March 2009

Ojai’s Main Squeeze

  • It's the wood: Paella cooks on Tuscan grill over orange tree branches.
  • Farm-fed feast: Lunchtime in the shed.
  • Savoring the moment.
  • Handel's son, Hudson.
  • Tangerine sherbet with lemon shortbread.

A love of all things citrus leads to Ojai—and inspiration

Anyone who doesn't think citrus can be better than sex hasn't tasted a Page tangerine like the one I just peeled and ate. Everything about citrus fills the senses and engages me: the smell of the orange blossoms, the sight of the fruit glowing like polka dots against a deep green background of leaves, the feel of the textured skin of a Kiefer lime, the taste of seedless Kishu tangerines, even the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves around giant pummelos has a quality unmatched in any other type of orchard.

And the appeal, to use a tired pun, doesn't end there. There is almost nothing culinary that citrus cannot improve. If there is another ingredient that lends itself so brilliantly to either a savory or sweet preparation, I can't think of it: recipes like classic lemon meringue pie, Szechuan orange chicken, Meyer lemon whiskey sour, Seville orange marmalade, Moroccan preserved lemons, rice with Kiefer lime leaves, lemon chicken, Key lime pie, Brown Derby orange cake made with blood oranges—the list goes on and on.

When I lived in Manhattan, I grew Meyer lemon trees in my apartment. The most successful harvest was eight fruit. It wasn't long after the trees died that I moved back to California. I'm not saying their death made me realize I was homesick for the Golden State, but it makes a certain sense. After all, my fantasy was to have a backyard orchard with every citrus variety known to man—and that certainly was not going to happen in Chelsea.

For years I had been enjoying Pixie tangerines grown by husband-and-wife team Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis at their orchard in Ojai. So when I started to plan this article, I couldn't think of a better place to get to the heart of the best citrus.

The couple grow their fruit organically and have an amazing variety of tangerines, grapefruits and avocados on approximately 17 acres. Jim and Lisa's philosophy is simple: Make every effort to get all their fruit to taste as good as it can. And they work hard to market their tangerines as artisanal products.

As I was making the preparations for my visit, it occurred to me that although I'm a California native and have many friends who live in Ojai, I hadn't actually been there before. And even though everyone spoke about the region in superlatives, I was still stunned by Ojai's beauty. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I would think of the apex of citrus groves as a very special place. Before Jim took me on a tour (the orchards are located in the eastern end of the Ojai Valley), he showed me an aerial map, explaining that his father bought 40 acres in 1970 for his retirement. Since then, his dad has sold off all but the acres Jim and Lisa farm.

The walk through the orchards was worth waiting for. For someone who loves citrus like I do, it was an embarrassment of riches: Every time I turned the corner of a row of trees, delightful surprises awaited, including Pixie and Kishu tangerines, Mexican limes, Oroblanco grapefruit, Meyer lemons and pummelos. In addition to the Page and Pixie tangerines, some of my other favorites were the Cocktail grapefruit; Owari Satsuma and Gold Nugget tangerines; and Fuerte, Hass and Bacon avocados.

As if saving the best for last, Jim showed me a few trees called Australian finger limes. These fruits were simply beautiful, shaped like miniature cucumbers and almost invisible until you thinking about cooking with these true citrus jewels: perhaps a piece of fish with a citrus beurre blanc and a garnish with the lime pearls? Actually, there wasn't a fruit I saw that wasn't a culinary inspiration: marmalades, cocktails, syrups, gremolatas and desserts all tumbled through my imagination. What a meal I could make!

As we walked the orchards, I kept noticing the pruned branches of the orange trees lying around. I thought about asking if I could collect some to take home and use as fuel for my grill. But then I had an inspiration: Why not cook a paella—one of my favorite dishes—over an open fire fueled by orange branches right here in Jim and Lisa's orchard, using locally grown ingredients like Santa Barbara spot prawns and greens for a salad? After all, in Valencia, Spain, where arguably some of the most traditional paellas are found, orange branches are used for fuel.

Jim thought it was a great idea, so we made a date for me to come back up. And since paella is a group meal, we invited some local friends to join us. The guests included Jane Handel, editor of Edible Ojai, and her son, Hudson; Claud Mann, host of the TBS show Dinner & a Movie and publisher of Edible Ojai, with his wife, Perla Batalla, once a backup singer for Leonard Cohen, and their daughter, Eva; Steve Sprinkel and his wife, Olivia Chase, owners of a local café and store called the Farmer and the Cook (Sprinkel has been growing vegetables organically since the '70s and has about 14 acres planted in Ojai); and Jeri Oshima, who has the most wonderful restaurant, Treasure Beach and Café, and her daughter, Leilani.

It was raining the morning of the day we scheduled our al fresco feast. No matter—I was so thrilled to be living out my paella fantasy even rain could not deter me. Jim, Lisa and the others probably thought I was crazy, but my enthusiasm must have been infectious, because everyone was up for the adventure. On the way up to Ojai, I stopped in Oxnard to pick up live spot prawns from my friend Steve Moore, a fish broker.

When I arrived, Jim had the orange-tree branches stacked in a pile, all ready to go. I prepared the Tuscan grill—a portable, L-shape stand that can be set up in a fireplace or over an open flame—started the fire and immediately placed my paella pan on the grate.

The purist in me would have preferred using a traditional paella pan, but there were so many of us I had to improvise with a larger vessel. One of the secrets to paella is beginning with a very hot fire, then as it burns down, the rice slowly finishes cooking, forming a perfect crust on the bottom.

As the guests arrived, instead of congregating in the kitchen, they began gathering around the fire. While the paella was cooking, I served a pitcher of Negronis made with Page tangerines, Hendrick's gin, Campari and Carpano Antica sweet vermouth. Then the rain stopped. Jim said he couldn't believe it: Not only could I cook, I could command the clouds.

Mann, who is also a chef, helped me keep the fire stoked and turn the heavy paella pan as needed. When we saw steam rising, he yelled, "I think you are getting the perfect soccorat!" Soccorat is that crust on the bottom of an authentic paella—it isn't really paella without it. My apprehension about the unorthodox pan subsided.

When the paella was done, we took it into the shed where we had set up the table for lunch. As a finishing touch, I topped the simple paella with a gremolata made of four types of citrus from the orchard. To accompany the main course, we served salad made with Sprinkel's just-picked romaine tossed with a favorite dressing of mine, crème-fraîche vinaigrette, and some local wines from the Ojai Vineyard. We decided on the 2007 Riesling Kick on Ranch and the 2004 Roll Ranch Syrah, both of which were perfect with the paella.

For dessert, Oshima served an unbelievably delicious tangerine sherbet she'd made, accompanied by lemon shortbread cookies, and everyone wanted seconds and thirds.

So, in the final analysis, did the orange branches make the difference in cooking the paella? The answer is yes, indeed they did! I've made many paellas in my life, but the sweet, smoky quality to this one really set off the ingredients and made it uniquely delicious.

Everything came together—the food, the wine and the company—to make the afternoon a perfect experience. As I was packing up my grill, Jim told me, “I will always save my orange wood for you. Let's make this a tradition.”

To order all varieties of citrus, check out

RECIPE: Grilled Santa Barbara Spot Prawn Paella with Citrus Gremolata

To make authentic paella, you need a traditional carbon steel paellera pan, which must be seasoned before using. To do so, first fill the pan with water and bring to a boil to remove the label. Then dry the pan thoroughly and return to the stove. Add several tablespoons of olive oil and heat the pan over a low flame for approximately 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the pan cool. When it's cool enough to handle, wipe the oil over the pan using a kitchen cloth, removing the excess oil. This step should be done each time you use the pan.

Although I cooked my paella on a Tuscan grill over an open fire using orange wood, I've also had excellent results cooking on a Weber grill with a charcoal fire. That said, cooking over a fire or grill is not as consistent as cooking with a gas or electric stove. It takes practice. Cooking times can vary depending on your fire. The most important secret to preparing a successful paella is that once your rice comes to a boil, you spread your coals to ensure the paella does not cook too quickly.

8–9 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon saffron
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups finely diced onions
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
8 ounces of Spanish chorizo, sliced into 1/4-inch slices
4 cups Bombay or any Valencia rice
4 teaspoons Spanish pimenton (paprika)
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup red piquillo peppers, cut into strips
24 Santa Barbara spot prawns, or 1 and 1/2 pounds of large shrimp
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

On the stove, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Crush the saffron threads and add to the stock. Reduce the heat and keep the stock at a high simmer until ready to use.

Once you have a good fire established, place the 18-inch paellera pan onto the grill rack. Add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic and sauté until golden brown, approximately 2 minutes.

Add the chorizo and sauté for an additional minute, then add the rice and stir until the rice is well coated with the oil. Stir in the pimenton and the crushed tomato, then add the white wine. Add the saffron-infused chicken stock and bring to a boil.

If your fire is not hot enough, add more charcoal to ensure the stock comes to a boil. Once the mixture is boiling, spread the coals out so the paella can cook over a steady, even heat.

Do not stir the rice. Allow the rice to simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until two thirds of the liquid is absorbed. At this point, add the shrimp, tucking them underneath the rice mixture. Add the piquillo peppers.

Continue cooking the paella until all the liquid is absorbed, approximately 15 minutes. Steam coming from the dish is usually a signal the paella is finished. Check to see if there's a nice soccarat—the crispy rice crust that marks an authentic paella. To check, use a spatula and gently lift the edge of the paella to see if the crust has formed. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve immediately.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

2 Page mandarins (substitute with tangelos)
2 Meyer lemons (substitute with lemons)
1/2 cup Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped coarsely
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine

Using a grater or microplane, zest the peel off of the Page mandarins and the Meyer Lemons. Place into a mixing bowl and combine remaining ingredients. Sprinkle over paella before serving.

Makes approximately one-half cup of dressing
Preparation time: 30 minutes

1 shallot, peeled and finely minced (approximately 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar, can substitute with white wine vinegar
Juice from one Meyer lemon, approximately 2 tablespoons
3 tablespoons crème fraˆche
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground peppercorns to taste

Place the shallots, champagne vinegar and lemon juice into a small mixing bowl and let the mixture stand for 15 minutes. Into the mixture, whisk in the crème fraîche and then whisk in extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and pepper.

If refrigerated, bring the vinaigrette to room temperature. Just before serving, add the vinaigrette to your salad greens and toss until the greens are lightly coated. Just before serving, pour dressing over salad greens and toss to mix.

BARFLY: Page Tangerine Negroni

Makes two cocktails

Although the inspiration for this cocktail comes from the tangerine juice, its secret ingredients are the smooth Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Hendrick’s gin—with hints of juniper, cucumber and rose petals.

4 ounces freshly squeezed
Page tangerine juice, about three average-size fruit
2 ounces Hendrick’s gin
2 ounces Campari
2 ounces Carpano Antica
sweet vermouth

Combine all ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and serve straight up, garnished with a slice of Page tangerine.