The Wine Country: A Latitude and an Attitude
As strange as this may sound, my favorite places in the whole world are connected by a single straight line. It’s the thirty-eighth parallel, and it runs right through all my spiritual homes: Sicily and Calabria in Italy, Murcia and Valencia in Spain, Athens in Greece, Izmir in Turkey--and, halfway around the globe--the earthly paradise so close to home, the California wine country.
As a chef, cooking teacher, and food writer, I am lucky enough to travel all over the world, but the closer I stick to that good old thirty-eighth parallel, the happier I am. And believe it or not, if I had to pick a single point on that line, I’d grab a picnic basket, jump in my car, and head north from my San Francisco home, across the Golden Gate Bridge, to “my” wine country, the nearby valleys and hillsides of Napa and Sonoma counties.
I’ve made that trip hundreds of times, and I’ve gotten to know this wine country in all its seasons: the long hot summer days, when the vines are green and heavy with grapes; the frenzied pace of the picking and crush in autumn; the quiet starkness of winter; and the magical return of spring, when the vineyards come alive with bright yellow mustard blossoms. And the more I’ve seen of this amazing place, the more I’m struck by how its steeply sloping hills covered with vines, intense sunlight, and vivid colors resemble the other part of the world I love so much, the Mediterranean.
Those similarities weren’t lost on the early European settlers of this northern California region, who took what nature had to offer and remade it in the image of the world they had left behind, literally transplanting their roots into the rich, well-drained soil. They planted groves of olive and citrus trees, fruit and nut orchards, gardens filled with Mediterranean herbs and vegetables. And they discovered that the mild climate, with its arid summers, cool morning fog, bright and hot afternoons, and cooling Pacific breezes, was perfect for growing wine grapes.
More than 150 years later, California--along with nearby wine regions in the Pacific Northwest--produces some of the great wines of the world. The landscape first imagined by those early settlers is now lush and mature. Vineyards share the land with olive trees, green fields, and gardens that look out of southern France, Italy, or Spain, brimming with a colorful ÒratatouilleÓ of sweet tomatoes ripening on the vine; bulbs of garlic; red, green, and yellow bell peppers; squash; and eggplant. Fruit and nut trees are everywhere--Meyer lemon, fig, apple, Italian prune plum, persimmon, and walnut, and the fragrance of rosemary, basil, wild fennel, thyme, lavender, and mint fill the air.
It’s no wonder this part of the world inspires cooking. More specifically, it inspires “wine country cooking”--a simple, unfussy, updated Mediterranean way of preparing and eating food that changes with the seasons and celebrates the fruits of the field, the orchard, the pasture, the river, and the sea, paired with your favorite wines. The marriage of food and wine, with all of its positive associations, is a cornerstone of wine country cooking. Nothing suits the wine country style of living and its simple, yet quenching style of cooking better than dishes that are simply cooked using the best ingredients, such as grass-fed cattle, free-range organic chicken, and freshly caught seafood. (They’re also a really good excuse for a great glass of wine.) On trip after trip to places like Tuscany in Italy, La Rioja in Spain, Provence in France, and the Napa Valley of California, I’ve found that the dishes I love most are often the simplest--a thick juicy bistecca alla Fiorentina
grilled over the embers in Tuscany enjoyed with Chianti, spit-roasted leg of lamb in the south of France paired with a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or wild salmon from the California Pacific coast washed down with a Pinot Noir. Nothing fancy, nothing contrived. Nothing to interfere with the essence of the matter.
Superb ingredients are a signature of wine country cooking and the farmer’s market is the ultimate place to find them. On display is a bounty of what’s best and most fresh, often picked that very morning. In wine country, farmer’s markets are gathering spots, like town squares, for friends, families, chefs, grape growers, and vineyard owners to meet and chat as they shop for local field-ripened vegetables and tree-ripened fruit, fragrant flowers, impeccable fish, artisan breads and pastries, plus delicacies such as cheeses and olive oil. It’s a year-round show: Winter brings colorful squashes, robust greens, hearty root vegetables, and wild mushrooms. In spring, the market is filled with green, as the new season brings lettuces, pea shoots, baby leeks, and green garlic. Then, the fabulous vegetables and fruits of summer, which need only the simplest preparations, so the cooking is easy. There are vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, melons, berries, plump figs, corn-on-the-cob, sweet bell peppers, summer squash, green beans, garlic, and all kinds of fresh herbs to sprinkle over them. As the days grow shorter and the sun more scarce, the farmer’s market becomes a cornucopia of earthy fall vegetables and fruits: grapes of all kinds, pumpkins, hard-shelled squashes of every color and shape, wild mushrooms, and root vegetables.
Many grape growers are also olive growers, and it’s impossible to think of wine country and not think of olive oil and olives. The gnarly olive tree, with its shimmering silver-green leaves is native to the wine countries of the south of France, Italy, Greece, California, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and South Africa and shares the same land as the vine. Both grapes and olives thrive in the Mediterranean climate of dry summers and wet winters. As essential as grapes and grapevines are to winemaking, olives and olive oil are pivotal in wine country cooking. I buy bottles of extra-virgin olive oil like I do wine, each specially chosen to complement a different mood, a different dish, a different flavor. I use fruity, peppery, complex extra-virgin olive oils for dressings, pastas, and simple dishes that allow the flavor to really shine through. “Pure” olive oil (usually a blend of refined and virgin oils) is fine for frying, but mostly I stick to extra-virgin olive oil.
A word of advice when it comes to olive oil: splurge! Buy the best olive oil you can get your hands on. For olives, try a few of the specialty varieties offered at the olive bars now proliferating at well-stocked groceries and food stores. Keep tasting and experimenting. Like that first brave soul who ever tried an olive, you’ll discover that one of the wine country’s great treasures is right there under your nose.
Another crop commonly grown in many wine countries is garlic, which makes its way into the cuisine with delicious results. Garlic is a dominant flavor in the cuisines of the wine regions throughout the Mediterranean, and it’s the same in California wine country, whose vineyards are neighbors of the garlic fields of Gilroy, the self-described “garlic capital of the world.” In early spring, just as the grapevine buds are beginning to break in the vineyards, garlic sprouts from the ground, resembling a bulbous green onion. Green garlic, the immature bulb harvested later in the spring, is not nearly as assertive as mature garlic. It’s perfect for dishes like soups, savory flans, soufflés, and pasta, where the flavor of garlic is meant to perfume, not overpower. During the hot months, the bulbs are mature and strongly flavored, ready to season the bright, simple foods of lazy summer days or to hang in a cool, dark place until dry for use during the fall and winter. As you can see, garlic plays an important role in the wine country kitchen at every stage of its development.
Just like garlic, cheeses and other artisanal products are produced in these regions. A new crop of farmers and cheesemakers--many based in the wine country--are discovering the beauty of farmstead and artisanal cheeses. Like winemakers and olive oil producers, they have elevated crafting cheese to an art. They’ve learned that similar to wine, the taste of cheese can be affected by environmental factors (terroir
), as well as when and how a cheese is produced. Artisanal cheeses are typically handmade in small quantities using traditional methods, local ingredients, and minimal mechanization, while farmstead cheeses are made from the farmer’s own milk producers (cows, sheep, goats) and crafted on site. On wine country menus, cheeses are often paired with fine wines, featured in elaborate recipes, or served as a separate course after the main course and combined with heirloom dried fruit, rustic breads, new-crop almonds and walnuts, rustic crackers, and organic chutneys.
Another facet of wine country cooking is rustic breads and pizzas. The oldest evidence of leavened bread was unearthed in Egypt, and Mediterranean-inspired cooks have loved wood-fired breads ever since! The desire for fresh, handmade whole-grain breads is within every one of us. Maybe it’s the urge to return to nature, the way things once were, with the simplicity, the low-tech process of it all. There are no gas jets, no fancy equipment, no mysterious ingredients. It takes flour, water, salt, and heat to make bread that’s as good as anything you can imagine. Of course, you also need the human element--hands to work the dough, eyes to watch it rise and brown, a nose to sense the moment it’s done, and happy mouths to taste the baker’s art. It all comes down to the human element, just like winemaking, where you need hands to pick the grapes, a nose to smell the bouquet, and a mouth to taste its goodness. The connection comes full circle when you put it all together, since fresh breads and hand-thrown pizzas pair so well with wine!
You can probably tell by now that food is a really important component of the wine country, but it’s also about lifestyle--magical, simple, and pure, life in the slow lane with all the right priorities. It’s taking an extra moment to really savor a great glass of wine or a lunch based on luscious fresh vegetables from your own garden or bought at your local farmer’s market. It’s spending the whole afternoon cooking and catching up with family and friends. It’s long, leisurely al fresco dinners, filled with laughter and stories and big, bright platters of food that sparkle in the candlelight under a blanket of stars.
And, of course, as people seldom eat in wine country without drinking something, it’s the love of pairing food and wine to bring out the best qualities of both. Wine is part of everyday life, not an afterthought. Wine is
food. And in that spirit, I urge you--if you’re someone who worries about which food goes with which wine--to set aside what you’ve read or heard about the “rules” of food-and-wine pairing. Forget about “white with chicken, red with meat.” Instead, think about how all the components of a dish go together. You’re braising some chicken with olives? Syrah pairs beautifully with the assertive flavor of olives. Yes, a red wine with chicken!
Here are some casual guidelines for pairing wine and food that work for me. Perhaps you’ve heard that salad can’t be served with wine because of the acidity of the vinaigrette. Try a Sauvignon Blanc, which often makes a perfect complement to salad. Or experiment with reducing the acidity of the vinaigrette and adding a bit more oil. One of my favorite vinaigrettes, which is very wine-friendly and so very, very simple, is made by boiling a cup of wine--Riesling or Gewürztraminer works well--until it is reduced to just a couple of tablespoons and has a syrupy consistency, then whisking in some fruity olive oil and a pinch of salt. Toss it with some salad greens and slices of peach, nectarine, plum, or pitted cherries, and a few toasted almonds. Maybe throw a little fresh goat cheese on top. Serve it with the same wine you used in the vinaigrette, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Keep in mind that the more a wine ages in oak barrels, the more difficult it is to pair with food; oak dampens the fruitiness of wine and masks the flavor of food. I like wines with just a kiss of oak that lets the freshness of the fruit and the brightness of the flavor shine through. Also, take the weight and richness of food into account when pairing with wine. If you have a rich sauce, think rich wine!
Salty and acidic foods decrease the acid perception of wine, making it taste sweeter. Sweet food has the opposite effect--wine tastes more acidic and less sweet. Spicy foods bring out the tannins in wine, while rich, fatty foods decrease the perception of a wine’s acidity and tannins. But, in the end, the important rule is this: follow your nose and your taste buds, and enjoy what tastes good to you. Drink wines that you like, eat foods that you like, and the rest will fall into place.
The same holds true for cooking. I’m always encouraging my students, my family, and my friends to experiment and try new things. Maybe it’s mastering a new cooking technique. Or perhaps it’s trying a new ingredient. So, go ahead. Toss a little shaved fennel into that salad. Try cooking a chicken under a brick. How about shucking some fresh fava beans when they are at their springtime best, or maybe even growing some yourself? After all, how will you know what you might be missing unless you take some chances every now and then?
Before I send you into the kitchen, here are a few key techniques you’ll use over and over in wine country cooking. Turn to this page as an easy reference when you come across these instructions in the recipes.Peeling, Seeding, and Chopping Tomatoes
Have ready a bowl of ice water. With a small paring knife, cut a cross through the skin on the bottom of the tomato. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the tomatoes and boil for 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon and immediately place in the ice water to cool. Remove the tomatoes from the water and, with a small knife, core the tomatoes. Remove the skins. Discard the skins and cores. Imagine the core is the North Pole and cut across the equator. Cup the tomato halves, one in each hand. Squeeze the tomatoes to remove the seeds. Chop the tomatoes.Roasting Bell Peppers
Place the peppers directly on the gas jets of your cooktop or on an outdoor grill and char the peppers on all sides until the skins are completely black. Alternately, halve the peppers lengthwise and remove the stems, seeds, and ribs. Place the halves, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Broil until the skins are black, 6 to 10 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a paper or plastic bag, close tightly, and let cool for 10 minutes. Scrape off the skins with a knife. Cut the peppers into 1/4-inch strips and then across into a 1/4-inch dice.Toasting Nuts
To toast pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, or almonds, place them on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until light golden and hot to the touch.
Keep things simple and focus on the goodness of the ingredients, and it will all work out. That’s how we do things in the wine country. And having cooked and eaten all over the planet, I can tell you that the wine country is a state of mind. It’s relaxed, refreshing, and festive, filled with lively flavors and brimming with possibilities. I hope this book gives you a taste of that happy state of mind and brings a world of delicious possibilities to your table. So grab a glass of wine, put on an apron, and join me in the kitchen!
Excerpted from Wine Country Cooking by Joanne Weir. Copyright © 2008 by Joanne Weir. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.