The Ceja family would like to change the way people eat. Parents and children alike in this wine-centric house believe it’s important for families to gather around the kitchen table, to take adequate time to enjoy a meal together, to share both highs and lows in one another’s lives.
Another important aspect of mealtime, the Cejas maintain, is choice, fresh ingredients prepared in an appealing, flavorful way.
Knowing Amelia Ceja, there’s no doubting she’s a good cook. She says she inherited good culinary genes from her mother and grandmother, who were raised in the high plateaus of Jalisco, Mexico.
“I cook for my children — that’s why they love to eat,” Amelia is quick to point out as she prepares salsas, cuts up limes, fire-roasts tomatillos and adds chopped garlic to melted butter, all in preparation for the grilling of dozens of Hog Island Oysters’ prized bivalves.
Her enthusiasm in the kitchen has rubbed off on daughter Dalia, who also finds the kitchen a welcoming place for sharpening her culinary skills. Family patriarch Pedro Ceja lends a hand now and then, although even he refers to himself as “chef from hell” (because people always ask “What the hell are you doing?” when they see him in that room of the house). Sons Ariel and Navek don’t get too involved in the cooking, but they’re frequently called upon to help prep this or that ingredient. Or just fetch something that’s needed to make a dish come together.
This love of good eating has been taken a step further — and all five members of the family are involved in one way or another.
The Ceja family is producing an online cooking program, “Salud! Napa,” on a website that’s not only easy to navigate but also provides tips for food and wine pairing. After all, wine is the Cejas’ bread and butter.
“I think we’re offering (viewers) some awesome recipes,” Amelia declares as she shucks a lightly grilled, liquor-filled oyster just plucked from the outdoor gas grill, “... recipes that anyone can cook. You can follow by just watching the demo, even if you don’t have the recipe in your hand.”
The project has been in the works for some time, the youngest son of Amelia and Pedro Ceja points out. It was Ariel Ceja’s idea to, at first, launch a blog that would “archive my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes — food that we grew up with as children.
“My mother’s not a trained chef, but she’s a damn good cook and I felt it was important to not only preserve but to share her recipes,” Ariel continues. “That project grew into a video production on the Web ... (and) is also a commercial venture because it includes wines. And not just those of Ceja Vineyards. We’re adding other small family producers. In addition to our wines, we’re also offering wines from Truchard, Yates Family Vineyard and Judd’s Hill. Our website will drive traffic to them as well.”
Amelia Ceja feels a certain responsibility for taking the lead when it comes to keeping the spotlight on Napa Valley wine and food. She remembers a gathering at Copia in 2003, prior to rumors surfacing about the Mondavi wine operation being put on the block. She clearly recalls Robert Mondavi looking at her and other vintners gathered around a conference table when he noted that it was time for others “to carry the torch.”
“I didn’t realize at the time how poignant his comment was,” she says. “But I remember the look in his eye and that particular comment. I feel he was giving me some good advice ... so that’s what I intend to do.”
Cooking for fun and family
For as long as he can recall, Ariel Ceja was first to the dinner table. He not only enjoys his mother’s food, but gets a kick out of watching her cook.
“I used to put highchairs in the kitchen so the kids could be part of the (meal preparation) process,” mom Amelia recounts.
So it’s no surprise these days that Ariel is eagerly documenting his mother’s tips and techniques for all of us to see. Then, with the help of his brother and the 750 Group — which designed the “Salud! Napa” website — he uploads one cooking demo after another.
Since June, 44 programs have been produced and uploaded onto the “Salud! Napa” website. Most feature the family matriarch and Jeff Murphy, chef at downtown Napa’s Bistro Sabor, the Latin street food eatery that Ariel owns and operates. Also contributing is sister Dalia Ceja, marketing director for the family’s wine business. On occasion, Ariel invites a guest chef to demonstrate a few recipes — like Venezuela’s Alejandra Schrader, a top-10 finalist on the TV show “Master Chef.”
“I just prepared lemon spaghetti — a great light dish for the summer,” Dalia remarks as she puts the finishing touches on the Ceja version of chimichurri that accompanies the lamb lollipops she and her mother are preparing for a Sunday lunch. Her lemon spaghetti recipe is included in today’s Register food section.
Also included is Bistro Sabor chef Murphy’s recipe for grilled prawns and white corn summer salad, as well as one for a terrific summer dessert from Amelia Ceja — grilled peaches with a lovely syrup to drizzle over all, made by reducing a bottle of Ceja sauvignon blanc.
In talking about the family’s cooking programs and the website, Ariel notes that “‘Salud! Napa’ is more than just recipes and a wine marketplace — we’re a community of chefs, gourmands, vinophiles and dreamers. Interact with us across our social channels and become a part of our family.”
His sister uses fewer words: “Taste the lifestyle.” Appropriate for a cooking show from the Napa Valley, don’t you think?
Grilled Prawns and White Corn Summer Salad
Jeff Murphy, chef, Bistro Sabor and SaludNapa.com
Perfect for summertime grilling, this hearty and savory salad uses prawns, Andouille sausage, white corn and Yukon Gold potatoes nuanced with a lively paprika vinaigrette. On the website, you can learn how to cut 20 cherry tomatoes in half in 2 seconds using the chef’s snazzy technique. Dust off your home grill and get cooking.
Cooking time: 45 minutes.
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (Spanish or Italian preferred)
1 Tbsp. chopped red onion
4 cloves garlic, grated with a microplane or fine box grater
1 tsp. smoked sweet Spanish paprika
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
12 prawns, peeled and deveined
4 baby Yukon Gold potatoes
1 Andouille sausage or 1 Spanish chorizo sausage
4 ears white corn, the ends chopped off
2 large handfuls salad greens (your choice)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Whisk all ingredients together. Please note that you will have more vinaigrette than you need. You can use the extra dressing for grilled meats or to baste on seafood.
Season corn with salt, black pepper and olive oil and place on grill. Add prawns, potatoes and sausage and grill all items until done.
Cut corn kernels off cob and place in a large bowl. Add in grilled sausage (cut on the bias), potatoes (quartered), prawns, salad greens, cherry tomatoes, rosemary and 4 tablespoons of vinaigrette. Toss all ingredients and serve.
Dalia Ceja, SaludNapa.com
Inspired by a simple, yet delicious Giada De Laurentiis recipe, I spice up lemon spaghetti with serrano chile and chile flakes. This is the perfect summer pasta that is wonderful on its own but can also accompany grilled chicken or prawns. Don’t forget to pair your favorite wine with this zesty dish.
1 pound spaghetti
2/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 serrano chile, minced
Dash of chile flakes
1 Tbsp. crushed garlic
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 tsp. lemon zest
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
Cook the pasta in salted water for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid.
In a large bowl, mix the olive oil, serrano chile, chile flakes, Parmesan cheese and lemon juice. Toss in the pasta and reserved cooking liquid until it is coated thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Plate the pasta and garnish with lemon zest and freshly chopped basil.
Grilled Peaches con Jarabe de Ceja Sauvignon Blanc
Amelia Ceja, SaludNapa.com
This is a terrific summer dessert that requires very little grill time. The only time- consuming part of this recipe — still less than half an hour — is reducing the bottle of wine into a lovely sauce, or jarabe, that is drizzled over the peaches and used to slightly sweeten the mascarpone cream.
4 firm, ripe peaches
1 bottle Ceja sauvignon blanc
1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
The pumpkin seeds provide a slightly spicy and sweet textural addition to the dessert. Toss the pepitas on a baking tray with olive oil, pepper and brown sugar and place in a 300-degree oven for about 5 minutes. Keep an eye on them, as you don’t want the pepitas to burn, just get nicely toasted. Remove from oven, cool and reserve.
Pour the sauvignon blanc into a saucepan, add sugar, vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. Reduce over medium heat, allowing the liquid to bubble away until it is reduced to about 1 cup. Strain and pour into measuring cup to cool.
When the sauce cools down, add a little to the mascarpone, just to give it a slightly sweet taste. Reserve the rest to drizzle over the peaches.
Cut peaches in half and remove pits. Brush the cut sides with olive oil so they don’t burn on the grill. Just prior to service, lightly grill the peaches until they are warm and contain grill marks.
To assemble, place half a peach on a dessert plate, top with good dollop of mascarpone, sprinkle with pepitas and drizzle the jarabe (sauce) over peach and plate. You will have some leftover sauce that is great for ice cream or any summer dessert featuring fresh berries.