| A Tuscan
dinner at Long Meadow Ranch
It was many months ago in advance when organizers of Music in the Vineyards in Napa Valley asked me if Iíd play chef for a night and fix a meal to help raise money for that great program that brings chamber music to local wineries. Iíd never done such an event but I have a bad habit of agreeing to things that are many months off, so I said ďyes,Ē little thinking of the consequences.
Things started well when Ted and Laddie Hall, owners of magnificent Long Meadow Ranch, agreed to host the event at their home high above Napa Valley. In addition to a stunning home, the Hallsí winery is the largest rammed earth building in America and they have one of two frantoios (olive presses) in Napa Valley. Their property, in fact, is like a traditional Tuscan tenuta, a self-contained estate where they grow not only grapes for their wine, but olives from 160-year-old trees, horses, cattle, chickens, vegetables and fruit. To top it off, they make Prato Lungo olive oils, one of the best in the world.
It would be the perfect site for a traditional Tuscan meal. I combined some research with my memories of eating in Tuscany to design a menu for a seven-course meal: bruschetta appetizer, artichoke risotto, grilled prawns, bistecca alla fiorentina (grilled giant Porterhouse steaks carved at the table) with cannellini beans, salad, cheese and dessert, all accompanied with suitable wines, notably the Hallís impressive Cabernet Sauvignon, and many courses anointed with the Hallsí oil.
Fortunately, Vallergaís markets donated a gift certificate to help with ingredients for the feast that couldnít come from the Halls.
To complement the Hallsí wine, I approached local wineries, who get thousands of these requests, but still contribute generously. Acacia donated its new limited edition Sangiacomo Chardonnay, Luna its excellent Pinot Grigio, and Schramsberg its Crťmant, a little-know but superb sparkling dessert wine.
Soon, Music in the Vineyards announced the program of benefit functions, and I was flattered to find that my dinner was the most expensive in the lot, higher than the events prepared by professionals and better-known writers. Of course, that might have been due to the desirable venue or to its having only 12 seats, not because of me or my cooking. Nevertheless, it was oversubscribed and we could have served more dinners, a prospect I now consider with horror.
After arranging these details, I pushed the event out of my mind for a bit since it was months away.
As time approached, however, I started thinking about the practicalities. It turns out the Hallsí home was being remodeled and we decided to use their guest cottage, which has unparalleled views of the Valley. I quickly simplified the menu, reducing the number of courses and choosing more practical courses to avoid trying to grill shrimp and giant steaks on a portable grill.
I decided to grill the prawns over dried grapevine canes in advance, and serve them over the risotto. And to prepare a traditional Tuscan pork roast rather than try to grill seven giant steaks when I knew that many people probably wouldnít like the almost-raw preparation Tuscans prefer. And with all this food, a sweet dessert course seemed excessive as well as untraditional.
When you havenít fixed a meal like this, you donít think about some problems, like place settings for 14 (the guests plus the Halls). After pondering a bit, we realized we could have two tables of seven, so the settings didnít have to match, but then there was the issue of plates: We really needed two small plates, two shallow bowls and a dinner plate. We also needed four small forks and a dinner fork per dinner. We probably should have rented them, but the Halls had two sets of suitable service and we ended up washing both plates and utensils during the meal, complicating things in the kitchen.
The Halls also graciously rented glasses for the wines. I fortunately had purchased two large tablecloths with maps of Napa Valley at the Wine Auction four years ago, and they got their first use beyond my own home for family and friends.
As we approached the event, I ran around the Valley collecting wine and arranging for the meat. The day before, I visited the Halls at the Friday Farmers Market in St. Helena to see what they had available, then loaded up my cart at Vallergaís market for the rest of the ingredients. Friday night, I prepared the beans and biscotti, and Saturday morning, grilled the prawns, probably making my neighbors wonder what kind of person BBQís at 9 in the morning.
A friend came over at noon, taking on the task of ironing two large table cloths and 16 napkins, then we headed up the hill to begin work in earnest. Also helping were two volunteers, all invaluable during the busy evening. Not to forget the Halls, who helped with every detail and were incredible hosts.
One frustration is that some of the work had to wait until the last minute, so we enjoyed a calm before the storm, putting a last rub on the roast and starting it as we awaited the guests. They arrived at 6 and Ted took them for a tour of the winery and frantoio as well as vineyards, stopping for a little Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc at an overlook above his vineyards. About that time, we went into high gear, slicing tomatoes and mozzarella for the Caprese appetizer that seemed a better use of Laddieís tomatoes than bruschetta, and I started the risotto ― a bit prematurely as it turns out (and I feared).
Suddenly, the hungry and tired guests were there. The string trio of Gail Sharpsteen, Beth Heid and Peggy Brady started playing and we were off. I kept worrying that the guests were waiting, buteveryone assured me that they were relaxing and having a good time.
Little complications arose ― the wind blew out the candles until it died, and it got chilly, but everything seemed to go well until the final wine was poured and coffee finished and our nice guests started down the very dark path to their cars.
We joined the musicians in a bite and some wine, then jumped into the long and tedious job of cleaning up and packing out the equipment and leftover food from the meal. Iím happy to say that almost all the food was gone, but I donít think anyone went hungry.
As we were completing the work we looked out and saw a beautiful orange moon rising over the eastern mountains. Itís too bad the dinner guests missed it, but I hope they had a memorable meal nonetheless. As for me, Iíve resolved to better appreciate the chefs and workers the next time I attend a function. And not to agree to anything so far away I donít think about it carefully.
Tuscan picnic dinner at
Long Meadow Ranch