As chefs across the land rush to incorporate the latest trends and buzzwords into their restaurant operations, a small group of Napa restaurateurs is more than entitled to boast of “farm-to-fork” menus.
Led by chef/restaurateur Ken Frank, of Napa’s La Toque, and his green-thumbed mate, Sherylle, 10 Napa culinary teams are harvesting all manner of produce and fruit from a prominent garden space not all that far from Napa’s main drag.
When Copia landed in bankruptcy court three years ago, Frank appealed to the insurance firm that now owns the site to allow him and other chefs to take over the extensive outdoor gardens that stretch over a few acres near the Napa River.
As little comes quick and easy in the corporate world, approval for a culinary garden proposal took more than a year to take shape. By that time, weeds and untended plants had grown like topsy, says Frank, and a cleanup crew was kept busy for weeks attempting to make the property shipshape for new planting.
“This is our second season, and we’re growing a lot more than we did last year,” Frank said as we ambled along garden paths with culinary cohorts Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, chefs/partners of Napa’s Oenotri, and one of their sous chefs, Willi Nordby, who’s taken charge of the Copia garden plots assigned to their First Street eatery.
It’s a “season-to-season arrangement” awaiting a future sale of the Copia site to one of the interested parties waiting in the wings, Frank noted.
“We provide all the labor, materials and insurance,” Frank said. “They keep the water on. We’re good through the fall harvest. If they don’t sell, we’ll re-up.”
In addition to La Toque and Oenotri, the other restaurants farming plots of varying size include Pearl, ZuZu, Fish Story, Hog Island Oyster Company, Ca’ Momi, C Casa and Ubuntu.
Frank admitted it “took a ton of work to get this place rehabbed” after a year of neglect. “We put in 80 yards of organic top soil, for starters.”
But he and the other chefs present the other morning agreed that not only does tending a garden help reduce the bottom line at their respective restaurants, frequent harvests bring intensely flavorful products to the dining table — for which diners are extremely grateful.
“My goal is simple,” Frank added, “to grow tasty treats.”
The La Toque garden team consists of chef Frank’s wife, Sherylle, and friend Sue D’Angelo. “They do 95 percent of the work here — I and the rest of the cooks combine for the other five,” he admitted.
One of three sous chefs, Willi Nordby has been assigned garden duties by Oenotri owners Rodde and Di Fede, who say they work in the garden whenever time allows. “We also have some of our dishwashers help out when they want some extra hours,” Di Fede said.
Oenotri has 500 tomato plants on the north side of First Street, most of which are slow to ripen due to the unseasonably cool summer. Nordby pointed to Early Girl, Green Zebra, Black Cherry and Grape tomatoes just catching color among the rows of green plants.
In the south garden, Nordby tends all manner of greens, from Little Gem heads to mustard, as well as beets, basil, carrots, turnips, squash, radishes, Charente melons, purslane and a whole bed of fragrant basil. “There’s also a lot of wild fennel growing around the edge,” he added, “and I’m getting a couple of beds ready for fall planting.”
Frank said his bed of sunchokes — which cost very little to plant and require only a bit of TLC — will spare him from paying at least $750 for the 200 pounds he expects to harvest this month and next.
Rouge d’etampe, sugar and decorative white pumpkins are in the La Toque beds this year, along with Romanesco cauliflower, watermelons (Ken likes to pickle the rind), padron peppers, plus acorn, butternut and spaghetti squash. “Hard squash keeps very well, so you don’t have to use it all right away (when harvested),” Frank noted.
“We have some nasturtium flowers because our pastry chef uses them in desserts,” he continued. “We have lots of pickling cucumbers — rarely do I have to buy pickles to go with the hamburgers at Bank (the café in the lobby of the Westin hotel). And Sherylle has planted some hops and amaranth, which she uses for decor.”
When you commit to growing your own vegetables and produce, Rodde pointed out, “you have to grow enough so that it makes a difference for your menu. I think there’s a big difference in buying a box of mixed greens or being able to come down to the garden and pick your own (just prior to service). They’re so fresh, you can almost taste the soil they were grown in.”
Rodde also draws on produce and fruit grown on a Hagen Road farm. “We have four kinds of peppers — padron, Espelette, cayenne and gypsy — a variety of eggplant, squash, along with olive trees and all kinds of fruit trees — Meyer lemons, Satsuma Mandarins, navel oranges and Mission figs.”
A lot of the plantings get their start in a greenhouse at the Hagen ranch, he said.
“We’ll be planting an allium garden there soon,” chimed in Di Fede, “onions, leeks, garlic.”
Di Fede said he and his partner’s goal is to grow 80 percent of the produce needed for the 18-month-old Oenotri by this time next year.
To that end, Di Fede revealed Oenotri has hired organic gardening stalwart Jessica Baron away from Point Reyes Station’s Osteria Stellina and Marin Roots Farm to oversee all of Oenotri’s gardening efforts.
“I think you can see that we’re all very serious about this,” he declared.
One look at the flourishing chefs’ garden plots at Copia and anyone can readily see that “farm-to-fork” is a lot more than a marketing mantra in Napa.
Squash Blossom Fritelle with Honey Ricotta and Strawberries
Jen Archer, Pastry Chef, Oenotri
8 medium sized squash blossoms
Olive oil for frying
For the filling:
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 vanilla bean
For the batter:
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
6 Tbsp. beer
8 Tbsp. ice water
For the filling, combine and mix all ingredients in a bowl. Set aside.
For the batter, combine and whisk all ingredients until smooth. Set aside and refrigerate.
Remove stamen from interior of the squash blossoms. Fill each blossom with ricotta mixture using a pastry bag or spoon. Close petals around the filling.
Heat olive oil to 325 degrees. Use enough olive oil in a pot to submerge the blossoms. Dip filled blossoms in batter to lightly coat. Drop immediately in hot oil. Fry 2 to 3 minutes until batter is crispy. Drain on paper towels.
Garnish squash blossoms with halved strawberries. Drizzle with honey.
Spaghetti Squash Timbale
Matthew Mullowney, Executive Sous Chef, La Toque
Makes 6 timbales.
1 spaghetti squash
1 cup wild rice
3 Tbsp. butter
1 small bag dried black trumpet mushrooms
1 large eggplant
4 Early Girl tomatoes
1 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups whole peeled garlic
1/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Make the “spaghetti”:
Wash and cut the spaghetti squash in half, remove seeds. Place both halves face-down on an oiled baking sheet and poke the skin thoroughly with a fork. This allows steam to escape and the squash will cook quickly without coloring. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. When done, the squash will still be firm but tender enough to fork away the squash “noodles.” If overcooked, it will be too soft to make “spaghetti”; if underdone, it won’t pull away from the skin and shred properly.
Quick tomato confit:
Remove core and cut an X on the bottom of each tomato. Blanch in boiling water for 30 seconds, then shock in ice water. Peel, seed and dice the tomato. Dice 1/2 onion into pieces the same size. Cook tomato and onion in a small saucepan, with a pinch of salt and just enough good olive oil to cover them, at a very low simmer for 30 minutes. Verify salt seasoning and set aside.
Bring three cups of water and three tablespoons of butter to a boil and season with salt. Add one cup of wild rice, stir immediately, cover and reduce heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook for about 45 minutes. The rice should be tender but not erupted from its shell. Verify salt seasoning and “fork” the rice onto a sheet pan to cool.
Peel the eggplant and cut into half-inch squares. Toss generously with kosher salt and set aside for 90 minutes. Rinse and gently squeeze as much water as you can from the eggplant. Heat a quarter-inch of good olive oil in a sauté pan over moderate heat. Add the diced eggplant and cook, stirring frequently. Be patient; use moderate heat so the eggplant cooks to an even light golden brown all over.
Black trumpet mushrooms and leeks:
Soak dried mushrooms in just enough cold water to cover. When tender, tear the mushrooms lengthwise into thin strips. Discard the tough green tops of the leek, thoroughly wash the tender white stalk and slice very thin. Cook the leek and mushrooms together over moderate heat in a little olive oil and salt until sweet and tender.
Sweet garlic puree:
Place 1 1/2 cups of garlic in a saucepan, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Drain in a colander, return garlic to pan, cover with fresh water and repeat this process four times. For the fifth and final blanching, use cream instead of water. Be careful not to scorch the cream. Puree in a blender and verify salt seasoning.
Parmesan tuile or “fricco”:
Spread finely grated Parmesan into six 4-inch circles on a “Silpat” sheet or a non-stick cookie tray. Bake in a 350-degree oven, supervising constantly, until they are just golden brown. Remove, let cool enough to handle without burning your fingers, and gently remove them from the sheet with the aid of a thin pastry spatula.
Assembling and baking the timbales:
Oil the inside of a coffee cup and line with a piece of plastic wrap. (The oil helps hold it in place.) Line the cup with a layer of squash “spaghetti” and fill the center with the wild rice, black trumpets, and candied eggplant. Cover the top with another layer of “spaghetti.” Place in freezer and let chill until very firm. This will help it hold its shape. Invert the cups on an oiled cookie sheet, remove the cup and the plastic wrap. Bake the timbales at 350 degrees until warm to the center. (Test the center temperature with a metal skewer.)
Reheat the sweet garlic puree and make a small pool in the center of each plate. With a spatula, carefully transfer a baked timbale onto the garlic puree, top with a spoonful of tomato confit, and garnish with the fricco “tuile.”