Thursday, July 5, 2007

When life gives you melons, make a summer salad

Karola Saekel, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 4, 2007
People often think of winery chefs as upscale cooks who prepare lunches and dinners for small groups of wine aficionados.

But Jerry Regester, executive chef at Wente Vineyards in Livermore, might whip up a four-course dinner for 320 summer concertgoers the same night he dishes up a concert buffet meal for 1,300. So much for the small group of wine aficionados.

Regester has cooked at large and high-end dining rooms -- Highlands Inn in Carmel, Ventana Inn in Big Sur, Domaine Chandon in Yountville -- but he admits that starting the job at Wente just 10 days before the beginning of the winery's concert season last year was a bit daunting.

At the same time, the job is tailor-made for this chef, whose credo is local, local, local. The winery has its own organic garden that yields herbs, peppers, tomatoes, chard, squashes and, until a couple of weeks ago, pea shoots. Wente even harvests honey from its own hives.

What doesn't come directly from the property, Regester generally buys from Northern California farms. One of his favorites, melons, are hitting their peak in time for the Fourth of July and for the debut of his summer menu.

T&D Willey farms of Madera supplied him with Orange Sherbet melons last year (they were fantastic -- sweet, juicy, voluptuous, he says), but he can't get them this year. Instead, he'll use Charentais from Riverdog Farm in Guinda (Yolo County). Musk melons would also work in his favorite presentation, which is a first-course salad rather than a dessert.

Diners love the surprise factor, the chef contends. It adds excitement to the dining-out experience.

His recipe for this salad is fairly open-ended. Frisee and watercress will probably be the greens in the mixture in the next few weeks. But he might substitute arugula if it looks better. Constants are the vanilla bean vinaigrette, another slight surprise, and candied walnuts and perky grapes.

Regester arranges these ingredients over attractive peeled melon wedges, letting the juxtaposition of sweet fruit, bitter greens and crunchy nuts and grapes play against the aromatic acidity of the dressing.

Before melon season went into high gear, he used peaches in essentially the same salad. And in the dead of winter, when variety shrinks even in California, he gives a similar treatment to yellow sweet potatoes.

Like most Americans, Regester, who grew up in upstate New York, always associated sweet potatoes with Thanksgiving. Finding them in a salad, he says, wakes up the taste buds -- just like the sweet melons of summer.

The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, 5050 Arroyo Road (near Concannon Boulevard), Livermore; (925) 456-2450. Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

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