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Italian Spring

An April Menu From Michael Chiarello's Tra Vigne Cookbook

Harvey Steiman
Posted: April 28, 2000

Italian Spring

An April Menu From Michael Chiarello's Tra Vigne Cookbook

By Harvey Steiman

Michael Chiarello aptly subtitled his Tra Vigne Cookbook,published last year, "Seasons in the California wine country." He organized the compilation of recipes from the Napa Valley restaurant into four parts corresponding to the seasons. The chapters focus on the produce (mostly vegetables) that is best in each season, rather than on usual chapters such as soups, pastas, fish and meats.

His recipes often work in a bit of California flair without losing their Italian essence, which is what the restaurant does so well. Chiarello is inspired by Italy, but his cuisine celebrates the bounty of California wine country.

This springtime menu nods to the season with a first course of asparagus, but it also looks back to the last days of winter. Hearty enough to stick to your ribs, this dish is perfect for one of those chilly spring evenings when the frosty air suggests that Mother Nature has not quite caught up with the calendar.

In typical Chiarello style, these dishes are all about flavor, not fancy presentation. These foods are most suitably brought to the table on platters, to be served family style with a glass of wine that does not demand too much attention. This is a rustic menu -- fancy wines would overdress the occasion.

That said, the wines still must hold our interest, and the Tuscan bottlings that emerged as best from our tasting certainly do that. Both wines are typically mild-mannered by themselves, but pick up plenty of pizzazz when paired with Chiarello's hearty food.

The first course is a variation on Chiarello's own winter dish that originally used broccoli with a sauce of melted Cambozola, a mild blue cheese. This version substitutes asparagus prepared with olive oil to intensify its flavors. The asparagus combines perfectly with the cheese sauce, which is sparked with fresh thyme and toasted pine nuts.

The sauce seemed to perk up traditional Italian white wines, such as Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc from Collio. A light Soave also tasted better with the dish. But the winner was a bottle of Marchesi di Frescobaldi Pomino Bianco 1995 (not rated), a Tuscan blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco that has now had a couple of years in the bottle to mellow. With this dish, the wine became richer and more flavorful, emphasizing its spicy overtones.

For the main course, Chiarello puts a few twists on a dish of chicken with lemon and potatoes. First, he drizzles the cut lemons with olive oil and broils them to add extra layers of flavor. The juice from those lemons combines with chicken broth and rosemary to make an invigorating sauce for chicken cooked beside the potatoes.

The dazzling flavors did absolutely no harm to a tableful of Italian reds. It was a tough choice among Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from the south, Dolcetto and Barbera from the north and several different versions of Sangiovese from Tuscany. Each balanced nicely with the zingy sauce and picked up some extra dimensions of fruit flavor. I chose the one that opened up the most: Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico 1997 (85 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, $20). A firm, light-textured wine on its own, it turned seductive with the chicken, potatoes and lemon.

Both of these dishes are easy to prepare, involving no tricky techniques or hard-to-find ingredients. The dessert is, if anything, even easier -- a deliciously simple idea that requires only an espresso machine to pull off. It consists of hazelnut and vanilla gelato scooped into a glass and doused with a shot of espresso. A bit of the froth from steamed milk adds another texture. The result is a dessert as simple as a sundae, but the coffee makes it feel more grown-up.

No wine goes with this dish, but feel free to open a bottle of sweet wine to follow -- or better yet, try a shot of grappa.

Asparagus With Cambozola Sauce

1/2 loaf good, crusty bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 pounds asparagus
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup water
1/4 pound Cambozola cheese (without rind), or any mild blue-veined cheese
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 375° F. Cut the bread into slices about 3/4 of an inch thick and 5 inches long. You will need at least 1 slice per person. Melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet, add the bread, and toss to coat well. Season with salt and pepper. Toss again, and bake until the bread is browned and crisp on the surface, but still soft within, about 15 minutes. Drain the bread on paper towels and keep it warm.

Trim the ends of the asparagus where they begin to turn white, and, using a vegetable peeler, scrape off the thick skin at the stem ends.

In a large sauté pan, bring the olive oil and water to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the asparagus, cover the pan and let it boil for 3 minutes. Uncover the pan and raise the heat to boil off the remaining water, then sauté the asparagus to brown it lightly, about 5 minutes. Total cooking time should be no more than 10 minutes.

While the asparagus is cooking, slowly melt the Cambozola in a saucepan with the cream. Add the thyme and season well with pepper and, if needed, salt.

Place one or more slices of the warm bread on each of four warm plates. Arrange the asparagus on the bread, and pour the sauce over the top. Sprinkle each serving with pine nuts.

Serves 4

Chicken With Roasted Lemon and Rosemary Sauce

1 1/2 pounds small new potatoes, such as Red Bliss
2 lemons
Extra-virgin olive oil for brushing on lemons, plus 1/4 cup
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 boneless chicken breast halves, skin on
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 cup double-strength chicken stock
(see note)
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)

Note: For double-strength chicken stock, simply boil homemade chicken broth until it reduces in volume by one-half. For a quick substitute, use unsalted canned broth and boil it until it reduces in volume by one-half.

Put the potatoes in a pot of salted cold water and bring to a boil. Cook the potatoes until they are just tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Drain them well, and let them cool. Do not peel them, but cut them in half and set them aside.

Preheat the broiler. Cut a small slice off both ends of each lemon, then cut them in half crosswise. Arrange the lemons skin side down in a flameproof, nonreactive baking dish; brush with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Broil the lemons 6 inches or more from the heat until they are browned and soft, about 10 minutes. Let them cool. When they are cool enough to handle, squeeze the lemon halves over a sieve so the juice goes into a bowl. Discard the lemon shells.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large ovenproof sauté pan over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the chicken, lower the heat to medium and cook, turning once, until the chicken is brown on both sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a platter.

Brown the potatoes in the same pan over medium-high heat, stirring and tossing and seasoning with salt and pepper, about 5 minutes. Drain off the excess oil. Arrange the chicken breasts on top of the potatoes. Place the pan in the oven to finish cooking through, about 10 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a platter. Put the pan over medium-high heat and toss the potatoes until they absorb the pan juices. Scrape the potatoes onto the platter, around the chicken.

Return the pan to medium-high heat and brown the garlic in it for a few seconds before adding the reserved lemon juice, stock, rosemary and parsley. Stir and scrape up any browned bits that cling to the bottom and sides of the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the sauce tastes too lemony, stir in the optional butter. Pour the sauce over the potatoes and chicken, and serve immediately.

Serves 4


4 small scoops hazelnut gelato
4 small scoops vanilla gelato
1 shot fresh hot espresso
Steamed milk froth
Equal parts unsweetened cocoa powder and powdered sugar, sifted together

Scoop the gelato into a coffee cup or tempered glass tumbler. Pour the hot espresso over the gelato and spoon a little milk froth on top. Dust with the cocoa-sugar mix.

Serves 4

Alternate Wine Suggestions

In this monthly feature, editor at large Harvey Steiman assembles fresh and original menus, then matches them with wines that Wine Spectator has recommended or with other wines that have aged well.

A variety of wines are tasted with each dish to find the best match. Other wines may be suitable, but try those listed here if you can.

Should the wines selected for the menu be unavailable, choose an alternative with similar characteristics. Here are some suggestions:


First choice: Marchesi di Frescobaldi Pomino Bianco 1995 (not rated)

Alternate wines:

  • Castello Banfi Chardonnay Tuscany Fontanelle 1995 (88, $17)
  • Teruzzi & Puthod Terre di Tufi 1995 (88, $24)
  • Marchesi di Frescobaldi Pomino White Tenuta di Pomino II Benefizio 1996 (85, $13)


First choice: Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico 1997 (85, $20)

Alternate wines:

  • Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico 1997 (85, $21),
  • Isole e Olena Chianti Classico 1997 (86, $18)
  • Barone Ricasoli Chianti Classico San Ripolo 1997 (85, $16)

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