If you’re going to spend an afternoon with a guerrilla, what better occasion than Bastille Day — a holiday celebrating the storming of a symbol of monarchal oppression by the common man.
The “guerrilla” we would spend Bastille Day with would not be a camouflaged, gun-toting, beret-crowned rebel, but rather our family wine, Wine Guerrilla — and my mother’s long-time partner, Bruce, producer of the wine and himself often referred to as, “The Wine Guerrilla.”
Sometimes I feel like I don’t spend enough time talking about our wine on my blog. After all, what a perfect way to spread the word. And we certainly drink enough of it — chances are, unless it’s Japanese or Mexican food, whenever I’m writing about a dish I created or dinner I threw, we were drinking Wine Guerrilla. A line of anywhere from eight to 12 different zinfandels (depending on the year) that feature my paintings on the label, the wines have been gaining a following and garnering 90+ scores from no less an authority than Wine Spectator magazine over the past few years.
The Bastille bash seemed like an ideal opportunity to get nepotistic and sing the virtues of this fine wine while also celebrating a favorite holiday and welcome chance to do a French theme dinner. Bruce and I began talking about hosting a Southern California Wine Guerrilla barbecue (they’re based in Sonoma County in Northern California) months ago. We settled on July 14 for the date, at which point someone reminded me that this date was Bastille Day.
A unique challenge — a Bastille Day barbecue! Did the French even cook barbecue? And if so, what kind of things did they do? I’ll often prepare Tuscan-style rosticciana ribs or steak fiorentino on the barbecue, and I’ve got a number of Spanish-style grilled foods in my repertoire… but French? A bit of research led to some seemingly erroneous though-not-unexpected claims by the French to have invented barbecue. A favorite item in the French lexicon of grilling is skewered meats with onion and green peppers (one of my least favorite grilled foods ever — so that’s where that came from!). Beyond that, I didn’t come up with much other than tales of backyard Gallic grillers emulating the American south.
So I decided upon a different tact.
I would fill up my guests on baguettes and brie, charcuterie and rillettes. Then I would do my own grilled takes on classic French flavors and dishes. I baked all morning, then filleted out two pork shoulders for a grilled interpretation of a traditional dish of Normandy, braised chicken (or pork) with Calvados apple brandy, mushrooms and cream. Lacking Calvados, I reduced down half a jug of apple juice and a couple cups of brandy for a reasonable substitution, pan-grilled some mushrooms with bacon, added cream and reduced… And voila! A Frenchish barbecue triumph!
The guests were milling, engaged in convivial conversation, sipping four 2009 and 2010 Wine Guerrilla zinfandels — Dry Creek Valley, Clopton Vineyard, Harris-Kratka Vineyard and Forchini Old Vine — not the flinty flavors of France, but the ripe berries and muscular terroir of California’s Sonoma County. The sun burst into warm dapples through the oak branches as it settled toward the sage-gray horizon of Saddle Peak in the west. And I was on to more barbecuing.
My second effort took a page from that brasserie favorite, steak au poivre. A few days before the event, I dusted a dozen or so tri-tip steaks (two whole tri-tips cut into 2-inch steaks) with salt, wrapped them in paper towels and put them in the fridge for a mock dry age. The morning of our barbecue, I brought some sweet cream butter to room temperature and blended it with a liberal dose of pepper, minced parsley and fresh thyme. The steaks I crusted with more pepper, and grilled to a medium rare. Spreading my butter on the cutting board, I rested the grilled steaks for 10 minutes before slicing thin and serving around a mound of frites with mayonnaise for dipping.
“Great fries!” one guest commented. Here I make a confession, which you may also take as a cooking tip. As a time-saving tactic, I bought several bags of frozen shoestring fries — not even the brand name ones, but the generic. Grind a little fresh pepper over them, sprinkle with some sea salt, and serve with a good mayonnaise, and they’re just as good as homemade without the hours of oil-splattered hassle. If you like hours of oil-splattered hassle, there’s a recipe below.
With the meats I served a fresh salade Niçoise redolent of anchovy and ripe cherry tomatoes from my garden.
The greatest failure of the event was that, miscalculating how many people would stick around for the “barbecue” portion of the tasting, I produced about 50% more food than was needed. My guests, like the intrepid stormers of the Bastille whom we were honoring, rose nobly to the occasion and ate seconds and thirds. Today, with a fridge full of leftovers, my attention turns closer to home — chili con carne with the uneaten steak, and a viscous, porky pozolé for the weekend with the shoulders.
At the evening’s end, I sat in the dark out on the deck with my old friend Mike, sipping whichever Wine Guerrilla was in the glass and taking puffs off a Cuban cigar. The frogs and crickets serenaded, and soon my eyelids grew heavy and I said goodnight to Mike, leaving him on the deck to finish his thoughts.
All in all, it was une bon fête, our guests wandered off with bottles of wine tucked triumphantly beneath their arms into the warm Pacific night, leaving behind empty platters and crimson-stained wine glasses. Everything a good rebellion should be. Vive la revolution!
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Steak au poivre et frites
4 6-8 oz. New York strips or rib eyes, 1.5 to 2 inches thick
8 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. minced Italian parsley
1 tsp. minced fresh thyme
Maldon salt (or other flaky sea salt)
2 large potatoes
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Let the butter come to room temperature. Mix in half the pepper, and the parsley and thyme, and refrigerate.
Start your frites: Slice the two potatoes lengthwise at about 1/3 inch thick. Then cut each slice into 4 to 5 fries. Heat 2 inches of water in a large pan over high heat. When water boils, place frites in water and blanch for about 10 minutes, until translucent. Remove from heat and carefully drain.
Place same pan back on medium heat, and add vegetable oil. Let heat up, then add frites in as close to a single layer as you can. (Note: for extra flavor, add a tablespoon of duck fat or bacon grease.) Cook over medium heat, carefully turning frites from time to time (or flipping in pan if you’re good at that) so as not to break too many, for about 20 minutes or until golden on all sides. Remove from heat and place on a plate in a 170-degree oven.
Heat your grill to high. Sprinkle steaks with remaining ground pepper. Cook your steaks about 4 minutes per side for medium rare. Cut up your butter and place on a large cutting board. Remove the steaks from the grill and place on cutting board. Let rest for 5 minutes, then cut each steak across the grain into 1/2 inch slices. When all the steak is slices, sprinkle generously with flaky sea salt, toss in the butter and pan juices, and serve with frites and mayonnaise for dipping.
* Photos 1 & 2 by Peter Duke