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.
Last 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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
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.