Cooking with Lea

Chicken Baked in Sourdough Bread

Chicken Bread Crust

Chicken Baked in Sourdough Bread

After so many years as a culinary professional, I’ve had to rethink much of what had been automatic, almost autonomic, in cooking. Now, in my forno, there’s a live fire set ablaze with well-seasoned oak, black walnut, grape vines and big bunches of last year’s lavender, sage and rosemary. Il forno demands attention.

I’ve made the mistake of walking away and getting involved in some other task—a phone call, an email, a little prep in the kitchen. Then there’s the mad dash back outside. Has the fire burned too low? Did I forget to check the chicken? Does the paella need more stock?

This is Zen cooking—mindfulness, paying attention to the details, allowing the meal to take all the time it needs to achieve the best outcomes. “You can’t hurry love, no, you just have to wait,” as Diana Ross sang. And since, as we all know, cooking is love manifest, “you got to trust, give it time, no matter how long it takes.”

I am fully aware that this may sound silly to the uninitiated, but once I let go of old habits from gas and electric cooking (like
I must control everything and the food must perform as I demand), the wood-burning oven became more of a partner in the cooking process (“It’s a game of give and take”.) This is a group effort for me, the oven and the food. We’re bound together in our delicious dance. I bend a little more in terms of time and temp (it’s too hot or not hot enough; it’s taking too long or it’s cooking too fast). The food dictates its own needs based on size, age, ripeness. I worry less that the food comes out at a specific time or that it’s as flawless as a Michelin-starred meal. I’m more relaxed. My guests are more relaxed. A calm cook makes better food. There’s more time for conversation—the best part of any meal.

Last weekend, I took my time. I fed my sourdough starter on Thursday after I salted and refrigerated a roasting chicken. Friday I made a high-hydration sourdough bread dough in the morning. After doing several stretch-and-folds and waiting 3 or 4 hours, I patted down the dough and then rolled it out until I had a big rectangle. While this rested for another 20 minutes, I chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic very finely and grabbed some fresh herbs—sage and rosemary—from the garden. I carefully tucked the parsley mixture under the skin of the chicken. I put the other herbs into the cavity. Then I gently placed the chicken on the bread dough and wrapped it like a present. Back into the refrigerator it went until Saturday when I took it out and let it come to room temperature. It was only then that I put it into my 500-degree (more or less) wood-burning oven. It was a big chicken so it took nearly two hours to cook. I kept it loosely covered with foil so I didn’t have to worry about the bread getting scorched. I roasted some Brussels sprouts and red peppers during the last half hour and baked another loaf of sourdough bread.

Oh, it was worth three days of fiddling. It was the most moist, most flavorful chicken I’ve ever eaten. And the bread around it had absorbed all that herbaceous chicken juice.
Chicken baked in a sourdough bread crust is now part of the ever-expanding repertoire of “I can’t believe that a wood fire can make such a difference!”

No Rain


Last year around this time I was writing about rain, rain and the insidious damp. This year the season’s been dry as a bone. You’d think that would make cooking in the wfo easy as pizza pie. No wet wood, no damp oven, comfortable weather. But there are a few other things to consider.

Because of La Niña, the Bay Area has been having these beautiful, clear, blue-skied days for weeks. Most people would consider that to be good news, especially if you happen to be living in frigid, snowy parts of the country. Maybe you’re even a little envious of our sunny, temperate clime. Just think--no blizzards, no icy roads.

But actually, because there’s been little wind or rain, the air quality has been poor, so there have been Spare the Air days most of December, including Christmas and New Year’s. That’s bad news since it means no wood burning inside or outside unless it’s your only source of heat. In fact, it is illegal to use wood-burning devices and can result in fines. If you’re in Northern California, you can sign up for Spare the Air Alerts at You can get them via email, text, or their mobile app. For those of you living in other places, you can sign up for alerts in your hometown at

As I tell my students, burn only clean, seasoned hardwoods in your oven. Wet, green or damp wood releases more particulates into the air. The oven will take longer to reach temperature and you’ll have to burn more wood to get the hot fire you want. Whatever you cook may taste overly smoky, will take longer to cook and just won’t taste as fabulous.

We’ve all become more conscious of where our food comes from. How about our fuel? I’m lucky enough to still have a couple of years worth of oak and black walnut from our little acre and that of my neighbor. Most of that came from trees or limbs that fell on their own or that PG&E made us take down. To compensate for all the wood we’ve burned in the past and what we’ll burn in the near future, we’ve planted about 30 trees. So we’ve been carbon sensitive and we have mountains of fruit in summer and fall. In fact, we’re still eating apples from this harvest and jams and preserves from 2010. Being responsible pays off, I’d say. Plant a tree!

Finally, one last thing. When you do fire up the much-loved wfo, try to maximize the heat you build in it, especially if you’ve been making pizzas at around 850+ degrees. As the oven begins to cool, it’s a great opportunity to cook other things. There’s time to roast or sear meats and poultry when the oven drops to about 500-600 degrees. As it cools further, there’s time for braising dishes like stews or pot roast. A little cooler—around 350-400 degrees, you can slide in vegetables for roasting, a pan of cornbread, bread pudding or a fruit crostata. Finally, when the oven gets down to about 250-300 degrees, you can cook those low and slow dishes like ribs or baked beans.

You can cook meals or parts of meals to last you for days. It does require some advance planning, shopping and prep, but that’s just part of the fun. Here’s a recipe that’s incredibly easy to put together as the oven cools down.


Farinata is a Ligurian dish made from garbanzo bean flour. Similar dishes are made in other areas of Italy, France, Greece and around the Mediterranean. It is also known as cecina, (ceci is the Italian word for chick peas), fainé genovese in Sardinia, socca in France, and karantita in Turkey and Algeria. In some places it is eaten out of hand, as a snack. Other places put it between bread or even on top of a pizza. It is thin, crispy and crunchy—more addictive than potato chips, even to me, a potato chip addict!


1 cup garbanzo bean flour
3 cups water
¼ cup olive oil
salt, to taste


Slowly whisk water into flour to make a smooth mixture. Allow to rest, covered, for at least 45 minutes and up to an overnight.

Whisk in two-thirds of the olive oil and salt to taste. Be generous with the salt. If you’d like, this is the time to add some rosemary, chopped parsley or borage flowers.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet or paella pan (my personal favorite) in a 500-degree oven until it is hot. Add the other third of the olive oil to the pan and return it to the oven. Once the oil is heated, pour in some of the farinata mix. It should only be about ¼-inch thick and should bubble up and sizzle as it hits the pan. Turn the pan occasionally to ensure all sides brown evenly. Be patient—the farinata should be crisp, even as it approaches the center of the pan. This can take up to 20 minutes.

The farinata should be crisp around the edges and golden brown all over. It is traditionally served in wedges as an appetizer, sometimes spread with gorgonzola or another strong cheese.

Sweet Mama Kabocha

Squash Cake[1]

Sweet Mama Kabocha--the Japanese blues singer. I can see her now—a tiny little thing with punked-out hair, shredded jeans and black stiletto boots belting out the blues on stage at a Tokyo nightclub. Her voice, a basement rasp that makes you gasp for breath. She grabs the mike and pulls it close…

No, not that Sweet Mama. I mean the winter squash variety that I grew a while back. Big and beautiful, tasting of chestnuts, with firm, dry flesh. (Wait, am I slipping back? Focus, Lea,
Cucurbita maxima!). I’ve been cooking with it a lot lately both in the wood-fired oven and in the indoor kitchen.

I usually start out by moving my cutting board to the floor. Then I take my large Chinese cleaver and whack the squash into two pieces. Of course, you don’t need to do it on the floor (I put the board on a clean dish towel). I do it because I want the leverage and Kabocha is very hard to cut. Of course, you could bake the squash whole until it softens enough to cut like a civilized person might, but where’s the fun in that?

Now is when things can change, depending on how I want to use my Sweet Mama. When I made dinner recently for Michael and his band mates (check them out:, I simply cut the squash into 2-inch wedges, sprinkled them with dried lemon verbena, salt and pepper. Then I combined a tablespoon of Tabasco Sauce with about ¼-cup of water, drizzled on some melted butter and baked them until they were tender. It was perfect company for the pork shoulder with onions and fennel, braised in milk. They would have been lonely without each other.

I taught a class the other day for Bill from Alabama. It was his second trip to Forno Rustico. Because of the rain, we decided to stay dry and do all
Primi Piatti (first courses) in the warmth of the indoor kitchen. We made fresh fettuccine that we served with butter, Parmigiano Reggiano and some fresh white truffle that he picked up at the Ferry Building. Then we made potato gnocchi, ravioli ‘gnudi (also known as “naked ravioli”) and two kinds of ravioli with Sweet Mama fillings.

For these, we baked the two squash halves in a dish with a little water on the bottom. Then we covered the baking dish with foil and cooked it in a 400-degree oven until it was tender. We scooped out the nutty, orange flesh and smashed it into a puree. The first ravioli recipe was traditional-- if you live in Lombardy. The filling is a puree of winter squash and crushed amaretti cookies. We added a little cream since the puree was a bit dry, and seasonings. For the second filling, we left out the cookies and added mascarpone instead.

Bill did a magnificent job making the fresh egg pasta, so we had beautiful sheets to use for the ravioli. After making them and giving them a little rest, we threw them in the boiling pasta water. When they were perfectly cooked, we tossed them with butter and parm and some truffle salt that Bill also contributed. Simple and moan-worthy.

Yesterday, I remembered those two cups of leftover ravioli filling. What to do, what to do. Kabocha cake, of course! I made them in individual bundt cakes.

Here’s the recipe:

Sweet Mama Kabocha Bundt Cakes


2 ½ T unsalted butter, room temperature
2 ½ T canola oil
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 egg, large (or ¼ cup egg substitute)
¼ cup apple cider
2/3 cup Kabocha puree
1 cup unbleached white flour or white wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
½ cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped


Preheat the oven to 350-degrees. Butter and flour the bundt cake pan well—my pan holds 6 mini cakes.

Place the butter, oil, sugar and maple syrup into the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with a paddle. Beat for a few minutes on medium speed until very fluffy. Scrape down the sides occasionally. Add the egg and beat for a minute. Add the squash puree and the apple cider and mix again. It will look broken, but don’t worry.

In another bowl, combine all the dry ingredients, including the nuts. Mix this into the liquid mixture and combine just until all the ingredients are moistened and come together.

Spoon into the prepared pan (each one about 2/3 full)and bake until a toothpick or skewer comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes. Cool in the pan for about 10-15 minutes and them turn out onto a rack.

You can top them with cream cheese frosting, which is never bad. This time, I used mascarpone drizzled with chestnut honey. Perfect.

Wood-Fired Oven in the Rain


It’s been raining for days. Our winter creek is up and rushing. We always keep the wood covered during the rainy season and this year is no exception. But it’s damp—the humidity’s been around 100% for weeks—so no matter how well-seasoned the wood and how well-protected from the rain—it’s seriously damp. What’s a cook to do when the guests are clamoring for meals from the wfo?

There are a few things you can do to make life easier. Of course, you could line the walls of the living room with logs and play pioneer. Our dog Pinky would love that since he spends a lot of time with his nose in the woodpile sniffing out lizards and other crawly things. Okay, not a great idea. What I really do is keep a wheelbarrow full of logs and kindling in the garage and my emergency tub o’ wood next to the fireplace in the living room. That way I’m always prepared for unexpected guests or wfo students. “
Mise en Place,” folks—everything at the ready.

If I’m going to be out there cooking for a couple of days, beloved spouse puts up a giant canopy with fabric walls. It’s cheap and temporary. They only cost about $100 and usually come with screens for the summer, too. Now I’m dry and the wood is dry.
But the oven is damp. So I dry it out slowly with a small fire (up to about 400 degrees) the night before a big cooking day. Once this fire has burned down to ash, I load in some of the damp wood to dry overnight. In the morning, the oven is still warm, the logs are dry, and the fire starts up in no time at all.

In the rain and snow, the oven may require more wood to stay as hot as you like. Of course, that depends on your oven. Every oven I’ve worked with has its own quirks, advantages and disadvantages. It’s one of the great charms of wood-fired cooking--it’s never the same. There’s something special about the results every time.

Stay dry!

It’s the Beans, Baby


When I start laying out the garden every Spring, I always leave a whole bed for shelling beans. Thanks to Michael’s Sunday creations in the garage, we have a very cool trellis for the vines to climb. Early in the season, I can walk through the two sides wearing my big gardening hat, but as the season progresses, I switch to a ball cap, then no hat, and finally I’m kind of scooting along, squatting in my green tunnel.

I hardly ever grow the same beans twice, except for Hidatsa Shield Figure Beans, which are just the prettiest beans I’ve ever planted. They’re white, chunky oblongs with a café au lait side “shield” that has irregular mocha and red spots and lines. According to Seed Savers, the Hidatsa Indians grew them in the Missouri River Valley of North Dakota. I thank them all for keeping this line growing. It’s nice and meaty, too.

This year, some of the new (for me) varieties were Papa De Rola Pole Beans, Bolita Bush, Dixie Speckled Butterpea. The Papa beans look like a smaller, less colorful version of the Hidatsa. I haven’t tasted them yet, but since it’s getting cold and rainy, I should be putting them in the wood-fired oven any day now. I’ll report back. The one thing I do know is that they produced more than twice as many beans as the other varieties on the same number of plants.

I cooked with Bolita beans when I lived in Santa Fe. They are a warm coffee color and high in protein. While similar to pinto beans, the flavor and texture is so much better and they tend to be easier on the stomach. The cooking broth gets creamy and delicious. Of course, that’s what I experienced when I was in New Mexico. Who knows how they’ll taste in my Sonoma County raised beds.

The Dixie Butterpeas were attacked by gophers who broke into the garden for the first time in ten years. Not a single Dixie survived.

Then Autumn arrives and I scramble to pick before the rain comes. I made it by the skin of my teeth. In the end, I wound up with a giant basket of beans to shell and sort, which I did last Sunday when it rained all day. And it took most of the day. Now I have over four pounds of four varieties and I know why they invented machines to do this work. Nevertheless, I haven’t put the bags of beans in the cupboard because they are just so great to look at.

I’m teaching a class this weekend and pasta e fagioli in the wfo will definitely be on the menu!

Pasta e Fagioli


8 oz dried beans, borlotti are traditional but use the ones you love
Bay leaf
1 T olive oil
1 onion, medium dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup carrots, peeled and sliced into half moons
1 T tomato paste
2 T Italian parsley, chopped
1 bunch cavolo nero (also known as dinosaur kale) or Swiss chard
½ pound sausage, pan fried (chicken or pork, whichever you prefer)
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
¼ cup Italian parsley, minced
1/2-3/4 cup ditalini (the short, round little pasta guys)

Soak the beans in water overnight. Rinse them with fresh water and put them in a bean pot with the bay leaf. Cover with cool water (about two inches above the level of the beans). Simmer for about an hour in the wfo that’s in the range of 400-500 degrees until the beans are tender. Or you can put them in a 200-degree wfo and leave them in overnight. When the beans are cooked and still hot, add salt and pepper to taste.

Sauté the onions and garlic until golden. Add to the cooked beans, along with the carrots, parsley, and tomato paste. Simmer for 10-20 minutes in the wfo. While it’s becoming wonderful, bring some water to a boil, salt it generously—it should taste like the ocean—and cook the pasta al dente. Drain and hold.

Remove 1 cup of the bean mixture and purée. Add it back to the pot. If the soup seems too thick, add some chicken broth or pasta water. Add the cabbage/chard and simmer for 10 more minutes. Then add the cooked sausage and cooked pasta and simmer again for another 10 minutes.

Combine the Parmigiano and parsley together. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the Parm-parsley mixture.

A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil on top is imperative. If you happen to have a loaf of crusty, delicious bread, toast it in the wfo, rub it with some garlic, another drizzle of olive oil and serve it under, over or on the side of the soup.

Garden Gold


The light changes every morning this time of year. The brilliant hot yellow of summer mellows into gold as the leaves change in the vineyards around us. My garden is in its last throes of production and what’s left is all crimson and gold. I just finished stringing the first two ristras of Big Jim New Mexican chilies and already the brilliant red is mellowing into deeper tones as they dry and crinkle…alright, enough with the poetic contemplation. I’ve been roasting, blanching, drying, smoking everything in sight. No, no, not that kind of smoking. I gave that up back in the hippie days, several lifetimes ago.

My favorite thing lately—meaning this week—is Golden Gazpacho. I’ve had a huge crop of gigantic gold tomatoes called Orange Strawberry. They’re enormous with very few seeds and are meaty as all get-out. In fact, I’ve had to add fresh tomato juice from some of the other varieties of tomatoes just to make the gazpacho liquid enough. When I made the first batch, I soaked some potato bread with water, thinking I’d need to thicken the soup. I was so wrong, but our dog Pinky was more than willing to eat the soggy bread later.

I made the first batch to bring to my friend Lina’s dinner party, so I was quite fastidious about the whole process. I peeled and seeded the tomatoes, peeled and seeded the cucumber, peeled the celery (really), toasted whole cumin seeds and then pounded them in the mortar and pestle with garlic, kosher salt and olive oil. Then I pureed the whole thing, along with some golden peppers, adding salt and Sherry vinegar to balance the flavors. I added some more of the peeled, seeded, diced (PS&D) Orange-Strawberry tomatoes so there would be some texture. Finally, I made a beautiful mince of black Cherokee tomatoes, some brilliant red ones, red and green chilies, and some jalapenos that I tossed with salt, oil and vinegar to use for a garnish. I chilled the whole thing for the day and then drove down to the East Bay.

I just have to say it was beautiful. The crunchy, peppery garnish was the perfect foil for the sweet and the tart of the tomatoes . I made enough gazpacho for the seven of us, but beloved spouse requested a do-over so I made some more last night. This time I didn’t take the care I had the first time—no peeling of tomatoes, I was out of our homegrown cukes and celery, used ground cumin—it was still delicious, still looked like a sunset in Kauai, but I must confess that all the details made the first gazpacho the one I’ll be talking about next year when I try to remember what I did.

Golden Gazpacho


3 large gold tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 gold or yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into large pieces
1 medium cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 stalk celery, peeled
1 large clove garlic
1 T cumin seeds, toasted
Kosher salt
Sherry vinegar
Fresh tomato juice, as needed
Tabasco, optional

Minced red, black, green tomatoes
Minced red and green peppers
Minced jalapeno
Extra-virgin olive oil


Take most of the gold tomato and put into the blender or food processor. Hold aside about ¾ cup and dice. Add bell pepper, cucumber and celery and puree. In a mortar, place toasted cumin seeds, garlic, some kosher salt and a little olive oil. Pound away. When it is well mashed, add to the blender along with the tomato juice, if the mixture seems very thick. Check for seasoning. Don’t be afraid of adding salt and vinegar or the gazpacho will be less than stellar. If you like it piquant (I do), add a few shakes of Tabasco Sauce. Once you’re happy with the seasoning, add the reserved diced tomatoes and chill for at least four hours.

Toss the garnish with some salt, olive oil and vinegar and refrigerate separately from gazpacho. When you’re ready to serve the soup, use some beautiful bowls that will provide a high contrast to the glorious color. Add a generous spoonful of garnish. Wait. Wait. Praise overflows. Buon appetito!