When Cate Conniff moved from New England more than 15 years ago to help launch the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, she thought she had entered Oz.
In reality, the marketing manager had landed in the middle of a perfect storm, a swirling vortex of fertile soil, fresh talent and delicious products that would transform Northern California into the food-and-wine mecca we know today.
"I'd never seen or tasted green garlic before," she recalled. "Once I got to green garlic, that was it for me ... It works so well with the other produce that comes out in spring. It was meant to be."
The Napa Valley campus was originally aimed at continuation students, but it has grown up over the years. Now, the majority of students are enrolled in long-term degree and certificate programs. So it was inevitable that Greystone would want to spread its wings and publish a cookbook someday.
Just in time for bud break, Conniff's "Seasons in the Wine Country" (Chronicle Books) was released this spring, featuring wine notes by the CIA-Greystone Sommelier Traci Dutton and recipes from the school's many expert instructors, including John Ash of Santa Rosa.
Unlike the other cookbooks published by the CIA, Greystone's cookbook reflects its specific terroir, with recipes from iconic eateries throughout the valley, such as Model Bakery, Meadowood and Mustards.
Because life is so fluid in the Napa Valley — with vintners and chefs working and playing together — Conniff wanted the book to reflect the way her life and her work overlap.
"This books has a more personal voice than most CIA books," she said. "The chefs I work with I see at the farmers market, we grill together, and we take trips out to Tomales Bay .<TH>.<TH>. It's what we do for a profession, and it's what we do at home."
Conniff culled the book's seasonal recipes from a database she collected from the school's many classes, conferences and special events, as well as her own library.
Organized into four chapters — Bud Break, Ripening, Harvest and Dormancy — the cookbook includes groups of recipes that work well together and forms an edible narrative for the changing seasons.
You can taste the freshness of spring in the Rhubarb and Strawberry Shortcakes with Gingered Creme Fraiche, for example, and the ripeness of summer in the Sweet White Corn Soup with Crab and Chive Oil.
"What about white corn does not say summer, no matter where you are?" Conniff said. "We all experence it as a common feeling in summer."
Though not a trained chef, Conniff ran a cooking school and an upscale market in Boston. She tested all of the recipes in her home kitchen, making them approachable for the home cook.
"There are recipes in here that the complete novice could do," she said. "There's only four ingredients in the Prosciutto, Parmesan and Honey Mustard Palmiers, and it's completely possible for anyone."
Another foolproof spring dish — Steamed Organic Eggs with Green Garlic, Asparagus and Spinach from Christopher Kostow of Meadowood — relies more on pristine ingredients than culinary skill.
"You just saute it up, put it in ramekins, and put it in a steamer basket," she said. "And yet .<TH>.<TH>. it makes you look really good when you put it on the table."