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Janet Fletcher celebrates California's sustainably grown crops in 'Wine Country Table'

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It was the assignment of a lifetime for Napa food writer Janet Fletcher: Take a road trip through the Golden State, with pit stops at two dozen farms and wineries on the leading edge of sustainability.

As the author of one of the first farmers markets cookbooks — “Fresh from the Farmers’ Market,” in 1997 — and the wife of a longtime Napa winemaker, Fletcher was already familiar with the fertile food and wine scene of Northern California.

“I spent two years at Chez Panisse, and that really changed how I thought about food and introduced me to great ingredients and the importance of small farms in California,” Fletcher said in a phone interview from her home in Napa. “This was right up my alley.”

At the end of the trip, Fletcher wove together 23 growers’ stories of water reuse and energy conservation with 50 seasonally driven recipes to create one hefty tome, “Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest” (Rizzoli, $45), released earlier this spring.

The ambitious project commissioned by the Wine Institute — a California wine advocacy group that received a grant to promote California’s specialty crops — also celebrates the state’s diverse growers and growing regions, from Mendocino County’s Handley Cellars and Sonoma County’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery to a San Joaquin County cherry orchard and a Santa Barbara County avocado farm.

“The landscape photographs of the wineries (by Robert Holmes) are just gorgeous,” Fletcher said. “It’s just a visual tour of California, and it’s mouthwatering to see my dishes come alive.”

For those getting ready to celebrate Mother’s Day, Fletcher has sprinkled spring dishes throughout the book that would serve as a fitting tribute to moms of all ages, from a Warm Salmon Salad with Asparagus and Farm Eggs to a Warm Apricot and Cherry Crisp. And what better way to honor Mother Earth than a wine-and-food feast grown sustainably?

Foggy, cool North Coast

Before writing the book, Fletcher said there was a lot of discussion about how to organize it — by season, by crop, or by region?

“We decided it made the most sense to look at it as a road trip, from north to south,” she said. “So that’s the approach I took.”

The book begins with the cool climate of the North Coast, a fog-kissed region naturally hospitable to viticulture and the cool-weather fruits and vegetables that locals already know and love.

“Some of the best wines come from the North Coast,” she said. “It’s about cool crops — artichokes, lettuces, fava beans — and cooler climate fruits like apples and pears. It’s perfect for salad greens but not so much for tomatoes.”

Next, the book takes the reader through the warmer growing regions of the Sierra Foothills and Inland Valleys, then swings down to the cool, Central Coast and winds up amid the citrus, date and flower farms of Southern California.

“The lion’s share of California crops come out of the San Joaquin and Central Valley,” she said. “That whole beautiful valley feeds the nation, and it’s a beautiful sight to drive through there, especially in spring when all the fruit trees are blooming.”

On the other hand, she discovered that delicious wine varietals can be found everywhere, some demonstrating a different character depending on where they are grown — a lean, crisp chardonnay from a cool area, for example, or a richer, riper chardonnay from a region with more heat.

“What really came home to me was that there are so many different climates in this state and that just about every wine variety you can imagine is going to find its sweet spot somewhere,” she said. “Whether it’s zinfandel in Lodi and the Sierra foothills or the Rhone varieties that do well on the Central Coast … all the way down to Temecula, which is warm, but they grow some great cabernet there.”

Defining sustainable

Along the way, Fletcher was delighted by the growers’ inventiveness and willingness to fulfill the broad demands of sustainability.

“It’s not just whether you do or don’t spray your crops,” she explained. “It has a lot to do with employee welfare and the waterways and wildlife. It’s a big, all-encompassing idea.”

One of the common themes she discovered was a long-standing commitment to pass onto the next generation a farm that is even healthier than the one that came before.

“In almost every case, the farms were multigenerational, like the pear grower (Henderson Family Farms) in Lake County,” she said. “She (Diane Henderson) is fifth generation, and her trees are 140 years old.”

Then there’s Six Sigma Winery in Lake County, a 4,300-acre former cattle ranch purchased by real-estate broker Kaj Ahlmann and his wife, Else, in 2000.

“They told me when they bought the property, the neighbors were afraid they would develop it and ruin it,” she said. “In fact, they have shown such care for that property that they are now being asked to speak at Sierra Club gatherings.”

High-tech farmers

What surprised the author the most, however, were the wineries that have adopted very sophisticated technology to monitor various vineyard conditions, from weather to soil moisture.

“In wineries and farms, almost every drop of water is used more than once,” she said. “We often think of farmers as people who are stuck in their ways, but in California, they are amazingly forward thinking, looking for innovations to stay one step ahead.”

As an example, she pointed to Shied Vineyards in Monterey County, which uses a soil monitoring technology that reveals when particular vines are stressed, then automatically triggers the irrigation just to that part of the vineyard.

“Shied is down in the Monterey wind gap, and they have put in a wind turbine, because that’s where they are,” she said. “They generate all their own energy plus enough to power other homes. It takes a lot less space than solar panels.”

As an example of “what’s old is new again,” she also pointed to the widespread use of cover crops in vineyards.

“Forty years ago, if you were to visit a vineyard in California, you would see bare ground around the vines,” she said. “Today we know a well kept vineyard has lots of cover crops and native grass to keep the soil in place and provide green manure.”

One of the most compelling stories she found was at a protea flower farm in Rainbow, an hour north of San Diego, that was started by a Mexican immigrant who coaxes the delicate, pin-cushion flowers to sprout from the desert.

“This man came to California with nothing and learned to grow proteas,” she said. “Now he has a very successful business shipping his flowers all over the world.”

Seasonal fare for spring

Although the recipes are arranged by region, Fletcher worked hard to make sure she hit all the seasons while highlighting the crops that California is best known for, including personal favorites like broccoli rabe and Asian vegetables. She also included ethnically inspired dishes, reflecting the exotic faces and tastes of the West Coast.

“One of the recipes I’m most proud of in the book is Chicken Pho,” she said. “I’ve been eating it in restaurants for 35 years … I decided I would create a pho recipe so that I could use some of the Asian herbs.”

For spring lunches and dinners such as Mother’s Day, she recommends the Spring Vegetable Tabbouli with fava beans, radishes and spring herbs, which is “beautiful and crunchy and refreshing,” as well as the Fava Bean Toasts with Ricotta and Mint.

“It’s about what we grow, but I snuck some cheese in there,” said Fletcher, who gives cheese classes all over the Bay Area and writes a blog, Planet Cheese (janetfletcher.com/blog).

There’s also a tasty Warm Salmon Salad with asparagus, farm eggs and fingerling potatoes — a California version of the classic Salade Nicoise — and for lamb lovers, a savory stew of Lamb Meatballs with Artichokes and Olives served over orzo.

In the heart of spring, there’s nothing fresher than a dessert made from the state’s bounty of stone fruit, such as her favorite Warm Apricot and Cherry Crisp.

“I love how well apricots and cherries go together,” she said. “Their season is so short.”

_____

The following recipes are from “Wine Country Table: With Recipes that Celebrate California’s Sustainable Harvest” by Janet Fletcher in collaboration with Wine Institute.

“An abundance of fresh-chopped herbs and colorful, crunchy vegetables makes this salad as refreshing as spring rain,” Fletcher writes. “It resembles tabbouleh, but here the vegetables play a bigger role. Serve it for lunch with a chunk of feta and ripe olives, or for dinner with grilled lamb or salmon. “Wine suggestions: chardonnay or pinot gris/grigio.

Spring Vegetable Tabbouli with Fava Beans, Radishes and Spring Herbs

Serves 4

3⁄4 cup extra-fine bulgur (#1 grind)

3⁄4 cup water

— For dressing:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Vietnamese fish sauce

1 small clove garlic, grated with a rasp grater or very finely minced

— Kosher or sea alt

1 pound fava beans in the pod

1⁄2 cup thinly sliced radishes

1⁄2 cup thinly sliced cucumbers

1⁄3 cup minced green onion

1⁄2-3⁄4 cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint, cilantro)

— Ground Aleppo chile or freshly ground black pepper

Shake the bulgur in a fine-mesh sieve to remove any particles as fine as dust. Transfer the bulgur to a bowl and add the water. Stir briefly, then let stand undisturbed for 15 minutes. The bulgur will absorb all or most of the water. Pour the bulgur into a sieve lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth, then gather the cheesecloth into a bag and squeeze to remove any excess moisture. The bulgur should be quite dry. Transfer it to a large bowl and fluff with a fork.

Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, fish sauce, garlic and a large pinch of salt.

Remove the fava beans from their fuzzy pods. Bring a small pot of water to a boil over high heat. Have ready a bowl of ice water. Plunge the fava beans into the boiling water, return to a boil, and cook until they are tender, about 1 minute if small and 2 minutes if large. (Test a few to be sure.) Drain in a sieve and immediately transfer to the ice water. When cool, drain again, then peel each bean by pinching the skin open on one end, then slipping the bean free.

Add the fava beans, radishes, cucumbers, green onion, herbs, and 1∕4 teaspoon Aleppo chile or black pepper to taste to the bulgur and toss gently with a fork. Add the dressing and toss well. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve immediately.

Note: Bulgur vs. cracked wheat: These two grain products are the same but different. Cracked wheat is simply the whole wheat kernel (also called the berry) cracked coarsely, like steel-cut oats. To make bulgur, the wheat berries are cooked first, then dried and cracked. Bulgur has a toastier flavor than cracked wheat and is produced in a range of sizes, from #1 (extra-fine) to #4 (coarse). Look for bulgur #1 in Middle Eastern markets, where the size is usually indicated on the package. In supermarket bulk bins, the size of the bulgur may not be indicated; most likely, the bulgur is medium-fine and will need longer soaking to soften. If it doesn’t soften sufficiently in cold water, add a little boiling water and let stand until al dente.

_____

“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: Rosé, sauvignon blanc, or chardonnay.

Warm Salmon Salad with Asparagus, Farm Eggs and Fingerling Potatoes

Serves 4

For vinaigrette:

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 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

— Kosher or sea salt

1 pound (500 grams) fingerling potatoes

4 large eggs

1 pound (500 grams) medium asparagus, tough ends removed Extra virgin olive oil for oiling the pan

4 skin-on wild salmon fillets, about 6 ounces (185 grams) 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. 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 degrees. 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.

Salmon note: California’s wild king (chinook) salmon is the most prized among several varieties found in West Coast waters. It has delicate flavor and lean flesh early in the season, becoming richer and fattier by late summer.

_____

“How clever of nature to ripen apricots and cherries at the same time; the two fruits are so compatible. Toss them with a little sugar and tapioca to thicken their juices, add a crunchy oat and walnut topping, and bake until bubbly.

This homestyle summer dessert can stand alone, but vanilla-bean ice cream mingling with the warm juices would make it even more luscious. Allow time for cooling. The crisp is much better warm than hot.” Wine suggestion: Late-harvest dessert wine from semillon, sauvignon blanc, or riesling.

Warm Apricot and Cherry Crisp

Serves 8

— For topping:

3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

— Pinch of kosher or sea salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, firm but not chilled, cut into 12 pieces

1⁄2 cup chopped toasted walnuts

1⁄3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats

1 1⁄2 to 1 3⁄4 pounds apricots, halved and pitted

1⁄2 pound cherries, halved and pitted

1⁄2 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

For topping: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt. Mix on low speed until blended. Add the butter and continue to mix on low speed until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the walnuts and oats and mix just until clumps form. You can refrigerate this mixture, covered, for up to 2 days.

Cut the apricot halves into 2 to 4 wedges, depending on their size. Combine the apricots, cherries, sugar and tapioca in a bowl and toss well. Let stand for 10 minutes to draw some juices out of the fruit. Transfer the mixture to a 9 1∕2-inch pie pan. Spread the topping evenly over the surface; it should cover the fruit.

Put the pie pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is lightly browned and crisp, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool on a rack for 45 minutes before serving.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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