Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Cooking on Howell Mountain
In June of every year there is an auction event held somewhere in Napa to benefit the Howell Mountain Elementary School, a charming school that serves the community in and around Angwin atop Howell Mountain. Our good friends Jacalyn and Allen Spence have a vineyard and winery they have been building nearby for over a decade now. It is one of our favorite places to visit with the only kitchen I like to cook in other than my own. Jacalyn volunteers for the auction in some major leadership role every year. We make sure to attend the auction to support Jacalyn and Allen and to share their company afterward overnight at their home. It is absolutely bucolic.
Well, usually it is. This weekend Stacy and I along with a few of our friends cooked, served, and cleaned up after a five course meal for 60 folks that was auctioned in June for $100 a seat. Saturday was a very long and busy day that started at 3 AM when our frightened dog awakened us to let us know there was a thunderstorm directly over our house as all 95 pounds of quivering mutt-head tried desperately to get under Stacy’s pillow to become invisible. Sleep deprived and groggy, we rose early to start the day. After walking our dogs, starting 8 pounds of beans to soak, and loading my truck and borrowed trailer full of food and service equipment, we headed north just after 9 AM to pick up our friends Buda and Deb at their home on Portero Hill. The four of us made a hectic twenty minute stop at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market to pick up three flats of stone fruit, 20 sweet baguettes, and a few other items to complete the shopping for the feast. After driving another hour and a half, we were atop Howell Mountain by noon to drop off the trailer at Summit Lake Winery so the team there would set up the dining table and the plating station. At about 1 PM we started cooking at the Spence Winery at the other end of Summit Lake Drive.
All afternoon six of us chopped, sliced, emulsified, and tasted enough salad, heirloom tomatoes, vinaigrettes, cucumbers, and humus to finish the prep. We sizzled a full 750ml of garlic oil that made the whole house smell like a Texas toast factory. All went smoothly in the Spence kitchen with only a few hiccups like ransacking my coolers for the Dijon mustard and not finding it until after we had scrounged some from Jacalyn’s fridge. This made getting the taste profile of the vinaigrettes a challenge as the mustard we scrounged had a much higher salt content than what I written the recipe for, which is why the recipe says “salt to taste”. After removing some of the mix and adding more vinegar, the base balanced and we added the oil to emulsify a delicious balsamic vinaigrette for the bruschetta.
By 4 PM we had reloaded my truck and headed for Summit Lake Winery. As we pulled into the long gravel drive between the blocks of vines towards the house, we saw what the team had accomplished while we were cooking. The table was beautifully set with white table cloths and chair covers, gold chargers, gold flatware, and alternating red, gold, and black napkins and chair bows. The look of it took my breath away, and the length of it reminded me that we had a lot of work ahead of us.
The house at Summit Lake is essentially a cabin with drop-dead gorgeous views of the Valley, but a small 1940’s kitchen. We set up our stations on tables and a hutch to finish our dishes. The final prep involved blending the avocados and lime juice into two gallons of avocado corn soup and staging the containers of it in a large cooler while the beans simmered in my 16 quart pot on a portable stove on the patio adjacent to the kitchen. We also had to make the cilantro oil which turned out to be the biggest challenge of the afternoon. In the confusion of moving from one location to another to prepare the meal, the Italian parsley brought to garnish the entrée was chopped with the cilantro and blended with extra virgin olive oil for the cilantro oil. This mistake caused the blender to be overloaded and the straining process was completely clogged as the parsley absorbed the oil. After struggling with the green glob for 45 minutes, Buda was able to extract enough of the herb oil for the soup course. We would find out later though that we would have a crisis looking for a garnish to add color to the entrée dish.
At 5 PM our first guest arrived a full hour early. Heather welcomed him, gave him a glass of wine and took him away from the kitchen to the lawn to enjoy the view and the beverage. By 5:45 several guests had gathered in the orchard in front of the winery building, so we decided to send out appetizers 15 minutes ahead of the “official” start time of the party. Humus was piped onto cucumber rounds along with a dollop of Greek yogurt and toasted sesame seeds as the first appetizer. Mark, proprietor of Summit Lake, sliced gorgeous figs in half and then opened each one into a v-shape. He then nestled a small piece of chevre into the slit followed by a drizzle of peppered honey over the cheese as the second appetizer. Meanwhile Stacy and Jacalyn sliced four gallons of rounds from the fresh baguettes. They then went to Allen who brushed one side of each round with the garlic oil and toasted them in my toaster oven as the base for the third appetizer: heirloom tomato brushetta. Buda and I topped the toasted rounds with the tomatoes we had chopped earlier in the day which had been marinating in a balsamic vinaigrette for a few hours. With a bit of basil chiffonade to garnish the dish, we sent them out to the hungry guests. More and more guests arrived over the next half hour as my team continued to crank out appetizers to feed them. We were operating like a well oiled machine.
At 6:30 PM I went out to the appetizer station to let Heather (the other half of the Summit Lake team), know that the kitchen was standing by ready to start meal service at the table. Around 6:45, we transported the soup course to the plating station near the dining table about 150 yards from the kitchen. We executed the plating process by spreading bowls onto a table followed by two of us ladling soup into each bowl; two more drizzling crème fraiche onto the pale green soup; followed by another adding avocado balls; finished by another team member drizzling cilantro oil to finish each bowl. Once plated, the bowls were loaded onto trays for service and sent to the table. This was repeated over and over again until the entire table was served. Serving four courses on that long table was looking like hard work!
After all of the soups were on the table, we met the biggest challenge of the day: The team had to be split in two. I would travel back to the Spence’s kitchen with Jacalyn as my helper to finish the entrée and make the cabernet sauce while Buda led the rest of the team to bus soup bowls and send out the stone fruit salad. Jacalyn and I left on a dead run to my truck to make the trip to her house as Buda took command of the service team. As the old beast roared to life, the clock on the dash read 7:08 PM. This created yet another concern as the sun would set at 7:20, leaving us in the dark to finish service. Four minutes later we were at the Spence’s. We quickly removed the one-time-use aluminum braising pans from the oven one by one, each one containing over 16 pounds of short ribs. Each pan made a trip to the sink where I let it protrude a bit over the sink from the counter with a container ready in the sink to catch the braising liquid. I then punctured the end of the braising pan with my knife to let the liquid run out of the pan. The drained pan, with the ribs still inside and covered, were then placed into an identical braiser to keep any remaining juice in the pan. This technique enabled us to drain the braising liquid from 48 pounds of ribs without uncovering the pans. The liquid was then strained into a large pan on the stove to make the cabernet gravy. We repeated this procedure three times with one mishap when one pan leaked a trail to the sink. With her dog lapping ahead of us, Jacalyn and I made a quick cleaning of the floor as the sauce heated on the stovetop. The liquid was thickened into a beautiful red gravy using a roux I had made from the tallow I skimmed from the initial braise of the meat. This saved time and made a rich, flavorful gravy.
Once we had the gravy into containers we loaded them into my truck with the braising pans and covered both with a blanket to keep them hot. It was 7:20 PM as we headed back to Summit Lake with twilight falling. Other than a moonless darkness quickly falling around us the timing worked well as the last of the salad plates were being bused as we starting plating short ribs with cabernet sauce and cannellini runner beans with Italian parsley. Where is the parsley? Buda and I dashed back to the kitchen to find the missing herb that would garnish the pale white beans. It was then that I realized we had blended all of the parsley along with the cilantro earlier during the last prep. Oops. Undaunted, we quickly made a chiffonade of the basil left-over from the bruschetta, and flew back to the plating station. By this time it was full darkness with very little lighting provided by some decorative lights strung in a nearby tree. I had to remove the ribs by feel from the scalding braise. Somehow we managed to plate for all of our guests followed by plates for our hungry staff that had been hard at work since early morning with very little to eat other than samples of what we prepared for our guests. We were famished and satisfied that we had fed so many people an elegant and scrumptious meal.
We all grabbed a plate and settled into some empty seats along the table that were left unused by eight no-shows. They really missed out on some good ribs. The sauce had started as 12 pounds of beef knuckles a week earlier. I had roasted the bones with the little bit of meat they had on them which all went into a stock that was slow simmered for over 12 hours. The finished stock contained so much gelatin that it set up like Jell-O. This was added to the braise along with heirloom tomatoes that had been canned in our August 2nd meetup , and a beautiful Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that the Spence’s had made. The ribs were braised last Thursday for two and a half hours at 320 degrees. Once cooked, the braising liquid was de-fatted and added to the one-use aluminum braising pans along with 20 ribs in each pan. The tallow was slow cooked with all-purpose flour the same day to make a blond roux which was then stored in my refrigerator. The pans were then sealed and refrigerated until Saturday at 2:30 PM when we put them into 250 degree ovens to reheat for dinner. The long cooking process married the flavors of the allspice and wine and tomatoes to succulent perfection. The velvety gravy executed a perfect pairing between the dish and the Howell Mountain Cabernet that was served with dinner. The beans added that contrast that created a magical combination of flavors and textures and with the basil chiffonade, color too.
Once done with the entrée, it was back to work to clear the dinner plates and serve our dessert. Heather had made four Mexican chocolate tortes that were like cinnamon chocolate ganoush. These were plated alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Both received a generous spoonful of raspberry sauce that I had made a few weeks before, froze, and thawed that day. Although plating in the dark meant some drips on the plates, it was decadently delicious.
Now all that was left was to clean up. At 9:30 PM we wearily made our way back to the Spence’s for some beautiful 2006 Cabernet from their winery. We sat up until about 11 PM chatting about the dinner party, laughing at our mistakes, loving the wine, and just having fun together. The last things I remember from the night were my head hitting the pillow, blinking once and seeing morning.
Time to get up and enjoy the Wine Country!