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Veggie adventures


It's the moment all Wine Country gardeners, cooks and diners have been waiting for: a new wave of fresh vegetables is ripe and ready for slicing and dicing, dipping and sauteeing.

At the crest, you'll find juicy heirloom tomatoes and corn, crunchy pole beans and cucumbers, ready to land in bins at local farmers markets. Eggplant and peppers are still just a blip on the horizon, but the harvest has begun and, weather willing, will continue through the fall holidays.

More and more, home cooks are looking for recipes that can turn vegetables into main courses, entrees rather than side dishes.

"The heirloom tomatoes and the beans are just coming in," said Olive & Vine chef/owner Catherine Venturini, who likes to showcase the sweet ripe vegetables of summer on the menu of her Glen Ellen restaurant.

Located in Jack London Village, Olive & Vine has gained a reputation for fresh, organic and wholesome cuisine. Originally a lunch cafe, Olive & Vine got an upscale makeover a few years ago, complete with crystal chandeliers and white tablecloths, sunflowers and dahlias.

At the restaurant, Venturini draws upon her Italian heritage to create a wide range of signature dishes, from Black Cod and Bok Choy Dumplings to a Grilled Niman Ranch Pork Chop with red rice and cranberry beans.

Throughout the ever-evolving menu, the chef also sprinkles in an interesting array of vegetable entrees, such as the Summer Farro Risotto with ramps, mushrooms, English peas, kale, summer squash and mascarpone.

The mushrooms not only give the dish a meaty texture but lend a crucial depth of flavor.

"We buy trumpet and Alba (clamshell) mushrooms from Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol, and make a stock," she said. "The mascarpone gives it a little richness."

Venturini also makes asavory Summer Succotash, based on the famous corn and bean dish of the Native Americans from the Northeast.

For the succotash, Venturini uses white beans and Romanos she sources from The Patch in Sonoma, which sells at many local farmers markets.

"They have the best Romano beans I've tasted in my life," she said. "They also do basil, tomatoes and lemon cucumber."

The homey succotash, which can be served as either a side dish or an entree, also includes kernels of fresh corn and cherry tomatoes, all dressed up in a fresh tarragon vinaigrette.

For hot summer nights, it's hard to beat the refreshing flavor of a Chilled Watermelon Gazpacho, served up ice cold with a garnish of cilantro and pepito pumpkin seeds.

"We take serrano peppers, lime, jicama and cucumber," she said. "And blend it up with the watermelon."

The gazpacho makes for a light dinner or lunch entree when served with a salad such as the Olive & Vine Lemon Caesar with roasted garlic croutons, shaved Parmesan and Italian anchovy.

The following recipes are from Catherine Venturini, chef/owner of Olive & Vine in Glen Ellen.

Chilled Watermelon Gazpacho

Makes 6 servings

6 cups peeled, chopped seedless watermelon (about a 6-pound melon)

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped fine

1 cup peeled jicama, chopped fine

? cup diced red onion

1? tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 finely chopped Serrano chile (or to taste)

— Juice of 2 limes

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

— Sea salt & fresh ground Pepper to taste

— Extra virgin olive oil for drizzle on rop

Combine all ingredients except olive oil, salt & pepper in large mixing bowl. Puree half in food processor, or to desired smoothness. Transfer to another large bowl. (You can puree another few cups, or add the remainder, whichever you prefer for consistency. Also, it can be all done in the food processor if you like it smoother.)

Add salt & pepper to taste, and more lime if needed. Cover and chill for several hours. Serve very cold in chilled bowls with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

"Farro does not have the starchy consistency of Arborio rice," Venturini said. "But it makes an even more delicious, nutritious vegetarian dish."

Summer Farro 'Risotto'

Makes 4 servings

2? cups semi-pearled farro

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium leek, washed & chopped into ?-inch pieces

3 cups assorted local gourmet mushrooms (such as maiitake, trumpet, alba, nameko , clamshell)

? bunch caldo nero (dinosaur) kale, stemmed, and rough chopped

? pound summer squash or zucchini

1 cup fresh shelled English peas

4 cups vegetable or mushroom stock

1 teaspoon each chopped fresh thyme and basil

? cups mascarpone cheese

— Freshly shaved parmesan, for optional garnish

To cook farro, boil 2? cups farro in salted water for 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Saute the leeks & mushrooms until lightly browned. Add farro and stock and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add squash, kale, salt & pepper to taste and keeping cooking (Farro will absorb the stock as it cooks.) Add peas, herbs & mascarpone.

Continue cooking over medium heat until ingredients are combined, and a lightly soupy consistence is reached. Adjust seasonings. Serve in large shallow soup bowls, with plenty of the y stock. Add parmesan to top if you wish.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.