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With a new season upon us, our jaded appetites are ready for fresh flavours. Natasha Hughes suggests three dishes to cook at home and recommends the best Californian wines to drink with them
Spring steals into California much the same as it does here in chilly old England. Just at the point where you think the flowers will never bloom again and the trees will always be bereft of leaves, the first tender buds start to unfurl. Out in the vineyards, the hard-pruned vines bedeck themselves in vivid shades of green and the cycle that culminates in autumn’s harvest kicks off once more. The days lengthen, and squally showers are interspersed with the gently warming touch of sunshine on bare skin.
It’s at this mutable time of year that our appetite for winter’s heavy stews and roasts begins to wane and we begin to yearn for lighter fare. Too early yet for summer’s barbecues and bold flavours, we seek out the delicate taste of those first vegetables, we conjure up a hint of the Mediterranean sunshine with herbs, saffron and tomatoes – or, on still-chilly evenings, we slip back to the comfort zone of gently warming spices. Californian wines have much to offer at this time of year, from rich Primitivos from Lodi and earthy Sonoman Mourvèdres that can cosy up nicely to a meaty tagine to crisp Sauvignon Blancs from Napa Valley that marry perfectly with zesty green salads – and don’t forget the spicy Rhône-style whites from the Central Coast or the elegant cool-climate Chardonnays that harmonise so beautifully with all those intense spring flavours.
Blanch 16 asparagus tips, plus a generous handful of topped-and-tailed green beans, a generous handful of freshly shelled peas and the beans from a dozen broad-bean pods in boiling salted water. Refresh under a cold running tap – this preserves their vibrant colour and prevents them from overcooking. Shell the broad beans. Mix the vegetables with two large handfuls of rocket or watercress, and half a red onion, thinly sliced. Arrange on four side plates and scatter over 60g of roughly chopped walnuts and 100g of crumbled mild goats’ cheese. Drizzle with a dressing made from walnut oil and tarragon vinegar. (Serves 4)
The first salads herald the advent of spring. Marry the sweetness of new peas, freshly shucked from their pods, crisp green beans, delicate broad beans, and that ultimate emblem of the turning seasons, spears of asparagus, with a zesty fresh goats’ cheese and just enough chopped walnut to provide a crunchy contrast in texture. You’ll need a white wine to go with this, of course, and the obvious choice is a Sauvignon Blanc. Its herbaceous notes harmonise beautifully with the flavours of the vegetables and its acidity provides the perfect counterpoint to the creamy texture of the cheese. It’s no bad thing for the wine to have a gentle kiss of oak – it will bring out the nuttiness of the walnuts – but don’t choose a heavy wine that will overwhelm all those delicate flavours. Another possibility is Chenin Blanc, a wine with enough crisp acidity to cope with the cheese and the salad dressing, while a touch of residual sugar brings out the best in those sweet peas.
We matched this dish to Bogle’s Chenin Blanc 2008 (£9.95, Great Western Wine) and Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc Napa Valley 2007 (£14.99, Majestic).
Grate 1 onion. Heat 40g butter and 2 tbsp olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan and add 1 tsp ground ginger, 2 tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ground cumin, the chopped stems of a bunch of fresh coriander and the onion. Stir for a minute, then add 1kg stewing beef, cut into large chunks, and stir to mix thoroughly. Pour in just enough water to cover and add a large pinch of saffron. Bring to the boil, then lower to a simmer. Stir in 200g stoned prunes and a long strip of orange peel, pith removed. Simmer for 1½-2 hours with the lid off, until the meat is tender. Add 100g toasted almonds to the stew, along with another 200g prunes and 2 tbsp runny honey. Simmer for a further 20 minutes, season to taste and serve with couscous mixed with onion rings, fried until golden brown. (Serves 4)
There will still be the odd cold spell over the course of the next few weeks, so, if you find yourself hankering after comfort food, try a simple Moroccan tagine that marries tender cubes of beef with gently warming spices and the sweetness of dried fruits. You’ll need a red wine to stand up to its rich flavours, so it’s a good time to bring on a Zinfandel, a uniquely Californian grape related to southern Italy’s heady Primitivo. You’re not looking for subtlety here – you want a wine that will match the sweet fruit and mellow spice of the tagine without disappearing into the background. You might be tempted to try a spicy Syrah as well, but many of them are too sinewy and peppery to complement the dish. We had more success with a grape that’s best known as one of Syrah’s blending partners in the southern Rhône. Mourvèdre brings out the earthy spice flavours in the dish, while the tagine enhances the wine’s ripe fruit.
We matched this dish to Ravenswood’s Lodi Zinfandel Sonoma 2007 (£9.49, Majestic) and Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Mourvèdre Sonoma 2007 (£13.99-17.50, Oddbins, Wimbledon Wine Cellars, The Wine Treasury).
Brown 4 chicken leg and thigh portions, then set aside. Fry 1 sliced onion in 3 tbsp olive oil until translucent, then stir in 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced, and 2 minced garlic cloves. Fry for 2 minutes, then add a bay leaf, thyme and dried chilli. Add 70ml dry white wine and bring to the boil. Stir in a drained can of chopped tomatoes, a large pinch of saffron and 500ml chicken stock. Bring to the boil, add the chicken and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an hour, until cooked. Season well. Prepare the aïoli by blending a clove of minced garlic, an egg yolk and salt, then drizzle in 100-120ml olive oil, beating until emulsified. Toast 4 slices of sourdough bread, spread with aïoli and place one in each of 4 bowls. Top with the chicken, broth and vegetables. (Serves 4)
This dish is an adaptation of bouillabaisse – that quintessential Mediterranean fish stew. By substituting chicken for the usual fish, you create a dish that’s part stew, part soup and totally delicious. It’s a great dinner-party standby that looks impressive but can be thrown together in a matter of minutes. The dish is flavoured with tomatoes, fennel and saffron, then layered with a punchy, garlicky aïoli that’s slathered onto sourdough toast that helps absorb some of the soupy richness. The best matches for this dish are white wines, albeit white wines of a certain richness and weight. The herby notes of a Marsanne pick up nicely on the herbal flavours of the dish, while its crisp citrus acidity helps cleanse the palate between bites. Chardonnay is another good option, but make sure it has the right amount of oaking – too little and the wine will be overwhelmed by the rich flavours of this stew, too much and it will dominate.
We matched this dish to Sonoma-Cutrer’s Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2006 (£14.99, www.everywine.co.uk) and Qupé’s Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley 2007 (£16.30, Berry Bros).