Summer presents the ultimate opportunity to practice contemporary California cuisine in your own backyard.
Why? Because it is barbecue--sorry, make that grilling--season. To turn the old-fashioned barbecue into today's trendy grill, stoke it with mesquite or oak or grapevine cuttings--anything but those serviceable briquettes from the supermarket.
Then compose the menu around fresh, seasonal ingredients. Be sure to include an upscale herb such as basil or rosemary--fresh, of course, not dried. Work in some pasta, choose a light main course such as chicken or fish, and end with a dessert that has more class than calories.
These are not hypothetical guidelines but the outline of a meal that took place at Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula. Consummately Californian in style, the lunch inaugurated a series of vineyard events pairing wines with regional foods in a setting that might be called country elegant.
This first in Callaway's "Celebrate the Grape" series matched the dishes to two styles of Chenin Blanc. One was a dry-styled crisp wine, the Chenin Blanc-Dry 1984 (the 1985 vintage has since been released). The other was a lush late harvest dessert wine, the 1982 Sweet Nancy, produced from Chenin Blanc grapes that had developed the mold called Botrytis cinerea, which concentrates sweetness and adds honeyed character.
After touring the facilities and attending a wine tasting, participants gathered outdoors at a picnic area overlooking the vineyards. Bouquets of bottle brush, New Zealand poppies and other flowers that might have been plucked from the countryside gave a natural look to the table settings. Cooled by breezes, the diners relaxed to classical guitar music as the first wine was poured by a youthful serving staff wearing blue Callaway aprons and red bow ties.
Lunch, prepared in a nearby outbuilding housing the kitchen, began with red onion tarts seasoned with fresh herbs and nutmeg. Earlier, boneless chicken breasts marinated with Chenin Blanc and fresh rosemary had been grilled over blazing barbecues fashioned from tubs formerly used to ship / airplane parts. Grapevine prunings provided the fuel and gave a distinctive, smoky taste to the chicken.
Cindy Hattrup, Callaway's culinary manager, has found the dry Chenin Blanc a good match for Mexican and Italian dishes. Therefore, she accompanied the chicken with spinach fettuccine, a wedge of avocado and a spoonful of fresh salsa. An assortment of herbs including basil, tarragon and chervil went into a sauce tossed with the fettuccine and spooned over the chicken. A sprig of flowering rosemary from a patch at the winery decorated each plate.
Pursuing the regional theme, Hattrup chose avocados from a nearby ranch, herbs from Vista, tart pastry shells from a Riverside bakery, bread from Fallbrook, pasta from Carlsbad and chicken from San Diego.
For dessert, apples from Julian were accorded a treatment appropriate to mythical golden apples. Served in a pool of creme fraiche, the apples had been baked in Sweet Nancy, a wine that is rarely made because the grapes must be exposed to unusual and unpredictable weather circumstances that permit the development of the mold, then the drying of the grapes. The 1978 vintage was considered so exceptional that it sold for $50 a 750-milliliter bottle. That makes the 1982 vintage a bargain at a winery retail price of $15 for a 375-milliliter bottle. Sweet Nancy was first produced in 1973. The 1982 wine is the fifth and most recent vintage.
Callaway will stage another "Celebrate the Grape" winery tour, tasting and luncheon Oct. 12 when the featured wine will be Sauvignon Blanc. Tickets are $25. For further information, contact the winery at 32720 Rancho California Road, Temecula, Calif. 92390 or call (714) 676-4001. ALSACIENNE PATISSERIE (Red Onion Tart)
8 (4-inch) unbaked tart shells
1/8 pound sliced bacon, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 pounds red onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1/4 cup snipped chives
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk, scalded and slightly cooled
1/2 cup whipping cream, scalded and slightly cooled
Pierce bottom of each pastry shell with fork and sprinkle with a little nutmeg. Cook bacon in large skillet, stirring constantly until bacon is cooked but not crisp. Add butter, cook until melted and combine with bacon.
Add onions and garlic and cook slowly 20 to 30 minutes over low heat until onions are almost translucent. Do not allow to brown. Add parsley, chives, salt, white pepper to taste and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg. Cook until heated through. Divide among tart shells, leveling tops with spatula.