Photography: Annabelle Breakey & Faith Echtermeyer, Seasons in the Wine Country, Chronicle Books, 2010
Bites of Spring
Enhance the delicate flavors of spring with delicious wines.
As winter begins its slow surrender to spring, many of us instinctively hunger for something new. For Cate Conniff at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone it's the fleeting, delicate flavors of herbs and produce just emerged from the cool, moist earth.
In her cookbook, Seasons in Wine Country, Conniff takes readers on a hunger-inspiring journey through the bounty of spring (as well as the other seasons). The first quarter of the book is dedicated to recipes that glory in the delicacy of ingredients found at local farmers' markets during the early months of the year — green garlic, asparagus, mint, chives, lemon, fava beans and arugula.
Yes, you can find many of these items throughout the summer, she notes, but they change. Arugula, for example, becomes very peppery in the heat of summer. Garlic becomes much more potent.
"I think our bodies crave lighter foods in the spring. These early-year ingredients are more fragile and provide a cleansing change from the rich, carmelized flavors and textures we love in winter," Conniff says.
Each of the recipes in the book comes with suggested wines also intended to highlight the flavors of the food. Traci Dutton, sommelier at The Culinary Institute, wrote the book's wine essays and pairings.
Overall Dutton looks to white wines (versus red) to create beautiful dance partners for the
"The predominant flavor of spring ingredients is green," says Dutton. "When you're working with tender young peas, artichokes and green garlic you want to look for white wines that are also new and young — you want brighter notes and purity of flavor."
Dutton suggests a range of wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Vinho Verde or a Chardonnay such as Red Shoulder Ranch which has seen some fermentation in stainless steel.
For those partial to red wine, Dutton suggests that especially as the spring moves to summer, more robust preparations of these same ingredients can be a welcomed red wine accompaniment.
"Once summer hits people who like red wines can start to look for ratatouille flavors — you can pull out eggplant and sweet tomato," Dutton says.
Another example she gives is deep-fried artichokes with an olive aoli.
One of the signature red wine matches for spring is the recipe for Roasted Rack of Lamb with Herb and Mustard Crust.
"In the book I've recommended a syrah with this dish," says Dutton. "Syrah typically has a gaminess, smokiness and a plummy red fruit character that makes it a classic combination." Even so, she points out that depending on preparation, lamb could pair nicely with Merlot, especially if you've used a Merlot reduction sauce, or Pinot Noir if you've gone with lean, rare cuts.
Other meats that go into Dutton's own personal springtime mix of ingredients include game birds, duck and rabbit.
The recipes in the book focus on ingredients found in Wine Country starting in February as spring begins warming the air.
In addition Conniff offers guidance for readers throughout the U.S. who live where some ingredients found in Northern California aren't as available.
A good example is in the recipe for Spring Pea and Ricotta Gnocchi with Pancetta and Mint. "The recipe calls for fresh sheep's milk ricotta. Here in Wine Country the sheep have been living off green grass all winter long and by early spring that grass is mixed with small wild flowers, so the milk is sweeter than at any other time of year," Conniff says. "In the recipe I call for this kind of ricotta. For some readers this may mean sleuthing out a local cheesemaker who might produce something similar or for others it simply means finding the best whole-milk version available."
In addition to focusing on the ingredients native to the season, the spring section of the book also suggests cooking techniques that will highlight rather than obliterate the delicate flavors.
"You'll find that a lot of what spring offers is at its best with just a touch of cooking," says Conniff. "Whenever possible I suggest steaming or blanching."
Cate Conniff is the author of Seasons in Wine Country, Chronicle Books, 2010.
One of the most fleeting of spring's foods in this part of the world is fresh sheep's milk ricotta from Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County. The sheep's milk is at its most sweet and grassy and the cheese made from it just a few days old. If you can find a fresh ricotta from a regional cheesemaker where you live, this would be the recipe to use it in. If not, buy the best whole milk ricotta you can find. Ricotta gnocchi are traditionally from northern Italy. These have a ball shape and are lighter than their potato gnocchi cousins.
3/4 cup sheep's milk ricotta
2 cups shelled fresh peas, about 2 pounds 8 ounces in pod (about 10 cups frozen)
2 cups loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt, or as needed
1/4 teaspoon finely grated nutmeg (see chef's note)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or as needed
2 egg yolks
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano; plus more for garnish
6 tablespoons butter
3 ounces pancetta, finely diced
12 fresh mint leaves, torn into small pieces
Place the ricotta in a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl. Allow to drain in the refrigerator, covered, for at least 2 and up to 4 hours.
In a medium saucepan, bring 6 quarts of salted water to a rapid boil over high heat. Have a bowl of ice water on hand. Add the peas and blanch until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes, depending on size. Add the parsley and cook 30 seconds more. Drain the peas and parsley and immediately place in the ice water to stop the cooking and cool completely.
Drain very well and transfer to a food processor fitted with a chopping blade. Process to a fine purée, about 30 seconds. Add the salt, nutmeg, pepper, ricotta, and egg yolks. Process until just combined then transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl. Add the flour and the 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano and mix thoroughly with a spoon.
Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil.
Using well-floured hands, roll the dough into balls about 3/4 inch in diameter and lay the balls on a floured baking sheet.
Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until the pancetta and butter are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Working in batches of no more than 10, cook the gnocchi in the boiling water until tender throughout, about 4 minutes. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to the skillet with the butter and pancetta. When all of the gnocchi are cooked, toss them gently in the skillet, season with salt and pepper and transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with torn mint leaves and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
The difference that freshly ground nutmeg can make in keeping a dish fresh tasting is significant. Nutmeg grinders are readily available and worth the small investment.
A little lamb, a bit of mustard, and a whiff of mint come together in this easy-to-assemble-and-serve dish. Ask your butcher to "french" the racks. This will trim away any meat clinging to the rib bones, leaving them ready to be picked up and nibbled. Thanks to Chef-Instructor Bill Briwa.
Servings: 4 to 6
2 racks of lamb (about 1 ¼ pounds each), frenched
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup coarse breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Rub each rack of lamb with one of the crushed garlic cloves, then discard the garlic. Season the lamb with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. One at a time, brown the lamb racks well on all sides, about 8 minutes total. Reserve on a plate at room temperature.
In a small bowl, combine the mustard, mint, parsley, rosemary, and thyme with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to create a paste. Rub the paste over the lamb.
On a plate, toss the breadcrumbs with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Roll the lamb racks in the breadcrumbs to coat evenly. Place the lamb on a wire rack on a baking sheet and place in the oven.
Roast the lamb until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 125°F for rare or 135°F for medium-rare, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover with aluminum foil, and let meat rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Carve the lamb racks into individual or double chops, as desired, by cutting in between the bones, and serve.