Sitting in the shade of olive trees, surrounded by gardens in bloom, we were sipping sangria, as a feast was unfolding. In no time, our table was filled with:
Esqueixada: a salad of ling cod, tomato, onion and black olives;
Empandas Gallegas: a Spanish version of empanadas with two fillings, one beef and one vegetable, between thin, flavorful bread.
Patatas Bravas: Potatoes as only the Spaniards can fix them, crispy on the outside, soft inside and served with aoli and Salsa Brava.
Huevos Rotos con Chorizo: A wonderful dish of fried eggs sitting on a bowl of potato chips, garnished with chorizo and parsley.
Salmorejo: a cold tomato and bread soup with garlic and olive oil.
Melón con jamón: sweet chunks of melon wrapped in Spanish ham.
Of course, the star was Paella Mixta, the savory rice classic, redolent of garlic, onions and saffron, rich with chunks of chicken, sausage and shrimp.
It was all so delicious, I even tried the Salpicón de Pulpo, an octopus salad with tomato, spring onion, and red and green bell pepper; and I usually decline to eat octopus. But the wonderful, intelligent cephalopod was perfectly cooked.
Yet to come was dessert, Tarta de Santiago, the almond cake served to pilgrims at the end of El Camino de Santiago. Ours was served with a vanilla cream flavored with the rich, Pedro Jimenez sherry.
So, you might ask ‘Where were we?’ Or to be more precise, in what part of Spain were we feasting?
Nope, we were in Napa dining at the Monday night pop-up, Estampa, which happens once a month, in the Grove in the gardens of the CIA at Copia.
The Monday night pop-ups are a relatively new venture, said Thomas Bensel, the managing director of the Culinary Institute of America’s California campuses, including the Napa one.
First, they opened the Grove at the CIA at Copia, for casual outdoor dining. This place, which has live music on weekends, has been swiftly adopted by bocce players (there are two bocce courts) and corn hole enthusiasts. And people who want to sit outside, under olive trees, surrounded by gardens on a summer night. It’s open until 10 p.m.
“But Mondays were quiet,” said Bensel, and they began toying with the idea of pop-up dinners: Different chefs, different styles, one night a month. “The outdoor patio is perfect for this,” Bensel said.
Two local CIA grads, Itamar Abramovitch and Nate Smith, owners of Blossom Catering Company, had been hoping to do something with their alma mater. So Bensel gave them the first Monday of each month for their Balagan, a four-course, Israeli inspired menu, served family style, and combining European, Middle Eastern and North African traditions. It’s served from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Here, diners will find dishes like burekas, shish kebabs and a Middle Eastern potpie.
For the second Monday of each month, Bensel turned to Napa’s fried-chicken connoisseur and Master Sommelier Chris Blanchard. From 5 to 8 p.m., he serves a Southern-inspired menu, starring his fried chicken but including other offerings like buttermilk biscuits, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and coleslaw. These dinners can also be ordered to go.
On the third Monday, Contimo Provisions takes over. Ken Folan and Ryan Harris, chefs who pride themselves on making everything from scratch, get a chance to branch out from their usual fare, served out of the former Copia box office. In June, they prepared an aperitivo — Italy’s version of happy hour — of flat breads, burrata, and house-cured meats, followed by a main course of wood-fired chicken, pork, and vegetables, and a seasonal salad. For July, they are planning a Burger Fest, and in August, a Taco Night. They serve their menu from 5 to 8 p.m.
This brings us to the fourth Monday, Estampa.
Meet the chef
Bensel said that the CIA provost Mark Erickson had been strongly encouraging him to consider a Spanish tapas-style dining experience at the CIA at Copia (perhaps not coincidentally, the Culinary Institute has just opened a new campus in Barcelona). And as it happened, Rodrigo Vazguez from León, a city in northwest Spain, had recently joined the Napa staff as a sous chef.
Vasquez had been working in Barcelona when he had the opportunity to come to the U.S. three and a half years ago to help open a new restaurant in Walnut Creek. After the successful launch, the The new CIA at Copia in Napa caught his attention, and Vasquez was hired to work as sous chef with Copia’s executive chef Todd Meyerhofer.
“It is a wonderful place,” Vasquez said. “I am still commuting from Walnut Creek, but I don’t mind. I am so happy here.”
The admiration goes both ways, said Bensel. “Sometimes you just get lucky in who you hire. Sometimes you find someone who just loves what he does.”
Bensel first tapped Vasquez to design a menu for their Le Petit Chef 3-D dining experience. It features “the world’s smallest chef” leading a six-course dinner, inspired by Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road, complete with sights, sounds and scents, as well as tastes.
Vasquez was also the natural choice for a Spanish-style dinner. “I said, ‘Just a few things, keep it simple,’” Bensel said, with a chuckle, over the table filled with the feast.
At the Estampa dinners, each dish was $9, as were the beverages — red wine sangria (with blackberries, cherries and cinnamon, white wine sangria (with cognac, peaches, strawberries, limes and club soda) and two different lagers from Barcelona (Dora Damm and Estrella Damm). A Belharra Las Madres Rosé from Carneros was also available for $40 a bottle.
As diners order dishes, each one gets a stamp on a tally; it’s added up at the end, when the diners have eaten their fill, in the style of Spain’s renowned tapas bars.
Each month, Vasquez said he will serve a different menu, based on what’s available.
“In Spain we have so many products but the recipes are simple,” he said. “Salt, pepper, paprika, good olive oil — this is all that’s needed because the products are so good.”
The new Estampa dinners, “make me happy,” Vasquez said. “This is summer time in Spain. These are recipes I cooked at home with my dad. Cooking these meals is like going back home.
“I put all I have on the plates,” he said. “I put my heart into it.”
The next Estampa dinner is on Monday, July 22; the menu is available between 5 and 8 p.m.
To view the schedule of Grove’s Guest Chef Pop-Up Series online, visit ciaatcopia.com/grove/. Grove at The CIA at Copia is at 500 First St., Napa.
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Chef Rodrigo Vazquez, CIA at Copia, Napa
10 lbs. tomato (red cluster or tasty tomato)
1 pound sourdough bread (no crust)
10-15 each garlic cloves
1/2 liter extra virgin olive oil
1/2 liter olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Put the garlic cloves in a pot with cold water and heat it until starts boiling. Remove from the fire and cool down. Reserve them.
Wash the tomatoes and cut them quarts or small pieces.
Remove the bread’s crust if needed and cut it in big dices.
If you have a food processor, put the tomato, bread and garlic and blend. We will blend the mix a couple times so it doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth at the first time. My recommendation is to blend it one time, leave the bread to soak the water from the tomatoes for 15 min and then blend it again.
In our second time blending, we will add the salt and pepper and the olive oils. It needs to be blended until it is very thin and smooth. Adjust salt and pepper to your taste.
Strain and reserve in the refrigerator. Serve with extra virgin olive oil.
Note: As a garnish you can also use hard-boiled egg and fried jamon serrano or prosciutto. Add as much extra Virgin olive oil or olive oil as you like.
If the soup is too liquid you can add more bread. It always depends how much water the tomato has.
For the other side, if after you are done you see the soup broken (like when you try to make alioli) add more olive oil and blend again. It will help you to keep the emulsion.
TARTA DE SANTIAGO
Chef Rodrigo Vazquez, CIA at Copia, Napa
Chef’s note: This recipe is for a big batch so I’ll recommend to make just half or maybe a third. This is a perfect dessert to enjoy with a glass of Pedro Ximenez (Spanish sweet wine) or similar.
Editor’s note: This recipe was so tasty, I am including it, although it is given in grams. My experiments with converting grams to cups and teaspoons seemed mathematically unreliable, so my recommendation is that if you are making it, weigh the ingredients on a scale that uses grams.
1 kg almond flour
1 kg sugar
1.1 kg whole eggs
5 grams ground cinnamon
30 grams flour
Powder sugar for decoration
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Whip eggs and sugar until is about three times bigger in volume (add sugar slowly).
Mix the rest of the ingredients in a big bowl.
Fold the eggs mix into the dry ingredients gently.
Cover the mold’s interior with butter and flour. If you have baking paper put it on the base. It will help to remove the cake from the mold.
Bake for 35-45 minutes at 350 degrees .
Let it cool down a room temperature.
Plate it and add the powder sugar on top with a strainer.