Alfresco in the canyon, it all comes together

Times Staff Writer

HALFWAY through a bright, breeze-driven November morning, in the open kitchen of a high-ceilinged wooden house in Topanga, about five miles inland and up the Santa Monica Mountains from the Pacific Ocean, chef Christian Shaffer stands at the stove making a holiday dinner for his family. A heritage turkey, brined and trussed, sits in a roasting pan; vegetables are strewn, like those in the foreground of still life paintings, across the wide granite counters; pâte sucrée for his mother's molasses tart waits for a quick roll from an olive oil bottle, a stand-in for an absent rolling pin.

The guests — his extended family — haven't arrived yet, only his cousin's dogs, which gambol happily underfoot in the kitchen, swatting the occasional shallot or garlic clove that drops to the floor.

That Shaffer, co-owner of Auberge at Ojai and Avenue in Manhattan Beach (and the erstwhile Chloe in Playa del Rey), is cooking a turkey dinner for his family is a happy occasion, in keeping with a man who closes both his restaurants on Thanksgiving.

With a large family that loves food and is deeply involved in the business of it — his wife, Tedde, and brother Jonathan work the front of the house at Avenue and Auberge, respectively — the holidays are times for coming home to cook, not going to work to do it.

Soon his family is trooping up the wooden stairs to the porch, arms full of toys for the kids, bottles of wine and autumnal arrangements that Tedde has made for the table. Shaffer's cousin Mitchell Sonners, the owner of the house — a place where Shaffer spent many long weekends in his bachelor days — uncorks bottles and herds dogs and children away from the opening and closing door of the oven.

Waves of aromatic heat rise and fall like tides across the kitchen, spilling into the living room and eddying around the legs of the gathered people and furniture.

As Shaffer bastes the turkey, a heritage bird he's brined for a day before trussing and filling with fragrant herbs and vegetables, his 2-year-old daughter, Piper — outfitted in a maroon velvet party dress, her strawberry blond hair in a pixie cut — plays with a menagerie of plastic animals. Tedde and Kristin Shaffer, Shaffer's sister-in-law, who is pregnant with her second child, pause for an unfamiliar moment of respite while Tedde's parents mind the babies, Shaffer's infant son Christian and 17-month-old nephew Dylan.

Outside on the porch, Shaffer's brother, father and grandfather chat against a backdrop of bougainvillea and the low, transverse coastal mountains.

Family means a lot to Shaffer, who got his culinary training through apprenticeship — both at home and in restaurants — rather than in culinary school. As a kid growing up in Culver City, he would come in from playing with his two brothers or mowing the lawn with his father to hang out with his mom or grandmother — which often meant rolling pie dough or dicing vegetables or even breading veal chops in the kitchen.

"Somebody was always arguing over what we were going to eat," he recalls as he toasts the hazelnuts for his wild rice "stuffing" (it never sees the inside of a bird) in a cast-iron pan.

During high school, Shaffer worked in restaurants to make pocket money, manning the dish station or doing whichever job needed to be done. "You get stuck in the pantry; when somebody doesn't show up, you jump in." After school, he started cooking at Remi in Santa Monica, where chef Josie LeBalch took him under her wing — and urged him to go to Europe.

A culinary journey THUS began a 2 1/2 -year culinary odyssey, with Shaffer cooking his way, apprenticed to local chefs, through a swath of Italy, Spain and France. Shaffer says he made the equivalent of $100 in euros during those two years — for fixing the locks of a restaurant, not for cooking at one.

But he got an education that was invaluable, learning the languages of the countries in which he cooked, as well as the food. The tour of duty left him with an accent, which Shaffer admits is "all jacked up" from the various languages and dialects he has tried on.

Now, as he chats in the kitchen while he cooks, it sounds both charming and odd, a vague pastiche of continental syllables grafted onto broad California vowels — the slang of a beach kid delivered in the formal cadences of a European adult.

Shaffer's accent is not unlike his food, an amalgam of rustic French and Italian cuisine that he fashions with a distinctive and deeply personal Californian flair. That he got his training from cooking his way through Europe at an age when many of his contemporaries were reading about European food in cooking school certainly shows: Instead of relying on pyrotechnics or clever conceits, he uses a profound understanding of flavor and its dimensions to build his food.

His restaurant menus — which change completely every month — showcase his flair for texture and seasoning, often through techniques that are as surprisingly simple as they are subtle. The amazingly tender rabbit at Avenue, for instance, has been simply pan-roasted, served over soft polenta with roasted maitake mushrooms and a simple jus.

Or consider Shaffer's savory bread puddings, frequently on the menus of both restaurants. A pungent horseradish bread pudding pairs with the ribeye steak at Auberge. At Avenue, a porcini bread pudding shows up this month as a starter, spilling from long leaves of dressed, peppery arugula like a kind of cornucopia on a plate.

A favorite with his loyal regulars, it's a variation of the mushroom bread pudding he's now preparing for his family, whipping up the custard base while the mushrooms roast in the oven. A simple, rustic dish, it's one with enormous depth — and it's a terrific stand-in for the bland, mushy stuffing that often shows up on Thanksgiving tables.

The etiology of the menus in Shaffer's restaurants may owe a lot to the quadrants of Europe he wandered through, but they're also informed by the food he grew up with. Today's salad of marinated beets over horseradish crème fraîche has its roots in his mother's northern European heritage — though Shaffer has long jettisoned her secret ingredient, a can of Campbell's tomato soup.

Still, his is a style of cooking that's fundamentally accessible. A proficient home cook can easily put together the dishes he's chosen for the holiday; they're more about a deep understanding of balance and flavor and texture than showing off difficult technique.

With the bread pudding taking the place of traditional stuffing, Shaffer's wild rice is free to pair with ingredients that suit its nutty flavor profile: a dice of butternut squash, toasted hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds. "It's a play on the routine of traditional stuffing," says Shaffer, "which is one-dimensional for many people." Also, he points out, unlike traditional baked-in-the-bird stuffing, this one is great for vegetarians.

The pomegranate supplies the tang that balances, and garnet color — a reminder of the cranberries that nobody misses. A salad of grated raw rutabagas and turnips is a refreshing palate cleanser as well as an inventive take on seasonal root vegetables; the surrounding peppery watercress salad gives some welcome greenery and lovely spice.

And the marinated beet salad he makes today with sweet Chioggia beets (though he says assorted red and golden beets would work as well), plays soothingly off the tangy creaminess of the horseradish crème fraîche — no cans of soup in sight.

For dessert, in addition to his mother's molasses tart, Shaffer's menu offers a crème caramel enriched with kabocha squash.

It's a brilliant idea, at once reminiscent of a creamy, ethereal pumpkin pie — yet somehow light years beyond it. Shaffer likes the kabocha for two reasons: It's something a little different and "it's got a subtle, rich flavor that pumpkin often doesn't."

The custard is dense, more intense than a flan, almost the texture of a pot de crème. Neither cloying nor overly sweet, it needs nothing to accompany it: The caramel, unmolded, yields its own perfect sauce. And best of all, it can be made a day or two ahead of time and unmolded just before serving.

Seasonal flexibility SHAFFER'S recipes are also about seasonal adaptability: If a sudden November heat spell throws West Coast farmers a curve, he'll use whatever wild mushrooms happen to look great; if the Seckel pears he wanted don't feel right at the market, he'll switch them out for Forellis. Because the recipes aren't fussy, that's, as Shaffer would say, "not a problem, mama."

Shaffer moves around the kitchen, mincing garlic, whipping Chantilly cream by hand and coring the beautifully speckled Forelli pears. "Cooking has been one of the only constants in my life," he says, adding the pears to the pan with the roasting turkey.

He attributes this constancy — rising from mother's helper to dishwasher to chef and restaurateur — to his facility in the kitchen, and his happiness there: "I'm just as excited as I was when I was 19," he says.

Shaffer does look pretty happy. And so does his grandmother, who has arrived and is now watching him cook — and reminding everyone that she was the one who taught him in the first place.

Shaffer has settled on a heritage bird — though he had dreams initially, fanciful, purist dreams, of getting his hands on a wild turkey — but his recipe works as well with a free-range turkey. "Heritage turkeys," Shaffer says, "have a more subtle, intrinsic flavor than commercial turkeys, an almost wild taste."

Smaller is better THE flavor, he finds, is further articulated by a 24-hour brine (longer, he says, compromises the texture). And he doesn't like to cook turkeys much larger than about 15 pounds. "Most of the bigger birds have too much breast meat, proportionally," he says. "It takes away moisture and flavor." The smaller size makes for a "more balanced bird."

Once brined, patted dry, loosely stuffed with some herbs and vegetables and dotted with butter, the turkey is a straightforward affair.

A few hours in the oven, some regular basting, and it's a fait accompli: a moist, deeply flavorful bird with a burnished skin that neither requires nor wants any heavy gravy — just a drizzle of the rich pan juices, jus that harbors a hint of sweetness from the slender parsnips and the blistered, whole pears that have been roasting alongside in their skins for the last half an hour.

As the fall morning clicks around noon, daughter Piper singing, Shaffer's father, Rick, chatting about a recent trip to Mexico while he pours another glass of wine, one of the two Dalmatians keeping stoic watch over the oven door, Shaffer moves around the kitchen — like many chefs, he's visibly more comfortable on his feet than in a chair.

Soon the bird rests, bronzed and resplendent, on the countertop while the dishes are finished and plated and, one by one, make their way to the waiting table outside.

Shaffer carves the turkey and reassembles it, with the pears and turnips like adjacent architecture, then pours the jus from the roasting pan over the platter with a slow exactitude. He smiles at the crowd gathering at the laden table beyond the open door.

Shaffer says that sometimes he'll be cooking at one of his restaurants and he'll pause, stare out at the dining room, and watch as people eat the meals he's orchestrated. "It's great to look outside and see so many people happy. Even though it's pretty simple: It's just food." Maybe.

But a meal of perfectly articulated dishes built to celebrate an occasion — whether it be a night out at a restaurant for strangers or a Thanksgiving dinner at home for the people you love — is far from simple.

And it's a lot more than just food. *

A casual California Thanksgiving

Roast heritage turkey with blistered pears and parsnips

Wild rice "stuffing" with butternut squash, toasted hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds

Raw turnip and rutabaga salad with watercress

Chioggia beet salad with horseradish crème fraîche

Wild mushroom bread pudding

Kabocha squash crème caramel


Wild rice `stuffing' with butternut squash, toasted hazelnuts and pomegranate seeds

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Servings: 16

Note: From Christian Shaffer

1/4 cup blanched hazelnuts

10 ounces (1 1/2 cups) wild rice

1 small onion, sliced

1 parsnip, peeled, roughly chopped

2 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt,


1 small butternut squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and seeded

4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) salted butter,


1 large pomegranate

2 tablespoons roasted hazelnut oil

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast them until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Let cool, then break the toasted hazelnuts in half, using your fingers. Set aside. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

2. In a large saucepan, combine the rice, onion, parsnip and 2 1/2 teaspoons salt in 1 quart cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, until the rice grains open and are mostly tender.

3. Cut the squash into one-half inch cubes. In a medium pan, sauté the squash in 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat until they're cooked but not mushy, 7 to 8 minutes.

4. Drain the rice and pour it into a large bowl. Remove and discard the parsnip and add the squash, hazelnuts and the seeds from one-half pomegranate, reserving a few seeds for garnish.

5. Cut the remaining half pomegranate in half and squeeze the juice over the rice mixture. Add the hazelnut oil, one-fourth teaspoon salt and the pepper, and place the rice in an ovenproof dish. Dot the rice with the remaining butter and warm it in the oven about 15 minutes. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve.

Each serving: 156 calories; 4 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 6 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 8 mg. cholesterol; 217 mg. sodium. *

Chioggia beet salad with horseradish crème fraîche

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus 1 hour standing time

Servings: 8

Note: From Christian Shaffer. Red and golden beets may be used instead of the Chioggia beets.

6 large Chioggia beets, golden and red

2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

1/4 cup good-quality olive oil

1/2 teaspoon toasted ground coriander seeds

1 shallot, minced

1 (8-ounce) carton crème fraîche

2 tablespoons prepared horseradish

2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons fresh chervil, whole leaves or rough chopped

1. Boil the beets in enough water to cover, with 2 tablespoons salt, until tender, about an hour.

2. In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, oil, coriander and shallot and set the mixture aside for 30 minutes. In another bowl, combine the crème fraîche, horseradish, one-half teaspoon salt and pepper and set aside.

3. Drain the beets and, while still warm, peel them. Slice them into wedges, about 8 to 10 per beet, and cool.

4. Pour the vinegar mixture over the beets and let stand, covered, at room temperature for an hour. Spoon the horseradish cream onto a platter, covering the bottom. Using a slotted spoon, mound the beets over the cream. Garnish the beets with the chervil and serve.

Each serving: 152 calories; 2 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 13 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 12 mg. cholesterol; 285 mg. sodium. *

Raw turnip and rutabaga salad with watercress

Total time: 30 minutes, plus 10 minutes standing time

Servings: 8

Note: From Christian Shaffer

2or 3 medium turnips, peeled

2or 3 medium rutabagas, peeled

1/2 medium red onion, quartered

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white


6 tablespoons olive oil

1 bunch watercress, tough stems


1. Peel and rinse the turnips and rutabagas. Pat them dry and grate them into a large bowl using the largest holes of a box grater. You should have 5 1/4 cups of grated vegetables; if not, grate a little more.

2. Slice the onion as finely as possible, add it to the grated vegetables, and toss to combine. Set aside 5 to 10 minutes to let the flavors blend.

3. For the vinaigrette, whisk together the lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl, then whisk in the olive oil. Set aside 1 tablespoon vinaigrette for the watercress and pour the remaining dressing over the grated vegetables and toss. Adjust the seasoning, adding more lemon juice or olive oil to taste if necessary.

4. Toss the watercress with 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette and a couple grinds of white pepper. Arrange the vegetables on a platter, surround them with the dressed watercress and serve.

Each serving: 138 calories; 2 grams protein; 11 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 337 mg. sodium. *

Wild mushroom bread pudding

Total time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: From Christian Shaffer. Truffle butter is available at Bristol Farms stores and Surfas in Culver City, or salted butter may be substituted.

2 1/2 cups whipping cream

5 large eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon black pepper, divided

1 1/4 pound mixed fresh mushrooms (cremini, portobello, shiitake, button, etc.) wiped clean, stems removed from portobellos and shiitakes, gills removed from large portobellos

4 cloves garlic, rough-chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup grated Swiss Gruyère cheese

3 3/4 cups stale bread such as ciabatta, crusts left on, cubed

3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

3 tablespoons truffle butter

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the cream, eggs, 1 teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon black pepper and set aside.

2. Roast the mushrooms with one-half teaspoon salt, one-fourth teaspoon pepper, the garlic and olive oil until they are tender and have released their water (25 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the mushrooms). Cool, then slice the mushrooms.

3. Place the mushroom mixture, cheese, bread and thyme into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg mixture and incorporate.

4. Transfer the mixture into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and let stand 15 minutes, pressing down with a wooden spoon occasionally so the bread is submerged. Dot with truffle butter or salted butter and bake for about 35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Each serving: 502 calories; 13 grams protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 45 grams fat; 24 grams saturated fat; 260 mg. cholesterol; 472 mg. sodium. *

Roast heritage turkey with blistered pears and parsnips

Total time: 3 hours, 20 minutes, plus overnight standing time

Servings: 12 to 16

Note: From Christian Shaffer, chef-owner of Auberge at Ojai and Avenue in Manhattan Beach. A free-range turkey may be substituted for the heritage turkey.

2 cups plus 1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 onion, sliced

2 heads garlic, divided

2 bunches fresh thyme, divided

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided

1 (13- to 15-pound) heritage turkey

7 parsnips, peeled, divided

1 carrot, peeled

1 onion

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter, divided

12 small Forelli or Seckle pears, cored and seeded, but left whole

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 cup, or more, chicken broth

1. In a large pot, bring 2 quarts water to a boil with 2 cups kosher salt, the sugar, sliced onion, 1 head garlic, 1 bunch thyme, the celery seed and 1 tablespoon black pepper. Boil for 15 minutes. Add 1 1/2 gallons cold water. Prick the skin of the turkey in a few places on the breast and thigh and place the bird in the brine. Refrigerate, covered, in the brine for 24 hours, turning the bird a few times.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the turkey from the brine and rinse with cold water inside and out. Dry the interior and exterior well using paper towels.

3. Roughly chop 1 parsnip, the carrot and the onion. Cut the head off the garlic crosswise. Season the turkey cavity with 1 teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon pepper. Place the parsnip, carrot, onion, garlic, 1 bunch thyme and 4 tablespoons of cut-up butter into the turkey cavity. Secure the legs and wings with butcher twine.

4. Season the exterior of the turkey with the remaining salt and pepper and dot with the remaining butter. Place into a heavy roasting pan and roast for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, basting every 15 minutes. The internal temperature when a meat thermometer is inserted into the deepest part of the thigh, not touching the bone, should be 165 degrees.

5. About 30 minutes before the turkey is done, add the remaining parsnips — sliced into quarters lengthwise — and the pears. Continue basting.

6. Remove the turkey and let rest for 15 minutes before slicing. Remove the pears and parsnips and keep warm.

7. Remove any burned bits from the bottom of the roasting pan, if necessary. Add about one-half cup chicken broth and heat, stirring up any browned bits in the bottom of the roasting pan. Strain the juices through a fine mesh strainer, if desired.

8. Carve the turkey and arrange on a platter, then cut the pears into quarters or halves and arrange them around the turkey with the parsnips. Spoon jus over all.

Each serving: 604 calories; 64 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 27 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 229 mg. cholesterol; 1,052 mg. sodium. *

Kabocha squash crème caramel

Total time: 3 hours, 40 minutes, plus

overnight chilling

Servings: 12

Note: From Christian Shaffer. You will need a 9-inch glass loaf pan.

1/2 small kabocha squash (about 3 cups cubed)

1 tablespoon butter

2 1/2 cups sugar, divided

1 quart whipping cream

6 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Peel and seed the kabocha squash and cut it into about 1-inch cubes. You should have 3 cups of cubed squash.

2. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pot, melt the butter and add one-half cup sugar, squash and 3 tablespoons water and bring to a simmer; then turn the heat to low and cover. Make sure to check the squash frequently and stir until the mixture is a purée, about 30 minutes. You should have 1 cup purée.

3. Meanwhile, mix the cream, eggs, yolks, 1 cup sugar, vanilla and pinch of salt. Let stand 1 hour.

4. Take the remaining 1 cup sugar and, in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over high heat, melt the sugar and cook it until it caramelizes to a deep amber color, 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the caramelized sugar evenly into the bottom of a bread loaf pan, and let cool 5 minutes.

5. Pass the cooked squash through a fine sieve. Add 1 cup of the strained squash to the cream mixture. Mix well, then pour into the loaf pan.

6. Place the loaf pan into a larger baking dish. Fill the dish with hot water, about 1 1/2 inch high around the loaf pan, and bake 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the crème caramel is set and the center has a slight jiggle.

7. Let cool 1 hour on a wire rack, then cover and chill overnight. When you are ready to unmold the crème caramel, loosen the sides with a small spatula. Dip the loaf pan into a pan of hot water to loosen the bottom and sides. Invert onto a serving platter.

Each serving: 497 calories; 5 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 34 grams fat; 20 grams saturated fat; 251 mg. cholesterol; 80 mg. sodium.

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