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Bayside Panzanella

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Last summer I took my family to Hog Island for the first time. The event was part of a week-long thirtieth birthday celebration, and I had made the reservation months in advance (as one needs to). None of them really knew what they were getting into but they knew there were oysters involved and that’s all that really mattered at the time. Since my family hadn’t yet moved to Northern California, they were visiting from New York and they rented a minivan for the week. So my parents and I, my brother, his girlfriend (Hillz) and her sister (Livy) all piled into the car, trucking a leaky cooler full of beer and wine, a dozen sausages, the makings of a panzanella salad and a few picnic supplies. We set out towards the coast – Tomales Bay, to be exact – along a winding, cliffside road that made my vertigo-suffering mother and carsick ridden girls lose a bit of faith in me. I kept insisting, “it’s just around the corner, we’re so close, I promise it will be worth it…” but they couldn’t believe that something could be so good to make this treacherous ride worth the trip. Then we finally got there, and it sunk in: we were in oyster Heaven.

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IMG_6355Last weekend the same crew made the trip again, our second year in a row of what will be a long-standing tradition. This time was a little different in that everyone was more prepared. The cooler was in tip-top shape, filled to the brim with light beers and oyster-friendly wines like Rosé, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and sparklers; we bought pre-cooked sausage links from Costco and Fatted Calf that wouldn’t burst over a direct flame; we had a table cloth and ample plastic picnic supplies, including a cutting board, grill tools and an oil brush (we’ll get to that). We were pros now.

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Livy requested that I make the same panzanella salad again, and I couldn’t deny that I was already planning to do it. It’s the ideal grill-picnic salad because you can prepare the tomatoes at home and put them in a sealed container to marinate while you make the drive, then put the other ingredients in the cooler to keep them fresh, and use the oil from the marinade to coat the bread before grilling. Perfection!

Panzanella Salad with Fresh Ricotta (serves 8 as a side dish, 4 as a main)

  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • Salt
  • 2 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 loaf ciabatta bread, sliced in half lengthwise
  • 10 oz arugula
  • 5 ounces fresh ricotta, crumbled

On a cutting board, using the flat side of a chef’s knife, mash the garlic clove to a paste with a pinch of salt; transfer to a large container. Add the tomatoes, onion, vinegar and the 3/4 cup of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover and let the mixture stand at room temperature, stirring a few times, for at least 1 hour or up to 2 hours.

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Using an oil brush, generously apply the oil from the marinade to each side of the ciabatta. Grill the bread, oil side down, for about 7 minutes, or until brown and crispy, then flip to the other side and grill for 3 more minutes. Once cool, slice into 1½-inch chunks. Transfer the tomato mixture to a large platter and top with arugula and ricotta, then toss to combine. Top with the grilled bread chunks and serve.

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This is the perfect salad to serve alongside a tray of four dozen shucked oysters, as a prelude to a heartier protein like sausage or another grilled meat. But if that’s not quite your plan, it also goes well with just about anything you would find at a cook-out. The freshness and acidity is great for a hot summer day, but it’s still substantial enough of a salad to soak up a booze-filled afternoon. You could swap the ricotta for burrata, but personally I think the ricotta keeps it nice and light whereas burrata might make the dish too heavy.

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And if you’re an oyster-lover and Northern California is accessible to you, make Hog Island your day trip destination. It’s truly the best place in the world to consume oysters, and my father still has a hard time describing it to people who have never been. It definitely has a Maine-like East Coast vibe that appeals to my family of transplants, but to me it’s as California as California gets.

Soaring Through Napa

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I normally don’t do blog posts this personal, but I just really wanted to share with my readers what a wonderful getaway MM and I had in Napa this weekend. We got a great deal on LivingSocial a while back for one night at RiverPoint Inn, so we took the opportunity to plan a weekend out of it. I even scheduled a balloon ride for us to do – something I have been wanting to do since I could walk!

right before lift off

Other than the obvious highlight of the trip, we had a great tasting at Duckhorn and Jessup Cellars on Saturday, followed by an okay dinner at Bistro Don Giovanni. Sunday morning we had to wake up at 5:15am to meet the Napa Valley Balloon group at Domaine Chandon. We spent the rest of the afternoon eating Hog Island Oysters at Oxbow Public Market and tasting wines at Etude and Cuvaison in the Carneros region.

Duckhorn is the first winery I ever visited on my first trip to Napa when I was a senior in college, and to this day it is still my favorite. So of course I wanted MM to share the experience with me. We sat on the patio and sampled the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Goldeneye Pinot Noir (i purchased the 2009), 2008 Napa Valley Merlot, 2008 Estate Grown Merlot, 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet, and the 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet. I also got a small sample of the 2009 Paraduxx Z Blend, which I ended up purchasing. I think my favorite part of the tasting was watching MM distinguish between the different types of varietals, based on where the grapes were grown. He’s such a good learner!

Next we stopped at Jessup Cellars for a private tasting with cheese pairing that was included in the LivingSocial deal we bought for the RiverPoint Inn. I had never even heard of the winery before this visit, but it’s nestled right off of Washington Street in Yountville. They don’t distribute and base most of their sales on visits to the tasting room and their wine club – a great philosophy for a small production (10-15 thousand cases per year) winery. We tasted a Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet and Cabernet “Table For Four” Blend, as well as a Zinfandel Port and Cabernet Port (MM’s favorites). The ports were fantastic, but my favorite was the “Table For Four.” It was very smooth with a touch of brown sugar, carmel and dark cherry. Our host, Dan was fantastic! He was a retired man who has been in the wine industry for a few years. It was like tasting with my great uncle. He knew a lot about the wines and the history of Jessup Cellars and Napa Valley, but he was also very humorous and lighthearted. Of course we picked up two bottles of the Zin Port, and MM also got me a bottle of the “Table For Four.” What a great boyfriend!

After checking in at the RiverPoint and resting for a bit, we made our way to Bistro Don Giovanni. I picked this restaurant because it was reasonably priced, had good reviews, and after years of driving by it on my way into Napa I was a little curious. I guess I had pretty high expectations, as I do for all restaurants in the Napa Valley. I was immediately disappointed in their service when we were told to wait 10-15 minutes for our table (we had a 7pm reservation), and further disappointed when the bartender wouldn’t serve me a pre-dinner drink because I forgot my id. MM ended up buying the drink for me and handing it over, and was not carded – probably had something to do with his full grown beard. Once we were seated the service was pretty quick and courteous. We shared the fritto misto (over-fried) and the carpaccio (nothing special). For our entrees we shared the farfalle fungi and the pork chop. The pork chop was pretty tasty, but it was served with poorly seasoned artichokes and overly seasoned potatoes. I liked the pasta, but it needed more sauce as I found it to be too dry. The highlight of the meal was the dessert: a banana gelato over a chocolate fudge brownie, with chopped walnuts blended into the gelato. Next time I dine in Napa, I will go back to the reliable and plentiful Uva Trattoria.

After dinner we headed back to the Inn for a good night’s sleep before the balloon excursion. The RiverPoint Inn was comfortable and spacious. Our little house came with a full kitchen, living room, dining room table, king size bed, full bathroom and deck (in retrospect, we should have stayed in and cooked dinner). With our LivingSocial deal the cost of the room was $99, usually $250. It could actually fit 2 couples comfortably, as the couch in the living room is a pull-out. I would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Napa for a weekend or a few nights!

We woke up at 5:15am to get ready for the balloon ride. We were instructed to meet up at the Etoile Restaurant in Domain Chandon, where we would sign the waivers and learn a bit about the experience before being shuttled to the launch point (which was a mere 1/4 mile away at the neighboring golf course). As soon as I got a glimpse of the balloons, I could barely contain my excitement. MM and I were put in a balloon basket with 13 other people, including our pilot, Ken. The ride was so smooth, you could barely tell that we were in the air. And once they turn the propane off, it’s so quiet and peaceful. The weather was perfect and the views were stunning. We could even see the San Francisco skyline in the distance! I probably took about 100 photos, but I will share these few with you.

After the ride we were taken back to Etoile for eggs, bacon, potatoes and mimosa. Etoile is a three star Michelin restaurant, and I can now say “I ate there.” After breakfast we went back to our room to rest our eyes before continuing another day of wine tasting. We stopped at Oxbow Public Market for some lunch at Hog Island Oyster Bar. MM and I shared 12 Pacific and Eastern oysters, and some grilled oysters with jalapeño, cilantro, lime and butter. I also had some Oysters Rockefellar and MM ordered the oyster po-boy – all of which was delicious. We finished off the meal with some ice cream from Three Twins, because at that point the temperatures we climbing up to 70+ degrees (in March!).

After lunch we cruised on over to the Carneros region for a bit of wine tasting. The first stop was Etude, a beautiful tasting room with an outdoor patio and gardens. They are known for their cabernet and pinot, of which they make a wonderful selection. MM did the estate tasting while I did the reserve tasting so we could share. My favorite of the day was the 2008 St. Helena Cabernet, but it was a little out of my price range so I settled for the 2007 Estate Cabernet which I know will age beautifully. They also make a great Pinot Blanc, which I sipped while sitting in the Adironack chairs on their patio.

Our last stop of the day was Cuvaison, just a couple miles down the road from Etude. Their Carneros tasting room is only a year and a half old, and their other tasting room is in Calistoga. All the wine comes from the Carneros region and the Mount Veder appellation. We tasted two Chardonnays (one oaky, one not so oaky – I liked the not so oaky one better, MM liked the oaky one), a Pinot, two Syrahs (one Carneros and one Mt. Veder) and two Cabernets (one Mt. Veder and the Brandlin). We both agreed that the Syrah’s were our favorite, combining a good level of spice with ripe fruits. Naturally, I purchased a bottle of the Diablo. The wines were delicious, but the view was stellar. We sat outside on their marble patio overlooking the vineyard, with vines as far as the eye can see. We sat for about an hour and a half until it was time to hit the road and get back to the City by the Bay.

What a wonderful weekend! I can’t wait to get back up in the air.

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