One of my favorite Twitter feeds is @_TFL_, The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's 3-Michelin Star restaurant in Yountville. Not that we'll ever, ever be able to go there or anything...I mean, it feels like we're stealing just by walking by and smelling what is coming from the back door of the kitchen. We've done this, more than once...usually as we're walking to the only restaurant in Yountville that we could ever afford, Bistro Jeanty, a wonderful little place that serves authentic rustic French country food. While the majority of the patrons there seem to treat it like the Denny's of Yountville, for us it's a very-special-occasion indulgence, and we've never been disappointed.
This was the main dish on our recent beach picnic. At first I was worried about doing duck because in the past I've managed to seriously screw it up -- probably one of the easiest gourmet foods to cook, yet I somehow turned it into what I can only describe as smelly squishy leather. Not kidding.
But now I know where I screwed up -- a good duck breast needs to be cooked over medium LOW heat, so that all the fat is rendered beautifully, not burned off. The other key is to just trust yourself -- when the recipe below says "cook for 10 minutes without peeking," it means "cook for 10 minutes without peeking." Trust that everything is working out just fine under there, and when your 10 minutes is up (yes, use a timer), flip it over. If it looks a little underdone, you can always carefully spoon the rendered fat up and over the top of the breast to keep it cooking a bit longer, but don't flip it back over.
When it's done, take it off and let it rest before slicing. This recipe is perfect for those of us who are impatient -- the time it takes to cook the potatoes and the sauce is just the right amount of time the duck needs to rest. Don't skip ahead in the recipe -- follow it in order, and instead of trying to save time by slicing the duck while you wait for the potatoes to cook, do something else...have a glass of wine, clean up your previous course, etc. When we cook outdoors, I try to plan my meals so that while something is cooking (something that doesn't need my immediately and constant attention, like these potatoes), we can be eating a different course. If you use my beach picnic menu, start cooking the duck when you start eating your soup...that way, the multi-tasker inside you will be thrilled that you're eating, the duck is resting, and the potatoes are cooking, all at the same time.
I found some amazing maitake and chanterelle mushrooms while shopping for duck, so I added them to the pan right after cooking the potatoes and sauteed them briefly.
We're pretty adept at many types of gourmet outdoor cooking and serving, but this was our very first attempt at an evening beach picnic. Of course, being the obsessive person I am, I spent hours researching, googling, pinterest-ing, etc...but everything I found included at least one of my deal-breakers: a) they talked about cooking hot dogs, b) the menus were 100% store-bought food, c) the food was an afterthought, or mostly d) it was obviously just a photo shoot because they contained tons of glass, a big beach no-no. One even showed a stereo system with a cord that -- honestly -- they just stuck in the sand. If you're getting electricity from a sand dune, you have more things to worry about than what you're eating, believe me.
So I was left to my own devices, to basically just wing it. Here's what I learned:
This is another great gourmet dish that translates well to cooking and eating outdoors. With just a little preparation, the soup may be finished quickly, right at your campsite or dining spot. When I make this at home, I use fresh oysters because a) I have time to shuck them, b) I don't have an excuse not to shuck them, and c) if, say, I should happen to stab myself with the oyster knife, maybe in the palm of my hand, maybe because it went straight through the towel I was so carefully using to shield my hand and wrist, I'm at home and can deal with the blood and then going in for maybe a stitch and another tetanus shot. Totally hypothetically speaking, of course.
When cooking this on the beach or at a campsite, I opt for pre-shucked oysters -- I either shuck them at home (leaving enough time to get my hand wrapped and go in for that tetanus update, you know, just in case, not that I've had to do that or anything...) and place them in a small jar with their liquid and enough champagne/water to cover them; or if you have a well-stocked fish counter, you could purchase a jar of pre-shucked oysters if you're in a real hurry. Be sure to carefully strain them, regardless -- you need to be sure to remove all the sand, grit, and shell bits that may have made their way into the jar.
A beach menu differs from a mountain menu is two distinct ways -- first, weight isn't such an issue, since (in most cases) you're not going to be doing a lot of serious hiking to get to your picnic spot. And second, it's sort of a travesty to not eat seafood of some sort or another, and seafood is generally something we avoid while hiking in the mountains.
This menu assumes you are willing to cook as part of your picnic; if not, the food will need to be prepared ahead of time and kept warm. The soup especially should be assembled on the spot, even if you don't want to cook it right there on the beach.
Recipe links will be live as they're published. Enjoy!
Starter -- Delicata squash and sage biscuits
Salad -- Pan seared foie gras with fig mostarda and sauternes
Soup -- Champagne oyster soup with cucumber pappardelle
Entree -- Seared duck breast with fresh blackberry sauce and duck fat potatoes
Every September we try to head as far from the mountains as possible, since that's where we've undoubtedly spent most of the summer. We usually camp, but this past summer was more stressful and exhausting than the prior ten summers combined -- so we decided on a compromise: do all our favorite camping stuff, like kayaking, cycling, and especially eating outdoors, but then return at night to a very cozy, very clean, very un-tent-like air bnb hideaway, with an actual shower and (gasp!) toilet and...the best part...a bed we didn't have to blow up. It was embarrassingly wonderful.
We ended up in Ft. Bragg, CA -- because there is a terrific bike trail, great kayaking, miles of beaches, and no mountains in sight. Now, I'm obviously not a mountain hater, but an entire lifetime of summers spent at 8000' can grow old, and we really need a change of pace to make this trip actually feel like a vacation rather than just an extension of summer camp. Finding a place to stay was simple; finding a beach that allowed alcohol was not.
See, in CA 99% of the beaches are actually state parks or various other flavors of state-run designations...and this generally means (at least in Northern CA) no alcohol is allowed. If we were going to have a 4-star dinner picnic on the beach, we weren't going to do it without a very special bottle of Corison cabernet we'd been saving. I figured there had to be at least one tiny stretch, a few feet really, of privately owned beach I could somehow talk my way into for the evening. Of course, we considered (very briefly) just taking the risk, decanting the bottle into our backpacking wine bag, and hoping for the best, but we were tired...very tired...and we really, really just needed a stress and worry-free dinner. The last thing I wanted was to have our foie gras appetizer interrupted by an energetic ranger who, apparently (I know this because I spent way too many hours scouring reviews and reports online), dump out the alcohol if they catch you with it -- seriously, I would ugly cry for hours if this Corison bottle ended up in the sand; fine us, cite us, and arrest us, cool -- but don't waste one drop of that wine.
So I knew I needed a legal option; and I finally found it. There is a very short stretch of not-advertised privately owned beach sandwiched between two state parks, and for the paltry sum of $20, it was ours for the night. I was willing to pay for a night's lodging in the little hotel that owns that stretch of beach, but we didn't need to...the owners were more than happy to give us evening access. As it turned out, we didn't even have to share it -- so we had not only a private piece of sand, but a private cove on a private beach in a tiny private bay. It couldn't have been more perfect.
I'm going to stretch this experience into several different posts -- one with a menu, then several of our recipes, and finally one with pointers on hosting your own classy beach picnic, void of the typical beach picnic things like hot dogs and store-bought potato salad. For now, I'll just share a few pictures of our venue. Stay tuned.