Kitchen Shrink: ‘Sips of Baja’ feast at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in Rancho Santa Fe

KITCHEN SHRINK:

The friendship between SoCal and neighboring Mexico took a luxurious turn late September under the lantern-lit skies of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa's Sunrise Patio in Rancho Santa Fe for its "Valle de Guadalupe" wine dinner. The treasure trove of perky-yet-sophisticated wines from the Valle de Guadalupe, a dozen miles north of Ensenada in Baja California, was paired with lively Mexican-themed dishes, authentically capturing the flavors of the region.

At moments, I felt I had been transported to a Mediterranean port, like Marbella, with balmy breezes and heady perfumes of white laelias, Mexican tarragon and honeysuckle. The ambience was enhanced by an all-black-clad, goateed flamenco guitarist. Meandering through the patio from station to station, I was practically sated as I inhaled the rich aromas of mango-wrapped prawns with tropical nectar, roasted sea scallops with squash blossom crème, along with quail ring pops doused in a guajillo pepper agave glaze, topped off with wonderful wines from the Valley.

Illustrating the era for women's empowerment was the line-up of female vintners, such as Lulu Martinez, the admired winemaker from Bodegas Henri Lurton, the first French-Mexican vineyard with a five-generation lineage; Tru Miller, one of the female pioneers in the industry as owner of Adobe Guadalupe Vineyard; Claudia Rocha, promoter of her family's boutique winery and vineyard Viñas de la Erre; and Monica Magoni, who plays an active role in marketing 112 varieties of wines produced by her 50-year-old, family-owned estate winery that bears her name.

Back to the reception, with a twinkle in her eyes, Martinez recommended the Cabernet Sauvignon, grande reserve, which was this winemaker's favorite, "made from organically grown grapes, pressed without oxygen to preserve the purity of the robe, then fermented in oak vessels with a technique that expresses the terroir, and maintains the wood's complexity without hiding the fruit."

According to Miller, "the secret to a great wine is the land — the climate and the skill of the agronomer (plant caretaker)." Her Chilean winemaker uses French-oak barrels for fermenting red wines, and stainless steel tanks for whites, like her prized Jardin Romantico Chardonnay, dry with a refreshing acidity, and tropical fruit aromas, including pineapple and guava.

Rocha promotes an array of award-winning wines, including red varietals, reserved labels and rosés. Magoni especially takes pride in her father and winemaker, Camillo Magoni, who has launched an experimental vineyard where he studies the development of each variety, and observes which one adapts best to climate change, and severe weather patterns.

Dan Chapman, Rancho Valencia's sommelier, remarked about the wine pairing ethos that so aptly applied to the elegant event — "what grows together, goes together. So regional Mexican wines match up well with regional Mexican-inspired dishes."

San Diego has become one of the greatest consumers of foods and wines grown in Mexico, particularly organic ones.

Chef Jarrod Moiles, executive chef at the resort, sought inspiration for the wine pairing dinner from the bold Baja influence, trying to broaden his culinary horizons with wines coming out of the Guadalupe Valley that give a different flavor profile from those coming out of Napa Valley.

Exciting food products that are abundant and readily available from our southern neighbors, like purple corn masa for tortillas, tamarind paste as a marinade for sweet and savory dishes, edible flowers like orchids and radish blossoms for a pop of eye candy, along with the concept of big acidity, bright flavors, and old rustic open-fire cooking were also sources of inspiration for Chef Moiles.

Then came the pieza de Resistencia: a family-style feast of zesty dishes served royally as we were seated at beautifully appointed tables adorned with palm fronds and brilliantly colored flowers.

For starters, a crunchy jicama slaw, pickled radishes and sliced avocados with homemade corn tortillas and trio of house salsas. One of my tablemates with a delicate palate overdosed on the ancho chile salsa, fanning her mouth to put out the fire.

Still smiling through her tears, this world traveler familiar with Mexican cuisine was impressed with the authenticity of the dishes, and wonderful fresh flavors.

An endless array of humongous platters kept coming from the kitchen, including a classic Caesar salad, roasted tri-colored cauliflower florets with pepitas and golden raisins, charred shishito peppers, and chunky yucca fries with guajillo aioli dipping sauce as accompaniments to the main dishes.

These would satisfy the most discriminating carnivore or pescavore — from roasted leg of lamb studded with garlic and chipotle rub, and braised pork shoulder with chilis and charred onions to a whole herb-encrusted citrus salmon.

For dessert, the sweet-tooths among us indulged in chile mango helado (ice cream), melt-in-your mouth chocoflan, and chewy Buñuelos (fried dough balls filled with pecans and dusted with cinnamon sugar).

Chef Moiles hopes to make Sips of Baja an annual event with a vision of inviting fellow chefs who share his creative passion, and expanding the fiesta to the croquet grounds. ¡Salud, pesetas y amor y tiempo para gozarlos! — "Health, money, love and time to enjoy them!"

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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