Harvest Flavors
Chef John Ash's intuitive style began in his grandmother's kitchen

Text by Elisa Bosley
Recipes by John Ash
Photos by Rita Maas

John Ash learned at an early age that the secret to preparing good food is simple: There's no secret. Growing up on a rural Colorado ranch where getting food on the table meant using whatever was on hand, he stood by his grandmother's side and watched her work in the kitchen. "My grandma was an amazingly intuitive cook, no recipes or anything," he says. "As a little kid, I was astounded by her being able to throw flour and eggs in a bowl and dump it into a pan, and out of the oven would come an amazing cake." With natural, farm-fresh ingredients, food preparation was straightforward—not mysterious—but still magical.

Today Ash imparts his own brand of natural-food alchemy every chance he gets, whether teaching a cooking class, riffing on organic viticulture, or overseeing the menu of his renowned Sonoma County (California) restaurant, John Ash & Company. He's a longtime champion of the organic movement, the current culinary director for the Fetzer and Bonterra Vineyards, and the author of From the Earth to the Table (Dutton, 1995), a recipe collection that won the 1996 Julia Child's cookbook-of-the-year award.

"My interest in organics began because the food just tasted better," Ash says, "but it's also a recognition that we vote for the health of the planet with our forks, by the food choices we make." It's an approach he calls "ethical eating," a return to lessons learned on his grandparents' ranch: cooking and eating what's in season and what sounds good, using the natural ingredients at hand.

For Ash, food is about being at home and in harmony with the Earth, in the kitchen, at the table, enjoying friends and family, whether you're eating the finest risotto, blueberry cobbler or a fresh scrambled egg. "People can be intimidated and kept out of the kitchen by the idea that dishes have to be perfect," he says. "To me, that concept totally misses the point of why one cooks. I believe it's about the process—that's where the magic is. The reward at the end of the road—the completed dish—is just a bonus."

Using some of his favorite organic ingredients gleaned from natural foods stores and farmers' markets, Ash provides here a sampling of harvest dishes for late summer and early fall. Enjoy them with a glass of organic wine—and a good conscience.

Simple Marinated and Roasted Chicken Breasts

Serves 6 / I generally cook several breasts using this easy method so that I can have them on hand to use in salads, pasta or other dishes calling for cooked chicken. It works equally well with chicken thighs, turkey breasts, pork tenderloin and salmon steaks or fillets—just adjust cooking times.

3/4 cup soy sauce, preferably low-sodium
1/4 cup mirin
1 tablespoon Asian chili-garlic sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
6 boneless, skinless chicken half breasts (3 whole breasts)

1. Combine the soy, mirin, chili-garlic sauce and sesame oil, and marinate chicken for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours. Preheat oven to 450°. Arrange chicken in a single layer in a lightly oiled baking dish and roast for 15 minutes or until meat is just cooked through and still juicy.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 133 calories % fat calories: 19 Fat: 3g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 55mg Carbohydrate: 3g Protein: 24g

Blueberry Grunt

Serves 4-6 / Although there is great debate on what makes a "grunt," it seems that a grunt or slump is simmered on top of the stove rather than baked in the oven. Grunts are usually made with berries; the name supposedly comes from the sound the berries make as they simmer. In summer I generally use fresh, but IQF (individually quick frozen without sugar) berries, available in most markets, are a perfectly acceptable alternative. If your pan is large or you just like dumplings, double the dumpling amount recommended here.

Berry Mixture:
8 cups fresh or IQF blueberries
3/4 cup sugar (or to taste)
1/2 cup red wine or water
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (1 large lemon)

Dumplings:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon cinnamon
Whipped cream, cinnamon ice cream or sweetened yogurt

1. In a deep 8- or 9-inch skillet, combine berry mixture and bring to a simmer over moderate heat.

2. While berries are cooking, make the dumpling dough: In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir in the melted butter. Add enough of the buttermilk to form a soft, sticky dough that is slightly wetter than a biscuit dough.

3. Using a soup spoon, place rounded spoonfuls of the dough over the fruit, forming small dumplings. Sprinkle the dumplings with the cinnamon sugar, to taste. Tightly cover the skillet with a lid or a sheet of foil and steam the mixture over medium-low heat, without opening the lid, until the dumplings are set and puffed and the surface is dry when touched, about 15 minutes.

4. To serve, spoon the warm grunt into serving bowls and top with whipped cream, ice cream or sweetened yogurt.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 361 calories % fat calories: 12 Fat: 5g Saturated Fat: 3g Cholesterol: 11mg Carbohydrate: 78g Protein: 4g

Couscous Risotto with Wild Mushrooms

Serves 6 / This recipe uses a kind of couscous known as moughrabiye or Israeli couscous, available in many natural foods stores. It is made from the same toasted semolina as regular couscous, but the size is larger and round, about the size of whole peppercorns. For a decadent twist, garnish this dish with grilled or roasted fresh wild mushrooms, such as morel or oyster, deep fried basil sprigs, and a few drops of truffle oil.

1/3 cup chopped shallots or green onions
1 tablespoon slivered garlic
2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms (about 4-6 ounces), stems removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Israeli couscous
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups rich chicken or vegetable stock, divided
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 medium tomato, seeded and diced
1/4 cup chopped chives
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese

1. Sauté the shallots, garlic and shiitakes in olive oil until lightly colored. Add the couscous and sauté for 1­2 more minutes. Add the wine and 1 cup of the stock and stir occasionally until liquid is absorbed. Add remaining stock and continue to cook and stir occasionally until stock is nearly absorbed (about 10 minutes).

2. Stir in lemon zest, tomato, chives and cheese and serve immediately in warm bowls.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 331 calories % fat calories: 20 Fat: 7g Saturated Fat: 3g Cholesterol: 7mg Carbohydrate: 56g Protein: 11g

Zucchini Salad with Lemon and Mint

Serves 4 / I like to serve this simple, delicious salad as part of a picnic or other alfresco meal. I've specified white onion here because it retains a firmer texture, but you could certainly use yellow or red onions, too. It's very important to use a flavorful olive oil in this recipe.

1-1/2 pounds zucchini, cut crosswise into 2-inch lengths
4 tablespoons fragrant extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium white onion (8 ounces or so), sliced
2 tablespoons slivered fresh garlic
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (1 large lemon)
1 tablespoon each chopped mint and parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Lemon wedges and whole-milk yogurt, to garnish

1. Steam the zucchini until it's just softened but still bright green, 8-10 minutes. With a fork, mash the zucchini in a colander to press out as much water as possible. Zucchini will look very roughly chopped. Set aside.

2. In a sauté pan add 3 tablespoons olive oil and cook the onions and garlic over moderate heat until crisp tender and just beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cool, then gently stir in the zucchini and lemon zest.

3. Turn mixture into a bowl and stir in the mint, parsley, and remaining olive oil. Season to taste with salt and lots of freshly ground pepper. Serve at room temperature with lemon wedges (squeeze fresh juice over salad) and a dollop of yogurt. Can be prepared up to a day ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator; allow salad to come to room temperature before serving.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 172 calories % fat calories: 69 Fat: 14g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 11g Protein: 3g

Roasted Beet, Onion and Goat Cheese Salad

Serves 6 / This is a very simple recipe, which depends on using good ingredients. If you can't get baby beets, substitute large beets, which you can cut into wedges after roasting and peeling. Sauvignon blanc and goat cheese are a classic combination, but this salad will also work with a soft pinot noir, which is a great match to the beets.

3 cups inexpensive balsamic vinegar, for reduction
2 pounds trimmed baby beets, preferably a mixture of red and golden
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1-1/2 pounds large red or sweet yellow onions (or a combination)
3/4 cup large flavorful olives such as Kalamata, Gaeta or Sicilian green
3 cups young savory greens such as red mustard, arugula, frisée or a combination
6 ounces goat cheese, sliced

1. To make reduced balsamic vinegar, gently boil 3 cups balsamic vinegar 20-30 minutes or until it is syrupy and reduced to about 1/2 cup. Store at room temperature.

2. Wash beets well to remove any dirt. Preheat oven to 375°. Place beets in a roasting pan large enough to hold them in one layer and toss with olive oil to coat lightly. Season with salt and pepper and roast for 30-40 minutes or until tender. (Very large beets can take 2 hours or more.) Remove from oven and let beets cool. Rub off skins with a paper towel, slice attractively and set aside.

3. While beets are roasting, peel and cut red or yellow onions in thick wedges. Lightly brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in a single layer along with olives and roast uncovered along with beets until onions are crisp tender and lightly browned, about 15-20 minutes. Set aside.

4. To serve, arrange greens on plates and top with beets, onions, olives, and slices of goat cheese. Drizzle a few drops of olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar over the top and around salad along with a grinding or two of black pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 278 calories % fat calories: 53 Fat: 17g Saturated Fat: 7g Cholesterol: 22mg Carbohydrate: 24g Protein: 10g Chef, cooking instructor and author John Ash wines and dines in Santa Rosa, California. Elisa Bosley is senior food editor for Delicious Living.