An enthusiastic crowd of 1,300 attended the inaugural Flavor! Napa Valley food and wine festival over the weekend, a three-day affair featuring all of Napa Valley’s finest chefs  along with special guests such as Richard Blais, winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars.”

    Long-time Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello of Bottega in Yountville was the driving force behind the festival, so it was a bit of a disappointment to learn upon my arrival on Saturday morning at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone that he had gone into the hospital at 4:30 a.m. for an emergency appendectomy.   

   The  show went on without him, with Bottega’s Director of Culinary Development Ryan McIlwraith  stepping in for Chiarello during a  mid-day  interactive cooking class and lunch. He had a little help from the wise-cracking Scott Conant of Scarpetta in New York and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto Napa, who made a cameo appearance and broke  into an impromptu song in Japanese.  The dude has some pipes.

     After lunch, a gasp went through the room as Chiarello himself showed up with his hospital bracelet on his wrist, grinning (or was that grimacing?) like nothing had happened.  He told the crowd he could see the culinary school from his hospital room across the valley and could not stay away. After getting a standing ovation, the chef gave a short speech, posed for a few photos, and made a hasty retreat. 

    As usual, Chiarello’s food made a lasting impression. Even before lunch was over, some folks at my table had already decided to serve his Roasted  Butternut Squash with Mushrooms and Burrata at their Thanksgiving table. You might not want to wait that long.

Roasted Butternut Squash

Makes 6 portions as a starter

For squash:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

5 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

3 ½ cups   mushrooms, preferably matsutakes, chanterelles, shiitakes or morels

2 shallots, thinly sliced

Sea salt, preferably gray, and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 balls burrata

For brown-butter vinaigrette:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon fresh sage, minced

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Pinch sea salt, preferably gray, or kosher salt

For the squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the butter and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. When the butter foams, add the squash and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until caramelized and lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Slide the pan into the oven and roast until a deeper brown on the edges about 20 minutes.

For the vinaigrette: Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat; add the butter, and when it foams, brown the sage for just a minute, and then pour in the vinegar and let it reduce by half. Don’t stir or touch it; just keep it at a simmer, gently reducing until thickened. Add the salt when it’s the consistency of alight syrup. Turn off the heat but leave the pan on the stove while you sauté the mushrooms.

Heat a medium sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Whenthe butter foams, add the mushrooms and sauté until they begin to release their water, about 8 minutes. Add the shallots to the pan and sauté until brown, tossing so they cook evenly. Season with salt and pepper and add another ½ tablespoon of butter if they look dry.

Divide the squash and the mushrooms evenly among the 6 plates. With your hands, tear the burrata into pieces, scattering them over the vegetables. Drizzle with the vinaigrette.