Chef Tony Najiola of Central Market | Marin and Sonoma County Food Photographer

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

Last week, I had the pleasure of photographing the January event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. This month’s event was a farm to table dinner, hosted by Laurie Figone and featuring Chef Tony Najiola of Central Market in Petaluma, California. Central Market was opened in 2003, and focuses on the bounty of the region, including that of the restaurant’s own organic farm, Muleheart Farm, where everything from pigs to turkeys and vegetables are raised and grown. Even our dinner began with a selection of salami, olives and cheese, which Chef Najiola shared were from his own “babies,” whom he loved “every step of the way.” Talk about true farm to table!

Chef Tony Najiola and Lauie Figone

Chef Najiola was born and raised in New Orleans, the great grandson of a Sicilian vegetable farmer and began his career working at a restaurant at the age of 17. At 21, he moved to Manhattan, and by 27 he had his first executive chef job at the restaurant, Village Green. In 1991, he became Chef at Brasserie Savoie and then Executive Chef at Ernie’s in San Francisco. He was also Winery Chef at Ravenswood in Sonoma County. In April 2003, he opened his own restaurant in downtown Petaluma, named Central Market, a farm-to-table restaurant focusing on rustic California-Mediterranean cuisine, where almost everything is made in house, from scratch, daily. 

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

Chef Najiola shared that the food at his restaurant is “food you’d make yourself” and “good, honest cooking.” He never cooks at home and doesn’t even have a refrigerator or stove in his kitchen. He had the audience captivated with his wonderful stories, authenticity and great sense of humor, sharing that he’s from New Orleans, where they could care less what the rest of the world eats. Regular customers of his restaurant claim that he comes out of the kitchen most evenings to say hello to each of his guests. 

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

Dinner for the evening began with a delicious Winter Citrus Salad with Fennel, Red Onion and Feta Cheese. I do love a good salad, so this was my favorite dish of the night! Chef Najiola taught that feta often gets a bad rap for being too salty, but that soaking it in water for about 20 minutes will desalinate it and leave it soft and creamy. This method had a such a great effect on the salad — not salty at all and very creamy — a great tip!

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

The main course of the evening was Chicken Bomba - a giant meatball stuffed with Bellwether Farms Ricotta Cheese and served with crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, thyme, oregano, and olive oil (which Chef Najiola called his “second favorite beverage”). The chicken bomba on his menu came about after a desire from customers to have chicken breasts. Chef Najiola quipped about how at a restaurant, one has to serve chicken breasts. “Why go to a restaurant to eat chicken breasts? But people do, which means we’re left with all these legs.” So, they decided to make meatballs with the leg meat. Ironically, the dish became so popular that now they’re stuck with all these extra chicken breasts!

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

Chef Najiola mixes the ingredients for the meatballs and then forms them by hand. He uses his thumb to make a hole in each one.

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

He makes a hefty 6-ounce size meatball and livens the dish up with a variety of herbs — mint being one of his favorites to brighten up dishes. He recommends not to chop the herbs too finely, but rather to tear them for better flavor, especially basil, which turns black when it is chopped.

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

The ricotta cheese filling is then placed in a parchment paper cornet (or pastry bag) and piped into each meatball.

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

The chicken was served with a mouthwatering side of Basil Mashed Potatoes, Stewed Sweet Peppers and Sugar Snap Peas. The whipped potatoes were delicious with the basil — I’ll definitely be making these at home!

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

Central Market Petaluma

Dinner was topped off with a Baked Fuji Apple Cranberry Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream, which Chef Najiola describes as a simple, rustic dessert. 

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

The crumb topping is made by mixing butter, flour, sugar, cinnamon and cloves with your hands until you have pea-sized pieces of butter and the mixture looks like wet sand.

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

He includes butter in the filling, adding, “Why limit butter to crust?” The filling is packed down well, so that none of the crumb crust ends up in the bottom of the ramekins. 

Neely Wang Marin County Food Photographer

The students of the culinary school presented this crisp in a unique way by turning the crumb topping into a crispy, buttery cookie — a fun presentation and really tasty!

Neely Wang Sonoma County Food Photographer

Stop by next month for February’s chef event with Nutritionist and Chef Cheryl Forberg of NBC’s Biggest Loser, who will be sharing recipes from her book, Flavor First. In the meantime, enjoy this delicious recipe for Chef Tony Najiola’s Winter Citrus Salad!

Winter Citrus Salad with Shaved Fennel, Red Onion and Feta Cheese

Makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients:

For the salad:

3 lbs. navel, cara cara or blood oranges, peeled with pith removed
1 cup shaved fennel, sliced finely with mandolin
2 cups wild arugula
1/2 cup shaved red onion, sliced finely with mandolin
1/2 lb. french feta cheese, soaked in water for 20 minutes to desalinate

For the vinaigrette:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons chopped oregano
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons chopped mint
salt and pepper

Directions:
1. Slice oranges 1/2-inch thick, and arrange on a large platter with overlapping slices.
2. Dress oranges with vinaigrette, and allow to marinate for 30 minutes.
3. Top with red onions, and season all with salt and pepper.
4. Toss arugula and fennel with small amount of vinaigrette, season with salt.
5. Scatter arugula mixture over oranges.
6. Top with crumbled feta cheese.

Macro Monday | Winter Dew

Neely Wang Macro Photography

Neely Wang Macro Photography

Neely Wang Nature Photography

Neely Wang Macro Photography

Neely Wang Macro Photography

Neely Wang Macro Photography

Neely Wang Macro Photography

Neely Wang Macro Photography

“Precious moments are like a drop of dew, cherish them before they disappear with the morning sun.” – unknown

This morning was unusually foggy, and I often like to spend these foggy mornings outside shooting the trees covered in the heaviness of the fog. However, today I decided to see what remnants the misty fog and dew had left on their tiny petals, leaves and branches instead. I was not disappointed!

Have a wonderful holiday, and see you in 2015!

Chef John Ash and Chef Mei Ibach | Marin Sonoma County Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Last week, I had the pleasure of photographing the December event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. This month’s event was a delicious East Meets West Cooking Event, featuring two chefs, Chef John Ash of acclaimed Santa Rosa restaurant, John Ash & Co., and Chef Mei Ibach, instructor at Fresh Starts Culinary Academy.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef John Ash is considered by many to be the founder of the farm to table culinary movement in the United States and the “Father of the Wine Country Movement”. He was named the culinary instructor of the year in 2008 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and is also a 2014 James Beard Foundation winner for his 2013 cookbook, “Culinary Birds: The Ultimate Poultry Cookbook” for best cookbook in a single subject. Chef Ash’s restaurant was the first restaurant in Northern California wine country to “focus on local, seasonal ingredients used to create dishes that complemented the wines being made in the region.” Chef Ash has co-hosted a radio show for more than 27 years on KSRO (1350 AM) and has also hosted two TV shows on the Food Network. He is an adjunct instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley and currently travels worldwide teaching a variety of cooking classes.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Mei Ibach was born and raised in a Malaysian fishing village near Singapore and currently teaches at a variety of culinary schools throughout Sonoma County and the North Bay. She is of Chinese descent and her recipes include the exotic spices and flavors of China, East India and Malay-Indonesia and the cooking of the sub-culture known as “Nnoya – Food of Love,” which developed out of the marriage of Chinese men to Malay women.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Guests were greeted at their tables with a delicious Flatbread/Roti (similar to a Chinese green onion pancake without the green onions) served with a creamy Curry Dipping Sauce made of lentil, okra, tomato, curry powder, and coconut milk.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ibach shared her recipe for Malaysian Prawn Satay with Peanut Sauce paired with Asian Cole Slaw with Apple, Jicama and Cabbage. She began by brining her shrimp with a mixture of lemongrass, salt and brown sugar, so that the shrimp would stay succulent during the cooking process. Chef Ibach added that lemongrass is highly favored in Malaysia for its medicinal properties, and the oil is often used on insect bites.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Here she is spreading the brine mixture on the shrimp skewers.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

The dressing for the slaw was made with plum sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, jalapeno peppers and sesame seeds.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ibach revealed that the special ingredient found in many peanut sauces is condensed milk. I love a good peanut sauce — this one was made from thai red chili paste, paprika, fresh ground peanuts, chicken broth, palm sugar and lime juice. You can read about the time I practically licked a bowl of peanut sauce clean at a restaurant to the dismay of my husband.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ash made a tasty Vietnamese Chicken and Shrimp Meatball Soup.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ash noted that for the best flavor, lime juice is added both to the cooking soup pot as well as after it is plated. This reminded me of a Vietnamese bowl of pho without the “mystery meat meatballs” often found at a lot of Vietnamese restaurants. I loved how these meatballs were fresh and flavorful and actually tasted like chicken and shrimp!

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

I was already getting full by this time, but I had to save room for the main course, Braised Short Ribs with Soft Polenta. This dish was soooo good! Short Ribs have always been a favorite of mine (I will almost always order them when I see them on a restaurant menu, along with duck breast or scallops), and these were melt-in-your-mouth! What better side dish to go with short ribs than polenta mixed with blue cheese? And not just any blue cheese – Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese (of which I’ve bought a huge chunk of from Costco in the past for no reason but just to have it). My husband got me on blue cheese, and now I love it with everything!

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ash instructed that it’s important to brown the short ribs first and then pour the hot liquid over the ribs.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ash and Chef Ibach made a great teaching partnership and have been friends for many years. They both emphasized the “Four Flavor Gods”salt (from fish sauce), sour (lime juice, tamarind or rice vinegar), sweet (sugar) and heat (chili peppers or chili garlic sauce).

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Each table shared a plate of Chinese Broccoli (Kai Lan) with Oyster Sauce in the traditional Asian family-style way of eating.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

This huge pot is filled with chopped garlic and oil — the smell in the kitchen was heavenly!

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Chef Ibach shared that the chinese broccoli is blanched first with salt to keep the color of the greens. Then corn syrup is added to make the greens shiny.

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

The dessert of the evening was a Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Blueberries which Chef Ash joked was basically white jello. The goat cheese imparted such an interesting flavor making the dish so creamy and decadent!

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Look at all these blueberries! They remind me of a scene from an old I Love Lucy show where she is stomping on grapes (although these are blueberries, but same difference ;).

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Neely Wang Marin Sonoma Food Photographer

Come back next month for Farm to Table with Chef Tony Najiola of Central Market in Petaluma, California. He’s making winter citrus salad, chicken bomba, basil mashed potatoes and baked apple-cranberry crisp — yum!

I loved all the dishes so much at this event, it was hard for me to pick just one recipe to share! But as it’s been chilly lately, and as I recently purchased an Instant Pot (“What is that?” you may be asking), I would love to try cooking the short ribs in it with some modifications. Enjoy the recipe!

Braised Short Ribs with Soft Polenta
Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:
For the short ribs:
3 pounds boneless short ribs, trimmed of fat
Salt and pepper
4 Tb. olive oil
6 large cloves garlic, peeled
2 cups diced white onions
1 cup diced carrot
1 cup diced celery
2 cups chopped mushrooms
2 cups canned diced tomatoes
1 bottle dry red wine
3 cups rich beef, chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tb. each chopped fresh rosemary and thyme (2 teaspoons dried)
2 tsp. fennel seed
1 Tb. cornstarch softened in 1/3 cup wine or water

For the polenta:
4 cups chicken stock or water
1 cup yellow polenta
2 Tb. butter
1/2 cup Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese
Salt and pepper

Directions:
For the short ribs:

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Season short ribs generously with salt and pepper.
2. Heat 3 Tb. oil in deep, heavy bottomed pot to hold short ribs in one layer. Brown ribs on all sides over medium-high heat.
3. Remove short ribs from pot and set aside. Discard all but 2 Tb. fat from pot.
4. Add garlic, onions, carrot, celery and mushrooms to pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and lightly browned.
5. Add tomatoes, wine and stock. Bring to boil. Add short ribs, herbs and fennel seed. Cover with lid or foil and braise in oven for 2 1/2 hours or until very tender.
6. Transfer ribs to platter. Strain cooking juices through fine strainer, discarding solids. Remove and discard as much fat as possible.
7. Return strained juices to pot. Over high heat, reduce until lightly thickened and concentrated, about 10-15 minutes. Thicken, as desired, by whisking in cornstarch mixture. Add short ribs back and reheat.

For the polenta:
1. Bring stock to a boil in deep saucepan. Gradually whisk in polenta and reduce heat to medium.
2. Cook while stirring regularly until polenta is thick and pulling away form sides of pan, about 15 minutes.
3. Cover and keep warm until ready to serve. If it gets too thick, stir in a bit more stock or water.
4. Just before serving, stir in butter and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.