I remain weeks behind on the posts that are rattling around in the old noggin. Blame a combination of travel, laziness and above all Twitter, which has started to eat my time whenever I sit down in front of this fine AMD powered machine in my home office.
However, I wanted to run down the menu I prepared during our trip to California before it completely evaporates from my mind. It was a really nice meal, and I was pretty happy with how it was pulled off.
First, a little background on why I was even cooking in California. Jaime’s friend Susan has 5 sisters, and her family typically takes a big vacation together somewhere at Spring Break, since a few of the sisters are schoolteachers. This year, the clan chose the Napa Valley, and rented a pretty large home in Santa Rosa. Susan invited Jaime and me along and offered to let us stay in the rented home gratis – as long as I cooked a meal for everyone. With husbands/boyfriends/friends this total came to 14. I was a little intimadated, but figured that I could find any necessary inspiration/ingredients in the lovely area we were staying.
I couldn’t have been more correct on that.
Jaime and I arrived on a Wednesday, and spent that day tooling around San Francisco going to some of the absolute coolest bars/brewpubs I’ve ever seen. We hit Santa Rosa pretty late, and so got up early on Thursday with a couple of missions – get our shopping done for dinner that evening and have lunch at the CIA. Using the trusty interwebs, I found what I imagined would be a fantastic little weekday morning farmers market in downtown Santa Rosa, and so we headed over that way to get some inspiration for dinner and pick up some awesome early spring produce.
Turns out the ‘market’ was actually a food pantry at a VFW hall, with long lines of (mostly) elderly people waiting for their share of a huge box full of onions and potatoes. Fresh, to be sure, but not quite what I had in mind. We went back to the rental car, me feeling more than a little dejected. How could I call myself a food lover and not even be able to find a fresh market in Napa valley, for goodness sake? Lacking wireless Internet, I turned to the only resource I had left – the friendly lady in our Garmin – for some help. We’ll call her Alice. I asked Alice to find me a produce market and a few places popped up. We headed into town and promptly failed two more times. First place was a dentist, next place was some type of holistic healing center (the type that advertise ‘colonic irrigation’ on big signs outside). Definitely not what I was after.
At this point I was nearly at the point of cursing Alice out, and felt like we might end up back at Trader Joes (not a bad thing, of course, but still somewhat of a tragedy in a place not but 25 miles from the gardens at French Laundry).
I widened the search 50 miles and came up with two listings for a place called ‘Andys Produce’ – one of which Alice noted was a roadside stand. This sounded more promising even than colonic irrigation, but it was a good 25 miles away. No matter – Alice, Jaime and I were on a quest for fresh produce, so we headed out.
On the way, I started to feel a bit better as I saw a short delivery box truck with ‘Andys Produce’ emblazoned across the sides and back. A website was even listed. Not only was the place real, it was downright connected! We pushed on, guided by Alice’s confident directions. About halfway there, Alice directed us off of the main highway and onto a small two lane road. This turned out to be one of the more beautiful driving trips of our vacation. We tooled through various vineyards in our cherry red Impala, impressed by the fields of bright yellow mustard and occasional dairy farm. Finally, we came up on a junction, turned left, and there it was – an oasis in asphalt wilderness – Andys Produce Roadside Stand! I could see the displays of citrus and beets sitting out front, and it turned out to be quite a store inside. We picked up some really lovely local cheeses, 3 or 4 six packs of local (and other west coast) beers and a bevy of excellent and very fresh produce. The menu really began to come together:
- Appetizer of local farmstead cheeses with a fresh baguette and sopressata and mortadella
- Spinach salad with fresh strawberry, ‘mellowed’ red onion and 25 yr basalmic vinegar
- Roasted cabbage
- Grilled pork tenderloin in a spicy rub with blood orange sauce
- Asparagus sauteed in butter with garlic and lemon zest
The asparagus were absolutely amazing, huge (as thick as my ring finger) but extremely tender and not at all woody. Even the bases could have been eaten without peeling. The blood oranges were equally as fresh – some were the variety I know (Moro) and some were another variety, but the juice of both was nice and sweet with that floral quality that sets blood orange apart. I knew I had to use them. The strawberries were on special at Andys, and were beautiful (as you might imagine in March in northern California). We had to find an application for them, and so decided on a simple spinach and strawberry salad, with just enough of a nice basalmic vinegar over top to break the sweetness. As I picked over the fresh bunches of spinach, a lady and her father struck up a conversation with us, as they could hear Jaime and I discussing various menu options. Turns out the woman’s father was a trained chef, and they were at Andys doing much the same thing we were. Now *thats* the California experience I was looking for when we left the house that morning – find a wonderful fresh market, find inspiration from the ingredients you find, chat up a local chef in the process.
Andys had a large selection of organic foodstuffs, including spices, flours and grains, dairy and eggs, but they did not have a huge meat selection. As we checked out, we chatted up our cashier asking her if there was a butcher shop nearby, as we had decided on the pork tenderloins to pair with a blood orange sauce. She asked our sacker, who sullenly replied, “I don’t really know <dramatic pause for effect> since I’m a vegetarian” (Again – how much more Californian can you get???) Luckily our new friends from the produce department were behind us and recommended a little store down the road that had a nice meat counter. Ironically, it was called ‘Fiesta’, but had nothing to do with the ‘Lower Food Prices’ chain in Houston.
As we loaded up the Impala and drove off, more than one set of hands was waving goodbye to us, and I couldn’t help but feel that we had completely turned the day around.
We headed to Fiesta, which turned out to be the name of the shopping center and not the store. We went in and picked up some Kona coffee and bought about 4 good-sized pork tenderloins and 4 lbs of some really nice house made chicken and spinach sausage they had in the case.
I also went in search of a nice aged basalmic vinegar. It was while doing this that I learned that California law requires that basalmic vinegar be labeled as a product that contains lead – there was a giant sign on the vinegar display warning me about this. Unfazed (and a little confused), I picked up my condiment and we went about our way. We headed back to the house, dropped off everything and promptly went to lunch at the CIA. It was lovely (and the topic for another post), but it put us about an hour behind. On the way home we stumbled on a giant liquor store, and ended up getting a magnum of Roediger champagne. We arrived back at the house at around 4 PM – with everyone scheduled to arrive back from their day in Napa at about 7:30 PM. Jaime and I got to work. I broke down 6 cabbages, prepped, washed and tore 5 bunches of spinach, juiced and zested 8 blood oranges (without a reamer! It was hard work!) washed and evened out 6 bunches of the lovely asparagus, prepped the cheese and meat plate and got the rub on my tenderloins. Jaime cleaned the strawberries and chilled the champagne. Somewhere in there I minced some shallot, and sliced some red onion thinly and put it to soak in some lemon juice – this mellowed onion got tossed into the spinach salad (and was fantastic – thanks Nigella Lawson for teaching me this).
When everyone arrived back at the house we got the appetizer plate out, and I was just about ready to start cooking – about a half- hour behind. I got some ‘helpers’ to mince garlic, tend the asparagus and reduce/whisk my blood orange sauce (I cheated and made a light roux before adding the orange juice). I focused on grilling the tenderloins and sausage on the lovely outdoor grill. Jaime worked the room and kept the champagne flowing.
We had our 5 course dinner for 14 ready only 30 minutes past target time (8 PM instead of 730 PM), and got to enjoy the absolute pleasure of having shopped, planned and cooked the entire thing ourselves. It was the ULTIMATE Napa valley experience, and is something I won’t soon forget.