Spring is a miraculous season. The earth awakens and shakes off its winter coat ready to burst with life once again. Everything seems brighter and cleaner with the crisp sunny days and cold nights. There is the promise of warmer days ahead and the fragrance of flowers ready to spread their petals to the sky. I love the growing excitement at farmer’s markets when new produce starts to show up. Everyone is anxiously awaiting the arrival of tender asparagus spears, bright pink rhubarb, spring garlic, Meyer lemons, and other tempting fruits and vegetables to brighten their plates after the long winter. It also brings out the poet in me, LOL!
Today’s entire menu is from Maria Helm Sinskey’s cookbook, “The Vineyard Kitchen.” Separated into seasonal favorites, it is one of my go-to sources when I am planning a dinner party. One of my favorite chefs, Maria is a master at creating interesting combinations that you may not have considered before. At first glance the recipes may seem a bit long, but it is Maria at her best – anticipating every question that might be asked. She is an engaging woman and her personality practically leaps off the pages of this cookbook. You can imagine sitting down with her at the kitchen table, chatting about food over a cup of coffee and nibbling on treats with your fingers.
I have been lucky to take several cooking classes from Maria and each time I walk away completely energized and grinning ear to ear. That is the affect Maria has on people who meet her. She is warm and funny, with a huge welcoming smile on her face, like she is your best friend. When you watch her cooking, you know that you can replicate her menu easily in your own home. Even ingredients I thought I didn’t like are delicious in her talented creations. Today’s menu would be appropriate for fancy dinner parties, Valentine’s Day, Easter, or other springtime celebrations.
Maria was reared in upstate New York, part of a large food-obsessed family which included an Alsatian grandmother on one side and an Italian grandmother on the other. She was destined for a life in the culinary industry. She became a West Coast convert when she attended San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. Jobs in high profile restaurants and cooking stints in Europe gave her the foundation for her award-winning career. Named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 1996 while at Plumpjack Cafe in San Francisco, and Rising Star Chef awards in SF Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle helped get her name recognition in the industry. She met and fell in love with Rob Sinskey, a leading winemaker in the Napa Valley (and one of my favorites!). She is a devoted wife and mother of two adorable girls, tends her organic garden, writes captivating cookbooks, teaches cooking classes, and creates culinary magic as the culinary director for Robert Sinskey Vineyards.
A rack of lamb, roasted with fresh herbs and presented with a succulent pan sauce is one of spring’s most prolific offerings. Available on nearly every menu, the preparations are endless, but the common thread is how long to cook it. Lamb should always be served medium-rare, quite pink in the center, never well done or it will be tough and dry. The smaller the ribs, the younger and more tender the lamb. Marinating lamb with fresh herbs a day ahead perfumes it with an intense freshness. When paired with simply roasted potatoes and whole garlic cloves, it is truly a great culinary celebration. I love the flavor of lemon and would also put a few wedges on the plates. Squeezed over the lamb, it adds a fresh brightness, complementing the savory flavors.
And of course your meal wouldn’t be complete without the ubiquitous asparagus. Bright green and tender, asparagus is the true harbinger of spring. Buying pencil asparagus is one of the highlights of my year. My mouth waters just talking about it! The trick is to not overcook it. Having a light crunch when you bite into it is sheer heaven for me. One way to achieve this is to quickly blanch it in boiling water and then plunge it immediately into a bowl of ice water. This is called shocking it and stops the cooking process so you can maintain the bright color and crispness. You can then toss it with other sauteed vegetables or dress it with a light vinaigrette as in today’s recipe.
A simple dessert is perfect after a heavy meal. These sugar cookies highlight the flavor of lemon for a refreshing finish. You can use the zest from the Meyer lemons used to make the vinaigrette. Crunchy, buttery, and lightly scented with lemon, these should be baked on the day you serve them, but the dough can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen to save you time. As your guests relax after their meal, slice and bake the cookies, delivering them hot and fresh from the oven. Nibbling on a couple of cookies while I finish my wine is my favorite ending to a fabulous meal.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my love affair with Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Long before I met my husband or knew who Maria Helm was, I loved Sinskey wines. One of the smaller producers in the Napa Valley and outside the main tourist district, it is a gem that I always take my friends and visiting guests to. With a laid back atmosphere and friendly staff, Sinskey’s is one of the best places to do wine tasting. They show all that a wine tasting experience can be. It isn’t about guzzling just to get drunk, it is about sampling carefully crafted wines and learning to detect the subtle flavor undertones. They have a thoughtfully prepared food and wine pairing that demonstrates how much each influences the other. You come away from Sinskey with an understanding of what life in wine country is all about … good wine, good food, and good friends.
Maria’s mantra “eat seasonally, drink good wine, and live a long and prosperous life” sounds like something we should all strive to do. Brava Maria!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
When you are preparing to cook look for ingredients that are used in more than one of the recipes. Today, lemon is used in both the vinaigrette and the cookies. Zest the lemon first and reserve the zest for the cookies. Then juice it for the dressing. It is much easier to zest a whole fruit than a squeezed one!
Kitchen Skill: Blanching Vegetables
Fill a large bowl about half full with ice cubes and then add enough water to fill it about 2/3 full. Set this next to your stove. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a brisk boil. Drop in your prepared vegetables and cook for a minute or two, just until they are brightly colored and still crisp. Using a slotted spoon, skimmer, or spider, quickly transfer the vegetables to the bowl of ice water. This stops the cooking process and locks in the color. Drain well and pat dry. They can be served as is with a light sauce or vinaigrette, or add them to a pan with sauteed aromatics and quickly warm them.
- 4 lamb racks, 8 to 9 ribs each, marinated the day before they are to be served
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 8 large whole garlic cloves, unpeeled and crushed
- 16 large whole garlic cloves
- 12 (4-inch) fresh rosemary sprigs or 4 tbsp dried rosemary
- 12 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 tbsp dried
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 lb fingerling potatoes, or any small tender potato
- 3 tbsp coarse sea salt
- Fresh herb sprigs, for garnish, optional
- Scrape off the meat and sinew from the rib bones with a small sharp knife. Called “frenching” the bones, your butcher can do this for you ahead of time. Cut the racks in half so that each piece has 4 ribs. In a large bowl, combine 1/4 cup olive oil and the crushed garlic. Crush 4 rosemary sprigs and the thyme sprigs with your hands and add. Add the lamb and coat well. Grind some coarse black pepper over all. Wrap well and marinate the racks overnight.
- Note: Leaving meat in large pieces helps you cook it perfectly every time, with the meat tender and moist throughout.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Wash and scrub the potatoes under running water to remove all traces of dirt. Drain well. If the potatoes are large, cut them in half lengthwise.
- In a bowl toss the potatoes, 16 whole unpeeled garlic cloves, 3 tbsp coarse sea salt, and 1/4 cup olive oil together; season with freshly ground black pepper.
- Spread the potatoes out in one layer on a sheet or roasting pan and place them in the oven 15 minutes before you begin cooking the lamb racks. The potatoes need to roast 45 minutes to 1 hour until they are tender and golden.
- Remove the lamb from the marinade and scrape off as many herbs as possible. Heat a large ovenproof saute pan over medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tbsp of olive oil.
- Season the lamb well with salt - no additional pepper should be necessary - and sear fat side down until golden, about 7 minutes. Turn the racks over so that the fat side is up and roast in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest on a platter or cutting board for 10 minutes before cutting each piece of rack in half. The potatoes can continue to roast while the lamb is resting if they need more time. Otherwise remove them from the oven and cover then with foil to keep warm until ready to serve.
- Serve the lamb on a platter surrounded with the roasted potatoes. For a dramatic presentation on individual plates, stand two pieces of the lamb upright and rest one against the another, rib bones intertwined like your fingers when you fold your hands. (see photo) Drizzle with the pan juices and garnish with additional fresh herb sprigs if desired.
- Yield: 8 servings (4 to 5 chops per person)
- Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
- 1 medium shallot, peeled, trimmed, and minced
- 3 tbsp Meyer lemon juice
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 lb jumbo green asparagus
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 16 slices thinly sliced prosciutto, more if you like to snack
- Prepare the Vinaigrette: In a small bowl, combine the minced shallot and the lemon juice; season with salt and pepper and let the mixture rest for 10 minutes.
- Drizzle the olive oil into the lemon juice while whisking constantly. Reserve at room temperature until ready to use. Refrigerate if you won’t use it within about 3 hours.
- Prepare the Asparagus: Preheat the grill.
- Snap off the ends of the asparagus stems by holding the spear at both ends and bending gently. The end will naturally break off at the point where the spear becomes tender. You may also trim the ends off for a neater look. Toss the asparagus with enough olive oil to lightly coat and season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium heat until they are caramelized and tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the grill and cool to warm.
- Toss with a little of the vinaigrette in a bowl and arrange on a platter, drizzling extra vinaigrette over the top. Place ruffles of prosciutto across the center of the asparagus like a belt. This dish can also be plated in single servings using the same method.
- 1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 large egg yolks
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- Granulated sugar or a coarse sugar such as turbinado for rolling
- In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with an electric hand mixer, beat the butter, lemon zest, and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
- Add the egg yolks one at a time and beat well after each addition.
- Mix together the dry ingredients and add to the butter-egg mixture. Mix until combined and roll into 1-1/2 inch diameter logs on a lightly floured surface. Flour your hands if necessary to keep the dough from sticking to them. Chill the logs on a sheet pan, wrapped with plastic, until they are firm, 2 hours or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Remove the logs from the refrigerator and unwrap. Slice the cookies 1/4 inch thick and roll in granulated or coarse sugar. Bake in the preheated oven on a parchment-lined baking sheet pan until golden on the edges, about 12 minutes.
- Unused dough logs may be individually wrapped and frozen for up to 1 month.
- Yield: 4 dozen 2-inch cookies