Last Tuesday felt like the last warm day of 2010. Whether or not that proves to be true, tomorrow can only tell. It’s very possible that November or December might offer an odd sunny day here or there — that happens fairly frequently here in Northern California — but as far as planning a picnic was concerned, Tuesday just seemed like the last sure-shot bet of the season. Instinctively, and with the last vestiges of summer quickly fading into fall, I felt like I needed to plan just one last visit up to Spring Mountain. Among the many wines of Napa Valley, I love Spring Mountain Cabernet in particular, and if I had to name a handful of my personal favorites, I’d list Pride Mountain, Behrens Family, Terra Valentine and Paloma (although the latter winery specializes in Merlot exclusively).
The drive up to the Spring Mountain summit takes you 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley floor, and if you ask me, all that much closer to heaven. When it comes to wine tasting on Spring Mountain, my strategy is to schedule three appointments as far apart in the day as possible (10am, 1pm, and 3pm is ideal), and then pass the time picnicking in between tastings. Spring Mountain features exactly zero restaurants, delis or taco trucks (it’s wine or nothing up there), and it’s way too much of a hassle (for me) to drive back down into St. Helena just to battle the crowds for lunch. The elegant solution, of course, is to pack your own picnic, and to enjoy the view. Each winery on Spring Mountain offers its own unique vista, so hopping picnic grounds is definitely a worthwhile pastime. I’ve got a couple pictures from Spring Mountain at the bottom of this post, but first things first: The views and booze may complement the scene nicely, but the food is still the highlight around these parts. And since I’ve already teased this entry with a picture of dessert, let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?
The moment that the words “s’more pots du creme” popped into my head, I was instantly married to the idea. I felt that the words themselves, American slang alongside proper French, conveyed the very idea of a refined take on a classic treat. So how would it look? I pondered my strategy, and after considering all of the possible configurations, I decided that marshmallow definitely deserved the top spot, no question, since it would get the torch. As for the graham crackers, they would get soggy if they were on the bottom, so chocolate was the natural choice for the base. As for chocolate pots du creme recipes, I needed a stove-top approach, since baking the pots du creme in the oven would prove risky (these glass jars aren’t tempered, so they might not survive the extreme heat). I used a Cook’s Illustrated recipe as inspiration, but with a few substitutions and omissions, based upon what I already had on hand. Custard recipes offer a fair amount of leniency, so long as you keep them in the ballpark. Italian meringue, pictured below, requires a little more focus, but is also relatively forgiving, which is great. Once you learn to make Italian meringue from scratch, you’ll take step closer to rock star status among your friends (not to mention, the groupies).
Italian meringue is marshmallow fluff, plain and simple. Everything is the same, but the name; they’re both created by adding hot, liquid sugar to beaten egg whites. I suspect that for most people, making an Italian meringue is one step beyond the norm. For me, I used to execute this recipe nightly when I was working the pastry station at the Martini House. However, I had never made Italian meringue even once before that, nor had I ever really considered it. Luckily, the sophistication of Italian meringue lies in its simplicity, which was excellent for me, since my background in baking and pastry was relatively scant. In this case, having a candy thermometer is 90% of it, and having a stand mixer is the other 10%. Basically, if you can read a thermometer, you’ll do fine. The recipe for meringue, which I also included below, is adapted from the one and only Julia Child.
• RECIPE •S’MORE POTS DU CREME
Chocolate Pots du Creme Ingredients
• 9 oz Scharfenberger 62% (pale yellow wrapper, three big bars)• 5 egg yolks (save the whites for Italian meringue)• 1/4 cup sugar• 2 cups heavy cream• 1/4 cup whole milk• Pinch of salt
Chocolate Pots du Creme Method
1. Break the chocolate bars into coin-sized pieces and set aside in a large bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk the yolks with the sugar and the salt, until the mixture becomes pale yellow. Add the milk and the cream, then transfer this mixture to a sauce pot. Cook the custard slowly, over a low flame, stirring and scraping the sauce pot with a wooden spoon. Cook the mixture until it coats the back of the wooden spoon, about 170ºF.
3. Strain the warm custard over the chocolate, and stir until the pieces dissolve.
4. Divide the custard into jars and chill.
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• 5 egg whites• 1/4 teaspoon, cream of tartar• 1-1/3 cups, sugar• 1/2 cup water• 1T vanilla extract
Italian Meringue Method
1. In a stand mixer, beat the eggs, salt, and cream of tartar, add the salt and cream of tartar, to soft peaks. Turn the mixer to the slowest speed as you complete the sugar syrup.
2. Bring the sugar and water to the simmer, and boil to the soft-ball stage (234°F to 240°F).
3. Beating the egg whites at moderately slow speed, dribble the boiling syrup into the mixer, trying to avoid the wires of the whip. Increase mixer speed to moderately fast, add the vanilla extract, and beat until the sides of the mixing bowl are just warm.
4. Allow the meringue to sit for 30 minutes, then re-whip the mixture to the smooth consistency pictured above. From this point, the meringue can be held for several hours, or re-whipped again the next day.
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S’more Pots du Creme Assembly
1. After the custard has set overnight, add a layer of graham cracker pieces, followed by a layer of marshmallow fluff. Toast the marshmallow fluff with a torch.
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• THE MAIN COURSE •
Duck rillettes sparked my fascination with hinged jars recently. Since I had duck confit in the fridge from a previous challenge, I knew that I wanted to bring some delicious duck rillettes up to Spring Mountain. But then I got to thinking about hinged jars in general, and how well they travel. Sure, they’re heavier than plastic containers, but glass also insulates far better than plastic, the hinged lids make it easy to flip the jars shut if there’s insects buzzing around, and glass also looks much more appealing than plastic (which certainly counts in PFB). I got carried away with the idea, and before I could even reconsider, I was knee-deep in brainstorming.
As for the food itself, I decided that the picnic should only consist of cold-prep items, since there would be no option to heat or re-heat anything at the summit of Spring Mountain. At the same time, I also wanted foods that would lend themselves to casual noshing, which meant that I wasn’t keen on specific portions, either. I envisioned impromptu snacking between winery visits, a scenario where one could simply make canapes as desired, selecting among a few different options. In this situation, someone could eat just a little of one thing, and maybe much more of something else. Ultimately, it all plays to personal taste, and having freedom from specific portions is a beautiful thing, so long as everyone has enough to eat.
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Crostini are great for picnics because it’s one-handed eating: You can hold a wine-glass in one hand, a duck rillettes crostini in the other hand, and you’re free to walk among the trees and take in the full view. What’s the point of eating outside if you can’t be liberated from the table?
• SHRIMP CEVICHE with TOMATILLO-AVOCADO SALSA •
Since I had duck rillette in the works, I wanted a couple lighter options to balance out the savory course. Ceviche was a great choice, since it represents one of the lightest seafood preparations possible. I adore ceviche, and I also have a great admiration for tomatillo-avocado salsa. What can I say? I put them together, although in layers, just to kind of echo the look of the duck rillette (I blame this far-out presentation on too much wine, and my staunch California upbringing). If you don’t feel like getting freaky with the presentation, you can certainly mix the ceviche with the salsa verde ahead of time.
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I had actually been planning scallop ceviche, but when I got to the market, the scallops looked haggard compared to these beautiful shrimp.
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Put together, the ceviche and tomatillo-avocado salsa look striking in the outside light. This photo above is what didn’t fit in the jar. So vibrant and tasty on a proper tortilla chip, pictured below.
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• RECIPE •SHRIMP CEVICHE with TOMATILLO-AVOCADO SALSA
Shrimp Ceviche Ingredients
• 1 lb. shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped• 1 carrot, diced• 1 small red onion, diced• 1 red jalapeño, seeded and diced• Zest and juice of two limes• Salt, to taste• Cilantro, chopped, to taste
Shrimp Ceviche Method
1. Combine ingredients and chill overnight.
• • •Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa Ingredients
• 1 ripe avocado• 5 tomatillos• Juice and zest of one lime• Salt, to taste• 1/4 cup water, plus more, as needed
Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa Method
1. Puree all ingredients, except for the avocado. Add water to the puree to achieve the desired sauce consistency. Transfer the tomatillo puree to a bowl and mash in the avocado with a whisk.
• DUCK RILLETTES •
Although by far the most modest-looking of the trio, the duck rillettes were actually the star of the show (I floated some sprigs of thyme in the fat cap, just to add a little style to the presentation). Pictured above, this jar of duck rillettes is potent stuff, all lack of style is accounted for with substance: Three legs of duck confit, minced together with one shallot, and the three respective duck cracklins, pictured below. Oh yes. There’s high-octane flavor in that jar. The photo below depicts the cracklins as they emerge from the frying pan, before being minced into the confit. Duck skin sets the bar for crispy. And look at that golden brown color. You just can’t coach that. The picture below is actual size, unless you click it. For more background on duck confit, please visit my entry for cassoulet pizza.
• ROASTED-GARLIC HUMMUS •
I feel like hummus is quite a bit like guacamole: As long as there’s enough salt and acidity, it’s usually pretty good. Hummus is a simple recipe, so much so that I never really use exact measurements for hummus. However, I’ll typically process two cups of drained garbanzo beans with an eight-ounce jar of tahini, assisted by 1/4 cup each of olive oil and water. For this recipe, I also added the roasted garlic (pictured below) to the puree. Once the puree is smooth, simply add salt and lemon juice to taste (for a recipe of this size, I’ll usually add the zest and juice of at least two lemons). I also like to add rough-chopped parsley to the hummus, for a clean, bright, herbaceous note.
• CUCUMBER AGUA FRESCA •
I started making tons of agua fresca this summer, especially as watermelon came into season. I have a general formula that includes two pounds of fruit, one pint of water, and 1/4 cup of sugar (of course, this ratio can be heavily modified to suit personal tastes). The mixture is simply blended and strained. I chose cucumber because it’s one of the more counter-intuitive ingredients for a beverage. Plus, cucumber agua fresca is super-delicious.
• THE PICNIC •
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