New recipe column from Zuni Cafe chef celebrates best of California

New beginnings, greener grass, fame and fortune, bounty. People have come to California for many reasons, my parents included.

My mother and father moved here in the ’60s from northern Mexico for a new life. My father spent years managing the legendary Tia Margarita in San Francisco’s Richmond District, but they dreamed of having their own restaurant. When they saw an ad in the Marin Independent Journal for a restaurant space in Sonoma Valley, they eventually settled there and opened a small place of their own called La Viña. It was a Mexican/South American/Spanish restaurant with a “bistro” vibe. I know that sounds like a mouthful of cuisine for a small new restaurant, but they had a lot going for them.

For one, it was a space of pedigree — the same storefront as the original Williams-Sonoma store that had been closed (and has since reopened). They had made a friend in the restaurant business who consulted for free about the somewhat unfamiliar Peruvian cuisine.

My mom was the chef, dishwasher and prep cook, and my dad was the front man, the face, the server and everything else.

I spent my first eight years there growing up alongside the business. Sometimes I’d help my dad set tables, fill salt and pepper shakers and run food to guests, but the kitchen was my mom’s realm and not yet a space for my tender, scarless hands. I would sometimes watch my mom blister, batter and fry fresh pasilla peppers she sourced from a friend’s organic garden and carefully make her tomato sauce. The restaurant closed in 1995, and my parents have been divorced for a while now, but Dad still says her chiles rellenos are the best he’s ever had.

Nowadays I can’t imagine myself without my kitchen scars. When I reflect on this experience, I see it was more of an apprenticeship for life and how to make food a central part of it. Growing up in the Bay Area, first in Sonoma Valley at my parents’ restaurant and now as a sous chef at one of San Francisco’s best restaurants, Zuni Cafe, I’ve become enamored with the robust and fruitful terrain we have here in California. At Zuni we change the menu twice per day. It’s simple but complex and based on hyper-local seasonal ingredients.

Avocado Mash With Chicharrones, Buddha's Hand & A Lot of Herbs
Avocado Mash With Chicharrones, Buddha’s Hand & A Lot of HerbsChristian Reynoso

This new column, Bounty, draws from my experience and is for everyone — my parents included — who believes the California dream is about food, too. These recipe-stories will be inspired by my time at Zuni but also my childhood, other restaurants I’ve worked or dined at, my travels and, of course, California’s bounty. They will be simple to re-create without professional cooking experience and with limited cooking space, important in San Francisco. They’ll be tailored to feed 4 to 6 people, since we love to have friends over. They’ll be beautiful, approachable and delicious. My recipes will also address issues like climate change, sustainable fishing, ranching and farming practices — the future of the California food scene.

That future is still being figured out, and there are never-ending questions about how to approach those challenges. Should we grow easily stressed avocado trees in fire-prone areas of the state? In December of 2017, when the Thomas Fire ripped through the precious avocado and citrus groves at Brokaw Ranch in Ventura County, owner Will Brokaw wasn’t sure his family’s livelihood would endure. There isn’t much they can do to really prepare for a fire like that again, but, he says, “a silver lining from having to clear-cut the fire-damaged orchard is that (we) could replant with a higher-density orchard, more trees per row, which will yield more fruit in the future,” he says.

Lamb and Green Garlic Meatballs with Spiced Carrot Hummus
Lamb and Green Garlic Meatballs with Spiced Carrot HummusChristian Reynoso

I see that as a wake-up call: If we don’t do things to preserve and pass on our food culture we are going to lose it. And at this point, what is more symbolic of California than an avocado?

In honor of those precious Brokaw avocados, I call for them this month in Avocado Mash With Chicharrones, Buddha’s Hand & Lots of Herbs. It’s like the best guacamole but also a salad and is an homage to a surprising little dish I had one night in Oaxaca, Mexico, on a visit over New Year’s. The chicharrones should be chopped into small crumbles and folded into the avocado mash, which adds an indulgent crunch and a richness that’s cut with a lot of brightly dressed herbs, thinly shaved peppery radishes and the sweet citron.

Brokaw also grows a lot of citrus and was surprised to discover his citrus groves survived the fire without a singe. His “flagship” Gold Nugget mandarin is available this month and you can absolutely use them in Mandarins & Little Gem Lettuce Sauteed in Brown Butter with Coriander & Chile.

Mandarins and Little Gem Lettuce Sauteed in Brown Butter with Coriander & Chile
Mandarins and Little Gem Lettuce Sauteed in Brown Butter with Coriander & ChileTravis Choat

In this recipe, I call for sauteing mandarins with their peel still attached. I wouldn’t eat raw mandarin peel, but when grilled or seared, the bitterness of the peel mellows while adding a citrus flavor.

Bounty is a new column from food writer, Sonoma native and Zuni Cafe sous chef Christian Reynoso.

My third recipe, Lamb & Green Garlic Meatballs With Spiced Carrot Hummus, also uses whole citrus. Meyer lemons are chopped into tiny bits and folded into a simple ground lamb and cream-soaked bread matrix, adding an intense fruity and floral sweetness. They taste distinctly bright, citrusy and full of tender garlic flavor. You’ll notice that these meatballs don’t have a ton of other ingredients, which focuses the flavor on the fresh herbs and, of course, on the lamb itself.

This month’s recipes are designed to be stand-alone dishes but could also work well together if you’re having friends, family or even a new lover over for dinner. This column is designed for Californians but also for those who have California dreams from afar. It’s for curious cooks rediscovering the perfect ingredient at the beginning of its season and imagining new ways to awaken the palate.

Christian Reynoso is a chef, recipe developer and writer. Originally from Sonoma, he lives in San Francisco. Email: [email protected] Instagram: @christianreynoso Twitter: @xtianreynoso

Avocado Mash With Chicharrones, Buddha’s Hand & a Lot of Herbs

Serves 3 to 4

I don’t call for specific herbs in this recipe because I want you to feel free to mix it up based on what you can find and already have in your fridge. The freshest herbs at the farmers’ market are always the best. In San Francisco, go to La Palma Mexicatessen on 24th Street in the Mission for my favorite chicharrones. They have the most golden crispy skin with belly meat attached, making them essentially really crispy carnitas. 4505 Meats also sells chicharrones that work very well and now are available on Amazon. Serve with toast, chips or simply on its own with a glass of mezcal.

3 avocados, preferably from Brokaw Ranch

Kosher salt

Juice of 2 lemons

4 ounces chicharrones, chopped into small, crumbly pieces

4 inches Buddha’s Hand citron finger

2 radishes, golf-ball size

2 cups tender herbs, such as mint, dill, tarragon, parsley, sorrel or purslane, leaves picked off stem, loosely packed

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Toast or chips to serve

Instructions: Halve and pit the avocados, then scoop the avocado flesh into a small bowl. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and the juice from 1 lemon. With a blunt-edge spoon, lightly mash the avocado into smaller chunks, mixing the salt and lemon juice well into the avocado. Fold in three-quarters of the chicharrones and transfer the avocado mix onto a serving platter. Top the avocado mix with the rest of the chicharrones crumble.

Slice the Buddha’s Hand citron and radish thinly, then transfer to a medium-size bowl with the plucked herbs, extra virgin olive oil and ¼ teaspoon salt. Toss the herb salad well, and place it atop the avocado mash. Serve with the toast or chips.

Lamb & Green Garlic Meatballs With Spiced Carrot Hummus

Serves 4 to 6

Spring conjures up the image of a young spring lamb grazing in neon-green grass. But for me, it equally conjures up green garlic, the tender, not yet fully realized garlic plant that is completely edible. Unlike mature garlic, there is no peeling, no worries of buying that bulb that has sat for too long and has begun to rot from the inside out. Green garlic is never hot, spicy or dry and is always delicious, mild and easy to use. The spiced carrot hummus makes this recipe feel eastern Mediterranean, but it’s more of a California dish. I call for a lot of ground coriander, cumin, black pepper and turmeric, which counter the light and fresh meatballs with sweetness and spice.

Spiced Carrot Hummus

1 15-ounce can chickpeas and liquid

3 large carrots, scrubbed clean and thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, almond-size, peeled

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, freshly ground

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, freshly ground

1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

1 teaspoon turmeric, ground

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons tahini

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Lamb and Green Garlic Meatballs

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 cup minced green garlic (about 4-6 stalks), plus 4 stalks green garlic

4 ounces soft white bread, such as sweet French with minimal hard crust

½ cup half-and-half, cream, milk or water

1 small Meyer lemon, minced

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon black pepper, freshly ground

1 pound ground lamb

To make the hummus: Add the chickpeas and their liquid, carrots, garlic, 4 tablespoons olive oil, coriander, cumin, pepper, turmeric and salt to a 2-quart pot over medium-high heat. Once the liquid starts simmering, lower the heat to low. Cover with a lid slightly ajar, stirring every few minutes, until the carrots are completely tender and mashable with the pressure of a fork, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the lid.

Add the warm chickpea and carrot mixture to a food processor with the tahini and lemon juice. Process until the hummus is very smooth. Transfer to a serving bowl. Use a spatula to smooth out the surface and drizzle the rest of the olive oil over the top.

To make the lamb meatballs: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a 15 by 10-inch baking sheet with parchment paper.

Heat the olive oil in a small saute pan over low heat. Add the green garlic and cook, stirring occasionally until the green garlic has softened, but still has body. Don’t let it brown, which will damage the delicate green garlic flavor. Set aside and let cool.

Tear the bread into pebble-size pieces in a medium-size bowl. Add the half-and-half, and with your hands, mix the bread and cream together so the bread is fully saturated.

Slice off the Meyer lemon ends and discard, exposing a hint of the flesh. Then slice the rest of the lemon into discs just shy of ¼-inch thick. Pluck out and discard any seeds. Working in batches, stack the lemon discs in piles of 3-4 and slice into matchsticks. Finely chop the matchsticks into small pieces, peel and all. Transfer to the bowl with the soaked bread. Add three-quarters of the chopped parsley, the salt, pepper and lamb.

Either with your hands, a spoon or in a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the meatball mixture well to combine. With a light coating of water or olive oil on your hands, roll the mixture into 20 balls (about 2 ounces each, or 1.75 inches in diameter) and place on the prepared baking sheet. Spacing regularly, you should be able to fit all the meatballs on the sheet. Place on the top rack of the oven and roast until lightly browned and cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Serve the meatballs hot with the hummus. Garnish both with the reserved chopped parsley.

Mandarins & Little Gem Lettuce Sauteed in Brown Butter With Coriander & Chile

Serves 4

If you can’t find Little Gem lettuces, you can try using small hearts of romaine. Spring onions should be widely available but scallions also work well here. Coriander and chile flakes add extra zip; so does the splash of vinegar at the end. If you see flowering coriander at your farmers’ market, use that instead of dried coriander seeds; finely chopped cilantro works as a substitute as well. For the mandarins, you can use a range of different varieties, but look for thinner-skinned types that are less bitter. Yes, those little clementines work great in this recipe, too.

4 to 6 mandarins, tangerines or clementines, golf-ball size or slightly larger with thin skins, unpeeled

4 small spring onions, rinsed of any dirt

4 heads Little Gem lettuce, halved

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons butter, unsalted

2 teaspoon Sherry vinegar

½ teaspoon chile flakes

½ teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and freshly ground

Flaky salt, for serving

Cut the mandarins through their skin into ¾-inch wedges. Trim the spring onions to the point where leaves begin to branch out so that they fit into a 10-inch saute pan. Season the mandarins, lettuces and onions with salt.

Heat a 10-inch saute pan over medium heat. Add 1½ tablespoons of butter to the pan and let it melt, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the mandarin wedges, cut side down. Sear the mandarins on all three sides, including the skin, until caramelized and browned, about 2 minutes per side. Turn off the heat and transfer the mandarin wedges to a serving platter.

With a paper towel, quickly wipe the pan clean and add the remaining 1½ tablespoons of butter. Turn heat back on to medium once again and swirl the butter to coat the pan. Add the lettuce halves, cut-side down, along with the onions, and sear until the butter has browned and the lettuces and onions are browned and caramelized, too. (The onions may need to be flipped and cooked on the opposite side if they are larger than ½-inch thick at the bulb.) Turn off the heat and arrange and tangle the lettuces and onions with the mandarins.

Drizzle the Sherry vinegar over the warm mandarins and vegetables, and sprinkle the coriander seeds and chile flakes over the top. Taste and season with flake salt as needed. Serve warm.

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