A Holiday Menu from Wine Country

Richard Reddington, chef at Napa Valley's Auberge du Soleil, presents an easy, wine-friendly menu
Dec 23, 2002
Pan-Roasted and Braised Duck With Root Vegetables
  White Bean Soup with Fried Sage  
  Pan-Roasted and Braised Duck With Root Vegetables  
  Chocolate Walnut Tart  
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  New Chef Brings Back Top-Notch Dining to Napa's Auberge du Soleil  
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Planning a menu for a major holiday such as Thanksgiving or Christmas can present a dilemma. Traditional or creative? Homey or cosmopolitan? But as Richard Reddington, executive chef at Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley, sees it, there's a more important question cooks should ask themselves when preparing for the holiday meal: Easy or difficult?

Wine country's hottest young chef votes for easy.

"The last thing I want to do on a holiday is kill myself in the kitchen," Reddington says. "I want to be done and I want the kitchen to be clean and I want to sit down with my guests for an hour and drink a glass of sparkling wine."

Of course, Reddington doesn't take that laid-back approach into the kitchen at Auberge du Soleil. Considered one the nation's most exclusive resorts, Auberge is a rustically luxurious Mediterranean-style village hidden on a 33-acre hillside high above Rutherford. While the wine list at Auberge du Soleil has long impressed guests -- it holds a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence -- the food has not been at the forefront of wine country cuisine since founding chef Masataka Kobayashi left in 1983.

Until Reddington arrived in 2000, that is. The 36-year-old has taken a unique path. At age 25, he gave up a nascent career at Hallmark Cards to become a chef. Instead of attending culinary school, he took his lessons in working kitchens, and his résumé includes time at Postrio, Rubicon and Jardinière in San Francisco, Spago Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, Daniel in New York and Arpège in Paris.

His menu at Auberge reflects his close connection to the farmers and producers in Northern California, and his personal style reveals a knack for marrying luxury with self-assured understatement. Wine Spectator asked Reddington to prepare this year's holiday menu, using the wine country cuisine he has perfected at Auberge du Soleil as the inspiration for a meal that can be prepared by the home chef.

"With most dinner parties, people get too stressed out," Reddington said, explaining how he built his holiday menu. "This menu is simple, and you can have it all but finished when everyone arrives. I would make the soup the day before and have it warming on the stove. I'd braise the duck leg the day before, so it rests overnight and absorbs all that wonderful sauce. I'd make the tarts the morning of, because they're so wonderful fresh from the oven. Then just before dinner I would do the duck breast."

Reddington begins the meal with comfort: a subtle white bean soup topped with fried sage. Following an increasingly popular trend on restaurant menus, he prepares duck two ways: a leg braised in Zinfandel and a pan-roasted duck breast. He serves that with sweet potato puree and roasted root vegetables. The meal ends with a gratifying chocolate walnut tart created by pastry chef John Difilippo.

Unlike the traditional holiday menu centering around turkey -- which is tricky to match with wine -- this meal reflects the wine-friendly character of Reddington's cuisine.

Head sommelier Kris Margerum explains. "With a lot of chefs, their attitude is 'This is my dish. I'm not going to change it.' Richard is really tuned in to the importance of wine with food. He's willing to take suggestions from me, who has never cooked in my life, that a dish might need more acidity or more richness."

Margerum, 43, has overseen the wine program at Auberge for seven years. It currently includes 1,350 selections, and while the focus is on California -- particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon -- Margerum has been expanding his selection of wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace and Italy. The list also reflects his passion for small producers and hard-to-find gems such as Copaín, Aubert and Lorca.

Using Auberge du Soleil's wine list as a guide, and adding a few recent Wine Spectator favorites not available at the restaurant, we sat down with Margerum and Reddington to taste this California wine country holiday menu and match each course with an appropriate wine. It was obvious that the two men have logged more than a few hours talking about food and wine and tasting combinations. It's a job they take seriously, almost solemnly, seemingly contrary to the fact that Margerum looks more than a little like comedian Drew Carey, and Reddington, with his flourish of black hair and goatee, could pass for a singer in a rock band.

Soup, whether rich and creamy or robustly flavored, is often a challenge for wine, and for that reason Reddington prepared an unfussy yet elegant white bean soup, seasoned with bacon and fennel and topped with crisp fried sage. "This dish really spoke to me as a great combination with Chardonnay," Reddington said.

We tried it with Chardonnays in a range of styles. While oaky versions left the match unbalanced, one of Reddington's favorites, the fruit-driven Cuvaison Chardonnay Napa Valley Carneros 2000 (89 points, $22), created a seamless rapport with the soup. A California Viognier was a near miss; it had the acidity to balance the soup's richness, but its bold floral aroma clashed with the soup's earthy bacon and fennel scents.

A refreshing contrast was the Luna Pinot Grigio Napa Valley 2001 (91, $18), a bold white with crisp citrus flavors that accentuated the fennel and sage in the soup. "The Pinot Grigio," Margerum said, "is a nice foil."

Duck is a favorite at Northern California restaurants, and Reddington included it on his holiday menu for good reason. "Duck is a special occasion bird, but people never seem to make it at home, and it's so easy. People think it's fatty, but it has no more fat than other birds," Reddington said.

Duck is generally known for its wine friendliness, but this dish is a challenge because it really calls for two different wines. Because braised dishes don't meld well with tannins, the duck leg calls for something hearty but not hard -- a Syrah for instance; the more subtly flavored pan-roasted duck breast is best with a complex yet elegant red, such as a Merlot or a medium-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon.

Indeed, Margerum's choice was the rich and plush-textured Rocca Syrah Yountville 1999. One theory of food and wine argues that if a wine is used in a recipe, the same or a similar wine should be served at the table. Since Reddington prefers to braise the duck leg in Zinfandel, we opened a ripe and vigorous Zinfandel from Amador County, but it tasted overly sweet with the braised leg, and was far more than the subtle flavors of the duck breast could handle. We also tried a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, but the duck seemed to refocus and harden the wine's otherwise pleasant tannins and herbal qualities.

In the end, we settled on Merlot. The Etude Merlot Napa Valley 1999 had the versatility the dish required -- it was complex and muscular enough for the braised leg and yet seemed neither too green nor too tannic for the breast. Sadly, only 760 cases of the Etude were made, but the more abundant Shafer Merlot Napa Valley 2000 (92, $39), with its depth and polished texture, shares many of the same qualities.

Reddington's holiday meal ends with a chocolate walnut tart, that rare dessert that seems like a fresh idea but still offers the familiar comforts of the holiday. He begins with a tart crust infused with walnuts, then layers in a caramel and walnut filling topped with a bold layer of chocolate.

"With this meal we needed chocolate," Reddington said. "I worked in France in the fall, when the fresh walnuts were in season, and they were wonderful. I think of chocolate and walnuts as fall."

With so much chocolate in the dessert, we automatically considered Port. Margerum brought out a rarity from his cellar -- "I'm lucky to get a case a year," he admitted -- a Philip Togni Ca' Togni Napa Valley 1996, a sweet red wine made from Black Hamburg grapes that Togni grows on Spring Mountain. Exotic and delicately sweet, it was exceptional alone and with the tart. But for a more realistic choice we turned to Portugal. Fonseca Vintage Port 1985, a powerful, take-no-prisoners fortified wine, distracted our attention from the tart. We settled on the widely available Graham Tawny Port 20 Year Old (88, $45), which masterfully balanced the tart's sweetness while bringing out its spicy, nutty flavors.

Since the tart can be prepared in advance, it's just the sort of ending that Reddington has in mind for his holiday meal: Uncork the tawny, sit down with friends and family and relax on the holiday -- for a change.

White Bean Soup with Fried Sage

Heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a stock pot over low heat. Add the bacon and cook for 5 minutes, to release its flavor. Add the onions, stir, and add salt and pepper. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent. Add the fennel and cook for 10 minutes.

Drain the water from the white beans and add them to the pot. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cook beans at a low boil until they are tender, usually 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the beans. If the liquid level drops below the surface of the solid ingredients, add a little water. Once the beans are cooked, add the cream and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

In a blender, in batches, puree until very smooth. If you prefer a finer texture, press the puree through a sieve. Keep the soup warm until ready to serve or, if serving the following day, refrigerate. To reheat, bring the soup to a boil being careful that it doesn't stick to the pot (thin it with water as needed). Adjust the seasoning to taste.

To make the fried sage garnish, bring a small pot of vegetable oil to a temperature of 345¡ F, add 3 sage leaves per serving and fry for 30 seconds or until they stop bubbling. Drain on paper towels and season with salt.

Serve soup in warmed bowls. Top with fried sage and drizzle about 1 tablespoon of the remaining olive oil around the bowl. Serve with warm baguette. Serves 6 to 8.

Pan-Roasted and Braised Duck With Root Vegetables

First cook the legs. Place the legs, skin side down, in a large casserole or heavy pot on very low heat. Let them cook slowly in their own fat for 10 minutes. The legs should turn light brown. Add the remaining ingredients except for the stock and let the wine boil until it reduces by half. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Put the covered pot in a 275¡ F oven for 3 hours or until the meat is tender. (A paring knife inserted into the flesh should come out easily.) Remove the duck legs and strain the sauce back into the pan, skimming off any visible fat that rises to the surface. Boil it until it reduces by half. Reserve the sauce.

For the vegetables: Try to cut all the vegetables in uniform dice. Sauté each vegetable separately in a thin layer of olive oil over medium-high heat, adding salt and pepper, until tender. (They don't cook at the same speed, and some might get overcooked if they are mixed together. Alternately, vegetables can be tossed in oil, salted and peppered, and roasted on separate baking sheets in a 400¡ F oven.) Meanwhile, blanch the Brussels sprouts in boiling salted water for 3 minutes until tender. Shock the sprouts in an ice bath.

Season the duck breasts and score the skin with a sharp knife. Place them skin side down in a skillet over low to medium-low heat. Cook them slowly in their own fat until they are well-browned, about 8 minutes. It's very important to render the skin down as much as possible. Turn over and cook for 3 minutes for medium-rare. Drain off the fat and let the breasts rest in a warm area.

Sweet Potato Puree

  • 2 pounds sweet potatoes
  • Salt and pepper, as needed
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 6 tablespoons butter

Peel the potatoes and cook them in salted boiling water for 15 minutes or until tender. Put through a ricer or mash with a potato masher. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil and, in a separate (nonreactive) pan, boil the juice until it reduces in volume by half. Beat the butter, cream, reduced juice, salt and pepper into the potatoes.

Serve on warm plates. First, reheat the duck legs in their sauce. Mix vegetables together, taste for seasoning and reheat. Dinner can be served family style or, for individual servings, put the vegetables on the plate first, place slices of the duck breast on top, spoon some of the sweet potato on one side, place the braised duck leg on top of the puree and spoon some of the sauce around. Serves 4 to 6.

Chocolate Walnut Tart

Walnut Pâte Sucrée

Toast walnuts, then allow to cool completely. Add them to the granulated sugar and grind fine in a food processor.

In an electric mixer, cream the butter, powdered sugar and the finely ground walnut/sugar mixture until smooth, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs and continue mixing approximately 2 minutes. Add the flour and mix just until incorporated. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours, or overnight.

Butter 6 individual tart molds, about 3 1/2 inches in diameter. For a single tart, use an 8-inch pan.

Place the dough on a floured surface and roll it out to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut circles approximately 5 inches in diameter to fit the molds. Gently place a disk into each buttered mold and lightly press against the sides. Cut off any excess. Chill for 1 hour. Line the tarts with wax paper or parchment and weigh them down with dry beans or rice. Bake in a 325¡ F oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven, remove the weights and liners, and let the tart shells cool.

Caramel Walnut Filling

  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 cup corn syrup
  • 2 ounces soft butter
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whipping cream
  • 1/2 split vanilla bean
  • 3/4 cup toasted walnuts (chopped small)

Put water, sugar and corn syrup into a pot. Bring to the caramel stage. Very carefully add the rest of the ingredients and whip gently until all are combined. Let cool. Remove vanilla bean and fold in toasted walnuts. Fill cold tart shell 1/3 or less with the caramel. Cool the caramel tarts in the refrigerator, but bring to room temperature before serving.

Chocolate Ganache

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon corn syrup
  • 8 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Bring cream and corn syrup to a boil in a saucepan. In a bowl, pour it over the chocolate. Stir well to melt the chocolate. Pour this over cooled caramel filling. Sprinkle just a touch of fleur de sel on top and serve. Serves 6.

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Auberge du Soleil
180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford, CA 94573
Telephone (707) 963-1211
Web site www.aubergedusoleil.com
Best of Award of Excellence

Dining Out United States California