When most people invite you to join them for a picnic, it means packing a basket or cooler, jumping into the car and taking off for an afternoon at a favorite spot--be it the park, seashore or mountains. It's a little different when the invitation is extended by Ron Mesker and his wife, Sherre Carnes.
To begin with, their picnic starts at dawn. Make that before dawn, even long before dawn, for anyone who doesn't live in--or isn't staying in--the vicinity of Temecula, Calif., where conditions are ideal for hot-air ballooning. In case it isn't obvious by now, the Mesker's outing includes a lofty ride.
While the balloon is being inflated, there's time to sip coffee, nibble pastries and watch the crew working to ready the huge craft for flight. Not much time though--because, at least to this novice, such a huge balloon rises into the early morning sky surprisingly fast.
The scenario of a hot-air balloon ride goes something like this: Once inflated, the balloon is ready to go with the winds and must be held down, or tethered, long enough for two people to climb into the wicker gondola along with the pilot. Then off it goes, with crew and remaining guests piling into the chase vehicle to follow along on terra firma.
Since even experienced pilots have only so much control over the balloon's course, the direction it takes is determined by the wind, and chasers must simply try to keep up. Both rides--the one in the air and the one on the ground--can be quite adventuresome.
This type of ballooning--strictly for enjoyment, rather than racing or setting distance records--is done in the early morning hours, when the wind is calm and distance covered is limited to a few miles. Each time the balloon sets down, the chase vehicle catches up and there's a scramble as the chasers change places with the original balloon riders. Then the balloon is off on another hop (as balloon flights are called), the intermittent roar of the propane heater contrasting with the silence of simply floating along. Down on the ground, others in the party continue to bump over the countryside.
After everyone has had a chance to ride, there's the traditional bottle of Champagne to be imbibed before deflating and packing the balloon. By this time even novices are calling the yards and yards of fabric by the proper name, envelope, as they line up in fire brigade formation and carry the material to the storage case. After each load, everyone sits on top to pack it down. There's plenty of tripping and falling over each other, but finally everything is loaded into the truck, including the gondola, which weighs a hefty 250 pounds.
Even after all this activity, it's probably only 9:30 or 10 in the morning. But if that sounds a bit early for lunch, you're wrong. Fortunately, the Meskers know ballooning works up hearty appetites, and they have an elegant picnic tucked away in the chase vehicle.
Mesker is an enthusiastic cook whose years in the restaurant business have provided him ample opportunity to develop recipe ideas. He's currently president of the Love's Barbecue Restaurants chain and enjoys taking advantage of the company's hot-air balloon to entertain, while also showing off his expertise as a chef.
A few of his favorite picnic recipes, along with a sinfully rich dessert developed by Sherre, can make an ideal alfresco menu for Labor Day weekend, even for those not lucky enough to enjoy a hot-air balloon ride. The fanciful recipe titles give a bit more insight into the Meskers' fun-loving nature.
To round out the sumptuous picnic/brunch, Mesker recommends a well-chilled California Fume Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Zinfandel Blanc be served with the meal and a very cold bottle of California Malvasia Bianca with dessert.
MESKER'S BALLOON-RIDE PICNIC
Scallops Ceviche Stuffies
Confetti Frittata With Fresh Basil-Tomato Sauce
Cajun Two-Step Chicken Legs
Plantation Slaw With Maple-Mustard Dressing
Fresh Fruit and Selection of Cheeses
Chocolate-Pecan Preposterous Bars SCALLOPS CEVICHE STUFFIES
1 large sweet red pepper
3 medium tomatoes
1 pound bay scallops
3/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup olive oil
4 green onions, sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed oregano leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
6 to 10 red leaf lettuce cups
1 to 2 avocados
6 to 10 (6-inch) sesame seed pita breads
1/2 cup coarsely chopped black olives
Roast pepper under broiler, turning as needed, until skin is blistered and charred. Place in plastic bag and cool 5 minutes. Then peel, remove seeds and membranes and coarsely chop. Peel, seed and coarsely chop tomatoes.
Rinse scallops well. Place in 9x9-inch baking dish. Combine chopped pepper and tomatoes, lime juice, wine, 1/4 cup olive oil, green onions, salt, oregano and cilantro. Stir into scallops. Cover with plastic wrap or tight fitting lid and marinate overnight (not more than 12 hours), stirring occasionally.