Sonoma County bounty

_The Fearless Taster, Feb. 14, 2005_

__Best of Sonoma County: a wine-pairing luncheon__

_Fresh Dungeness crab_ and avocado with a trio of sauces, paired with White Oak Vineyards 2003 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc … where both crab and wine were fresher than fresh, of course: this is Sonoma County, California!

_Pan-seared local Halibut filet_ in a vanilla-bean cream sauce with wild black chanterelle mushrooms, paired with Matanzas Creek 2001 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay … richness, beauty, depth and … freshness.

_Turkish lamb kebobs_ with an onion-date relish and herbed couscous, paired with Cline Cellars 2000 California Syrah … smooth, rich, deep color in the wine and an eye-popping chiaroscuro presentation on the plate.

_Almond poundcake Napoleon_ with Flying Goat SRJC blend coffee … first dessert I’ve eaten in five months, and I have to agree with Martin Luther about sin … if you’re gonna do it, sin boldly!

__I share with you today__ some notes on one of the Friday wine-food pairing luncheons at the Santa Rosa Junior College. The SRJC (about 35,000 students!) on Feb. 11 hosted the local chapter of the American Association of University Women. I got to chauffeur a friend from church, lucky me. What an experience for 30 people (the room’s capacity).

SRJC has highly-regarded wine appreciation, wine growing and wine making courses in the Agriculture Department, but this production was in the hands of SRJC’s Culinary Arts program. They have a restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa (160,000 population in a county of close to half a million people — a decent market all by itself; but this is a wine and food lover’s destination, with guests from all over the world).

The students are taught all aspects of quality California food preparation and service. Wine isn’t allowed on campus except for this accredited teaching facility; and, then, only in the room we occupied. Prohibition never entirely died in the USA; long live work-arounds.

The head of the program is the _chef de cuisine._ The wine educator has been teaching a long time. Each talked about each course. Here are my chatty, maybe even star-struck, notes.

__First course__ (described by the chef and wine educator in the notes at the beginning): Fresh means _fresh_ hereabouts; it seems as if the crab just came from Bodega Bay, on the Pacific just a few miles from here. And in fact, it had arrived the day before. Chunks were lightly dressed for moistness but it was just crab on the palate.

_Sauces_ must be understood as _haute cuisine_ language — the mound of crab, on a few greens, was surrounded by the tiniest possible dollops of mango puree alongside a puree of beets and raspberries, adding spectacular, unexpected color without detracting from the _piece de resistance._ Between those two sauces were bite-sized pieces of perfectly-ripened avocado.

Around the edge of the plate was a bright green aioli, an infusion of blanched basil put through a jelly bag, for clarity, in extra virgin olive oil. The effect was vibrant color with restrained but novel tastes.

Okay, that was good; but with the wine — tasted just that morning to find a perfect complement — the wine brought everything together, adding clean, slightly grassy citrus with brilliant, lingering aftertaste to the pairing. The wine costs about $12.

__Second course:__ Again, fresh, fresh, fresh; and again, from Bodega Bay, a simple filet a bit browned at the edges and here and there across the subtly-separating flakes. The sauce infused heavy cream with a greatly reduced brew made from high quality vanilla beans; a few tiny specks of vanilla bean could be seen in the creamy result. For color as well as texture and sweetness, a few adolescent sugar peas in their pods were on the side.

And then, the mushrooms — _wow!_ The filet was capped with a mound of glistening blacker-than-black wild chanterelles, julienned and marinated, I think; I can’t remember if the marinade had been described. The mushrooms had just been delivered from southern Oregon. The chef was asked if he really trusts the mushroom supplier; he’s used him for a long time. When asked for more information about the provenance of the rare delicacy, the chef said nobody who knows that would ever say.

The Chardonnay is a Sonoma County signature wine, and no wonder. You won’t find many 2001 Chards now, and what there is, is rising in value, so this was worth about $30. It is rich but not heavy, full of hearty tropical flavors with a citric grace note, and clean and crisp with long legs and a long aftertaste. Guests swooned over it!

__Third course:__ I don’t recall what made the lamb “Turkish” (I mean, what was in the marinade), but we were given two short skewers of lamb that must have come from Sonoma County — lamb here is prized by top restaurants from San Francisco and Los Angeles to New York. I love making lamb dishes because one can dream up “fearless” things with which to accompany it. No matter how tender and sweet the lamb, it also carries with it, marinated or not, some sturdy spiritual element that just says, “Bring it on.”

In this case, the relish was really a jammy chutney melding caramelized onions and dates. Their natural sweetness was jacked up quite a bit in a reduction process. I’d guess the lamb marinade had citric elements and that the “Turkish” feature was the dates. The couscous was (if you’ve cooked couscous) a miracle; it was released from a mold so each plate had a pretty timbale, without having had its fluffiness pressed out (how do they do that?!). The herb bits speckling and highlighting the presentation included minuscule bits of cilantro.

The Syrah was a bit of a surprise to most guests, although I’d have picked the same one, I think. First, it’s amazingly cheap, about $7.50, and widely available. Second, as a Rhone varietal it pairs wonderfully with lamb, but it can be a bit intimidating to diners not used to it; this one is not. It is round, full, fresh-fruited, with no hint of puckery, chalky tannin even though it has enough of that acid to keep the wine fruity and pleasing for a couple of years. Find some and enjoy it.

__A poundcake napoleon?__ Not flaky (in any sense)? Not sicky-sweet? Aren’t napoleons long and low? Well, this one wasn’t. It was almost towering. It was round. A circle of pound cake topped with Euro-style whipped cream (not very sweet); another circle and more cream; and a small piece of bright green kiwi at the crown. I can resist most desserts, but not this one. Very satisfying, especially with a Healdsburg coffee blended especially for the Santa Rosa Junior College.

__The SRJC Culinary Cafe,__ at Seventh and B Streets, across from a large parking garage, operates on a special schedule. Various options are available. For information, phone the cafe at 707/576-0279. _Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster._