Last weekend we returned to the Napa vineyard and winery where Holly shot a turkey this spring to see if we could score one in the fall season for our Thanksgiving dinner. Alas, the turkeys were nowhere to be found. Pity.
But we weren’t there just to hunt. We were finally going to repay our gracious hosts Pam and Carl with a wild game dinner, a dinner that had been long in the planning. Pam wanted things simple, so I left my ideas about a seven-course tasting menu in Sacramento.
There would also be a green salad with a dressing of warm wild duck fat and lemon juice, some crusty bread, homemade pickles, my Cretan olives, smoked shad aioli on toast, and some thin slices of cured antelope loin.
And for the main course, I decided on a trio of homemade sausages: Loukaniko made with lamb and pork, wild boar chorizo, and an herbed wild boar sausage. To go with them I made a trio of homemade mustards, the coolest of which was made with saba — boiled down grape must.
For dessert, Pam made a creamy persimmon dish with pomegranates, which was a perfect end for an autumn meal.
Now I’m pretty much in my element when cooking, even in someone else’s kitchen. Plus, I’d done all of these dishes before so I was reasonably sure Pam, Carl and the couple they’d invited — Bob and Paula, who’d just returned from an English pheasant shoot! — would like the food. The only esoteric thing I had wanted to serve, some duck giblet sausages served in duck’s necks, I’d forgotten. Rats.
Despite all this, I will admit to being mildly nervous about the meal. Not freaked or anything, but I wanted everyone to have a good time and eat well; after all, this was the first time I’d cooked for them. So when Carl, who has spent much of his life in the Napa Valley wine business, asked, “what wine should we have?” I blanched. Meats I can talk to anyone in the world about, no problem — and I can choose wine with most. But Carl’s forgotten more about wine than I will ever know.
“Like a Pinot Noir?”
“Yeah, that’d be good. I drink a lot of Sangiovese with food like grilled doves.”
“We don’t have any.”
“Let me choose three wines and we’ll see what we like best.”
Carl did just that, and as it happened, the 2005 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir was perfect with the grilled doves. A Malbec I can’t remember went well with the sausages. We also downed a bottle of 2003 Barbaresco and another Italian red varietal I can neither remember nor had I ever heard of before. A shame, because it was very, very good.
When I began thinking about this dinner, I had all kinds of crazy ideas — ducks served three ways on a plate, carpaccio of goose gizzards (No, really. It’s good!), 12-hour braises, etc — but in the end I am glad Pam said keep it simple. It made the night easier, and far, far fuller.
Those of you who host dinner parties know that we are always torn between two poles: The desire to feed our guests good food (and, dare I say, show off?) and the desire to be a part of the evening. Too often the host cannot do both. I run around at our big parties working more than drinking because I have decided that I prefer to have 60 people say they ate well than to swill a dozen beers and put Funyons on the table.
Our dinner in Napa was a perfect balance, for two reasons. First, the actual cooking was extremely simple: I grilled doves and sausages, and caramelized some onions. Not exactly a high-wire act. Second, most everything was done beforehand. I made the sausages long ago. The doves had all been cleaned. The mustards and pickles were made ahead. In fact, the only miscalculation was making the smoked shad aioli on the spot. Picking the bones is a fiddly job that always takes longer than you think.
So what could have been a mere show-off-y night with me in the kitchen, separated from everyone else, became one of those memorable evenings where I could talk, laugh and listen as well as eat good food and drink great wine. It is a lesson I won’t soon forget.