasted pine nuts, currants, and parsley to the onion mixture, and stir to combine. Taste for balance and seasoning.


  1. Jennifer you said a lot about our weedend but you neglected to tell us HAVE YOU BEEN IN CONTACT WITH YOUR PASO GUY SINCE YOU HAVE BEEN HOME???

    See you Saturday

    Your sister --- Kathryn (to you)

  2. Lol...I don't post ALL my secrets on the internet! ;)

  3. The opening paragraph is beautifully written. I love the pic of Angelina and the wine glass...very artistic. Paso Robles looks gorgeous and sounds relaxed and fun. Once again, I enjoyed reading your blog. The ending was great too...just be careful not to grab your balls to hard...LOL I love that he told you that. There has got to be a girl version though. Hmmm?? Any ideas??

    This is going to sound like a dumb question...the CURRANT-PINE NUT RELISH looks fantastic, but are you supposed to eat it alone or on crackers or...? I'm a bit embarrassed that I can be so clueless when it comes to food. :(

  4. No, glad you asked...the relish goes ON the tart! :) A little spoonfull in the center of each piece is delish! Actually, it would probably be great on crackers with a strong cheese...hey, good idea!