If I am sick of apples then it must be spring! It is usually right about now that, as I slice my thousandth apple of the winter, that I begin to crave some other fruit. Any other fruit.
I begin to dream of honey-scented peaches and black-red, sticky-sweet cherries. As the days lengthen and begin to warm, I mostly dream of berries. Fat, sweet blueberries and tart red raspberries. I adore the fruits of summer, but what I desperately wish for, as mornings dawn drenched in spring’s golden sun, is a strawberry.
I am not talking about those questionable specimens available year-round, factory farmed and trucked in from Chile or Mexico that taste like cardboard or, worse, nothing at all. I am going to sound like an old lady now, but the strawberries that I yearn for taste like strawberries of my childhood, plucked from the plant with my own chubby fists, at a roadside u-pick-it patch.
We Sonomans are ordinarily required to wait patiently, counting each excruciatingly long, wet winter day, until the rickety little Watmaugh strawberry stand has opened for the season before we get our first real taste of a gorgeous spring berry. But, guess what? Right now Whole Foods has first of the season California strawberries!
I could hardly believe my eyes or my nose! They are beautifully fragrant, these berries, you can smell from across the store, like summer spilling from a little green plastic basket. These are the berries that leave syrupy pools on the countertop and drip happily down your chin as your teeth sink into their ruby-colored flesh. I greedily loaded up my cart and have been back many times for more. There is no need to add sugar to these beauties. That first evening’s stunning dessert was nothing more than a heaping bowlful, dolloped with a lavish spoonful of Cowgirl Creamery’s ridiculously good crème fraîche and a quick grating of orange peel. Ah, pure spring.
The signs of spring are gradually appearing at the farmer’s market as well. While puttering around this past Friday, I stood gawking idiotically at Oak Hill Farm’s blossom-laden quince branches towering from rustic tin buckets and their tiny heads of delicate lettuce when a mysterious bag of something green caught my eye. Practically screaming ‘spring,’ were a few precious bags of prickly, wild green nettles. I love the stinging nettles, their flavor the flavor of green; wet earth and moss, spinach and a subtle minerality. I scooped up both bags with a silly smile.
Ah, spring. I began pondering my nettles, thinking of how to best celebrate their springiness. A lemony risotto would be lovely. Folded into softened sweet butter and stuffed under the skin of a roast chicken would do the job nicely as well. After a few painful stings, I chose to subdue my pesky nettles by a brief blanching and a quick puree with a glug of peppery olive oil and a wee bit of green garlic. Dinner couldn’t have been more deliciously simple, the nettle pesto tossed with wide, fresh pappardelle noodles, a zesting of Meyer lemon, and a few fistfuls of salty parmesan. Followed by more of those heavenly strawberries for dessert, of course.
As every tree, vine, and bulb in the Valley burst into bloom, I make the switch from rustic, bean and meat based stews to delicate, brothy consommés. Every scrap of leftover chicken and veggie matter simmer endlessly in an oversized pot on my back burner, the result; a homemade batch of tasty stock, always at the ready. It certainly doesn’t need to be spring to whip up a batch of matzoh ball soup, but with the Easter and Passover holidays here, it just so happens to be my favorite time to do just that. My now-famous, not-traditional, herb-flecked, chicken fat-filled, matzoh balls bob merrily, in a clear, pale, chicken broth. Tiny baby carrots and fresh-shelled peas are so pretty when added just before serving, plenty, leafy fronds of anise-scented fennel or dill scattered on top.
With the discovery of those berries, the nettles, I knew spring had sprung. Farewell to cozy, slow-cooked meals cooped up indoors. Hello to lazy afternoon picnics in the Plaza. Bye-bye Cabernet, welcome back Viognier! As each day turns longer, warmer, thoughts shift from endless braised meats and roasted root vegetables to the arrival of fresh English shelling peas and smashed fava beans, tender baby arugula and the too-short-season for local asparagus. Ah, Sonoma spring how scrumptious you are.
On the Menu
Andrea Davis of our little, local, Quarter Acre Farm will discuss how to simply start a successful, edible garden during her “Basic Backyard Vegetable Gardening” class on Sunday, March 24, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. She will cover topics such as choosing what plants to grow, preparing your soil, maintaining your garden, harvesting your bounty, and more. This class and others in this series will be taking place at The Stone House, the office of HWY 12 Properties, at 147 East Spain Street. Reservations are required and space is very limited. The cost is $10 per person. For more information or to RSVP, email Andrea at [email protected] or call 415.533.3106.
Chef Rob Larman hosts his “Annual Spring Lamb Dinner” on Friday, March 29, at the Valley Wine Shack. The always-delicious dinner starts with a salad of Dino kale, roasted beets, and blood orange, followed by wood-oven roasted Sonoma lamb with savory beans and a mint pesto. Finally, the best part, fresh strawberry shortcake. The cost is $38 per person. Wines by the glass or bottle to pair with the meal will be available for purchase from the Wine Shack. For reservations and more information, call the Wine Shack at 938.7218.
The Sonoma Community Center continues its “Community Table” dinner series on Saturday, March 30, with a three-course menu by Cafe La Haye’s Executive Chef Jeremy Lloyd. The menu will include an Apple Cauliflower Soup with Gruyère Cheese, Braised English Cut Short Ribs, Root Vegetable Mashed Potatoes, Cabbage Braised in Red Wine, and Cafe La Haye’s signature Butterscotch Pudding with Almond Sea Salt Toffee. Wine pairings by Gundlach Bundschu will accompany this special meal. Tickets for each dinner are $65 per person. To reserve your seat or to obtain information on other upcoming dinners, call 938.4626 ext. 1, or visit the Sonoma Valley Box Office at sonomacommunitycenter.org.
Spring Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls
This soup is the perfect Passover starter, but please be warned, it is far from traditional. There is a fairly good chance that Bubbe or the in-laws will school you on the significance of the more traditional, bland balls. Don’t be tempted to use store-bought broth, it is just not the same.Serves 8-10
Matzoh balls and soup:
Wash leeks in a bowl of cold water, agitating them to remove all sand and grit, then lift out and transfer to an 8-quart stockpot. Add all remaining broth ingredients to pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, skimming foam occasionally, 3 hours.
Make matzoh balls and soup:
Stir together matzoh meal, parsley, dill, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in a bowl. Work rendered chicken fat into mixture with your fingers until incorporated, then stir in 1/2 cup broth from chicken and yolks. Mixture will be stiff. Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt in another bowl until they just form soft peaks. Stir one-third of egg whites into matzoh mixture to lighten, and then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Chill, covered, 30 minutes or overnight.
Transfer chicken from broth to a cutting board to cool. When cool enough to handle, tear chicken into shreds, discarding skin and bones. Pour broth through a fine sieve into a 5-to 6-quart pot, pressing hard on and discarding solids. Return broth to a simmer. With dampened hands, gently form chilled matzoh mixture into roughly 1-inch balls, gently dropping them into simmering soup as formed (this should yield about 20 matzoh balls; moisten hands as necessary to prevent sticking). Simmer matzoh balls, covered, until just cooked through, about 45 minutes (To test: Halve one matzoh ball. It should have a uniformly moist interior; if uncooked, it will be dry in the center). Add carrots and simmer for five minutes until tender. Add chicken into hot soup to warm through before serving. Garnish with dill sprigs.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at [email protected]