Pairings: The New Cook's Tour of Sonoma

Sonoma County's culinary roots are as deep as those of its many grapevines. Here, a chef's-eye tour of the area and its recipes.



The New Cook's Tour of Sonoma

More than grapes grow in Sonoma County, and the bounty of the land pairs beautifully with local wines.

Sonoma County is chaotic and geographically cumbersome, a region of tremendous diversity. There are many Sonomas, layered one upon the other, entwined, intermingled, and, in many cases, hidden. Wine grapes are currently the most important cash crop, but dozens of farm products contribute to the more than one-half billion dollars that agriculture supplies annually to the local economy. Sonoma County speaks with many voices, but has no single spokesperson.

That Sonoma County is the birthplace of modern winemaking in America is probably the best known aspect of our story. By now the names and places are so familiar. There's Padre José Altimi, founder of the last of the California missions, planting those first grapevines in 1823. (Although the padre is generally credited with planting our first vines, the Russians apparently beat him to it, in 1817 in the Russian River Valley, but their efforts don't seem to have influenced viticulture. The door of history won't open any wider on these early vineyards; we can see the vines through a small crack, but we don't know a thing about the wine, or even if any was made.) There's the entrepreneurial genius of the nobleman General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, reigning over the land and in a moment of stunning largess, deeding away what became Napa County. And there's Count Agoston Haraszthy, that flamboyant Hungarian rogue who gave Vallejo a run for his money by importing grapevines from Europe. Even though that prescient maneuver resulted in Haraszthy's being known today as the father of modern California viticulture, the rivalry between the two men remained friendly as they competed against each other in statewide and international wine competitions. Marriage—two of Vallejo's daughters to two of Haraszthy's sons—made them even closer, though Haraszthy wasn't one to settle down and play with grandchildren. Off the count went to meet his fate in a Nicaraguan river, where an alligator is reputed to have had the final say.

If it's our history that intrigues you, you'll find it all over Sonoma Valley (one of the eleven approved viticultural areas in Sonoma County), easy to explore in a single day. If it's our wine you're looking for, take your time.

Driving from winery to farm to nursery and on to another winery was not so long ago a leisurely way to spend a day in Sonoma County. It was something I did frequently. Sometimes my two young daughters and I would dress in pretty skirts, lacy tops, and big floppy hats, I'd pack a lavish lunch, and we'd pretend we were living in another time and place, Zola's France, say, or Hardy's England. The illusion was easy to sustain; ours was often one of the only cars on the road.

Such an adventure is still a delight, but it is no longer so leisurely. So many layers have been superimposed upon this landscape that it is no longer simple to zip about the county, covering dozens of miles in an afternoon. In good conscience I cannot invite you here without offering a few cautionary words, and encouraging you to plan ahead. It is enormously helpful to study a map and identify alternative routes in case the main roads are jammed. You should not try to see the entire county in a day; this has always been impossible because Sonoma County is a big place, covering 1,560 square miles. These days it is best to concentrate on a single geographic area. You should be prepared for unpredictable traffic, and plan a few adventures that don't require a car. Some of the most enchanting views can be seen from a canoe, a hot-air balloon, a hiking trail, or on horseback. There is an increasing number of good bike trails, too. And who knows? You might stumble upon a treasure I've yet to find.

And what of our food and cooking, the so-called wine country cuisine? Is there truly such a thing as a definitive Sonoma County style?

The original cooking of this place is, of course, that of the native tribes who first lived here, the Miwoks, Pomos, Kashayas, and Wappos, whose cuisines remained discrete and separate as wave after wave of immigrants displaced them from their land. The new cooking in Sonoma County became a microcosm of what it was in California, a patchwork quilt of influences shaped by the classic dishes, tastes, prejudices, and traditions of European settlers, especially Spanish, Italian, German, French, Portuguese, and Basque. (Although Asians were among the early residents here, the cuisines of Asia would have little general influence until the late 20th century.) The unifying thread and the golden needle, as it were, that stitched these influences together was the fertile land itself; the long growing season and remarkable bounty of California are reflected in miniature in Sonoma County.

During those early years, people raised much of what they ate and drank. Chickens provided eggs; a cow, milk that was churned into butter and made into cheese, which lasted longer than the perishable liquid. The whey and leftover milk were fed to hogs that were slaughtered in the fall, their blood made into sausage, their legs cured for prosciutto. Farmers grew grapes to make wine for their own tables; women baked bread and made fresh pasta not because it was trendy but be-cause it was all there was. Polenta—frequent-ly topped with robins caught near creek beds and stewed in tomato sauce—was a staple.

Styles of eating and cooking changed here, as they did throughout the United States, with the rise of the automobile and the advent of the supermarket. Sonoma County did not escape the bland cooking of the 1950s and 1960s, yet as we awoke from that period, remarkable things happened that did not occur elsewhere. As the gourmet revolution of the 1970s progressed, restaurateurs—inspired by the success and innovation of Chez Panisse in Berkeley—turned to our small farmers, cheesemakers and winemakers in search of the handcrafted ingredients that were to shape a new California culinary style, born in the restaurant rather than the home. This in turn inspired more small farmers, who now had a market for their harvest.

Sonoma County has played a pivotal role in the development of contemporary California cooking, and as our small farmers and winemakers have responded to the demand for artisan products, a style of sorts has emerged. You can call Sonoma County cooking—or wine country cuisine, if you prefer—a cuisine of possibility, a style shaped by the seasons, by the land, and by the chefs who have been inspired by what the land can yield. There are few rules, and no classic mother recipes to which these chefs by tradition must adhere. In a very real sense, anything goes.

A cuisine based as ours currently is on heirloom fruits and vegetables, handcrafted cheeses, delicate olive oils, and other foods that grow almost literally outside our front doors is fragile, vulnerable to the whims and fashions of an increasingly global marketplace. Before we can declare Sonoma County cuisine a lasting tradition, it must take root and blossom in the home as well as in the restaurant and it must survive for a generation or two. The final word will be written by others.

In the meantime, it is possible—and, from my perspective, crucial—to support this nascent cuisine. When you discover the shopkeeper who will remember not only your name but also your favorite cheese, when you find the farmer who offers a wholesome harvest grown without a toxic soup of chemicals, as you uncover the unique tastes of a specific place, you are discovering culture itself, and helping preserve its future. That's what my Sonoma is all about, and I truly believe that in nurturing it, we will preserve it.

Stewed Quail with Polenta

Polenta with songbirds is a highly prized and praised dish in Bergamot, Italy, where polenta has long been a staple. It is also illegal; songbirds have been hunted to near extinction. Mention the local version—polenta with robins stewed in tomato sauce—and you're likely to hear interesting tales. I heard about them first from Joe Rochioli, who remembers them from his childhood on Westside Road outside of Healdsburg. Newton Dal Pogetto, an attorney in the town of Sonoma, remembers his aunt preparing the dish; Newton sent me a copy of her hand-written cookbook—an historical treasure—but the recipe is not in it, likely because it was such a basic dish that everyone knew how to make it. The dish was popular in many spheres, but it was a staple for poor families. In this modern version, I use quail and pancetta; it's not as humble a dish but it is entirely legal as well as delicious.

Wine recommendations: Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot Noir, J. Rochioli Pinot Noir, Davis Bynum Le Pinot, Limerick Lane Zinfandel.

  • 6 quail, bone-in
  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper in a mill
  • 1/2 pound pancetta, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken or duck stock
  • 2 tablespoons Glace de Poulet Gold
  • 1/2 cup Zinfandel or other medium- bodied dry red wine
  • 1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, preferably Muir Glen brand
  • 1 1/2 cups coarse-ground polenta
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3 ounces Sonoma Cheese Factory Teleme, cut into pieces
  • 2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley

Rinse the quail under cool running water and dry them on a tea towel. Season them inside and out with salt and pepper. Wrap each quail in a strip of pancetta, beginning with the quail's legs, which you should push against the body and secure with the pancetta. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan set over medium-low heat, carefully set the quail in the pan, and sauté until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Turn the quail over and cook until browned on the other side, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the quail to a plate, add the onion to the pan, and sauté it until it is soft and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Dice the remaining pancetta, add it to the cooked onion, increase the heat to medium, cook for 7 minutes, add the garlic, and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the chicken stock, Glace de Poulet, and red wine, increase the heat to high, and boil until reduced by one-third, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, return the quail to the pan, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 4 cups of water and the 2 teaspoons of salt to a boil in a large, heavy pot. Pour another 4 cups of water into a second, smaller pot and bring that to a boil, too. Stir the water in the larger pot rapidly with a whisk, moving it in one circular direction to create a vortex. Pour the polenta into the vortex in a thin, steady stream, stirring continuously all the while to prevent the formation of lumps. Continue to stir after all the polenta has been added, and lower the heat so that the mixture simmers slowly rather than boils. When the polenta begins to thicken, replace the whisk with a long-handled wooden spoon. Add 1 cup of the remaining water and continue to stir. Should you find lumps, use the back of the spoon to press them against the sides of the pot until they break up. At this point, you can let the polenta cook on its own; just be sure to keep a close eye on it, stir it frequently so that it does not scorch, and add more water if it becomes too thick.

After 25 minutes, taste the polenta to be sure the grains are tender; if they are not, cook it a little longer. Stir in the butter, season with salt and pepper, add the Teleme, and stir until it is nearly but not entirely melted; you should see little pools of white cheese. Remove the polenta from the heat, let it rest for 4 or 5 minutes, and ladle into individual serving bowls. Set 1 or 2 quail on top of each serving of polenta, taste the sauce, correct the seasoning, and spoon a generous amount of sauce over each quail. Sprinkle each serving with parsley and serve immediately. Serves 3 to 6.

 

 

Tomato Galette

The crust of this tart is light and flaky and is perfectly complemented by the crunchy crystals of coarse salt. Of course, the success of the tart depends entirely on the quality of tomatoes. Standard supermarket tomatoes will produce disappointing results; instead, use tomatoes from the farmers' market and choose a variety that has thick, dense flesh so that they aren't too watery. This tart should be made only in the late summer and early fall, when tomatoes are in season.

Wine recommendations: Preston Vin Gris; Quivira Dry Creek Cuvée; Nalle Zinfandel.

For the crust:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, ground in a mortar with a pestle
  • 6 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into cubes
  • 1/4 cup ice water

For the filling:

  • 4 to 5 medium-sized, dense-fleshed heirloom tomatoes, such as
    Northern Lights or Brandywine
  • 4 strips bacon or pancetta
  • 3 ounces Italian fontina, thinly sliced
  • Black pepper in a mill
  • 2 tablespoons fresh snipped chives or fresh minced Italian parsley
  • 1 egg white, mixed with 1 tablespoon of water to make a wash
  • 1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or Hawaiian alaea salt

First, make the galette dough. Combine the flour, kosher salt, and ground black peppercorns in a small work bowl, and use your fingers or a pastry cutter to work in the butter so that the mixture resembles coarse-ground cornmeal. Add the ice water, gently press the dough together, and gather it up into a ball. Chill for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, remove the stem cores of each tomato and slice off each end. Cut each tomato into 3/8-inch-thick round slices, season with salt, cover the slices with a tea towel, and set them aside. Fry the pancetta or bacon until it is just barely crisp; transfer to absorbent paper and set aside. Drain the juices that have collected around the tomatoes, using your fingers to press out any large pockets of seeds and gel.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside. Set the chilled dough on a floured work surface and use the palm of your hand to pat it flat. Roll it into a 14-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick and carefully transfer it to the parchment-lined baking sheet.

Arrange the cheese over the surface of the tart, leaving a 2-inch margin around the edges. If more juices have accumulated around the tomatoes, drain them again and place the tomatoes on top of the cheese in concentric circles that overlap slightly. Season the tomatoes lightly with kosher salt and generously with black pepper from the mill. Scatter the chives over the top of the tomatoes, arrange the bacon strips on top, and then gently fold the edges of the tart up and over the tomatoes, pleating the edges as you fold them. Using a pastry brush, brush the edge of the tart lightly with the egg wash and sprinkle it with the coarse or Hawaiian salt. Bake until the pastry is golden brown and the tomatoes soft and fragrant, about 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool, cut into wedges, and serve warm. Serves 4

 




Golden Beet Risotto with Walnuts

This scrumptious fall risotto—perfect in October, just after the walnuts are harvested—resembles the gorgeous hunter's moon, which rises huge and orange over the Valley of the Moon. If you cannot find golden beets (be sure to check your local farmers' market), you can use red beets, but be careful: their juices will stain everything from your fingertips to your cutting board.

Wine recommendations: Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Reserve Chardonnay; Peter Michael Mon Plaisir Chardonnay; Schug Carneros Estate Pinot Noir.

  • 4 small or 3 medium golden beets
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 medium leeks, white and palest green parts only, trimmed, thoroughly cleaned, and cut into very thin rounds
  • Kosher salt
  • Black pepper in a mill
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 5 cups chicken broth, hot
  • 2 ounces (1/2 cup) Laura Chenel's Tome, Bellwether San Andreas, or aged
    Asiago, grated
  • 3/4 cup shelled walnuts, toasted and diced
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

First, prepare the beets. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash the beets, place them in a small ovenproof pan or baking dish, toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until the beets are tender when pierced with a fork, about 40 to 60 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from the oven, cool to room temperature, cut into small dice, and set aside or refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the risotto, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter together in a large sauté pan over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the leeks and sauté until they are completely wilted, about 10 minutes. Season with a generous pinch or two of salt and several turns of black pepper, add the rice, and stir with a wooden spoon until each grain begins to turn milky white, about 3 minutes. Keep the stock warm in a pot over low heat. Add the stock half a cup at a time, stirring after each addition until the liquid is nearly absorbed. Continue to add stock and stir until the rice is tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Before the last addition of stock, stir in the beets and grated cheese, taste, correct the seasoning, and stir in the last of the liquid. Divide the risotto among individual soup plates, top each portion with some of the walnuts and some of the Italian parsley, grind black pepper over it all, and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

 



Vella's Pasta alla Campagna

Cheesemaker Ig Vella offered me this exuberant recipe for the first edition of A Cook's Tour of Sonoma. I find the combination of flavors—the tangy mustard and vinegar, the sultry bacon, the sweetness of the pecans, the kiss of heat from the pepper flakes—utterly irresistible. If you can get California Gold Dry Jack—the same as Vella's other Dry Jacks, only aged longer—this is a great place to use it; its nuttiness and depth of flavor is perfect in this complex (but easy to make) dish.

Wine recommendations: Geyser Peak Syrah, Cline Côtes d'Oakley Rouge, Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir.

  • 1 pound bacon, diced
  • 1 pound Swiss chard
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more
    to taste
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 12 ounces penne (quill-shaped pasta)
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more
    to taste
  • Black pepper in a mill
  • 8 ounces Vella Dry Jack, grated (2 cups)
  • 1 cup shelled pecans, coarsely chopped and toasted

Cook the bacon in a large saucepan or sauté pan until it is just crisp, use a slotted spoon to transfer it to absorbent paper, and drain off and discard all but 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat. Set the pan aside. Wash the Swiss chard, dry it thoroughly, and remove the stems. Trim and discard the base of the stems, and cut the stems into thin slices. Cut the leaves into 1/2-inch-thick crosswise strips. Keep the leaves and stems separate and set both aside. In a small bowl, mix together the mustard and vinegar and set the mixture aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and cook the pasta according to package directions until it is just tender. Drain thoroughly but do not rinse.

While the pasta cooks, heat the bacon fat and the olive oil over medium-low heat and, when it is hot, add the chard stems, garlic, and pepper flakes and sauté until the chard stems are tender. Add the chard leaves, cover the pan, cook until the leaves are wilted, about 4 or 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Place the hot pasta in a large bowl, pour the mustard mixture over it, and toss thoroughly. Add the chard mixture, the cheese and three-quarters of the pecans and toss again. Top with the remaining pecans and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

Summer Fruit in Red Wine

When Bob Broderson was preparing to plant berries in the 1970s, he found the local sources for canes expensive and began looking for an alternative. One day he was driving near Guerneville, showing his wife where he'd grown up, when he spotted what he thought were raspberries. He stopped and approached the farmer, a man in his 80s, who offered to dig up some canes. As Broderson was leaving with his fortuitous gift, he asked what kind of berries they were.
"I don't know," the farmer said, "they're just Sonoma everberries." The name stuck and became the berries that built Bob's Berries reputation. The berries are similar to raspberries but darker red and very perishable. Bob died in May of 1997, and his daughter Ceclie Kraus now runs the family business. Over the years she has tried to discover the variety of her father's everberries but has never seen a similar one.

  • 1 cup strawberries, washed, stemmed, and halved
  • 1 cup Sonoma County Everberries or raspberries
  • 1 cup blackberries, rinsed and dried
  • 4 Santa Rosa plums, cut into thick slices
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 to 3 white peaches, peeled and sliced
  • 2 cups fruity red wine, such as Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
  • 8 to 10 mint leaves, cut in thin julienne
  • Mint sprigs for garnish

In a medium bowl, toss together the berries and plums, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours. Place the peaches in a large bowl, pour the wine over them, cover, and refrigerate. To serve, add the berries, their juices, and the cut mint to the peaches, toss gently, and spoon into glass dessert dishes. Garnish with mint leaves and serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.


Excerpted from The New Cook's Tour of Sonoma: 200 Recipes and The Best Of The Region's Food And Wine, by Michele Anna Jordan (Sasquatch Books, $21.95, 320 pages, paperback), which will be released in September 2000.

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