Saturday, March 03, 2007

Winter Weekend at Big Cat Cabin

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Recently, we spent a weekend at one of our favorite local get-away spots, the Big Cat Cabin in Julian. Back in August, we stayed in a different cabin on the same property - called the Artist's Loft. (You can read about that trip here.) It was fantastic, but huge - with an open loft living room, two master suites (each with its own jacuzzi tub for two!) and open kitchen with an O'Keefe and Merritt Stove, handmade wood cabinets and countertops, and everything you could possible need for whipping up a gourmet feast.
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We had a wonderful time at the other cabin with our friends, but for this trip, we decided to go with a cozier "cabin built for two." Of the two smaller cabins available (the other is Strawberry Hill) we chose the Big Cat Cabin - which sits overlooking a ridge on the far side of the property. Big Cat was built in the twenties, and the owners believe it was designed by the prominent local architect Richard Requa. All of the stones in the huge stone fireplace were scavenged from the area's local volcanic rock, and there are several Indian artifacts buried within - including the molcajete - or grinding bowl - at the base (visible above).
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The cabin is perfectly sized, with a large open living room and kitchen, large bedroom with kingsized bed and wooded bath with clawfoot tub. All of the door latches are handmade from leather straps and levers, and the stove is a vintage Wedgewood (there is an even older vintage Wedgewood woodburning stove that serves as extra counter space - pictured above). There is an inviting leather sofa for sinking into in front of the fire, and a lovely window seat with picture windows that overlook the valley and evening sunsets. On the back of the cabin is a view porch that would be a perfect place to enjoy evening cocktails in the warmer months. In the summer, the owners also provide lounge chairs and a hammock on the surrounding grounds - which feel isolated and private despite the fact that you are in the Pine Hills subdivision.
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The weekend we visited was the coldest the owners said they had experienced since they purchased the property in the late 80s. Since the cabin is just that - a cabin - we were "forced" (oh no!) to keep the fire going in the large stone fireplace all day and night. Sleeping was no problem at all with the electric blankets on the bed - and we used the oven on the Wedgewood stove to make up the difference. We baked our own Julian Pie, and on the second day we braised a long-cooking roast.
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We ventured out for a nature walk at the nearby Heise Park - but the roads to the trails were closed for the winter, and I didn't have the hat and gloves that I would need for a long walk given that the temperatures were in the high teens.

From there, we went to lunch at the Wynola Pizza Express (which I am sad to report, was very mediocre) and wine tasting at Orfila. We bought a case of their most recent Merlot release - which we had tasted at a party at the release party just a few weeks earlier. James' family had bought some "Merlot Futures" and they had a reception for the purchasers to celebrate.
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After that it was back to the cabin, for more lounging on that leather sofa, and a nap for James. While he dozed, I spied wild turkeys and deer just outside the window and took photos.
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We packed most of our own food, some lentil soup for the first night, breakfast fixings, and the ingredients for a roast for the second night - the recipe was based on "Coffee Braised Beef with Cinnamon and Orange." from Gourmet. I first saw this recipe mentioned on Kady's blog, Gourmetish - and thought it sounded good, and I knew there wouldn't be much to do at the cabin but cook, so I thought it would be the perfect time to try it.
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Pictured above is my "mise en place" - coffee, cinnamon stick and orange peel strips, onion, the meat (an organic roast from Whole Foods) and brussel sprouts - (which would have been fantastic if I hadn't overcooked them while waiting for the roast to finish!) I cooked the roast in the largest heaviest pot I could find, which would have worked except that the lid wasn't tight enough. It didn't seem to me that the recipe called for nearly enough liquid in the first place - only 1 1/4 cups of coffee. According to the Cooks Illustrated people, a braised roast should be at least halfway submerged at the start, since some of the liquid will evaporate even with a tight-fitting lid. With the way this thing leaked steam, I had to keep adding liquid throughout the cooking. I added red wine, orange juice, beef broth and water - and it still cooked down to nothing before the roast was nearly done.

It also took an hour longer than it should have to cook, because I had a hard time regulating the oven temperature in the antique Wedgewood gas oven. Unfortunately, the timing problems threw me off on my brussel sprouts, and I wound up burning them to a crisp. It was too bad, becasue they would have been brilliant if I'd been able to serve them when they were done. I found a little well-seasoned cast iron skillet in the cupboard, into which I put the sprouts - tossed with a little balsamic vinegar, oil and salt and pepper. I roasted them for about 20 minutes, at which point they were perfect. I took them out for a while, then put them back in when I thought the roast was getting close, but alas it was not. We did have some good mashed potatoes, and the meat was edible, if not delicious. Ultimately I thought the recipe, though it looked promising, was a bit of a disappointment - not to mention the issues with the oven. (Next time, I think I'll stick to stove-top cooking!)
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Food -related misadventures aside, we had a great relaxing weekend, and I highly recommend this place for anyone looking to get away from it all, in an artistic and relaxing environment. We will definitely be back!


  1. Captain Jack3/4/07, 9:12 PM

    Hi Alice Q.

    One of my ex'es and I stayed in the Artists Loft a few years ago. The owners are a bit eccentric, but very cool. Did they talk about the leaping, poisonous spiders in the wood shed? They were hesitant to bring us more wood after dark.

  2. I didn't hear about any leaping poisonous spiders - but the original Artists' Loft burned down in the 2003 fires and just reopened in late 05 or early 06, so that problem might have solved itself (sadly!) It's amazing that the Big Cat Cabin didn't burn - some of the houses across the street did. They are still working on their own property at the bottom of the hill, and it's very cool.

  3. What a fun and cozy little weekend getaway. I love San Diego - it's so nice that we have the best of both worlds - the beach and the mountains both within a few hours drive.

  4. Looks like fun! We were just up in Santa Barbara and saw some wild turkeys and deer this past weekend. I had never seen wild turkeys before so it was pretty exciting. Of course there were many food jokes to follow after spotting the fowl. I've been MIA for a while but I'm going to check out your other posts now.