Good Cheer

Local chefs offer up their favorite recipes for simple yet indulgent winter feasts

Photo by Cecelia Ortiz

Hearty and flavorful, tamales are the ultimate Mexican comfort food, perfect for cold winter nights and practically synonymous with Christmas in Ventura County.


ecember tends to be hectic no matter how you play it. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, with all the decorating and shopping and meal planning that entails, there are budgets to balance, year-end reports to prepare, travels to plan, children to entertain during the winter break . . . It’s easy to lose sight of the warmth and beauty of this time of year. Slowing down to share a good meal with friends and family is an excellent way to gain a little perspective. And after all: Isn’t feasting one of the major reasons for the season?

While it’s true that some find peace and joy setting their inner Julia Child free in the kitchen, this month we wanted to emphasize simplicity. We asked local chefs to offer up some holiday recipes that were as easy to prepare as they were delicious, and something of a departure from the traditional turkey-potatoes-pumpkin pie trifecta. The goal was to create more space in your day, lighten things up and put the emphasis on being with the people you love, while still enjoying food that felt festive and special. Taken together, the recipes shared here would make a fine winter feast; separately, they’ll make welcome additions to any other holiday menu. But there’s no reason to wait to indulge: Enjoy these dishes anytime you need to nourish body and soul.

This spicy twist on a classic vodka martini was inspired by the Rancheros Adolfo, a semi-organized group of horseback riders who participate in an annual four-day ride to various ranches around California. “It’s a very old, traditional ride in the county,” says Tom Dann, owner of Adolfo Grill in Camarillo. “It’s been going since 1849. Adolfo Camarillo started it to warm up his horses for a much bigger ride.” Today, participants include Dann, Bert Lamb (Don Adolfo’s great-grandson) and Tom Peck, who together collaborated on this post-ride cocktail. “Anytime you have cocktails together, people let loose a little bit,” Dann says, making it the ideal drink for warming up spirits throughout the season.
2-1/2 ounces top-quality vodka (Dann recommends Tito’s Handmade Vodka)
1 teaspoon dry vermouth, or to taste
2 blue cheese-stuffed olives
Dash of olive juice, or to taste
1 coin-sized slice of fresh jalapeño chile
Place olives and jalapeño in a martini glass. In a shaker filled 2/3 with ice, shake vodka, vermouth and olive juice until well chilled. Strain into the martini glass, right on top of the olives and chile. Serve immediately.
Courtesy of Adolfo Grill, 67 East Daily Drive, Camarillo. 805.482.3200 or

Photo by Cecelia Ortiz.

Seafood always adds an elegant touch, and these freshly steamed clams and mussels make a beautiful presentation, sure to impress guests who show up for some food and good cheer. “This is such a great plate to have a conversation over,” says Tracy Schamber, manager of Mupu Grill in Santa Paula. “It’s perfect for sharing.” And because these shellfish take just minutes to prepare, they’re perfect for an easy supper — so don’t feel like you have to wait for Christmas. A 1 pound bag of bivalves should feed up to 4 people as an appetizer; up the quantity if you have a longer guest list or plan to serve the dish as an entrée. Either way, have lots of good, crusty bread on hand to sop up the luscious, garlicky broth.
1 pound mussels and clams, rinsed and cleaned
1 cup of dry white wine
2-3 cloves of chopped garlic, or to taste
Salt to taste
Fresh parsley, chopped
Place all ingredients in a sautée pan large enough to hold them, and cover. Heat over medium heat until mussels and clams open up, about 10-15 minutes (discard any that remain closed). Place bivalves in a bowl or platter with some depth and add the broth. Top with fresh parsley and serve with bread and lemon wedges, if desired.
Courtesy of Mupu Grill, 930 East Main Street, Santa Paula, 805.525.9779.

Photo by Cecelia Ortiz.

“This is a perfect winter dish that veers away from traditional prime rib or turkey,” says Michelle Kenney, owner and executive chef of La Dolce Vita in Oxnard’s Heritage Square. “I like the Tuscan ribs for holiday time because they are baked instead of barbecued and can be cooked ahead of time.” That means home cooks are free to spend time with guests instead of being in the kitchen. Kenney finds that freshly chopped herbs (particularly rosemary) in the rub make a big difference in taste. “I also use the larger, meatier pork ribs and have the butcher cut them in half so that they are shorter and easier to eat, but meatier and stay moister than spare ribs,” she says. Note that the rub and glaze are also delicious on pork chops, lamb chops and cuts of chicken.
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1-1/2 tablespoons kosher s
1-1/2 tablespoons fennel seeds, or 1-1/2 teaspoons ground fennel
2 teaspoons pepper
2 teaspoons fresh chopped sage, or 1 teaspoon dried sage
2 teaspoons fresh chopped thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional or to taste 1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
6 pounds pork ribs
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
In a small bowl, combine all paste ingredients. Rub spice paste all over ribs and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours, or refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Arrange ribs on a large, rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan, meaty side up. Roast ribs uncovered for 2 hours or until tender. Preheat broiler. Brush meaty side of ribs with balsamic vinegar and broil 6 inches from heat until browned, about 2 minutes.
Let stand for 5 minutes, then cut between ribs, or serve in slabs.
Courtesy of La Dolce Vita, 740 South B Street, Oxnard. 805.486.6878 or


Steve Sprinkel, the “farmer” and co-owner of Ojai vegetarian restaurant/market Farmer and the Cook, will plant Brussels sprouts in April and harvest them just in time for holiday potlucks and dinner parties in December. These sprouts have a complex earthy flavor that benefits from the tartness of the lemon and mustard in this recipe, developed by “cook” (i.e. head chef and co-owner) Olivia Chase.
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
½ cup organic olive oil
½ cup onion, diced
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Slice sprouts in half lengthwise. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Once onion is lightly brown, add sprouts and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover with a lid, and turn the heat to medium-low. When the sprouts are tender (about 5 minutes), increase the heat and add the lemon juice and mustard. Cook until the liquid has reduced to a glaze that clings to the sprouts, and they are caramelized and tender. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve.
Courtesy of Farmer and the Cook, 339 West El Roblar, Ojai. 805.640.9608 or


OK. So tamales aren’t exactly simple. But the traditional Mexican Christmas dish is practically synonymous with the holidays in Southern California — and they’re just so darn good. “Tamales are the ultimate Mexican comfort food!” says Veronica Muñoz, chef and co-owner (with husband Jose Rodriguez) of BG’s Cafe in Oxnard. A winner year after year at the Oxnard Tamale Festival, BG’s offers traditional red pork, green roasted chicken and sweet blue corn and pineapple tamales, but Muñoz has a special love for this vegetarian version, which she thinks makes a great “everyday tamale.” Here, she’s scaled down the recipe to a modest two dozen tamales, which should be manageable for most home cooks, and included a recipe for the red chile sauce she serves on top.
Soak 24 corn husks in warm water for a few hours, until soft. Stand the husks upright, until all water drains from them immediately prior to use.
Muñoz developed this recipe with vegetarians in mind. While prepared masa is available in most Mexican markets, it is likely to contain lard instead of shortening.
2 cups vegetable shortening
5 cups masa harina (Rodriguez recommends Maseca brand)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups of warm vegetable broth
2-3 tablespoons corn oil (to adjust masa texture)
In a bowl, beat the vegetable shortening until fluffy. In a separate bowl, combine the masa harina, baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients to the shortening, beating with a large fork or strong whisk, alternating with broth. Finally, add oil to adjust for a very thick cake-batterlike texture.
2 32-ounce cans sliced jalapenõs
2 pounds mozzarella or jack cheese, sliced in randomly shaped pieces
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 tomatoes, chopped
Using the back side of a large spoon, spread masa over one corn husk, evenly coating about ¾ of the husk, spreading completely to the edge on only one side. Masa should be spread about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick (approximately ¼ cup of masa per corn husk). Repeat with all corn husks. Top each with 2-3 slices of cheese, 3-4 slices of jalapeno and a few slices each of onion and tomato. You may adjust depending on the size of the corn husk. Fold 2/3 of the corn husk with masa over the filling, and fold the remaining side over the first. Finally, fold approximately 2 inches from the bottom of the corn husk upward to seal up the entire tamale. Immediately place into a steamer, upright. You should have about 24 tamales total.
Inexpensive tamale steamers are readily purchased at most local Mexican markets. Otherwise, a Dutch oven with a steamer insert or a large steam pot will do just fine. Stand each tamale in the steamer of the cooker, open side up. Ensure that there is enough water to touch the bottom part of the tamales. Cook at medium heat for approximately 1 hour, checking that water doesn’t dry out. Tamales are ready when the masa peels off the husk effortlessly. Another indicator is evenly colored masa, as opposed to a splotchy polka-dotted masa.
Tip: Never let the water in the steamer go dry! Some tamale chefs even cover the uncooked tamales with a kitchen rag or cloth, to force steam to condense and stay in the steamer and tamales. Muñoz says that keeping the steam in the pot ensures that tamales will be moist and tender.
4-5 ripe Roma tomatoes
2-3 dried chiles de arbol
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 medium onion, chopped
A small handful of cilantro, chopped
Cook the tomatoes, chiles and garlic in a pot with about 1 inch of water. (You may also slow-roast if preferred.) Add cooked ingredients to a blender or food processor with salt and oregano. Coarsely blend the sauce, allowing it to remain slightly chunky. Adjust salt as needed. Mix with onions and cilantro. Serving Unwrap steamed tamales and top with red sauce and a drizzle of sour cream or crema. Wrapped tamales can be reheated by wrapping in a wet paper napkin and heating in the microwave, or by frying in a skillet with a little oil or butter. Courtesy of BG’s Cafe, 428 South A Street, Oxnard. 805.487.0700 or

Photo by Cecelia Ortiz.

This recipe from NOW Ventura Executive Chef Henry “Happy” Putnam is based on a cheesecake made by his great-grandmother, a Romanian Jew who spent much of her childhood in Italy before emigrating to the U.S. before World War II. “She got the recipe from the family she lived with in Sicily,” Putnam says. “It’s a different kind of recipe — more like a pound cake crossed with a cheesecake.” The flavors of the pumpkin, vanilla and chocolate cookie crust mingle beautifully, making a scrumptious finale for any feast. The key to this recipe is timing. While preparation should take 15-30 minutes, and baking just an hour, letting the cheesecake set completely is crucial: It requires a minimum of six hours. “Even after 5 hours, the filling will still be runny,” explains Putnam. “So don’t rush it.”
2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
1 pound pumpkin purée
4 large eggs
3 ½ tablespoons vanilla
1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup milk
½ cup flour
Mix until well combined and set aside.
1 14.3-ounce package Oreo cookies (approx. 36 cookies)
1 stick of butter
Place cookies and butter in a food processor and blend until it forms up. Pack into a 9-1/2 inch springform pan until firm.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread filling over the top of the packed crust. Bake cake for 1 hour, checking after 45 minutes. Cake is done when the top is light golden brown and the cracks are just starting to form, and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (Baking time might vary depending on the oven.) Let cheesecake sit at room temperature for a minimum of 6 hours to set completely before serving. If desired, garnish with chocolate ganache and a sprinkling of spice. Putnam likes to use a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Courtesy of NOW Ventura, 185 East Santa Clara Street, Ventura. 805.667.2200 or

Photo by T Christian Gapen.


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