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The Soul of California

From Chez Panisse, a homey but sophisticated lamb dinner

Harvey Steiman
Posted: March 1, 2001

  Minestra Verdissima  
  Rare Yellowtail Tuna With Coriander and Fennel Seed  
  Baked Leg of Lamb With Wilted Escarole Vinaigrette  
  Buckwheat Crepes With Mango Compote  
  Wine Suggestions  
  More of Harvey Steiman's Food and Wine Recipes  
The Soul of California

From Chez Panisse, a homey but sophisticated lamb dinner

By Harvey Steiman

See also: California's Culinary Revolution

Unlike many California restaurants, which rely upon fancy presentations and cutting-edge ingredient juxtapositions, Chez Panisse dances to its own beat. The spiritual home of California cuisine has always focused on getting the best ingredients, and cooking them using the principles of Mediterranean cuisines from Spain to France to Italy to Morocco.

Assembled from two of Waters' Chez Panisse cookbooks, this menu will strike a familiar chord for those who know the restaurant well. Mediterranean flavors abound, with familiar California flourishes such as cilantro in one dish and mangoes in another. Her cooking techniques are typical of good home cooking in the south of France, which was Waters' original inspiration.

When I asked her which wines she would suggest for each course, Waters said she would rather stick to one or two wines for the whole evening. She prefers to drink wines she knows and likes rather than try to match specific wines with each dish. "I'm a simple wine drinker," she said. "I don't like a lot of wines at one meal. I'll drink the same thing all the way through."

Whether she matches food and wine consciously or not, these dishes have a special affinity for the wines she puts at the top of her preference list. "For white wines, I like Chardonnay as an aperitif more than I like to drink it with dinner," she said. "I'd rather drink a Marsanne or a Viognier; maybe a Sauvignon Blanc."

And indeed, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc figured best when I tried a range of wines with the first two courses: a vegetable soup carefully crafted to show off the individual character of each ingredient, and a plate of seared tuna, served at room temperature with shaved fennel and radishes. Alban Vineyards Viognier Central Coast 1999 (86 points, $20), with its ripe, spicy flavors on an elegant frame, is a slightly better fit for the soup. And Mason Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 1999 (87, $15), with its jazzy fruit and herb flavors on a crisp frame, picks up a little more refinement with the tuna. But they'll both do nicely with either dish.

For the main dish -- a leg of lamb marinated in garlic, herbs and olive oil, served with wilted escarole -- Waters' first thought was the gamy, round reds of Domaine Tempier in the south of France. "I have to go with my pals, the Peyrauds," said Waters, who has enjoyed a long friendship with Lulu Peyraud, matriarch of the Peyraud family, which owns Domaine Tempier. "But Châteauneuf-du-Pape is also a good idea, and for me that's Vieux Télégraphe. For a California wine, I like a lot of Paul Draper's [Ridge Vineyards] Zinfandels."

On my table, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 1998 (93, $37) was the winner. Its firm texture and lovely berry-based flavors seemed to take on added weight, roundness and elegance when served with the lamb and vegetables.

Finally, to pair with the buckwheat crepes with mangoes dessert, Waters went for another Rhône-based wine. "Beaumes-de-Venise," she said, "without question." Paul Jaboulet Aîné Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 1998 (not rated), with its gentle spice and exotic tropical fruit flavors, has just the right level of sweetness to match up seamlessly with this simple fruit dessert.

These touches reflect the attention to detail that makes Chez Panisse the restaurant that it is. The soup and tuna dishes are from Café Cookbook, while the lamb and crepes are from The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.

Minestra Verdissima

  • 1/2 pound spinach, washed
  • 1/2 pound arugula (rocket), washed
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 small celery ribs, diced
  • 2 medium leeks, including light green portion, well-washed and diced
  • 2 green zucchini, diced
  • 1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch lengths
  • 9 cups chicken stock
  • Bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaf
  • 3/4 cup asparagus cut into 1/2 inch lengths
  • A few drops lemon juice or vinegar

Wilt the spinach and arugula briefly in a sauté pan over medium-high heat with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt. Drain in a colander. When the greens are cool, squeeze out the excess moisture and chop them roughly.

Sauté the onion and celery in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan. When they are just tender, add the leeks, zucchini and green beans. Season them with salt and sauté briefly. Add the chicken stock and the herb bundle and bring to a simmer. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

When the vegetables are half cooked, add the asparagus. Turn off the heat when the vegetables are just cooked (they'll need about 3 to 5 minutes). Remove and discard the herb bundle, stir in the spinach and arugula, and check the seasoning once more. Add a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar and a little freshly milled pepper. Garnish each bowl with a little fruity extra virgin olive oil.

Note: The soup will be more substantial with the addition of cooked rice or pasta, or by adding a slice of grilled bread and shavings of Parmesan. If you are not serving the soup immediately, chill it and add the wilted spinach and arugula after reheating. Serves 6 to 8.

Rare Yellowtail Tuna With Coriander and Fennel Seed

  • 1 pound center cut tuna fillet
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed
  • 1 small bunch radishes, trimmed
  • 1 small bunch cilantro, tough stems removed

  • 3 small shallots, diced finely
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
  • Salt
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Try to get a piece of tuna about 3 inches in diameter and 8 inches long. Rub the fillet with olive oil and season generously with salt and cracked pepper. In a mortar, crush the coriander and fennel seeds coarsely, until their fragrance is released. Sprinkle the crushed seeds evenly over the tuna, pressing them into the flesh. This can be done several hours before cooking. Hold in the refrigerator.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until it is almost smoking. Carefully place the seasoned tuna in the skillet and sear for 30 seconds on each side. Remove it to a platter and cool for an hour or so at room temperature.

Make the vinaigrette by macerating the shallots in the lemon juice and Champagne vinegar with a good pinch of salt for 10 minutes. Whisk in the olive oil, taste, and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Use a very sharp knife to slice the tuna into even 1/8-inch slices. Divide the tuna among the plates, arranging the slices side by side to cover as much of the plate as possible. Using a mandolin or the thinnest blade on a food processor, shave the fennel bulb into ribbons and strew them over the fish. Shave some radish slices on top in the same way. The result should be a playful mosaic effect. Splash the vinaigrette over the tuna, fennel and radishes. Add a light sprinkling of salt. Roughly chop the cilantro, scatter it over each plate and serve. Serves 6 to 8.

Baked Leg of Lamb With Wilted Escarole Vinaigrette

  • 1 whole leg of lamb, 5 to 6 pounds (for tips on purchasing quality lamb, see "On the Lamb," page 25)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper

Trim the leg of as much fat as possible.

For the Marinade:
  • 2 onions
  • 6 to 8 cloves garlic
  • 6 to 8 sprigs thyme
  • 6 to 8 sprigs oregano
  • 1 bottle Chardonnay or white Burgundy
  • 1 cup virgin olive oil

Make a marinade by slicing the onions and lightly crushing the garlic. Bruise the thyme and oregano and put them with the garlic and onions in a shallow dish large enough to hold the lamb. Pour in the wine and olive oil, and rub the marinade all over the lamb. Marinate in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours or overnight, turning the meat frequently.

To Bake:

Remove the lamb from the marinade about 2 hours before serving. Pat the lamb dry and set it aside. Remove the garlic and the thyme and oregano leaves from the marinade and mince them together. Add the salt and coarsely ground pepper and a tablespoon of the marinade (or more if needed) to make a stiff paste. Rub the paste all over the lamb.

Preheat the oven to 450° F.

Place the lamb on a rack over a shallow pan. Bake it for 15 minutes and reduce the heat to 350° F. Turn the lamb over and bake it for 30 minutes. Turn it again and bake for another 30 minutes. The lamb will be cooked rare after a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes.

Wilted Escarole Vinaigrette

  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds escarole (The larger amount will be necessary if there are a lot of tough outer leaves, which should be discarded.)
  • 1/2 cup virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
  • Salt and pepper

Wash and trim the escarole. Cut it into 1/4-inch strips and rinse it, leaving some water clinging to the leaves. Just before carving the lamb, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat until it is very warm, but not hot. Add the escarole to the pan all at once and cover the pan. Wilt the escarole for about 2 minutes, until it is a bright, deep green. Remove the cover and stir in the vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Carve the lamb into 3/8-inch slices and reserve the juices. Put 2 or 3 slices of lamb on each of six warm serving plates. Drizzle with the carving juices. Put an equal amount of wilted escarole on each plate, and use the remaining vinaigrette to moisten the lamb and the escarole. Serves 6.

Buckwheat Crepes With Mango Compote

  • 3 large ripe mangoes
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice, approximately
  • 2 cups sweet white wine, such as late-
  • harvest Sémillon or Riesling
  • 12 buckwheat crepes (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks

Peel the mangoes and slice them from the pits in 3/8-inch slices. Cut them lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips. Reserve the 12 longest strips and dice the rest. Put all the mango in a shallow dish and sprinkle with the lime juice. Pour the sweet wine over the fruit, cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before serving and taste for lime juice. There should be a hint of lime flavor; add more juice if necessary.

Buckwheat Crepes
  • 1 1/3 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup buckwheat flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup flat beer (any kind)

Heat 1 cup of the milk with the butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over low heat until the butter melts. Remove it from the heat and let it cool until tepid. Mix the buckwheat flour with the all-purpose flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the flour and put the vegetable oil and eggs in it. Beat thoroughly with a whisk, gradually incorporating the cooled milk mixture and the beer. Add most of the remaining milk, stirring well, until the batter has the consistency of thick cream. Let this batter stand for at least 30 minutes. The batter will keep one to two days in the refrigerator, but be sure to let it come to room temperature before cooking.

Butter an 8-inch crepe pan very lightly and place it over medium-high heat.

When the pan is hot, pour in about 3 tablespoons of the batter, tilting the pan rapidly so the batter forms a thin layer over the whole pan. If the batter is too thick to cover the pan completely, use the remaining milk. Cook for 1 1/2 minutes, until the crepe browns nicely. (Buckwheat flour takes longer to cook than wheat flour.) Carefully turn the crepe over (it will be fragile) and cook for 30 to 45 seconds on the other side. Stack the crepes. This recipe makes 12 to 16 crepes.

Fold a crepe around each mango strip. Place two on each plate and spoon some of the drained diced mango over them. Top with whipped cream.

For an additional sweet touch, drain the wine from the mangoes and simmer it in a nonreactive pan until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Let it cool, and drizzle it over the crepes before serving. Serves 6.

Wine Suggestions

In this regular feature, editor at large Harvey Steiman creates fresh and original menus, then matches them with wines that Wine Spectator has recommended or with other wines that have aged well. Other wines may be suitable, but try those listed here if you can. Alternate choices are given in case the first choice is unavailable.

Minestra Verdissima

First choice: Alban Viognier Central Coast 1999 (86, $20)

Alternate choices: Joseph Phelps Viognier Napa Valley 1998 (88, $30), Concannon Viognier Central Coast 1998 (87, $19), Martine's Wines Viognier California 1999 (85, $10)

Rare Yellowtail Tuna With Coriander and Fennel Seed

First choice: Mason Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 1999 (87, $15)

Alternate choices: Whitehall Lane Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 1999 (87, $15), St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 1999 (87, $14), Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 1999 (87, $16)

Baked Leg of Lamb With Wilted Escarole Vinaigrette

First choice: Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 1998 (93, $37)

Alternate choices: Paul Coulon & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine de Beaurenard 1998 (93, $25), Louis Bernard Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1998 (92, $28), Caves des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Closiers 1998 (91, $24)

Buckwheat Crepes With Mango Compote

First choice: Paul Jaboulet Aîné Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise 1998 (not rated)

Alternate choices: M. Chapoutier and Vidal-Fleury are also reliable producers of this dessert wine.

For the complete article, please see the March 31, 2001, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 59.

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