Thursday, September 13, 2012

Napa Valley and Good Food with Good Friends

Last Monday, after three nights in San Francisco, my wife and I ventured north to explore Napa Valley and spend a couple days visiting with some friends at their home in Saint Helena. While several of the days we spent with them included large chunks of time devoted to travel, last Tuesday we were able to enjoy an entire day of relaxed comradery and wave after wave of outstanding food and drink.  

As much fun as we'd had in the city it felt great to get out into open country with good friends after several days where every moment we spent outside of our tiny hotel room we were surrounded by strangers. A crowded park or bar where there are a lot of people you know is fun. Constant crowds of strangers can start to wear you out. Also, while I push for dense, walkable commercial areas in this blog, in San Francisco that concept has been pushed to an extreme where there isn't really room outside to do anything other than walk from place to place. You don't realize how much porches, patios and landscaping are staples of Southern life until you go somewhere they are absent.

I already knew that one of the main reason the Bay Area has so much good food is the access to fresh ingredients. Healthy and sustainable eating largely means sticking to locally-produced, in-season or naturally preserved real food. In the Dirty South that means a lot of the kind of traditional pork, greens, sweet potatoes, cabbage, beans and peas that are recurring elements of this blog. In wine country the temperate climate means that almost anything can be grown locally for large portions of the year and local eating becomes a constant adventure with seemingly endless choices. The strong food scene also means that there are also always some amazing imported special ingredients at all the markets waiting to be incorporated into meals.

Our friends have an impressive garden and plenty of animals living with them on their property. We gathered eggs from their chickens and ducks to use with our breakfast. While looking through the fridge I noticed they had a nice supply of rendered duck fat so I made biscuits subbing it for the pork lard I normally use in them. They turned out fantastic. 

My wife snuggles with Prince the rabbit while Marshmallow the goat hangs out in the background.

After a large breakfast on our first morning in the valley we stopped by the Madrigal Vineyards to sample some wines and buy some to go with our dinner.

For lunch we stopped at the Bouchon Bistro, owned by revered chef Thomas Keller who also owns the nearby French Laundry, which has been referred to as "the best restaurant in the world," by Anthony Bourdin. I would have loved to have dined at the French Laundry, but lunch at Bouchon allowed us to experience a meal in a Keller-operated restaurant that was merely pricey instead of the nearly $300 a person before drinks that a prix fixe dinner at the French Laundry will run. Compared to that the $33 I paid for roasted leg of lamb with ratatouille, fried squash blossoms and jus was downright cheap while still letting me get a glimpse of the kind of magic Keller can create.

After lunch we stopped by the Sunshine Foods Market to pick up food for dinner. Both of the friends we were staying with are culinary school graduates. One is currently working in the wine industry but has cooked at restaurants including the legendary Chez Panisse while his girlfriend works as a professional caterer. When we travel to visit friends they often offer to cook for us and I usually tell them not to bother, since I don't like feeling like more of a burden on someone who is already letting me stay with them. But Brian and Emily are skilled enough and enjoy cooking enough that when I saw the bounty of their garden and the foods available at the local markets I insisted on buying a mix of groceries for them to get creative with when they offered to cook dinner. They had a keg of Anchor Steam on tap in their basement so when we got back from the market I drank beer and watched as they threw together course after course of what ended up being like the a grand tapas feast.

We started with fresh lump crab meat wrapped in endive leaves. It was entertaining and informative to watch our hosts sort through the food and grab items from their pantry and garden to accompany them as they created dishes on the fly.

My wife posted this pic on Facebook while we were shopping and almost all of our friends were asking about it when we got home. At first glance we thought the sign read $40 a pound, which seemed like a reasonable indulgence, because of the the way the one combines with the Y to look like a dollar sign. When one-eighth of a pound rang up for nearly $20 we realized we had accidentally requested $140-a-pound ham. At least we got a small serving.

I've eaten a lot of pig in my life, but for $140 a pound I expect a near-religious experience. This stuff actually delivered. It looks similar to regular prosciutto but the flavor is off the charts and the fat seems to literally melt in your mouth.

They grabbed some fresh figs from their garden, topped them with little hard ricotta salata, wrapped them in the ham and sprinkled on some chives that also came from the garden. Just four ingredients seemingly thrown together but each bite was exquisite as the flavors did magical things together and the ham managed to live up to its billing. 

As soon as I saw a duck, venison and pork pate in the market I knew I had to try it. This one didn't need any work to make it spectacular just some crostinis and spreads.

Pork, olive and cilantro sausages were another item I had to try as soon as I saw them in the market. They were also another item that didn't need much in the way of fancy preparation.

Emily ended up roasting the halibut we bought and serving it over fried green tomatoes from the garden.

Meanwhile Brian grilled the opah we bought while making a sauce by reducing fish stock, lemon juice and wine then adding in creme fraiche, which is a word I may never say with a straight face again thanks to South Park. We have friend in Memphis who are excellent cooks as well and I try to never pass up an opportunity to watch a talented cook prepare something, especially if if they are using a recipe or technique I am unfamiliar with. There is always something new to learn. By the time we finished the opah dish the day-long combination of food and booze had us all nearly falling asleep on our feet.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome pictures and amazing descriptions of our dinner! Our mouthes are watering as we relive the experience!