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Muffuletta

Muffuletta

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Least Vegetarian Sandwich Ever.

Yes, friends, lest there be any fear that I should slip back into my vegetarian ways (not that it wouldn’t be a good idea!), I opted to make the meatiest sandwich I could imagine to anchor our sun-dappled day at Bouchaine.

To be fair, I didn’t really make a true muffuletta. This mighty meaty ‘wich, native to New Orleans, is traditionally made with a large, round loaf of crusty bread, a variety of cured meats and cheeses (typically capicola, salami, mortadella, emmenthaler and provolone, according to Wikipedia) and — most importantly — olive salad. This salad of course has olives, but also carrots, cauliflower and celery; its dressing is meant to saturate the bread.

But here’s the thing: You can purchase this olive salad quite readily in the delis of New Orleans, but around these parts not so much. And as I was already in the throes of making a few other courses, I really wanted to cut a corner here. So I just combined tapenades of green and black olives with some rinsed and drained capers, and voilĂ .

Also, the muffs in New Orleans are jaw-breakingly tall, sometimes reaching several inches in height toward the center. In the interest of daintiness and easier portioning, I used a ciabatta, which retained an even thickness and allowed for more consistent cutting.

The resulting sandwich has a stunning display of pink-and-white strata, kind of like layers of sedimentary rock, if the earth’s crust were made of meat and cheese. Which, for better or worse, it is not.

I ended up making, oh, about 20 times as much of the olive spread as I needed, so it has casually made its way into almost everything I’ve made since — a dollop in salad dressing, gobs smeared under and atop the skin of a roasted chicken, a touch thrown into braising liquid. It’s a remarkably versatile condiment, lending a fruity and complex flavor to everything it touches.

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Herbed Green Bean-potato Salad

Herbed green bean-potato salad

Stepping up the absorption quotient of our wine-soaked picnic, potato salad seemed like a natural choice. After all, potato salad is American picnic food royalty, a default selection for any outdoor meal. But as we were going to be in the sun on a warm day, I really didn’t want to go down the mayonnaise route. Sun plus heat plus mayonnaise equals yuck. Plus, I’m not really a mayonnaise kinda guy to begin with.

And anyway, I rather prefer a simple potato-green bean salad lightly dressed with vinaigrette. It’s light and refreshing, and doesn’t coat the palate with a creamy film. This sort of salad is pretty widespread, and the recipe is simple enough, but I took a cue from Elise and tossed the potatoes while hot in vermouth to infuse them with flavor before dressing the salad. Definitely makes a significant impact on the final product. The tarragon in the dressing plays nicely with the herbal notes in the vermouth, too.

In general, I don’t love red potatoes, but they are exactly the right choice for this salad. Small creamers are waxy enough to retain their shape, yet take on a wonderfully creamy texture (hence the name) when cooked and cooled. Plus, the color of the skins adds great contrast against the white centers and green beans.

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Quinoa Salad With Shrimp, Cucumber, Mango And Mint

Quinoa salad with shrimp, cucumber, mango and mint

Quinoa is the new black. It is the darling ingredient of the hour, the what’s-old-is-new favorite of foodies everywhere. Ancient in its roots, quinoa has become today’s “it” grain.

I’m a fan. For years, I’ve loved quinoa’s nutty flavor and crunchy, caviar-like texture. It’s versatile, flavorful and easy — easier, in my opinion, even than rice. It’s a natural for salads, and I drew inspiration from several of my favorite bloggers:

I was also working off a salad I get occasionally from the take-away counter at Piperade, with shrimp, cucumber and herbs, with a lime dressing. The dish is well-intentioned and often flavorful, but all too often the shrimp are tough and it is overdressed and sloppy. I knew I could do better.

I wanted the combination of shrimp and cucumber to bring color and contrast to the dish, mango for gentle sweetness, just enough heat to tickle the palate, and lime and mint for a refreshing finish.

Finally, I chose red quinoa, which I have never used before. I love it. I’m not sure whether it genuinely has a nuttier flavor than its paler cousin, or whether the color simply has power of suggestion, but I thought it had a pronounced flavor that stood up well to the other players in the dish. (Like the other variety, though, you must rinse it before cooking, as all quinoa is naturally coated with a substance called saponin, which can taste bitter.)

For all its deceptive simplicity, this salad is satisfyingly complex. It’s got sweet, sour, salty and hot. It’s got crunch and chew. It’s got earthy nuttiness and herbal freshness. It’s got it all.

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Wine Country Picnic

Wine country picnic

Summertime, and the living is easy …

What a crock. The living’s no easier in the summer. Work goes on every day as normal, tourists flood the farmer’s market and a thick blanket of fog ensures that I lose my hard-earned trucker tan. Summer, feh.

But it is easy to get a small taste of the simple life, to bask in a carefree afternoon of food, friends and frivolity under a balmy summer sun. Certainly chief among the reasons we love living in San Francisco is fast and easy access to the wine country.

DPaul and I make excursions pretty frequently; in fact, we explicitly joined a few wineries’ clubs just to have the excuse to get out of town once in a while. We’ve long been big fans of the Dry Creek Valley area in Sonoma County, but for the last year and change we’ve been enamored with Carneros, the region alongside the north side of San Francisco Bay that straddles the southern ends of both Sonoma and Napa counties. And even more specifically, we’re best buds with Bouchaine.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Bouchaine rocks. I won’t pretend to be any kind of wine expert, and certainly cannot rank their wines against comparable quaff from more esteemed producers (though their rosĂ© of syrah got good marks in our taste-off). All I know is that I enjoy their wines immensely. But what Bouchaine does excellently, better than most, is deliver a flawlessly enjoyable wine country experience. No tour buses and limos, no snotty bling-laden tourists and harried winery staff. Just a sun-dappled back deck overlooking vineyards and serenity interrupted only by a cooling bay breeze.

Bouchaine is an ideal spot for a picnic, and so for DPaul’s birthday last week, that’s precisely what we did. Ten of us met to enjoy a flight of tastings alongside some tasty treats. Bouchaine does offer a picnic program, where you can purchase baskets of meats, cheeses and other goodies, and that’s all well and good. But I thought it would be fun to bring our own picnic of wine-friendly foods to enjoy.

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