This time of year still boasts many absolutely perfect, quintessential Wine Country days. Those chilly morning days, where it is downright cold, there is not a cloud in the sky, but the afternoon might just be nice and warm and comfy. Bursts of color often dot the sky above Napa in the distance as hot air balloons drift skyward, while crows caw anxiously as they soar between the walnut trees. These autumn days boast golden, sunny afternoons, not too hot and not too cool, the summer crowds diminishing, leaving some of the favorite local picnic spots gloriously quiet. The farmer’s markets continue to overflow with dazzling produce begging to be picnic-bound. So, it is now, before the winter rains come, that I take advantage of every opportunity to eat outdoors while we’re still experiencing picnic weather perfection. To help motivate you, here are some of my personal favorite spots for picnic fare, locations and libations.Superb spots
My go-to spot is always, the Plaza no matter the time of year, although, this is my favorite time here. I love how the late afternoon sun reflects on the trunks of the trees and the light filters through the yellowing leaves. It is quiet now, a picnic table is always available, if you like. I might opt to spread my wool blanket under the biggest of those golden-leaved trees though. On warmer afternoons, the Floridian in me craves a bit of waterfront dining, so Mr. B and I might head to Gundlach Bundschu. Picnic tables here have been thoughtfully placed overlooking the little lake, glittering exquisitely in the sunshine, rows upon rows of vineyards in the distance. It is here, on those warmer fall days, that the winery’s Gewürztraminer is always divine. Occasionally, we feel the desire to grill, especially as the weather cools, and then we head to Depot Park. Always a wonderfully serene experience, it’s almost shameful that this park is always so quiet. Tables and grills are never difficult to secure and the constant parade of characters on the bike path will amuse you if the bocce, pétanque or volleyball courts don’t.
Do not limit your cool-weather picnic fare to cheese and charcuterie, even though there is often nothing more tasty then a simple chunk of locally made cheese and a loaf of Mike [the bejkr] bread. Chilly afternoons call for heartier fare, so sometimes I will just pick up a whole roasted chicken from the deli or even a few quarts of piping hot chowder. Any restaurant dish can be taken to go and spread out on a blanket with friends. A crispy, warm from the oven, Red Grape pizza, an order of the Fremont Diner’s awesome fried chicken, or excellent El Molino tamales all make for ideal picnic fare. A heaping platter of grilled bratwurst or a spread of Spanish tapas are awesome autumn selections, but nothing — I mean nothing! — makes a finer outdoor autumn meal than in-season, local Dungeness Crabs! Why not throw in some oysters for the grill and possibly some homemade garlic bread for good measure? Yum.
When deciding on your choice of picnic beverage, think seasonally. Sparkling wine is appreciated any time of year, but as the weather cools, I might opt for a heavier, yeast-filled bubbly. A hard, dry cider from Sebastopol’s Ace Cider Co. tastes of autumn and is scrumptious with cheeses and meats, or even with pulled pork sandwiches. I am transitioning into sipping more reds this time of year, so any Russian River or Anderson Valley Pinot Noir will always do just fine. If it is particularly chilly, a neat little glass of Sherry is always warming.
Foodie find of the week
I am a salt snob. Yes, I carry my own. A little silver tin lives in my purse, filled with a coarse Sel Gris, a grey salt from France, my ‘use it on everything’ salt. My kitchen counter is lined with random little bowls of salt; pink from Australia, black from Hawaii, and the fluffy, perfect flakes of crunchy French Fleur del Sel.
Flavored salts don’t usually excite me, since I prefer to blend my own, for the exception of one. One very special salt. Black truffle salt: delicate sea salt infused with tiny specks of potent, funky, black truffle. This is some outrageous stuff. Addictive. I cannot imagine anything that truffle salt would not be wondrous on. A richly marbled steak, right off the grill? Yes, please. One of my absolute favorites… just popped popcorn. Sliced tomatoes, simple baked potatoes, or even noodles with butter are all ridiculous when given a generous sprinkle.
Want your mind blown by deliciousness? Gently scramble a couple of backyard eggs and just sprinkle away. It is a bit pricey, but a bargain when compared to the cost of whole truffles. Be sure to use it up quickly, the truffle goodness begins to fade once opened. Find truffle salt locally at Whole Foods and Sonoma Market.
Best thing I ate this week…
I have been weary of sea urchin. I am weary of the off-yellow color, the musky-dank aroma, and the mere quantity that is meant to be eaten in one big bite. Sea urchin makes the top of almost every chef’s ‘favorite thing to eat’ list, a list of things that I am mostly onboard with, like caviar, perfect figs, pillow-soft soup-filled Shanghai dumplings, pork-filled ramen, and of course fois gras.
But, sea urchin… I have never been able to wrap my mind around. I have ordered it numerous times in Japanese restaurants, where it arrives typically wrapped in a thin ribbon of crunchy nori or gracing a mound of sticky rice. I have not been impressed. I have eaten it on fancy thin-crust pizzas as it melted into stinky Italian cheeses. Yes, that was yummy, but I am guessing it was because of all that gooey cheese. A dish of handmade noodles, wonderfully chewy and buttery, unadorned for the exception of a soft showering of the best parmesan and bits of warmed, briny sea urchin has been my finest urchin experience. Until this week.
During a festive, pre-birthday lunch at Yountville’s temple to all things amazingly delicious, Bouchon, I was presented with a shallow, ice-filled bowl, where the pearly black shell of a spiny urchin sat; empty of the animal who once lived there, except for it’s mustard-yellow roe. For a mere $5 I dug my teeny silver cocktail fork into a perfectly sized piece, nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. My mouth was filled with the taste of the sea, of cold ocean water and pure sea salt. It melted slowly on my tongue, and as it warmed, there was more funk, more brine. There is a strange earthiness that is unexpected in a sea creature, layers of ocean floor maybe, of fermenting seaweed, of sun-baked coral. The taste, the texture, is utterly unique. I am weary of urchin no more.
Three kitchen rules to live by
1 When using a cutting board, always place a dishtowel underneath it. This simple trick eliminates the pesky probability of the board sliding around on the counter while you’re chopping.
2 Never, ever buy pre-ground black pepper, the stuff I call “pepper powder.” Although, I know, it’s a pain to stand over a big bowl or hot pot grinding fresh pepper endlessly. Solution: designate an inexpensive coffee grinder as your pepper grinder and enjoy a small bowl full of perfect, fresh-ground pepper at your fingertips, anytime.
3 Always, always, take your protein — chicken, beef, pork, seafood—out of the refrigerator at least one hour or so before cooking it. A room temperature item will cook more evenly and brown more beautifully.