Great stretches of open range; cattle quietly grazing; rolling, brush-covered hills; a cluster of red barns and low, wood-frame buildings shaded by oaks and sycamores. This is Rancho Sisquoc, a Spanish land grant that survives virtually intact in the Santa Maria Valley in northern Santa Barbara County.
Although operated as a modern business dealing in cattle, wheat, dry lima beans, seed beans, wine and wine grapes, the 37,000-acre ranch looks today as it must have for generations. Because the land is rugged, the cattle are worked on horseback; wild boar thrive, and quail is plentiful too--Sisquoc is the Chumash Indian word for quail.
After you branch sharply off Foxen Canyon Road, the road to the century-old ranch house bumps over cattle guards and passes walnut trees that add to the rich bounty of ranch-grown foods.
Wine production is up to 6,000 cases a year, most of it sold on the premises. Recently, sacks of newly harvested limas were also set out in the tasting room. This is where you might meet Julietta Aros, a tiny, friendly woman who has worked at Sisquoc for 28 years.
Aros pours wines and also cooks Mexican dishes for special events at the ranch. Born in Los Angeles but raised in Baja California, she draws on plenty of tradition. In April, Aros made pots of chile verde , zesty beans and guacamole for open houses celebrating the annual Santa Barbara County Vintners' Festival.
Once she collaborated with wine maker Stephan Bedford on a full-scale Mexican dinner matched to Rancho Sisquoc wines. For that party, she even made the tortillas--soft, tender flour tortillas that bore no resemblance to what you can buy in the market. Explaining that it's the technique that counts, not the ingredients, Aros says, "I've tried to teach a lot of people to make flour tortillas, but they just can't do it."
Small pink beans from a nearby field became refried beans, cooked to emphasize their natural flavor. "You ruin them if you put in too many spices," Aros says. And she turned a few simple ingredients into rosy rice bright with flavor.
The main dish was pipian de gallina --shredded chicken in an earthy sauce blending ground sesame and pumpkin seeds with spinach and chiles. For dessert, Aros made a lavish bread pudding-- capirotada . She layered the bread with dried fruit, peanuts, almonds and cheese, soaked it with brown sugar syrup simmered with cinnamon and cloves and topped it with whipped cream. "In the real, real Mexican capirotada ," she says, "they put cilantro, onions, tomatoes and all kinds of sweet things."
For appetizers, there were bowls of green olives and empanadas stuffed with potato, bacon and cheese and with pork and olives. Aros made tamales too, filling them with Jack cheese and roasted red and yellow peppers. These were served with fresh salsa. And when the dinner ended, guests lingered over Mexican coffee made from beans roasted with cinnamon.
Aros says she plans to retire in June but will continue to live on the ranch. Here, for Cinco de Mayo, is a dinner composed of her recipes. If wines are served, a Cabernet Sauvignon should go with the chicken and a late-harvest Johannisberg Riesling with the dessert.
MEXICAN DINNER ON THE RANCH Pipian de Gallina Arroz Julietta Frijoles Tortillas de Harina Salsa Sisquoc Capirotada Wine Coffee PIPIAN DE GALLINA
1 (4-pound) chicken, cut up
2 dried ancho chiles
4 fresh poblano chiles
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 corn tortilla
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup spinach leaves
Place chicken in large saucepan. Cover with water and add salt to taste. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is tender, about 1 hour. Drain chicken, reserving broth. There should be at least 3 cups broth.
When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove meat in large shreds. Soak ancho chiles in hot water until softened. Drain and discard stems and seeds. Remove stems and seeds from poblano chiles.
On griddle or in large skillet, toast almonds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds until lightly browned, being careful not to burn. Toast tortilla lightly. Combine almonds, seeds, ancho and poblano chiles, tortilla, garlic and spinach in blender and blend until mixture is finely ground, adding broth as needed to facilitate grinding.
Turn mixture into large saucepan. Add remaining broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened to sauce consistency. Stir in chicken and cook until heated through. Taste and add salt if needed. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
1 large clove garlic
1/3 cup chopped onion
2 cups chicken broth
1 1/4 cups canned peeled whole tomatoes, drained
2 cups long-grain rice
Combine garlic and onion in blender with about 1/2 cup chicken broth and blend to puree. Turn tomatoes into bowl and mash with potato masher.