It's barbecue time!
July/Aug. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Ranching couple adds new flavors to an old tradition
Cattle rancher Claude Loftus, wife Bonnie—who runs a catering business—and their 2-year-old daughter Hazel host about 20 barbecues each summer for family and friends on their ranch in Santa Margarita.
What do country music stars Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood and the rock band Aerosmith have in common? They've all sunk their teeth into Bonnie Loftus' barbecue. So have countless others, including the crew of singer Jessica Simpson.
"I think they ate over 100 racks of baby back ribs," Bonnie said, laughing at the crew's apparent appreciation for her barbecue.
The smell of flank steaks sizzling on the grill draws a crowd at the Loftus ranch. "We are always finding an excuse to be outside and grilling beef," Bonnie Loftus said.
A Santa Margarita caterer and cook, Bonnie knows a thing or two about crowd-pleasing barbecue. So does her husband, Claude, a fifth-generation California cattleman.
"I used to think I was a good cook until I met Bonnie," he said.
Bonnie cranks out 15,000 meals a year through her catering business, Bonnie Marie's Catering, and her small retail store, Bonnie's Kitchen. But she said she never intended to feed others for a living.
"I grew up on a dairy in Salinas and went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, to study dairy science," she said. "I thought I'd be in feed sales or animal nutrition."
Bonnie Loftus and sister Rose Bardin prepare a variety of salads for the barbecue.
To earn extra money while in college, Bonnie worked in a deli and handled behind-the-scenes food preparation for performers at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles—that's where many a country singer ate her food. A cooking career was born.
For Claude, growing up in a ranching family, barbecuing was intricately tied to their work.
"The most fun day growing up was a branding," he said. "We would have 40 to 50 of our closest friends and family and have a big barbecue at the end of the day to celebrate."
Homemade salsa adds zest to carne asada tacos.
Today, Claude carries on the family tradition of cattle ranching, raising more than 750 head of cattle on land in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. The herd consists of cow-calf pairs and stocker steers—calves that are purchased in the fall, raised on the ranch and sold in the spring.
A day in the life of a cattle rancher is varied, Claude said, but it centers around the animals.
"We are doctoring sick steers or calves, checking fences and waters, and gathering and moving cattle to fresh pasture," he said, adding, "That's not quite the romantic cowboy picture most people have in their heads."
Claude Loftus' mother Kathy warms tortillas before the meal.
While Claude joked that he never thought he'd use his Cal Poly animal science degree to mend fences, it's the love of the land and the satisfaction of raising cattle that is his passion.
"It is not the same every day and that's what I love about it," he said.
Shipping day is another ranching activity Claude eagerly anticipates. It occurs in the spring, when the cattle are rounded up for buyers such as Harris Ranch meat company. Shipping day also means barbecuing. It's the way the Loftus family fuels the crew and celebrates the end of a successful day.
"I was fortunate to grow up on the best barbecue there is," Claude said. He and Bonnie are passing on that tradition to the next generation: 2-year-old daughter Hazel.
Taking a break. From left, Rose Bardin; Katie Cooley with Branden and Clayton; Bonnie and Claude Loftus with Hazel; and Ashley, Lacy and Amy Lewis.
"We are always finding an excuse to be outside and grilling beef, and we are lucky that we have a large extended family on the Central Coast," Bonnie said.
While the act of cooking meat over a hot flame goes back thousands of years, barbecuing in the Old West after rounding up, branding or shipping cattle was a way to feed a lot of people.
Clearly, barbecuing is no longer limited to the ranch. A recent study conducted by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association shows that 82 percent of all U.S. households own a grill or smoker.
Fifth-generation California cattleman Claude Loftus carries on the family tradition of ranching, raising more than 750 head of cattle.
The United States has the beef to supply these barbecuing needs. Beef is the largest segment of American agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Statistics from the California Beef Council indicate there are about 11,200 beef cattle operations in the Golden State.
Beef also sits at the top of the retail meat market, in terms of pounds and total dollar amount. And while the economic downturn has impacted consumer spending, the retail dollar amount and volume of beef sold has gone up. It seems people are staying home and cooking more, and, especially in the summer, that can mean barbecuing.
So what's on the Loftus grill?
Bonnie said tri-tip is the most-requested item. However, rib-eye steaks and flank steaks are other favorites to barbecue because of their speed and ease of cooking.
"In a little more than 10 minutes, you can have a mouthwatering steak with the smokiness of the grill," she said.
Regardless of the cut, beef for barbecuing should have a certain look: white flecks throughout.
"I really feel that you should look for some kind of marbling in the beef. That is where the flavor is," Bonnie recommended.
How you cook the meat is important, too.
"In our family, we don't like overdone meat," she said. To ensure a tender bite, cook over medium-high heat and turn infrequently. As a general rule, Bonnie suggests cooking a 1-inch cut for seven minutes per side before removing the meat from the heat. Allow for more cooking time for thicker steaks or steaks with bones.
"Then, here's the important part: After cooking, let the meat rest for 10 minutes before serving," she said. This lets the flavors soak in.
Speaking of flavor, the traditional barbecue menu is expanding.
"I would say barbecue is really taking on a new direction," Bonnie said. "We cook a huge amount of beef, but are now grilling fresh vegetables, artichokes, locally grown fish and poultry."
Back on the ranch, friends and family enjoy the smells and sights of the barbecue. The ambiance seems as important as the aroma. A red and white checkered tablecloth drapes the table, while bandanna-patterned napkins and red and white table settings enhance the cowboy theme. Small touches make a big difference.
"I love to have pretty tables, nothing expensive," Bonnie said. "Even if you just pick some flowers or herbs from your yard, it makes it look like you have worked really hard."
Wildflowers sit in canning jars and jam jars act as drinking glasses. A log, cut into thin sections, serves as a centerpiece that also anchors the tablecloth against a refreshing summer breeze.
The scene is set, but Bonnie knows the real star of the show: California barbecue. "That is the best thing about the Central Coast: the access to great local produce and beef."
Jennifer Harrison is a reporter in Davis. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Beyond the basics