While I was in Sonoma, California, I sat down with one of my favorite chefs, John Toulze. John is the Executive Chef and with his business partner and proprietor Sondra Bernstein runs three wildly popular restaurants in Sonoma County: the girl and the fig, the fig café, and Estate. John is passionate about both food and wine so I sat him down to talk about Sonoma wine country cooking. He even parted with a recipe for one of my favorite pasta dishes, Rabbit Pappardelle. (More recipes are available from their cookbook, the girl & the fig Cookbook: More Than 100 Recipes from the Acclaimed California Wine Country Restaurant and on their website, www.thegirlandthefig.com.)
What about wine country inspires you in the kitchen?
Wine country epitomizes the availability of great seasonal ingredients. In our kitchen we are only a back door away from picking fresh herbs or vegetables. At Estate we have a farmer on the property behind us, and in Glen Ellen we are five minutes away from our largest vegetable growers. Obviously all this is instant inspiration and when successful wine country represents a simplistic approach that is built on seasonality and locality.
What flavors do you consider quintessential wine country?
I don’t think of a specific flavor but of a specific style. To me wine country is simple, fresh, and clean. Successful wine country chefs are driven first by the ingredients and making sure that those ingredients are represented appropriately by our skill. Few places have our bounty and quality, so we are tasked with honoring that by allowing those flavors to speak at the right moment.
What is your favorite summer ingredient?
There are so many incredible flavors in the summer but more than anything it is the fruits that shine. From tomatoes to plums and peaches, in no other season do fruits just explode for us than summer. I find myself having entire meals of stone fruits and preparing them in ways I would normally reserve for proteins [meat and fish] like grilling, searing, or braising.
How can a home cook bring a little wine country into a meal?
Simplicity. Make it simple but focus on seasonality and quality. At our restaurants we have gardens that we use not just to grow various things but as gauges for what we should be preparing in our kitchen.
What is your favorite wine and food pairing?
It really depends on my mood but I am constantly trying to think of wine when I cook. Wine and food are meant to be complementary and a separation of the two undermines the one. I see wine as an ingredient in the dish. I would never forget to season my food and so I don’t like to eat without wine. The possible combinations are so immense that I hope to not have a favorite for very long.
What is your favorite varietal from Sonoma County?
Syrah. Syrah really gets to show its varied personalities in the various micro-climates of Sonoma County and really reveals the depth of winemaking talent that has amassed here.
Braised Rabbit Pappardelle with Spring Vegetables
1 fresh whole rabbit (2 ½ - 3 pounds)
2 ounces blended oil (we have a blend of 25% olive oil and 75% canola oil on hand at all times)
1 large carrot, peeled & chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves peeled garlic
3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 cup red wine (we use syrah)
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh thyme
10 black peppercorns
5 cups veal stock or chicken stock
3 bunches baby carrots, blanched & peeled
1 red pepper, julienned
1 yellow pepper, julienned
1 red onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ cup white wine
1 cup rabbit/chicken stock
1 pound pappardelle
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4 tablespoons whole grain mustard
6 ounces diced (¼”) and cooked pancetta
4 tablespoons butter
Break down the rabbit (or have butcher do for you) into front and hind legs and saddle. Reserve the trimmings and rib cage set aside liver for another use. Place the bones and trimmings on a sheet tray or roasting pan and roast in 350’F oven until golden brown. Set aside.
Heat a heavy bottomed pan or similar oven proof pan over medium-high heat. Season the rabbit legs and saddle generously with salt and pepper. Add the oil to pan and sear the rabbit on all sides until golden brown, remove and set aside.
Keep the pot over heat and add the carrot, celery, onion, garlic & tomatoes and cook until ingredients have caramelized. Deglaze with the red wine. Add the herbs, peppercorns, rabbit, roasted bones and trimmings, and stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and place the entire pot in the oven. Cook until the rabbit meat begins to pull away from bone (between two & three hours). Remove the pot from oven and let cool until you can remove items with your hands. Remove the saddle and legs from the pot and pull the meat from the bones. Set aside.
Strain the cooking liquid and skim any fat off the top. Place the liquid back in the pot and reduce by half and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Cook the pasta until just tender or al dente. Toss lightly with olive oil and set aside.
In a large sauté pan (large enough to hold all ingredients) place 5 cups of the braising liquid, mustard, pancetta, and rabbit. Bring the ingredients to a simmer and cook until the mixture begins to thicken slightly. Add the baby carrots, English peas, fava beans, roasted garlic and pasta. Cook until heated through, finish with butter, season with salt and pepper as needed.
Portion into six large bowls and serve immediately.
Recipe and photo courtesy Sondra Bernstein & John Toulze.