Napa Style Dining
Dining al fresco is one the deepest and most satisfying pleasures of summer. It goes by all too quick and by October – unless you live in a very warm climate – it’s all but a memory.
There are articles devoted to outdoor dining and each one fills me with a need to get into the kitchen and cook and then to hang lights from my trees and pour wine into giant goblets and have 20 of my closest friends enjoying the wine with me. As romantic as this all seems one must consider the organization that goes into it. These long tables placed under giant oaks in Napa Valley did not happen in a blink. Hours went into planning this feast and we must think and do – the same.
When I think of outdoor dining I think of Napa style. There is something so inherently rich about Napa style; maybe it’s the wine that inspires; I know it inspires me. With that being said – here are tips and advice for planning your Napa style dining feast.
• Plan ahead. Please. Consider the size of your dining area, the number of guests and the number of vegetarians and vegans that might be there.
• If you don’t have a long table, pick up six long planks of plywood and attach them together underneath with a bracket. Place this over an existing table. This should seat ten comfortably. Cover it with a white tablecloth. Voila!
• Have the table set before and give it a vintage rustic quality by using a mix of dishes, or if this just isn’t your style then simple white plates always work. Fresh flowers are a must and sunflowers or bunches of lavender are confident and unpretentious. Make sure there are pitchers of water, water glasses and wine glasses. For added glam add fresh mint and slices of lemon to the water; your guests will rave about it. Add tea lights to the center of the table – between three and five. Cloth napkins please!
• To encourage lively conversation seat your guests so they are sitting next to someone they don’t know. Everyone gets to make a new friend!
• Now let’s talk about food. Napa style dining is all about fresh, sustainable and organic. If you are serving fish make sure it’s fresh, local and wild – not farmed. If you are serving red meat look for grass-fed; usually available in specialty grocers like Whole Foods. For chicken look for organic cage free. Free-range simply means that the chicken has an opening to go out but cage free means there are NOT caged.
• Begin your meal with an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and julienned basil with a dressing of olive oil. Lightly season with kosher salt and pepper.
• Serve grilled meats and fish with fresh grilled vegetables such as grilled artichokes or zucchini. Try roasted asparagus with slivers of prosciutto laid across the top. The saltiness of the prosciutto balances with the strong flavor of the asparagus. By keeping your meal simple and unprocessed you can focus on the highest quality. Bring out the best in these foods by picking seasonal ones as well.
• At each end of the table have sliced French bread like Pugliese or a fresh sour dough baguette. Be sure to include a small plate with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
• As an additional side, serve large size cheese ravioli in an olive oil and garlic dressing with crushed black pepper. Your guests need to save room for dessert so only serve four ravioli per person.
• No Napa style meal is complete without wine. California is a red wine lover’s paradise but let’s not forget about the whites. Many prefer white wine with fish so offer a chardonnay and let it sit out for a few minutes before serving as it takes the chill off. Bold earthy red wines are a perfect complement to grilled meats and I often enjoy an old vine Zinfandel from any one of the Sonoma area vineyards. Cabernets and Merlots work well too but often don’t have the rich berry or plum finish that you get from a zin.
• Finally it’s dessert. Many cooks get overwhelmed with dessert and will forego it altogether and pick up something pre-made. Napa style is about DIY so don’t go there. One of the easiest desserts I make is berry cobbler. Just choose your favorite recipe with the most seasonal berries and top it off with crème fraiche or vanilla ice cream. Nothing says summer quite like berry cobbler does. And an added benefit; this can be made a few days ahead; just heat it up before serving.
• Keep a dessert wine available and offer it to your guests.
Enjoy your evening…eat well…drink good wine and enjoy interesting and provocative conversation.