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CURATING A FUTURE COOK

Chefs Eric Alexander and Courtney McDonald teach their child well.

WRITTEN BY SHANNIN STEIN
PHOTOS BY MIMI GIBOIN

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Eric Alexander and Courtney McDonald are the quiet, mastermind, husband-and-wife duo behind the culinary success of Carpe Vino in Auburn and Four Tines Farm in Placer County. Alexander is Carpe Vino’s executive chef, and McDonald does double duty as Carpe Vino’s part-time pastry chef and full-time farmer and manager of Four Tines Farm. From their titles, you’d never know they came from such humble culinary backgrounds.

Alexander and McDonald each admit that, as children, they didn’t have the most sophisticated palates. Alexander says his mother was a good cook, but his father’s preferences were simple and unadventurous. McDonald, who grew up on a hobby farm with goats, remembers drinking fresh goat’s milk with dinners of Hamburger Helper and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

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Culture of food

Food traditions weren’t a focus for either family — with a few lasting exceptions. For Alexander, whose great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Lithuania, one food memory stands out above all others: eating vareniki (traditional Russian dumplings made from pasta, potatoes, and cheese, sometimes referred to as pierogi) at Christmastime.

“We were Lithuanian but celebrated Russian Christmas,” Alexander says. “Every year, my mom would go to the orthodox church and pick up handmade vareniki for our dinner.”

He believes most of his family food traditions “skipped” his father’s generation, but, fortunately, not this one. It’s a tradition he and McDonald carry on today with their daughter, Josie, every Christmas.

“Josie has her own rolling pin,” McDonald says, “and she helps Eric with the pierogi and me with the tourtière.”

The tourtière, or meat pie, was inspired by a French-Canadian guest at Carpe Vino and has become a new addition to their holiday meal. Alexander also features his own version of vareniki at Carpe Vino every spring, which includes potatoes, spring onions, braised rabbit, fava greens, and pickled mustard seeds. It’s an homage to his past but includes his own signature touch on the traditional dish as well.

Alexander and McDonald also are creating all kinds of new traditions with 6-year-old Josie. Alexander is quick to show off a picture on his phone — it’s of Josie at seven or eight months old with a beaming grin while strapped into a pack on her father’s back as he works in the Carpe Vino kitchen. One of Josie’s favorite snacks is sashimi, discovered one day when Alexander was cutting down a piece of fresh fish for service and Josie asked to try a bite.

They are instilling what they call “a culture of food” in Josie — not only how to enjoy it and prepare it, but also an understanding of where food comes from and the different steps it takes to get it on the plate.

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The chicken whisperer

As an only child, Josie spends a lot of time entertaining herself on the farm with her mom and the animals. At 6, she already is a master forager and what Alexander and McDonald both call “a chicken whisperer.” If she’s not outside eating wild grapes, miner’s lettuce, or violets, she’s bottle-feeding lambs or collecting eggs from the chickens.

“We have 40 egg chickens, and Josie trains them,” McDonald says. “They all have names and come when she calls them.”

It’s not all fun and games on the farm, though. McDonald believes it’s important for Josie to understand the cycle of, and purpose for, what they do on the farm.

“I would be thrilled for her to become a farmer,” she says, “but I also want her to know that it’s a lot of hard work.”

In May 2016, McDonald and Alexander opened the Four Tines Farm stand, where Josie loves to tell visitors about the farm and educates shoppers about the produce, explaining the important differences between a Padrón and a shishito pepper, for example, or taking shoppers by the hand to show them the lambs and chickens.

“She’s our PR person,” McDonald says with a smile.

This year, Josie has big plans, her mother reports.

“We recently finished juicing 100 pounds of lemons so she can have her own lemonade stand,” McDonald says.

Even though Alexander and McDonald are teaching Josie about seasonality and the differences between homegrown and processed food, they allow the occasional splurge. Josie looks forward to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese nights with her grandpa and even a soda when she’s at the restaurant.

“We don’t want to be neurotic about it,” McDonald says.

Alexander recalls the overcooked broccoli of his youth.

“I mistakenly thought when I had a young child that she’d love everything I put in front of her because it would be prepared perfectly,” he says. “I’ll put a beautiful salad of homegrown greens and vegetables on the table and Josie will only take a few bites. But 20 minutes later, I’ll look out the window and she’ll have a handful of miner’s lettuce in her mouth.”

Shannin Stein is known to many in Sacramento’s restaurant community as a general manager, operations manager, and catering director for some of the area’s most popular restaurants and agribusinesses. She has been deeply involved in food activism for the last 10 years and was the founding president of the Sacramento chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which focuses on mentoring women in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry.

Recipe

Potato-Spring Onion Vareniki (Pierogi)

(courtesy of Eric Alexander, executive chef, Carpe Vino in Auburn. Serves 6)

Dough

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1⅓ cups warm water

3 tablespoons canola or olive oil

1 egg yolk

Place flour and salt in large mixing bowl and create a well in the center. In separate bowl, mix together warm water, oil, and egg yolk. Pour wet mixture into well created in flour and fold with hands or fork until combined. On floured surface, gently and quickly knead dough until smooth and firm but not sticky. Cover dough with plastic and allow to rest.

Filling

3 tablespoons butter

4 large, white spring onions, thinly sliced

2 pounds russet or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces

¼ cup crème fraîche

1 cup sharp white Cheddar cheese, grated

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat butter in large pan on medium heat until melted. Add spring onions and sauté until soft and golden brown but not caramelized. Season with salt and remove from heat. Place potatoes in large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to boil and cook until tender. Drain potatoes and pass through food mill or ricer into bowl. Add sautéed onions, crème fraîche, cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix well and allow to cool.

Cut dough into quarters. On floured surface, roll out 1 quarter of dough until ⅛ inch thick. Cut out 3-inch circles using biscuit cutter or juice glass. Place a tablespoon of filling in center of each dough circle and fold over to seal, making half circle. Crimp edges of vareniki in 5 places. Place on a floured platter or sheet pan. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bring large pot of water to boil. Add vareniki to water. Meanwhile, heat additional butter in large skillet until melted and starting to bubble. Once vareniki rise to surface, cook for additional 3 minutes. Remove from water and place in hot skillet with butter. Cook on 1 side until golden brown.

Serve, if desired, with sour cream, onions, and fresh dill, as Alexander does at home. 

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