Where is a California wine country table found?
Anywhere from Mendocino to San Diego; from the Sonoma coast inland to Lodi, from Santa Barbara to Bakersfield, Fresno and Madera, from Lake County to Sacramento.
This is the journey Janet Fletcher takes in her new book, “Wine Country Table,” published this month by Rizzoli.
It is a Wine Institute book but wine is just one element of this bountiful table. The book is subtitled “With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest.”
Fletcher spent two years, traveling California, meeting California farmers and vintners who live and grow by a commitment to sustainable farming, and she tells their stories in this 350-page book, richly illustrated with photographs by Sara Remington and Robert Holmes.
“It was a dream assignment,” Fletcher said at a book launch at Mulvaney’s S&L restaurant in Sacramento. Fletcher is the food writer and author of many cookbooks, including “Eating Local, Recipes Inspired by America’s Farmers’ Markets” and “Fresh From the Farmers’ Market.”
A cheese specialist, she also publishes a weekly blog, Planet Cheese. But “Wine Country Table” is the book she said she first glimpsed while working at Chez Panisse in the 1980s, when chef owner Alice Waters was pioneering a new California restaurant vision with her use of fresh, local produce.
“Recognizing that their livelihoods depend on it, California’s farmers and vintners were early advocates of sustainability,” Fletcher writes.
The book looks at California, region by region, with portraits of family-owned wineries, as well as the farmers who grow cherries, prunes, asparagus, figs, peaches, and olives. It includes a discussion of the products that grow, along with vines, in each region. And then there are recipes.
Even flower growers got a special nod with a profile of the Resendiz Brothers, who grow the colorful protea flowers in the desert hills of Rainbow, a town just north of San Diego. Some of these “showy starlets of nature,” Fletcher writes, “resemble giant apricot pincushions; others look like firecrackers exploding in the night sky.”
Mel Resendez, a teen-aged immigrant from Mexico, fell in love with the flowers, and now ships them all over the world.
Bouquets of protea were on the tables at the launch at Mulvaneys S&L. The restaurant’s name was inspired by “It’s a Wonderful Life,” explained owner Patrick Mulvaney, who has been dubbed the “unofficial dean of Sacramento’s farm to fork movement,” and who opened his roguish restaurant in a 1893 brick former firehouse 10 years ago.
At the launch were many of the people featured in the book, among them, John Concannon, a fourth-generation member of the winemaking family in Livermore, whose story goes back to the roots of the California wine industry.
There were also relative newcomers, Kaj Ahlmann, an immigrant from Denmark who farms a 4,000-acre ranch in Lake County, where he grows grapes, makes wine and raises livestock. Nick Palumbo, a chef-turned-winemaker from Temecula who says, “I make wine like I make a mole. I’m building layers of flavor. Most of my winemaking skills I attribute to cooking.”
Delve into the book and you’ll meet even more memorable people like David Lucas owner of Lucas Winery in Lodi, who knows his grapevines by name, and the Scheid family of Monterey who grew grapes for 47 years before becoming winemakers; they invest the profits back into protecting their land, their workers and helping local youth through projects like a high-school writing contest.
One of Fletcher’s profiles is of Larry Turley, a former emergency room physician who “doesn’t do winespeak,” but is known for “elevating the stature of old-vine Zinfandel” at Turley Wine Cellars in Amador County.
Fletcher writes that Turley, an avid cook, “prizes simplicity and seasonality over showmanship. This could be said, as well, of the recipes that fill her new book.
At the kick-off lunch, we sampled some of recipes from “Wine Country Table”: Little Gem Lettuce with Olive-Oil Poached Tuna, a Warm Salmon Salad with Aspagagus, Farm Eggs, and Fingerling Potatoes, and an Almond, Orange, and Olive Oil Cake, served with fresh berries. It was the stellar quality of the products that made the recipes shine.
In the book, page after page showcases the bounty of California, 50 in all, from Breakfast Brushcetta and a Dried Plum-Buttermilk Smoothie to a Zinfande-Poached Pear with Marscapone Cream.
In between, is a collection that pays tribute to the diversity of people as well as regions and crops that make up California: Chinese Chicken Soup with Egg Noodles, Baby Bok Choy and Pea Shoots, Vietnamese Chicken Pho, Spring Vegetable Tabbouli with Fava Beans, Radishes and Spring Herbs, and Baked Lingcode with Green Olive Salsa Verde.
“It’s astonishing to think of the California crops that have transitioned from ethnic or rare to mainstream in a generation,” Fletcher writes, “Among them, arugula, Asian basil, baby bok choy, broccoli rabe, endive, clementines, frisée, green garlic, lemongrass, pomegranates, and radicchio.” (This is not to overlook, of course, kale).
One could be content to just turn the pages of “Wine Country Table” and admire the luscious photos of cherries, pears and vineyards. But maybe, you too will become fascinated, getting to know the people who make up California, reading the tales of those who carry on a family tradition of farming or those who went trailblazing on their own to follow a passion in a way that helps preserve a patch of earth.
For myself, however, this is a book that I will be using to cook.
Warm Salmon Salad with Asparagus, Farm Eggs and Fingerling Potatoes
Janet Fletcher, “Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest”
For a late-spring lunch or light dinner, make a salmon salad the centerpiece. Surround with tender hearts of butter lettuce and seasonal vegetables: California asparagus, radishes, and the first new potatoes in late spring; tomatoes, corn, and sweet red onions in summer. A vinaigrette whisked with fresh herbs and capers brings all the elements together.
Wine suggestion: California rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, or Chardonnay
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, plus more if needed
1 tablespoon Vietnamese fish sauce
1 large shallot, finely minced
3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and finely chopped
1⁄2 cup (125 ml) extra virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
Kosher or sea salt
1 pound (500 g) fingerling potatoes
4 large eggs
1 pound (500 g) medium asparagus, tough ends removed
Extra virgin olive oil for oiling the pan
4 skin-on wild salmon fillets, about 6 ounces (185 g) each
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 soft butter lettuce heart, separated into leaves
12 radishes, trimmed and halved
12 ripe olives
Make the vinaigrette: In a bowl, whisk together the vinegar, fish sauce, shallot, parsley, tarragon, and capers. Whisk in the olive oil. Season to taste with salt, then adjust the balance with more oil or vinegar if needed. Set aside for 30 minutes to allow the flavor to mellow.
Put the potatoes in a saucepan and add salted water to cover by 1 inch (2.5 cm). Bring to a simmer over high heat, cover partially, adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, let stand just until cool enough to handle, then peel. Let cool completely and slice crosswise or halve lengthwise.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Put enough water in a saucepan to cover the 4 eggs generously but do not add the eggs yet. Bring the water to a boil over high heat,
then reduce the heat to a simmer so you can add the eggs without jostling them. While the water is heating, prepare a large bowl of ice water. With a large spoon, lower the eggs into the simmering water, working carefully so they do not crack. Adjust the heat so the eggs cook at a gentle simmer. Cook the eggs for 7 minutes exactly. (The yolk will be runny; cook for another minute or two if you prefer a firmer yolk.) Transfer the eggs to the ice water with a slotted spoon. When cool, lift them out of the water and peel.
Bring a large frying pan half full of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus and boil until just tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and chill quickly under cold running water. Pat dry.
Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Place skin side down on the baking sheet and bake until the flesh just flakes when probed with a fork, about 12 minutes.
While the salmon bakes, arrange a few lettuce leaves on each of four plates. Leaving room in the center for the salmon, arrange an equal amount of the potato slices, asparagus, radishes, and olives and 2 egg halves on each plate. With an offset spatula, lift the salmon fillets off of their skin and transfer to the plates, leaving the skin behind. Whisk the dressing and spoon it over the salads; you may not need it all. Serve immediately.