What Does Ventura County Taste Like?
Santa Maria has its tri-tip barbecue. Boston, a cream pie, chowda and baked beans. Santa Fe has green chile stew, chile relleno and green chile cheeseburgers. And Cincinnati? Famous for its namesake chili. So we wondered about Ventura County. What’s our signature dish? The one we can proudly claim as our own?
This question popped up a couple years ago as we sat among the lemon orchards of Limoneira Ranch in Santa Paula at the Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture (SEEAG) Farm Day barbecue, with farmer and Edible Ojai & Ventura County contributor Chris Sayer and his wife, Melissa. We had no trouble coming up with ingredients, but a dish stumped us.
I contacted Kate Dunbar, chef, food writer and member of the McGrath farming clan, to see if she knew of any family recipes that could be considered.
“We have cakes, lots of cakes,” she told me soon after the Limoneira conversation. “All the McGrath women were known for their three- to five-layer cakes that were presented at the family gatherings.”
Then there’s McGrath Fordhook Lima Beans. “My great-grandfather was Hugo McGrath and he grew them,” she says of the beans that were the number one crop in 1922 and stayed in the top 10 for the next 50 years. “The recipe was created by one of the ranch cooks and served at all the barbecues
These were family recipes that hadn’t caught hold in our mainstream consciousness. So with the arrival of this publication’s 15th anniversary, we decided to circle back to the question, looking for an answer. C’mon, how hard could it be?
“I have been wracking my brain around this for years,” says Chef Tim Kilcoyne of Scratch food truck, and a couple other upcoming food ventures. “There has to be something with all the history of this county. . . . I really think it should have lima beans since that is really what this county was based on years ago as the main crop.”
Maybe taking a step back and first defining our county’s cuisine would help tease out the answer.
Ours is a diverse area with whites and Latinos each making up more than 40% of our population. African-American, Asian and Native American together make up about 12%. People from all corners of the world call Ventura County home, each bringing dishes passed down from their families and homelands.
The effect is a mosaic of menus. Ingredients and techniques blend into each other to create new flavors that incorporate our abundant agriculture.
Chef Martin Ledesma, owner of CP Catering, describes Ventura County’s cuisine as “California Eclectic.” It’s the term he used for the menu at Sugar Beets Restaurant & Bar, his former restaurant in Oxnard, he says.
It’s the perfect description.
It acknowledges the vibe that surrounds Ventura County’s cuisine: fresh, approachable, inclusive. Our over 2,200 restaurants, plus caterers, food trucks and artisan producers, prioritize local flavors more than molecular gastronomy or French Laundry-esque 15-course tasting menus.
Being close to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, now a top-tier foodie destination with bowlfuls of ethnic restaurants, influences our tastes. As does our area’s natural beauty: 42 miles of coastline, a large swath of the Los Padres National Forest and the Channel Islands. Then there’s the inspiration of 10 farmers’ markets in the county, numerous community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription programs, many farm stands and local grocers.
“The seasons here are bountiful with unique, beautiful ingredients that inspire us to eat close to the Earth and to create,” says Sandra Moore, co-owner of Suzanne’s Cuisine in Ojai. A sentiment echoed by Ojai’s Chef Robin Goldstein.
It’s not surprising that when we turn the conversation back to a signature dish, it veers toward our marquee produce items: citrus, avocados and strawberries. All are given props at area food festivals, for good reason.
We think Ventura County ought to have—no, make that deserves—an iconic dish. A dish that’s as cool as our sea air and as hot as our inland summers. A dish that sets us apart and deliciously binds us together.
So what does Ventura County taste like? Check out the answers from a handful of chefs and a mixologist (see related recipes at left).