Outstanding in the Field

So in honor of Italy's world domination, it only seems fitting to write about (the aptly-named) event ~OUTSTANDING IN THE FIELD~, a wonderful series of dinners prepared by local chefs (using locally produced ingredients) that are hosted at farms and other outdoorsy settings in Northern California. The meal I had a couple weeks ago was so special, and unique, that I'm writing this up now so you will consider looking at the calendar and booking a spot at one of the upcoming dinners in July, or October… Don't tarry.

After being fog-banked in SF for most of the weekend (July here is always so special) my friend and I hit the road for Petaluma, where we happily put the top down on the car and were greeted with warm afternoon sun and lazy summer light. That afternoon we were visiting David Retsky's farm, County Line Harvest Farm, known for his organic specialty lettuces, chicories, arugula, and a variety of other veggies, like radishes, squash, and zucchini (plus squash blossoms) and even strawberries. Restaurants like A16, Delfina, and the Nice Ventures group buy from County Line, in addition to Greenleaf, who supplies a variety of produce to restaurants and businesses all over the city. Have you ever seen Greenleaf’s weekly newsletter? It's great to read and see what's really fresh/what you should look for when you're at the farmer's market: you can check it out and sign up here.

Outstanding in the Field dinners are held at a variety of locations, from Santa Cruz to Point Reyes Station, and draw anywhere from 80-100 guests. We had a nice chance to mingle with fellow diners under the shade of trees while drinking a buttery 2004 Estate Chardonnay from Alfaro Family Vineyards in Santa Cruz. The affable (and I'm just gonna put this out there: dashingly handsome and drat, also very married) Retsky gave us a tour of his fields, telling us about his crops and the (hard yet rewarding) life of running a farm, letting us nibble lettuces and strawberries and arugula at each stopping point. Interestingly, we learned they only pick lettuce early in the morning (or the evening if they need to), because once the sun is out, the leaves become bitter in the heat and sunlight. We also learned about the battle with ever-encroaching weeds (his farm is organic) and the manpower it takes to keep the weeds at bay. Work, work, work.

We wound our way up the hill, past some squawky chickens to the long table set under a smattering of white canvas umbrellas. Nate Appleman, the evening's guest chef and the Executive Chef of A16, was hard at work at the outside grill. My pal and I were thrilled to find a couple seats next to A16's Shelley Lindgren and her husband Greg, and A16's other partner, Victoria Libin (who is an utter wealth of food knowledge) and her husband Paul. Gourmand Patrol on high alert. Then began the cavalcade of the most delightful meal I've had in some time—certainly one of the most memorable ones. I haven't had a meal prepared with such fresh and quality ingredients since my last visit to southern Italy, seriously.

The rustic family-style meal started with grilled Drake's Bay oysters (this starter was such a particular NorCal pleasure), and then Nate destroyed me with his salad of the most tender Little Gem lettuces, crunchy and peppery radishes, hard-boiled farm eggs, and rabbit kidney, with a plucky whole grain mustard vinaigrette. The yolks of the eggs were such a deep yellow, so flavorful—truly rich. (The bunny kidneys were courtesy of Mark Pasternak of Devil's Gulch Ranch.) Perfect pairing with the 2005 Alfaro Family Vineyards Rose of Pinot Noir. I was longing for the salad as soon as I had cleared my plate. I remain wistful.

It was followed with a second salad of thinly sliced zucchini with squash blossoms, tangled with candy-like cherry tomatoes, mint, and a generous cavalcade of fresh ricotta from Bellwether Farms. I was slipping deeper and deeper into a reverie for Italy, and it wasn’t just because the dish was green, white, and red. It's amazing what getting an hour out of town will do, with summer sun on your shoulders, dust on your shoes, and a plate of lovingly grown and prepared vegetables in front of you, as you're surrounded with charming company. I seriously recommend all you city mice get into a country mouse groove and sign up for one of these dinners. It was so utterly grounding.

It was Nate's 27th birthday that day, and he was preparing a meal like it was our birthday. I can't even begin to express the joy of nibbling on (actually, that's too dainty a word—how about animalistically attacking?) succulent rabbit hot off the grill and tossed with peppery arugula, followed by the plump coils of savory rabbit and liver sausage on skewers (totally Itey-style). As the evening started to descend, the Outstanding in the Field helpers placed small votives on the tables, and we wound the evening down with a summer's kiss of plump raspberries, strawberries, sweet honeydew melon and creamy Cowgirl Creamery cottage cheese, with a hearty drizzle of wildflower honey from the delightful folks at Marshall's Farm in Sonoma (I can't believe the portion of their almond blossom honey I put on my plain yogurt each morning—it's like the devil controls my hand).

The evening chill crept up quickly, the tables were clearing and the chairs were getting folded, so we slowly ambled our way down the hill thoughtfully lit with small lanterns, breathing in the fresh evening air. I returned to the city so restored—it was like I'd been away all weekend, and it was only five hours. Dinners like this make you renew your commitment to using fresh ingredients, and supporting the local farmers and purveyors who work so hard to bring such remarkable produce and products to our markets, our restaurants, our tables, our bellies. Thank you.

Coming up:

July 16 – Point Reyes Station – West Marin County

Host farmer: David Evans, Marin Sun Farms, Point Reyes, CA
Chef: Daniel Long, de Young Museum Café, San Francisco

July 21 – Half Moon Bay Sea Cove – San Mateo County
Host fisherfolk: Hans & Heidi Haveman, H&H Fish
Chef: Lewis Rossman, Cetrella Bistro & Café, Half Moon Bay, CA

Outstanding in the Field
various locations

$130-$170 (all inclusive)