Tablas Creek, located in the westernmost reaches of the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (“AVA”) along California’s Central Coast and formed as a partnership between a well-known wine importer and Chateau de Beaucastel, a famous estate in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape area of France’s Rhone Appellation d’origine Controlee (“AOC”), boasts a broad range of fantastic wines made from mostly Rhone varietals. With BabySo fast asleep in his stroller, JSo, LoSo and I sidled up to the bar as Cindy, our guide, poured us two glasses (JSo was our designated driver for the day) of the first wine of the day, the 2010 Vermentino ($27/bottle). Though Vermentino (also known as “Rolle”) can be found in Southern France, it is most widely recognized as an Italian varietal, making it feel like a bit of an oddity among Tablas Creek’s decidedly Franco-centric tasting list.*
Crisp and cool, this wine was a welcome initial offering on a warm, sunny day, with a nose and palate dominated by citrus zest and limestone but with more acidity and fruit (passionfruit?) on the tongue than would be presented by its Italian cousin, the Pinot Grigio. Though this wine intrigued me in a way I still cannot pinpoint, I was initially reluctant to purchase a bottle for a CorkPopper Dinner because I couldn’t immediately identify what I would cook with it. As our tasting wore on, however, I kept wanting to return to the Vermentino, a sign, as LoSo pointed out, that I should probably just get a bottle anyway. How funny, then, that it is precisely this wine that ended up inspiring my first Paso Robles CorkPopper Dinner – Lemon Risotto with Summer Squash, Zucchini and Seared Scallops.**
Lemon and scallops are, of course, an obvious pairing with a wine that presents as much citrus and mineral as the 2010 Tablas Creek Vermentino. But it is the slight sweetness of the squash and zucchini, which temper the tartness of the wine, and the creaminess of the risotto, which compliments the wine’s acidity, that really make this pairing sing. Best yet, with scallops purchased from the local fish market*** and summer squash and zucchini perfectly in season, it is a meal that just screams for a warm summer evening on California’s Central Coast. Done and done.
Lemon Risotto with Summer Squash, Zucchini and Seared Scallops
7 cups well-seasoned chicken broth, as needed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 1/3 cups)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 pound yellow summer squash, diced into 3/4-inch pieces
1/2 pound zucchini, halved and sliced into 3/4-inch pieces
8 large diver scallops
Freshly ground pepper and sea salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese
Zest of 1 lemon (about 2-3 teaspoons)
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian Parsley
Warm the chicken broth in a medium pot over low heat. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat until it begins to ripple but before it smokes. Add the onion and garlic and saute until fragrant and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the rice and continue to stir until the grains begin to make a crackling sound. Add the wine and stir until the liquid is almost fully absorbed. Turn the heat down to medium, add the squash and zucchini, and stir to combine. Begin adding the chicken broth 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb each 1/2 cup before adding more. You want the broth to just barely cover the rice each time and for the mixture to gently bubble. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to stand there stirring the risotto the entire time. Just give it a stir every couple of minutes to ensure that the heat and liquid are being evenly distributed among the rice grains.
While your risotto is bubbling away, pat the scallops dry with paper towels and season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, again until it ripples but before it smokes. Add the scallops and sear about 2 minutes on each side until they have a nice caramel colored crust but are just barely cooked through in the center. Cut the scallops into quarters and set aside.
After about 25-30 minutes, your rice should be tender all the way through but still slightly al dente. Add another 1/2 cup of chicken broth and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the cheese and stir to melt. Add the scallop pieces and stir gently to combine. Remove the pan from the heat and add the parsley, lemon zest and lemon juice to taste. You want it to taste fresh but not tart, so add the juice slowly, tasting as you go. Your risotto should be creamy and should spread out when ladled into a large bowl rather than stand in a mound. Serve immediately.
* Unlike France’s AOC rules, the AVA rules in the United States do not dictate which grape varieties may be grown in any given region, giving vineyard owners the freedom to plant whichever grape varieties they believe will grow best in their vineyards’ particular soil and climate.
** This recipe was adapted from a New York Times recipe for Lemon Risotto with Summer Squash.
*** I got my scallops from the nice folks down at Giovanni’s Fish Market on the Morro Bay Embarcadero. Look for the brown building with the line down the block of people waiting for either fish n’ chips or barbequed local oysters.