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Jeff Cerciello

Chef Jeff Cerciello
© Jonny Valiant

F&W Star Chef

Jeff Cerciello of L.A.’s farmshop shares his favorite olive oil to give as a gift, three essential stops for visitors to his hometown in Southern California and more.

What are your favorite holiday gift ideas?
I recently discovered Negranti Dairy’s sheep’s-milk ice cream in Paso Robles, California; but they also ship their products nationally. They make clever, farm-fresh flavors like salted brown sugar, raw honey, and strawberry-basil. I’m also intrigued by the health benefits of sheep’s milk: They say it’s higher in protein and lower in saturated fats, and more easily digested than cow’s milk. And for people like myself who are lactose intolerant, we’re able to enjoy it more.

Another Paso Robles product that makes a great gift: Pasolivo olive oil. They grow the olives organically and press them there on the farm, so it’s super fresh and vibrant. I like to use it as a finishing oil for fall and winter vegetables, like roasted squash.

What’s your favorite holiday cocktail?
We did a cocktail for a friend, which we’re going to do this coming holiday season, made with vanilla-infused vodka splashed with a squash puree. It sounds over the top, but the sweetness and viscosity went well together. But honestly, I’m more of a wine guy. I love a nice Cabernet Franc at the holidays. Something about the dark fruit, I find them well-balanced and drinkable in the winter. I probably drink mostly California wines, as we have a lot of good friends up here who are making really interesting bottlings. Especially at Farmshop, we search out those relationships.

What are 3 don’t-miss places on a holiday trip to your hometown of Laguna Beach, California?

  1. The Sawdust Art Festival is right in Laguna Canyon. It’s been going since the 1960s, so I saw it as a kid—it’s great every year. They showcase dozens of creative local artists, it’s fun to check out, and the perfect place to pick up holiday presents.
  2. The Mission San Juan Capistrano is a sprawling, important piece of California history right in the middle of the city. I think it’s the oldest building in Southern California; it dates back to the Spanish Colonial days of the 18th century. It’s a beautiful place to visit anytime of year.
  3. Catalina Island is a great weekend place to visit. Something I always did as a kid was take a boat out from Dana Point; I was always a water person, and still am. We’d fish and scuba dive, but there are also amazing hikes in the canyon. It’s become a little more modernized with zip lines and things like that, but in many places it’s still this raw, untouched place.

Any unsung recommendations for someone traveling to L.A.?
Dodger Stadium: You’ve got to go to Chavez Ravine to go see a Dodgers game. I used to go as a kid, when my father had season tickets. Back in the early ’80s when they won championships, you’d see Ron Cey and Steve Garvey, and their manager Tommy Lasorda. That’s where I ate my first Dodger Dog: this big mess of a ballpark frank, this massive beef dog that’s almost a foot long, tucked into a 6-inch bun. That’s about it in terms of the food traditions there.

What’s the recipe that you get the most requests for?
Our avocado hummus. It’s an easy dish to put together, and it works very well during the holidays. You’d think that combination would be heavy, but we puree the chickpeas and the avocado separately, then fold them together so they actually feel very light. We garnish it with pomegranate seeds to give it that burst of sweetness and tartness. As the pomegranate season progresses, they just get sweeter and sweeter. Then we finish it with nigella seeds and a drizzle of olive oil, and serve it with some rustic, savory flatbreads. It’s pretty much a hit at every table, something to share whose colors are really festive, and it feels good to eat.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?

The Making of a Cook, by Madeleine Kamman. It was given to me by my first mentor, the chef at the Surf and Sand Resort at Laguna Beach, named Bill Happy. I was an extern of sorts—I started in garde-manger, was getting ready to go to culinary school, but I worked with him for a good nine months, and really looked up to him. I was just blown away by how passionate Kamman was in her writing, and how technique focused. It was more than a cookbook, it was a technical guide. When I was the chef at Bouchon, it was amazing how often I would go to that book for inspiration. Things like her potted foods were so relevant to what we were doing there. That book has inspired me from the very beginning.

What’s one technique everyone should know?
Brining. Yes, it requires additional time, but the results far outweigh the time spent. Once you understand the technique, and see how easy it is to brine a chicken in 10 to 12 hours, you’ll see the results are spectacular—it turns the ordinary and everyday into something truly special.

The key elements are obviously salt and sugar—the sugar can be white sugar or honey, there are different ways you can incorporate that. But from there you can flavor it many ways: I think that lemon is a perfect match for chicken, so I like a lemony brine with garlic and lot of herbs. But let’s say we were doing pork, we’d probably omit the lemon and go much heavier on hardier herbs like sage, thyme, and maybe savory, as well as some toasted, warmer spices.

The important thing is to treat the brine like a tea: Bring all of the ingredients up to a boil, then let it steep and cool. A lot of people cheat and make the infusion with only half the liquid, then cool it down quickly with cold water or ice. But I think that’s a big mistake. I think that dilutes it. I think you’re better-served infusing the whole batch.

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Congratulations to Nicholas Elmi, winner of Top Chef: New Orleans, the 11th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.

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