Cookbook author wine talk with Joanne Weir

Joanne Weir is a chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, cooking teacher, and culinary travel guide. Her books and television shows about cooking in the California wine country are filled with great recipes and lots of information on wine.  Of all the wine interviews I’ve done so far, hers is the best wine awakening story.  So of course I had to include a photo of her with a glass of wine!

In 10 years of being in the wine business, I’ve seen a lot of cookbooks on wine and food.  But the one I turn to most often is Joanne Weir’s Weir Cooking – Recipes from the Wine Country.  The book was published in 1999, before I had started educating myself about wine, but the advice on cooking with wine and serving it with food is every bit as valuable today as when I first read it.  The book was also the companion to a PBS series that brought wine into the kitchen as an everyday ingredient more than any cooking show had before – or since, for that matter.  And the recipes are still wonderful, too.

Surprisingly, I learned that Joanne grew up not drinking much wine, even though her mother worked with Charlotte Turgeon, author and editor of French cookbooks beginning in the 1940s (Turgeon was also a college classmate of Julia Child).  But love of food and care in selecting good ingredients definitely were there in her family of farmers, chefs, caterers, and restaurateurs.  Her great-grandmother operated a restaurant in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.  And about a century later, Joanne opened Copita, a Mexican restaurant and tequileria in Sausalito, California.

Of course, plenty of things happened between growing up in Massachusetts and becoming a leading food writer and chef in California.  (You can read about some of them on her website.)  Joanne started her working life as a junior-high school art teacher in the Boston area in the 1970s.  Taking a local Mexican cooking course sent her exploring the various food markets to get ingredients, which in turn led to exploring all different kinds of foods and cooking them for friends.  A couple of years later, a trip to California and lunch at Chez Panisse made her want to work there (“It changed my life, really,” she told me).  And she did, but not until she’d had formal training with Madeleine Kamman, both in New England and in France.

With five years at Chez Panisse under her belt she still had the urge to teach, only this time the subject was the art of cooking.  Joanne started teaching classes in California, and this led to offers to teach in Australia, Italy, Spain, France, and Morocco.  Which in turn led to being a culinary travel guide and organizer.  And writing cookbooks as well – teaching cooking was a great way to learn about putting cookbooks together.  Then television, more books, more television, the restaurant, awards, etc.  Her cooking memoir, Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food, provokes cravings and envy on every page.

But reading Kitchen Gypsy you also get a sense that she’s a really delightful person, which was confirmed when I spoke with Joanne by phone.   We packed a lot of talking into a short time, and what follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

Joanne’s 1999 book of recipes from the California wine country is still one of the best food and wine cookbooks out there. The wine advice holds up, even with all the new wines and wine guides out there. And the recipes make wonderful food.

You grew up in Massachusetts not far from where I grew up in Connecticut.  As I remember, the area was a vast wasteland for wine in the 1960s and 70s.  But with your family in the food business, did you have access to better wines?  I don’t remember anyone in my family drinking wine more than occasionally when I was growing up.  Although my great-grandfather may have had a strong interest in it.  I don’t think I’ve told anyone this before, but he had a book called The Grape Culturist that was a gift inscribed to him by William Cullen Bryant, the 19th century poet and philosopher.**  So maybe he was thinking about growing grapes and making wine.  The other side of my family came from Lithuania.  I have a memory of my grandparents drinking Manischewitz from water glasses.  But that was about it.

That surprises me, especially since your mother worked with Charlotte Turgeon, who wrote and edited French cookbooks.  I can see how you’d think so, and maybe she and Charlotte had occasional glasses of wine together, but if so it didn’t translate to our drinking wine at home.  My mom loves wine now, though!

So was it moving to California that sparked an interest in wine?  No, it was something that happened when I got a job teaching art.  My friend Charlotte and I had moved into an apartment in Cambridge, and we got a bottle of wine as a housewarming gift.  It took us two nights to drink the bottle, that’s how non-wine-oriented we were!  We were pouring and out came a dead fly – you’re probably thinking it had flown into the bottle after we opened it, but it hadn’t.  I got absolutely indignant in that way you can only be when you’re young and have time on your hands.

I wrapped the fly in foil and sent it back to the winery along with a letter of complaint.  The name didn’t mean anything to me, but it was Château Mouton-Rothschild.  A couple of months or so later, I got a reply from Xavier de Eizaguirre, the export manager of the château.  He apologized, thanked me for sending him the fly (if you can believe it), and invited me to come to lunch with him at Mouton-Rothschild if I were to find myself in France.  I was amazed!  As a teacher I had the summer off and it happened I was turning 25 that summer, too.  So Charlotte and I made plane reservations as soon as we could.

It seems like it would be pretty daunting, getting invited to lunch at Mouton-Rothschild.  Did you do anything to prepare?  I wasn’t intimidated yet because I didn’t know any better, but thought I should learn at least a little about wine first.  So I went to the Harvard Coop and bought two books to read.  One was Hugh Johnson’s World of Wine, and I can’t remember what the other one was.  But I read them and learned as much as I could.  I was absolutely stunned to find out that Château Mouton-Rothschild was one of the world’s finest wineries.  The photos were absolutely beautiful!

What was it like walking in there?  Xavier and his assistant were both utterly charming, and it was elegant and lovely – handwritten menus, flowers, beautiful china and cutlery.  Amazing food!

There must have been some amazing wine, too.  Oh yes!  We did a vertical tasting, after champagne and some of the same wine I’d found the fly in.  First a 1964, then a 1944, then a 1918.  And more amazing food, followed by an 1892 Château d’Yquem.  Can you imagine getting to try wine from the 19th century?  All accompanied by tasting lessons from Xavier.

It sounds like an excellent first lesson!  I’m happy I had the wherewithal to appreciate it.  And it really did open a door for me.  Had I not studied food I’d have studied wine.

What did you do to continue learning about it?  Cooking can give you a great wine education if you’re open to it.  Working with Madeleine Kamman in Haute-Savoie taught me a lot more about French wine.  And working at Chez Panisse I learned to take as much care with wine as we did with all the other ingredients.

Talking about Chez Panisse reminds me that I wanted to ask you about the concept that things that grow together go together when it comes to food and wine.  You also hear it a lot on cooking shows these days.  In Europe, the cuisines and wines developed together.  But is that true for California too?  Especially considering that the wine industry there isn’t centuries old.  It’s true, and I first encountered it when I was in France.  But as I talked about in the intro to the wine country book nearly 20 years ago now, the 38th parallel runs through the Mediterranean and through California wine country north of San Francisco.  So you find that the things that grow here are similar to things in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain.  And I learned that the Mediterranean/Provençal cooking at Chez Panisse is a good match for California wines and vice-versa.  They really grew up together.

How has California wine changed in the time you’ve been there?  From the late 1970s through not all that long ago we couldn’t get much more than Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from California back here in the east — apart from Zins and some sparkling wines.  I’ve been in California since 1980, and I think a Wente Chardonnay was the first wine I had when I got here.  But you know, the whole 38th parallel thing applies to wines, too.  The Europeans who came here in the 19th and early 20th century knew it and planted their home varietals.  We’ve had them here ever since, even if they didn’t travel outside of California.  But certainly, the pendulum has swung back to much greater variety of wines, even on the shelves here in the state.

What do you like to drink these days?  I love all wines, and I love red wine.  But I’m really a fanatic for crisp white wines.  Txacolina, Albariño, Grüner, I’m really loving white wines, especially from Spain, Portugal, and Italy.  And you can do a lot with them food-wise.

When you’re planning a special occasion, what comes first, the food or the wine?  I always think about the menu first, then the wine.  Like this weekend I’m doing a Moroccan dinner and I’ve figured out what I’m going to make, so now I’ll start pairing the wines.  Maybe if I had wines around like those Mouton-Rothschilds that would be different!

I imagine so!  Finally, I wanted to ask about some of the visual aspects of wine – I’m working on a blog post on them.  It seems that you can’t escape seeing everyone’s photos of their food when they eat out.  But apart from occasional photos of a bottle label, you don’t see wine photos the same way you do food photos.  As someone who has worked with wine on television, why do you think that is?  Everyone has some experience with a lot of different foods, and will have some idea of how they’re going to taste when they see them.  But unless you have a lot of experience with wine, the visual doesn’t provide the same cues.  And it probably doesn’t even for more experienced drinkers, either.  There’s not much to see, and you really have to smell and taste it.  I’ve tried to come up with more ways to include wine in the shows, but it just doesn’t work that well on television as a general rule.  You have to do too much talking.

Well, thanks so much for talking with me about it!  Your wine country cookbook has been a favorite for a long time, and it’s exciting to get to talk to you about it.  I really had fun, too – so glad to know you’ve enjoyed the book, especially after nearly two decades.


I had a hard time picking just one recipe from the wine country book to share with you.  But I think that this recipe for stuffed pork tenderloins shows off everything I like about the book.  Interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients, and a beautiful presentation.  You might not think off the top of your head that sherry vinegar and cloves would taste great together, but they do.

Prep isn’t quick for this although nothing is particularly hard.  The marmalade stuffing takes about an hour of cooking, although you’re not standing over the pan.  And the tenderloins have to rest in the fridge for at least two hours after you rub them with garlic and spices.  However, you can stuff, roll, and tie up the tenderloins and then leave them in the fridge overnight if you’d like, that way you can skip the initial two-hour wait.

Tying up meat is something I’ve never enjoyed doing, but it’s totally worth it here.  I find it’s easier to have the pieces of string already cut.  Lay them out on a cutting board at one-inch intervals, then put the butterflied tenderloin on top.  Spread on the stuffing, then roll it up.  The strings are ready for you to then tie it.  It’s still a lot of work, but you want to keep the stuffing inside.  It’s also easier to slice with the strings still on it, I think, but that’s up to you.  Since you’re not browning the tenderloins, the strings don’t get embedded in the meat and will slip off pretty easily.

One final note I’ve put in the recipe – depending on the sweetness of the oranges, you may find that the stuffing needs a bit more acidity.  Taste it to see, and you can always add a little bit more sherry vinegar at the end.

Joanne recommends using Sauvignon Blanc for cooking the tenderloins, and it’s great to serve with it too.  Bodega Traslagares Sauvignon ($13) from Rueda in north-central Spain is sort of a cross between the austere Sauvignon Blancs from France and the more tropical New Zealand versions.  It works really well with the warm flavor of the cloves and has enough acidity to balance.

If you have the wine country cooking book already, you’ll notice that the version of the recipe below is a little different.  Joanne has changed it some over the years, and sent me her latest incarnation.  There’s more orange and she’s added garlic, which wasn’t in the original.  For most of us, recipes evolve over time – mine are filled with scribbled notes reminding me of variations I’ve tried and liked.  It’s always a process, and even after 35-plus years in the food business, one of the first things Joanne told me is there’s always something to learn.



**  I did a little research and learned that The Grape Culturist:  A Treatise on the Cultivation of the Native Grape was written by Andrew S. Fuller, who lived from 1828-1896.  He also wrote books on cultivating nuts and small fruits beginning in the 1860s.  He was a horticulturist and amateur entomologist, born in Utica, New York.  One obituary credited him with rescuing Ridgewood, New Jersey (where he lived most of his life) from being more or less barren and turning it into a liveable place.  As an entomologist, he amassed a huge collection of insects, which were later donated to Harvard University.  He was quite well known in his time, so it’s possible that he knew William Cullen Bryant personally.

Pork Tenderloin with Orange, Onion, and Raisin Marmalade

Serves 6

From Weir Cooking — Recipes from the Wine Country, by Joanne Weir.  Reprinted with the author’s permission.

2 large pork tenderloin, about 1 pound each, trimmed

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Large pinch of cayenne

Freshly ground black pepper

2 oranges

6 tablespoons sultana or golden raisins

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (see note, below)

2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon sugar


8 cloves garlic, peeled

3 sprigs of parsley

1 bay leaf

6 whole cloves

1/2 cup dry white wine, like Sauvignon Blanc

3 cups rich chicken stock

Butterfly the pork by slitting the pork lengthwise almost all the way to the other side so it opens up to make a flat piece. Flatten slightly with a meat pounder. In a bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the minced garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne, cloves, and pepper. Rub the pork with the mixture, place in a baking dish, cover, and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

Using a vegetable peeler, zest one of the oranges. Juice the oranges. In a small saucepan, combine the orange zest, orange juice, raisins, and sherry vinegar. Simmer very slowly, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft, 20 minutes. Add the raisin mixture, sprinkle with sugar, and continue to cook very slowly, covered, until the onions are very soft, 30 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and continue to cook, uncovered, 20 minutes, until almost dry. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the pork on a work surface, cut side up. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the onion mixture on the pork, spreading evenly. Roll the pork back up to the original shape, enclosing the filling. Tie at 1-inch intervals with kitchen string.   This can be done 1 day ahead to this point.

Place the pork in a casserole with the peeled garlic, parsley, bay leaf, whole cloves, white wine, and chicken stock. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to very low and simmer until the pork is done, 30 minutes. Remove the pork and keep warm. Reduce the broth by one-half to thicken or until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Strain. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the strings and slice the meat into 1/2-inch slices. Place on a platter and drizzle the sauce over the top.

Note:  depending on how sweet the oranges are, you may find that the marmalade needs a little bit of acidity after you’ve cooked it.  Taste it to see, and add 1/2-teaspoon additional sherry vinegar if you think it needs it.

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1 Response to Cookbook author wine talk with Joanne Weir

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: A Wine For Kings

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