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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