Sacramento’s best chefs take inspiration from local produce, even in a cold season
These days everyone is in favor of local, seasonal food. Who could object? In summer, there’s a sweet bounty of corn, tomatoes, peaches, berries and other treats at every farm stand and farmers’ market. But winter’s offerings, like the season itself, are more understated. Parsnips and kale might, at first glance, seem to be distinctly lacking in glamour. And in some regions, it’s hard to live up to local and seasonal ideals in January without running the risk of scurvy.
Here in Sacramento, however, we’re lucky to live in an area where delicious produce thrives, even when the days are short and it seems like the chill and fog will never lift again. Earthy root vegetables, tangy citrus fruits, hardy winter greens—you’ll find them all in grocery stores, at the farmers’ market and even (if you’re lucky) in your backyard or a friend’s. They’re the perfect way to make hearty winter dishes a little brighter and lighter.
Local chefs know this better than anyone. The ways they use winter ingredients not only intrigue diners, but also can inspire home cooks. Rick Mahan, chef at the Waterboy in Midtown, notes that a lot of people aren’t familiar with the variety of winter’s seasonal produce. “I would encourage everyone to delve a little deeper,” he said. “People think they know what spinach tastes like, but until they’ve had an old variety like Bloomsdale or Savoy, they really don’t.”
Angelo Auriana, chef at Masque in El Dorado Hills, also likes the curly-leafed Bloomsdale spinach, noting that it has more flavor than summer’s flat-leafed varieties. The Italian-born Auriana also turns to typically Italian winter vegetables like radicchio di Castelfranco, cardoons and sunchokes—which he pairs with lobster. Local porcini mushrooms, which Auriana considers to be the freshest he’s ever seen, show up in soup or with polenta. And a popular winter salad on his ever-changing menu combines tiny Seckel pears, wild greens and Gorgonzola cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette.
At Baccaras in Folsom, chef Luc Dendievel’s New American cuisine also takes its cue from the season. Baccaras has a garden, and the chefs use its vegetables and herbs when possible but supplement the garden’s produce with that of local farmers. “You meet the farmer, and they show you what they have, and it gives you ideas for what to put on the menu,” Dendievel said.
Right now, Dendievel is using a lot of root vegetables, from celery root to salsify to the obscure crosne. He combines fruits and vegetables freely, as in a dish of scallops with bittersweet braised endives and a sweet-tart citrus sauce, or in a garnish of tiny lady apples, cranberries and truffles.
Mahan takes a similarly seasonal approach, relying on local suppliers for his monthly menus at the Waterboy. “The menu is always reflective of what’s growing close by,” he said. “Right now, you’ll find a lot of braising greens, leeks, turnips.”
Sometimes these vegetables can challenge customers, Mahan admitted. “I love turnips, and we get beautiful little Tokyo or sweet scarlet ones,” he said. “At first people might ask to substitute something for the turnips in a dish, but we always put one or two off to the side, to encourage people to try them. The next time they come in, they order something with turnips.”
Mahan hopes that his approach in the restaurant will translate to how his customers eat at home. “People forget how nice it is when things are cooked in season and with care,” he said. Mahan’s beet and arugula salad, and Dendievel’s slow-cooked short ribs with root vegetables and scallops with endives—the recipes for all follow—should help cooks remember how to use winter’s bounty to the fullest.
Roasted beet salad with arugula, walnuts, and feta
Notes: Rick Mahan noted that the marinated-beet mixture can be made ahead (through step 3) up to four days in advance. Cover and refrigerate; remove from refrigerator at least an hour before serving to allow beets to come to room temperature.
4 small red beets
4 small gold or Chioggia beets
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (divided)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (divided)
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 teaspoons kosher salt (divided)
1 pinch sugar
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
4 cups arugula leaves (or another spicy baby green, such as mizuna or watercress)
Grated zest from 1 orange
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/3 cup toasted, lightly salted walnuts
4 ounces sheep’s-milk feta cheese or goat cheese
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Scrub beets and cut off stem ends and tips. Place in a glass or ceramic baking dish, flat side down, and add enough water to pan to come about 1/4 of the way up the beets (about 1 cup). Cover with aluminum foil or a glass lid. Bake until beets give slightly when squeezed, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (Cut a piece to test if you aren’t sure they’re done.) Let stand until just cool enough to handle.
2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, the shallot, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 pinch sugar, and a few twists black pepper.
3. Peel beets (skin should slide off) and cut into wedges. Place in a bowl and mix with oil-vinegar mixture.
4. In a small bowl, whisk remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon vinegar, and remaining teaspoon salt with 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper and the orange zest and lemon juice. In a bowl, toss arugula leaves and walnuts with 2 tablespoons dressing mixture (reserve remainder for other uses).
5. Divide beets among 4 salad plates. Arrange arugula mixture over beets, but don’t entirely cover them. Top with crumbled feta.
Makes 4 servings
Scallops with braised endive and citrus sauce
Notes: This dish from Luc Dendievel makes a great light main course for a stylish winter dinner party, or it can be halved to make a special dinner for two.
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
1 lemon, sliced
1 blood orange
1 pink grapefruit
4 tablespoons butter (divided)
2 tablespoons olive oil
20 large sea scallops, patted dry
1 cup dry white wine
Chopped fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley and chives, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut core from bottom of each endive. Place endives in a baking dish; sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and sugar. Add lemon slices and 1 cup boiling water. Cover and bake for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, cut peels from orange, blood orange and grapefruit, following the curve of the fruit so no pith remains. Holding fruit over a bowl to catch juice, use a small, sharp knife to cut between membranes and free citrus segments. Reserve segments. Squeeze juice from membranes into bowl; discard membranes.
3. Transfer endives to a board and let dry. Cut into quarters lengthwise.
4. In a skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons butter until brown. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and sugar. Add endive quarters and sauté until golden brown. Arrange 5 quarters to form a star pattern on each of 4 dinner plates.
5. In a large, heavy skillet over high heat, heat olive oil. Sprinkle scallops with salt and pepper. When hot, place scallops in pan (do not crowd pan). Cook until golden brown on underside, 2 minutes, and then turn and cook 2 minutes on second side. Transfer 5 scallops to each plate with endive; keep warm. Discard oil from pan.
6. Add wine and reserved citrus juice to pan. Cook, stirring to deglaze pan, until reduced by half. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter, stir until combined, and pour over and around scallops. Garnish with reserved citrus segments and sprinkle with herbs.
Makes 4 servings
Braised short ribs with winter vegetables
Note: Luc Dendievel serves this rich, savory dish with mashed potatoes. If necessary, have your butcher crack the bones of the short ribs for serving-sized pieces.
5 pounds beef short ribs
3 tablespoons grape-seed oil
Pepper to taste
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
6 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup chopped ginger, with skin
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 sticks lemon grass, chopped
6 star anise
2 Thai chilies, chopped
2 cups dry sherry
1 cup soy sauce
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
1 celery root, peeled and diced
1 large turnip, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1. Preheat oven to 300 F. In a heavy oven-safe pot with a lid, heat oil over high heat. Add short ribs and cook, turning as needed, until browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate and sprinkle with pepper.
2. Discard fat from pot and reduce heat to medium-high. Add onion, ginger, garlic and sugar. Cook, stirring, until onion is caramelized, 6 to 8 minutes. Add lemon grass, star anise and chilies and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, stirring. Remove from heat.
3. Add short ribs to pot. Add sherry, soy sauce and water to cover meat. Cover and bake until short ribs are very tender, 3 to 4 hours.
4. Meanwhile, peel and dice the carrots, parsnips, celery root and turnip. Cook in boiling salted water until barely tender. Drain and plunge in ice water briefly to stop cooking.
5. Transfer short ribs to a platter and keep warm. Strain cooking liquid into another pan and skim off fat. Over medium-high heat, boil until reduced by 1/3.
6. In a large skillet, melt butter over high heat. Add winter vegetables and sauté until golden brown. Pour sauce over meat and add vegetables to platter.
Makes 4 servings