Cooking Up A Spring Feast in Sonoma

Drinking and eating, and not much heavy-lifting beyond that.

It’s so easy — too easy — to succumb to complete veg-out mode in Sonoma, what with its abundance of wineries and restaurants that beckon so invitingly.

But if you want to get a teeny bit more active by actually working for your food, Ramekins is the place to go.

This combo culinary school and inn is just an easy stroll from the main square. A bevy of cooking classes, about half of them hands-on, are offered at $55 to  $100 per person.

Ramekins is revamping its patio to install a pizza oven, too. In the coming months, look for a variety of grilling, bread-baking and pizza-making classes to be offered to take advantage of that sunny space.

Up on the second floor, there are six well-appointed guest rooms, done up in a luxe French farmhouse decor, priced at about $250 per night, depending upon the season. Stay overnight, and you can roll out of bed, enjoy a spread of homemade scones and coffeecake for breakfast, then walk downstairs to get cooking. How easy is that?

So easy, as I soon learned when I was invited as a guest to try a cooking class earlier this month.

Charles Vollmar, a longtime culinary instructor who owns Epicurean Exchange, was there to teach us all about “Spring Soups and Stews” in this hands-on class. Since there were only seven of us signed up for this class, we were each able to do a variety of tasks under very personalized instruction from Vollmar and a Ramekins assistant.

The demonstration classes are taught in a 36-seat theater equipped with a full kitchen and television monitors. Because our class was hands-on, though, we had the run of the second kitchen — an expansive restaurant-size kitchen with professional-grade equipment.

After donning aprons, we broke up into teams to cook one of four dishes: “Spring Asparagus Soup with Coconut Curry,” “Chicken and Barley Soup with Asparagus and English Peas,” “Spring Vegetable Ragout with Chanterelles and Fava Beans,” and “Spring Lamb and Artichoke Tagine.” Yours truly was in charge of the lamb.

Vollmar demonstrated how to turn a baby artichoke, then made sure we each had a chance to try it. With a paring knife, we removed the tough outer leaves, trimming the stalk, cutting the head in half, and removing the hairy choke and uncovering the tender heart. Although I’ve turned artichoke hearts before, I don’t think I’ve ever done such a pile of ’em. But then again, lucky me had them as one of the main ingredients in my dish. And oh, we were doubling the recipe, too.

The room was abuzz with folks twice-peeling first-of-the-season fava beans, cleaning chanterelles, and sauteing chicken. With all the burners turned up, it was definitely warm and toasty as I stood at the stove, searing the lamb, before adding chicken broth, garlic, ginger, saffron, olives and all those turned artichokes to the pot.

The two soups were completed first. And we enjoyed them in the kitchen, as we continued to work on the vegetable and lamb dishes. Since we were through using the knives, the wine finally could be uncorked. (Ramekins prefers its students not to imbibe while holding sharp objects, for obvious reasons.) Wine is served at every class. For ours, we enjoyed a 2008 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Republic and a 2005 North Coast Benziger Syrah.

The chicken and barley soup, chock-full of poultry and asparagus, was hearty and nourishing.

The other asparagus soup, with coconut and curry flavors, got blended in the Vitamix, a super-charged blender that gave the soup a velvety richness. A garnish of lemony creme fraiche added even more brightness and lushness.

When my lamb and the ragout of fennel, asparagus, peppers, snap peas, fava beans, and chanterelles were ready to be served, we took off our aprons and headed into the dining room. There, we took a seat after all our hard work, while Vollmar and his assistant plated our dishes and brought them out to us. How’s that for service?

As we dug our forks in, we marveled at how perfectly al dente the veggies were  and how tender the lamb turned out, along with the great flavor the salt-cured olives lent to the dish.

Drinking and eating, with plenty of great food and company.

Does it get any easier than that?

Not in Sonoma, thank goodness.

Spring Asparagus Soup with Curry and Coconut

(Serves 4)

Note: This soup can be served either warm or chilled.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium leek, cleaned and finely minced

1/2 teaspoon curry powder (or more to taste)

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Zest and juice of one lemon, divided

2 cups peeled and diced red potatoes

3 cups chicken stock

1 cup coconut milk

1 pound (1 bunch) asparagus, trimmed and cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup creme fraiche

1/4 cup scallion greens, minced

Melt butter and olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add diced leek and saute until soft. Add curry powder, ginger, lemon zest and potatoes, and simmer, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes.

Add chicken broth, coconut milk and asparagus pieces. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, cover, and continue to cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Puree soup with an immersion blender, or in batches in a bar blender, until smooth. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Combine creme fraiche with lemon juice. Serve soup garnished with a swirl of lemon creme fraiche and a sprinkle of scallion greens.

From Epicurean Exchange

Moroccan Lamb and Artichoke Tajine

(Serves 4)

1 small pinch (1/8 teaspoon) saffron threads

1/2 cup boiling water

1 lemon

8 fresh baby artichokes or frozen artichoke hearts

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 pound boneless lean lamb stew meat, cut into 2-inch cubes

2 cups chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup chopped cilantro, divided

1/2 cup salt-cured black olives, pits removed or not

Zest of one lemon

In a small bowl, combine saffron threads and boiling water, and let stand for 15 minutes.

To prepare artichoke hearts: Fill a large bowl with cold water, cut lemon in half, juice 1/2 of the lemon and drop the spent lemon half into the water. Working with one artichoke at a time, cut off stem flush to the base and break off tough outer leaves to reach tender inner leaves. With a paring knife, trim away the dark green layer where the outer leaves were attached to the base. Cut off the upper one-half of the artichoke and discard. Cut artichoke in half lengthwise and remove furry inner choke, scooping it out with a small spoon. Immediately place cut pieces in the lemon water. Repeat until all artichokes are prepared. If using frozen artichokes, set aside.

To prepare tagine: In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, warm olive oil over medium-high heat. Sear lamb meat on both sides, then remove to a plate. Add a little more olive oil to the pot, turn heat down, then add garlic and ginger, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add a splash of water to help loosen the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan. Next, add lamb, saffron and its liquid, broth, salt, pepper, and 3/4 cup of the chopped cilantro. Cover and simmer until lamb is tender and pulls apart with a fork, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Once the lamb is done, add prepared artichokes. If using fresh artichokes, drain and pat dry. Add fresh or frozen artichoke hearts and the olives to the lamb. Simmer, uncovered, until artichoke hearts are tender, about 20 minutes.

Stir in juice of remaining lemon half and the zest of one lemon. Adjust seasonings and serve garnished with remaining chopped cilantro.

From Epicurean Exchange

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  • Oh wow! This sounds like the perfect adventure for to take my Mom on!

  • That looks amazing! We considered doing Sonoma for our honeymoon, but ended up in Dublin instead. As this sound like a more “me” then “my husband” trip, maybe I’ll have to start dropping hints for a birthday present!

  • What wonderful food! I particularly like that tajine!



  • Reminds me to use my gift certificate for a class and overnight stay!

  • What a beautiful spread of food and love the decoration on the soup as well as the curry plus coconut inside πŸ˜‰

    Have a great week,


  • What a great way to spend the day in wine country! Did they teach you also how to make that pretty swirl on the asparagus soup? I’m going to make that lamb tajine dish, looks awesome! Your photos are really looking great! πŸ™‚

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  • Thank you for highlighting this class – I enjoyed teaching it as much as you enjoyed learning! Spring is my favorite food season and I look forward to it each year. I encourage your readers to visit my site for other local spring classes and activities.

    Keep up to great work!

  • What a fun experience! I think it’s such a nice idea to offer guest rooms along with cooking classes.

  • Sounds like a perfect getaway weekend! Beautiful soups too. I want to try the asparagus with curry and coconut.

  • i just love fava beans, especially with a nice chianti…(sorry, had to do it)
    thanks for sharing your weekend fun with us–the food looks INCREDIBLE!

  • Single Guy Ben: Yes, you easily replicate the soup swirl at home. Just put the creme fraiche into a squeeze bottle and squirt concentric circles into the bowl.Then, draw a knife from the inner-most circle to the outer-most, to create the artsy web effect.

  • Your job comes with the best perks!

  • Everything looks so interesting and the food so awesome. I feel like I’m in the restaurant!

  • Those recipes, and the experience of making them, do sound great, Carolyn. I’m curious about one thing, though — why do you refer to “turning” the artichokes, instead of “trimming” them? Is this a well-known culinary terminology quirk with which I am unfamiliar?

  • Hi Carroll: Yes, “turning” is a common term for cleaning up and trimming an artichoke. My guess is that it’s called “turning,” because you actually have to do that with the artichoke in order to get your paring knife blade all around it to cut off the tough parts and prickly edges.
    But if anyone has a more precise explanation, please chime in. πŸ˜‰

  • This all looks very delicious!

  • Yummmm, favas and artichokes – two of my favorite things ever out of Italy!

  • You certainly feasted on the best of the season! A very inspiring meal…

  • Sounds like an awesome experience. It’s time to make some asparagus soup! πŸ™‚

  • Oh you are making me so jealous again with all those Spring produce. Love fava beans πŸ™‚ …can make mushy out of them (just like mushy green peas) and serve with English fish and chips. ;p

  • i recently covered a cooking class with joyce goldstein at ramekins as well! what a gem that place is πŸ™‚ here’s my recap…haha, familiar-looking opening shot, no?

  • Stephanie: Too funny that we both took pics of those front doors. But then again, how cute are they! I want doors like that at my house. πŸ˜‰

  • Oh my, that all looks and sounds amazing, what a great combo a cooking school b&b set up – I’d be in heaven. Thanks so much for including the yummy sounding recipes.

  • I’m sure it is delicious, but “Moroccan”? I’m going to be a bit pedantic.

    This recipe lacks all the wonderful spices and flavours that I associate with Morocco.

    Ras-al-hanout and harissa make the base of any good North West African dish and you haven’t included either.

    My recipe for Ras-al-hanout if you want to make it is ~
    equal measures of ~ cumin seed, coriander seed, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, black peppercorn, turmeric powder, ground cardamom seed
    Make as much as you want at a time but after mixing it seal it in a bag or an airtight container a week before you want to use it.

    A good tagine will incorporate fruit to balance the fattiness of the meat ~ raisins, apricots… dates are especially good when using older cuts of meat as they have a pronounced tenderising effect and they thicken the sauce.

    This is a wonderful site and it has some great recipes… I hope they won’t mind it if I point out that “not this time”

  • I care about cooking

  • Hi Mick: Thanks for your insightful comments, and for your delicious sounding spice mix recipe. It was Chef Charles Vollmar’s recipe and he’s the one who named it. He was probably using “Moroccan” broadly, but you’re right that for it to be a truly Moroccan dish, other ingredients would need to be included. I will say that it was still thoroughly delicious nevertheless. πŸ˜‰

  • I’ll give it a try sometime foodgal… always open to new ideas.
    Today we will be mainly eating herby lamb leg steaks with colcannon and a rich mustard gravy.
    With a lemon sorbet for dessert.

    Ooh! R!

    One of the pleasures of retirement is that one can indulge and take time to prepare good food on a small scale ~ as opposed to frantically navigating a couple of hundred covers.

  • Hi Mick: Ah, so you’re a retired chef then? Glad you are able to enjoy cooking for your family in this new stage in life. And your menu sounds scrumptious!

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