Flowers in the Vineyards and on the Plate

March 12, 2013

Mustard in BloomThe clouds have parted after a brief spring rain to reveal a Sonoma awash in blooms. The mustard began to unfurl a few weeks ago, slowly blanketing the vineyards with a mantle of  blinding yellow. It’s still early in the spring season here, a fact affirmed by these lofty cabernet vines which have yet to be pruned. IMG_5182I used to think that the beautiful carpet of mustard was just a happy coincidence, that the yellow-topped plants were just the type of wild flowers that sprout up here in the Wine Country. I’ve since learned that the blooms are a highly-sophisticated cover crop for most premium wine vineyards, containing not just mustard but clover and often other grasses and legumes as well. They reduce soil erosion, add nitrogen, improve tilth and water penetration, attract beneficial insects and control pests. 

The mustard is usually the first sign of spring color here, but is closely followed by all types of trees and shrubs. Now the plum trees, pears, cherries, elms are all thick with blossoms.

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 Like most things seasonal, all those tender shoots and lovely blooms leads quickly to some culinary inspiration. In fact, I often accent spring recipes with the blossoms of flowering herbs from my garden. IMG_5468The delicate lavendar-hued blossoms veiling my rosemary make for a particularly lovely springtime garnish right now, but there are many choices when it comes to edible blooms. Williams-Sonoma’s Agrarian will soon offer a seedling 6-pack featuring some of the most popular edible flowers for the kitchen garden including nasturtium, bee balm, starflower, marigold, and licorice mint, but you can add the blossoms from any culinary herb that’s in season. Mustard flowers make a lovely addition too, although I wouldn’t add those plucked from a vineyard, opting instead for ones growing naturally on a hillside or from a backyard free of any spray or other human interference. 

For the canvas upon which to assiduously sprinkle my edible blooms? Nothing feels more appropriate to the season than a composition of some of spring’s most celebrated ingredients—tender watercress, thin shards of slightly bitter fennel, and several types of seasonal citrus. For my spring-inspired salad, I picked kumquats, oranges, and pomelos from my dad’s Sacramento Valley orchard, to which I added Algerian Mandarins and tangerines from our own Sonoma garden.

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The greens, gently tossed with thinly sliced wheels of the citrus fruit, shaved fennel and celery spirals, then topped with spring blooms is, for me, the best type of springtime dish. Fresh. Flavorful. Whimsical.  In this recipe, I played with a few of the ingredients so it looks like a springtime explosion.

Citrus and Blossom Salad Close-UpTo make the celery spirals, I cut stalks of celery lengthwise into halves, then shave off long strips along the ribbed edge with a serrated vegetable peeler. (A mandoline works well too.) I cut the strips in half crosswise, then soak them in a bowl of water. They curl within a few minutes—many into tight spirals. (The kids ate the tightly wound ones before I could get them on the plate!)

For the citrus, choose any of your favorite varieties that are sweet and in season. Make sure to slice them on a rimmed plate, ready to capture any extra juices for the dressing. 

Spring Citrus Salad with Blossoms

Spring Citrus Salad with Blossoms

2 bunches watercress

2 celery stalks

1/2 fennel bulb

2 lbs citrus fruits (navel oranges, blood oranges, tangerines, mandarins, pommelos)

8 kumquats

1/4 cup chopped toasted almonds

1/4 cup loosely-packed edible flowers

For the Dressing:

1/2 cup citrus juice

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Trim any long stems from the watercress and discard. Using a salad spinner, gently rinse the leaves and spin dry. Transfer to a salad bowl and set aside. Cut the celery stalks lengthwise into halves. Using a serrated vegetable peeler or a mandoline, shave the celery into thin strips along the ribs. Cut the pieces in half crosswise and place in a bowl of water. Using a sharp knife or a mandoline, shave the fennel bulb into thin slices. Add to the bowl. Working on a plate to capture all the juices, cut thick slices off the top and bottom of each orange. Then, standing each citrus upright and using a serrated knife, cut off the peel along the contour of each fruit to reveal the flesh. Set each citrus on its side and cut into slices about 3/8-inch thick. Transfer the citrus slices to the bowl, reserving any juices for the dressing. Place each kumquat on its side on a cutting board. Using the serrated knife, cut into very thin slices, discarding any seeds. Transfer the kumquat slices to the bowl. Set the almonds and flowers aside to add just before serving.

To make the dressing, pour the accumulated juices into a measuring cup. Add enough additional citrus juice to measure 1/2 cup. Add the vinegar. Whisk in the oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Just before serving, add the almonds to the salad. Drizzle the dressing over the top and toss gently to mix. Divid the salad among individual serving plates. Sprinkle the blossoms evenly over each serving.

Makes 4 servings

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A sparkling wine or prosecco is an obvious partner for this elegant salad. Bryan Cooper at Sonoma Wine Shop recommends Monticello Vineyard’s Montreaux Brut from Napa. It has a lot of complexity and a soft finish with about .9 residual sugar.

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