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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."

Each chapter also includes a page or two on a cooking technique, such as steaming or grilling, reflecting the recipes around it.

"I tried to incorporate recipes in such a way that people were going to learn something as a result of making the recipe," she said.

"Once you learn some of these basics, then you have more confidence."

Some of her favorite recipes in the book come from Ash, who teaches in the Sophisticated Palate cooking program at the Greystone campus.

To illustrate the Wine Country chef's unique style, Conniff included his summery recipe for Grilled Brined Shrimp with Tomatillo and Avocado Salsa and his autumn recipe for Wilted Greens with Hazelnut Oil, Eggs and Fennel on Toast.

One of her favorite winter recipes comes from Almir DaFonseca of Sebastopol, an instructor who is experienced in Italian cuisine. She made his Braised Chicken Thighs with Red Pearl Onions, Green Olives, Golden Raisins, Roasted Garlic Gremolata and Orzo once a week last winter.

"This is his take on a very old Italian recipe," she said. "The recipe is from centuries ago, but it's been given a new twist."

The global flavors featured in the cookbook reflect the cooking school's decision, from day one, to focus on the cuisines of Latin America, Asia and the Mediterranean in addition to the haute cuisine of Europe.

"When we started Greystone 15 years ago in August, the premise was that we were going to level the playing field in terms of world cuisine," she said. "At the time, it was a pretty radical departure."

While the school has positioned itself on the cutting edge — its new olive-oil tasting bar showcases high-end producers from all over the world — the journey has paradoxically brought it back to ancient traditions. But Conniff said the premier American cooking school takes pains not to stay tied to the past.

"We're going back to tradition in order to create the future," she said. "But we do it with a vibe of being contemporary at the same time."

In the spring chapter of the book, for example, the Minted English Pea Soup is a traditional combination of peas and mint, but the garnish of creme fraiche makes it taste new again.

"I love creme fraiche because it has a wonderful tart, cultured flavor without being yogurt-tart," she said. "And it has a really nice texture."

Creme fraiche also gives a spring dessert, Rhubarb and Strawberry Shortcakes with Gingered Creme Fraiche, a fresh new twist.

"You get a complex flavor by having creme fraiche in the whipped cream," she said. "It makes it more grown-up."

That dessert, inspired by pastry chef-instructor Stephen Durfee, also provides a lesson in how to build up subtle flavor in a dish.

Before cooking the rhubarb, you toss it in sugar, ginger pieces and cardamom pods and let it sit overnight, which creates a spicy, warm undertone.

The shortcake is finished with a sprinkling of candied ginger chips, adding yet another layer of spice.

"You've got ginger in the sauce, as a deep note," Conniff said. "And then you have a high note of the ginger chips at the very end."

Each chapter of the book includes a wine essay written by sommelier Dutton on a varietal that works in general with the foods of that season. As beverage manager for the Greystone campus, Dutton is in charge of all the wine for the restaurant, classes and special events.

"She has a unique and elegant way of writing and talking about wine," Conniff said. "For spring, she wrote an essay on ros?."

"Unless you or a friend grow your own peas or you can nab some as they come into the farmers' market, good brands of frozen organic peas are often the better choice, as the sugars in fresh peas turn very quickly to starch," Conniff writes. "This soup serves about 1 cup per portion and can easily be doubled."<QA0>

Minted English <QA0>

Pea Soup

<MC>Makes 4 servings

[RECIPE_00]2<MC><TB>tablespoons olive oil

<MC>?<MC><TB>onion (about 4 ounces), cut into ?-inch dice

<MC>1<MC><TB>quart vegetable or chicken stock

<MC>1<MC><TB>teaspoon kosher salt, or as needed

<MC>1/8<MC><TB>teaspoon white pepper, or as needed

<MC>1<MC><TB>quart shelled peas, fresh or frozen

<MC>16<MC><TB>mint leaves (8 coarsely chopped, 8 reserved for garnish)

<MC>2<MC><TB>tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

<MC>?<MC><TB>cup cr?e fra?he

<MC>1<MC><TB>lemon, cut into 8 wedges

In a large, deep skillet or stock pot over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and sweat it until translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes.

Add the stock, salt, and pepper, increase the heat to medium high, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the peas, chopped mint, and parsley to the stock and bring the liquid back to a simmer. Simmer until peas turn a bright green and are tender, about 5 minutes.

Place a fine-mesh sieve over a medium bowl. With an immersion or in a stand blender, pur? the soup until smooth. You may need to do this in batches (see Chef's Note). Pour the pur?d soup into the sieve (you can batch this as well). With the back of a large spoon, push the liquid through the solids into the bowl.

Wipe clean the original pan. Pour the soup back into it and gently rewarm over medium-low heat. Add the cr?e fra?he and stir well to blend. Immediately remove from the heat, adjust seasonings as necessary, and pour the soup into small soup bowls. Garnish each bowl with 2 mint leaves and serve each bowl with 2 lemon wedges, for guests to squeeze into soup as desired.


"This makes a great brunch offering, as most everything can be done in advance and refrigerated," Conniff said. "When ready to cook, just crack the eggs into the ramekins and steam." From Chef Christopher Kostow, executive chef at Meadowood.<QA0>

Steamed Organic Eggs with Green Garlic, Asparagus, and Spinach with Pain de Mie Croutons

<MC>Makes 4 servings

[RECIPE_00]2<MC><TB>tablespoons olive oil

<MC>2<MC><TB>?-inch slices pain de mie or similar white bread, cut into ?-inch cubes (about 2 cups)

<MC>3<MC><TB>tablespoons butter

<MC>4<MC><TB>teaspoons minced green garlic

<MC>8<MC><TB>stalks asparagus (about 8 ounces), trimmed and cut into 1/8-inch slices

<MC>8<MC><TB>cups very loosely packed baby spinach (about 4 ounces)

<MC>1/8<MC><TB>teaspoon kosher salt, or as needed

<MC>4<MC><TB>large eggs

<TB>Freshly ground black pepper, as needed

<TB>Sea salt, as needed

In a large saut?pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil and add the bread cubes. Stir to coat and saut? stirring frequently, until the cubes are crispy and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and place on a plate. Reserve until needed.

Return the saut?pan to the heat and add the butter. Melt over medium heat and, when the butter is frothy, add the green garlic. Sweat (see Chef's Note), stirring often, until the garlic is very fragrant and softened, but not browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the asparagus and half of the spinach, tossing to coat with the butter and garlic. Cover the pan and let the spinach wilt for 1 minute.

Add the remaining spinach, toss to coat, cover, and let spinach wilt for an additional minute. Uncover the pan and saut?the mixture, stirring often, until the spinach is completely wilted, 2 to 3 more minutes. Sprinkle with the salt, transfer to a plate, and chill in the refrigerator.

Bring a couple of inches of water to a boil in a wok or pan that measures 2 inches larger than a steamer basket. The water level should be below the bottom of the steamer basket.

When the asparagus mixture has chilled, divide it among four 6-ounce ramekins. Break an egg over the top of the mixture in each ramekin, being careful to keep the yolk in the center. Place the ramekins in the steamer basket. Reduce the heat to medium. The water should be at a gentle simmer. Carefully set the basket over the simmering water, cover, and cook until the whites are set but yolks are still runny, about 10 minutes.

Carefully remove the ramekins from the steamer basket and sprinkle about ? cup of the bread cubes over each egg. Top each ramekin with a few grinds of black pepper and a few grains of sea salt. Serve and let guests know to break the yolk and combine the ingredients.

"Try to find a farm stand near you when the strawberry bug bites, as they are highly perishable when perfectly ripe, so the best ones rarely make it to stores," Conniff writes. " The balance of juicy strawberries and rhubarb, its tart counterpart in spring desserts, together with the refreshing spice of ginger bits raise this recipe above the usual strawberry shortcake fray."

Note: You need to start a day in advance of serving.

Inspiration for this recipe came from Pastry Chef-Instructor Stephen Durfee, who before becoming a faculty member at Greystone was the pastry chef at The French Laundry.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Shortcakes with Gingered Creme Fraiche

<MC>Makes 8 shortcakes

[RECIPE_00]For Rhubarb:

<MC>1<MC><TB>pound rhubarb, cut into ?-inch cubes (about 1 quart)

<MC>? to 1<MC><TB>cup sugar, depending upon desired sweetness

<MC>1<MC><TB>2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and halved (about 1? ounces)

<MC>2<MC><TB>cardamom pods

<TB>For Vanilla Shortcakes:

<MC>2<MC><TB>cups all-purpose flour

<MC>?<MC><TB>teaspoon kosher salt

<MC>1<MC><TB>tablespoon baking powder

<MC>1<MC><TB>tablespoon sugar

<MC>1<MC><TB>2-inch section of a vanilla bean

<MC>1<MC><TB>cup heavy cream, or as needed

<MC>3<MC><TB>tablespoons melted butter

<TB>For Whipped Cream and Cr?e Fra?he with Ginger Chips:

<MC>?<MC><TB>cup cr?e fra?he

<MC>1<MC><TB>cup heavy cream

<MC>2<MC><TB>teaspoons sugar

<MC>?<MC><TB>cup ginger chips (see Chef's Note) or candied ginger, finely minced

<TB>For strawberries:

<MC>2<MC><TB>cups fresh strawberries, cut into ?-inch thick slices

For the rhubarb: Toss the rhubarb, sugar, ginger and cardamom pods in a glass container. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Turn the mixture once or twice to evenly distribute the sugar.

Place a fine-mesh sieve over a medium saucepan. Gently pour the rhubarb mixture through the sieve into the saucepan to collect the accumulated juices. Remove the sieve with the rhubarb and place over a bowl. Remove and discard the ginger and cardamom.

Bring the liquid and any undissolved sugar in the saucepan to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring gently, until all of the sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Add the rhubarb to the saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb just begins to soften, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the rhubarb mixture from the heat and reserve at room temperature. The rhubarb will continue to soften as it sits.

For the shortcakes: Preheat the oven to 425?F.

Sift the dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Slit the vanilla bean and, using a sharp paring knife, scrape the seeds into flour mixture and reserve the pod for another use. Stir the flour mixture to distribute the vanilla seeds.

Add 1 cup cream and mix into the flour with a large wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Add more cream as necessary until the dry ingredients become a firm ball of dough with no dry spots; it should not be sticky.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead about 20 times, until the dough becomes smooth but not shiny, and firm but pliable. Pat the dough into a 9-inch square.

Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, cut 8 rounds of biscuit dough as close to one another as possible, rerolling the dough gently if necessary.

Brush each shortcake on both sides with the melted butter to lightly coat, and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake until puffed and lightly golden, about 15 minutes.

Place the shortcakes on a wire rack and allow to cool completely.

For the whipped cream: Place the stainless steel bowl and whip attachment for an electric mixer in the freezer 10 minutes before whipping the cream. Place the cr?e fra?he, cream, and sugar in the chilled bowl and whip on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Gently stir in the ginger chips. Reserve in the refrigerator until needed.

Place the saucepan with the rhubarb mixture back on the stove over medium-high heat. Add the strawberries and cook until the strawberries are just heated through but still firm about 2 minutes. Tease the shortcakes apart with a fork. Divide the rhubarb and strawberry mixture between the shortcakes (about 1/2 cup per serving) and finish each shortcake with a small dollop of whipped cream.

Chef's Note: Ginger chips from Ginger People are a great staple to have on hand to help balance many a pastry. They are available at Whole Foods.

Diane Peterson, a staff writer, can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson @pressdemocrat.com.

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