Salad junkies, get those tongs ready. With the arrival of spring, it’s time to bust out your favorite big wooden bowl in anticipation of tender lettuces, purple-tipped asparagus and buttery fava beans sprouting from the garden.
Need inspiration? Look to the edible gardens of Northern California’s wine country, which are brimming with these and hundreds of other fruits and vegetables. Much like the adrenaline rush vineyard managers feel at the start of the grape harvest, master gardeners from Livermore’s Wente Vineyards to Sonoma’s Stone Edge Farm Estate Vineyards & Winery are buzzing with optimism as they bring in pristine produce for the estate kitchens’ veggie-centric dishes.
How do they know what to grow? They collaborate with the estate’s restaurant chef or culinary director as early as January, poring over specialized seed catalogs that are the “ultimate dream books” for people who love to eat and garden, says Napa master gardener and food writer Janet Fletcher.
Her new cookbook, “Gather: Casual Cooking from Wine Country Gardens” (Jennifer Barry Design Books, $45), reveals the stunning culinary gardens of 13 Northern California wineries, from the mountain farmlike garden maintained by Clif Family Winery in St. Helena to the Mediterranean-inspired grounds at Skipstone in Geyserville, along with pro gardening tips and more than 65 tantalizing recipes, such as Mixed Chicory Caesar with “Cacio e Pepe” Croutons and Little Gem Lettuces with Radishes, Fennel and Verjus-Umeboshi Vinaigrette.
“When it comes to salads, winery chefs are big fans of bitter greens, watermelon radishes and herbs,” Fletcher says. By her count, the deep raised beds inside The Prisoner Wine Company’s St. Helena courtyard garden contain a dozen varieties of basil alone, including rare Persian Basil and Green Goddess Basil. “They add that intrigue of herbal perfume to everything,” she says.
Herbs are also plentiful at Stone Edge Farm, where an acre of organic fruit trees and vegetable and flower beds yields thousands of pounds a year for EDGE, the estate’s sustainably focused and globally inspired restaurant. Housed inside a Victorian home and run by culinary director Fiorella Butron with chefs John McReynolds and Mike Emanuel, EDGE produces plates that resemble little works of art, showcasing garden director Colby Eierman’s cornucopia of colorful and aromatic supplies.
In addition to mature fruit and olive trees, the cool-climate farm near Sonoma Plaza yields kale, Swiss chard, onions, leeks, beets and carrots year-round, with heirloom tomatoes and a host of peppers, including Butron’s favorite chiles from her native Peru. Eierman’s flowering plants provide nectar for the garden’s good bugs.
If you’re just starting out — or don’t have the space for asparagus, a perennial that needs up to five feet per plant — Eierman suggests planting lettuces, carrots and beets, plus radishes to give your salads a peppery crunch.
“Radishes are so easy and satisfying,” he says. “You can mix the seeds with carrot seeds as a fun way to get more out of a small space.”
He likes harvesting beet leaves first and the early baby beets soon after, which are fabulous sliced into a layered salad with late winter citrus.
Loose leaf lettuces are one of the easiest salad ingredients to grow, he says. Just plant, water, harvest and eat. “We harvest those leaf by leaf, leaving the center of the head to keep growing,” Eierman says. To add texture and flavor, he favors wild arugula, mustard greens and cilantro microgreens.
In her book, Fletcher talks about the creativity encouraged by building a salad from the garden versus the grocery store.
“You don’t walk into the garden thinking, ‘I’m going to make an arugula salad,’” she says. “You pull what’s ready, a few leaves of chervil, a few of arugula and this and that.”
In Fletcher’s kitchen, those arugula leaves will be tossed with with shaved fennel, ricotta salata, watermelon radishes and a few walnuts, then dressed with olive oil, lemon and a scraping of garlic.
At EDGE, the salads vary not only according to Eierman’s daily deliveries but by each chef’s sensibility. McReynolds, the winery’s founding chef, whose background is in Mediterranean cooking, favors simple salads, like a Soft Leaf Herb Salad using whatever soft leaves and lettuces you have, tossed by hand with a Sunflower Oil and Lemon Dressing.
Butron, on the other hand, leans on her Peruvian-Palestinian heritage and experience in Hawaii’s Pan Asian restaurants to create edgy composed salads, like Asparagus, Olive, Fava Bean, Pickled Radish and Tuna Salad.
Both salads are featured in the 2019 cookbook, “Stone Edge Farm Kitchen Larder Cookbook: Seasonal Recipes for Pantry and Table” (Rizzoli, $35), written by McReynolds, Butron and Emanuel. Divided into chapters inspired by 10 classic ingredients, including lemons and citrus, herbs, garlic, tomatoes and peppers, the book offers up 75 farm-fresh recipes alongside Butron’s ferments, preserves, infused oils and powders that she makes from the garden’s leftover bounty. Nothing is wasted.
“The larder is on steroids now,” McReynolds says. “We built a climate-controlled room for all the ferments. Fiorella really has a focus on this, and it’s such an important part of her cuisine.”
Whether it’s her infused oils, fruit vinegars or pickled radishes and dehydrated olive crumbles, both featured in the confit-style tuna salad, the larder provides building blocks of flavor and texture for salads throughout the year.
“It’s a mindful practice,” says Butron, of building her balanced veggie dishes. Her advice: Build your salad by starting with what’s newly in season, such as snap peas, with a lingering reminder of winter’s citrus, for example. Then incorporate the different taste profiles, from salty and sweet to bitter and acidic. For this salad, cue bitter greens, goat cheese and seeds finished with a simple roasted shallot-thyme vinaigrette.
“People sometimes think salads are not important, but I completely disagree,” she says. “I think they are super fun bursts of flavor in your mouth. They are so lively, and you can play around with so many things.”
4 spring gardening tips
Plant a blanket of Blue Spice basil around the base of tomatoes to deter nighttime predators,
such as raccoons. — Marcy Snow, gardener, Cakebread Cellars
Consider planting Cabernet red onions, an uncommon edible that flourishes on Clif Family Winery’s farm. Not only is the name a plus for wine lovers, but the variety is useful at multiple stages: as a mild spring onion, a mature summer onion and a dry storage crop. — Tessa Henry, farm manager, Clif Family Winery
The top habitat plants for healthy gardens are cosmos, dill, echinacea, fennel, milkweed, red valerian, salvia and yarrow. These put out the welcome mat for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. — Laura Regusci, Regusci Winery
An attractive vegetable garden is a healthy garden. Always remove thin and wilted leaves, which keeps disease at bay. Plant a cover crop to conceal the bare ground and improve the soil. — Daphne Araujo, proprietor and avid gardener, Wheeler Farms
— “From Gather: Casual Cooking From Wine Country Gardens”