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There’s no better way to celebrate spring than to pack a spontaneous picnic and head outdoors. The fare may consist only of a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, but the humble feast becomes as memorable as a four-star restaurant when paired with a panoramic view of the ocean or the mountains.

Bryan Jones, chef at St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa, has one of the most stunning views in Sonoma County right outside his kitchen door at the winery, which is nestled at the base of Sugarloaf Ridge and Hood Mountain.

On the tables on the back patio, Jones offers a daily cheese and charcuterie tasting that may include a couple of cheeses from France, some prosciutto from Italy and condiments ranging from dry tart cherries to marinated olives.

“You can also bring a picnic and sit on the lawn in the back, overlooking the vineyards and the Mayacamas range,” he said.

As a native of San Luis Obispo and an inveterate surfer, Jones often heads out for a portable repast at one of his favorite surf spots in Northern California, from Ocean Beach in San Francisco to Salmon Creek Beach in Bodega Bay.

Closer to home, the chef from Sonoma also enjoys picnicking at other wineries, such as Bartholomew Park Winery, tucked away on a historic 7-acre estate just a few blocks east of the Sonoma Plaza.

“They have picnic tables in the shade, and it’s really secluded,” Jones said. “They also allow dogs.”

Whether he’s tethered to his surfboard or his two dogs — an English bulldog and a miniature schnauzer — Jones often will throw together a quick salad, then pick up a grilled chicken from El Brinquito Market, at 17380 Sonoma Highway in Sonoma. The chicken is cooked Yucatecan style, with a wine-friendly blend of citrus and mild spices.

“It’s marinated in orange juice, achiote paste, Mexican oregano, smoked paprika, shallots, cumin and cilantro stems,” he said. “You marinate it overnight, dry it off and just grill it.”

To complement the Yucatecan-Style Chicken, he suggests a healthy quinoa salad studded with all kinds of spicy and smoky Mexican ingredients.

“I saute some corn with onions and garlic and smoked paprika, and toss the cooked quinoa in with it,” he said. “Once that’s cooled, I add some lime juice, the crumbled queso fresco and a little bit of cilantro.”

If he has a bit of extra time, he might prepare a simple picnic dessert, such as a Toasted Coconut Panna Cotta topped with diced mango, mint and toasted coconut flakes. He packs the sweet treat into a mini Mason jar for easy portability.

But more often than not, Jones swings by the Watmaugh strawberry patch, at Arnold Drive and West Watmaugh Road, on his way to the beach.

“That’s a favorite for Sonomans,” he said of the beloved farmstand, which opened April 1. “If I was going to go out to Bodega Bay, I’d go through Petaluma.”

The self-confessed “wine geek” worked as the chef and general manager of The Fig Cafe in Glen Ellen for 10 years before joining St. Francis’ culinary team last summer.

The chef is thrilled to be pairing foods with the winery’s newly released 2014 St. Francis Rosé Sonoma County, his favorite pick for a picnic wine.

“It’s a zin rosé, with a little bit of spice,” he said. “It goes nicely with the spice in the quinoa.”


The following recipes are from Executive Chef Bryan Jones of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards in Santa Rosa. You can find achiote paste at Mexican markets.

Quinoa Salad with Corn, Cherry Tomatoes, Queso Fresco and Cilantro

Makes 4 servings

2 cups quinoa, rinsed well in a fine mesh strainer

2½ cups water

1 Anaheim chile

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, cut into small dice

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 ears corn, kernels cut off cob

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

— Salt and pepper to taste

1 lime, juiced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

1 cup crumbled queso fresco

1 bunch cilantro, picked and chopped (reserve stems for chicken marinade)

Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh strainer under cold running water. Bring the 2½ cups water to a boil and add the quinoa; reduce to a simmer and cover for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, keeping lid on. After 5 minutes, fluff with a fork. Let cool to room temperature.

Rub Anaheim chile with oil and place directly over the burner set on high. Roast on all sides until blackened all over. Place in a plastic bag to steam. Let cool 10 minutes before peeling and seeding. Cut into small dice and set aside.

Add the 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil to a large saute pan on medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes until slightly caramelized. Add the garlic to the pan and cook for another 2 minutes. Add corn, turn heat to high and stir constantly to cook through. Add the smoked paprika, add salt and pepper to taste, and then add the cooked quinoa. Toss pan to incorporate everything together. Let cool to room temperature and place in large bowl.

Add lime juice, crumbled queso fresco and cilantro to quinoa in bowl. Toss in tomatoes and Anaheim chiles, and adjust seasoning if needed.


Yucatecan-Style Grilled Chicken

Makes 4 servings

1 cup orange juice

1 tablespoon achiote paste

1 shallot, sliced thinly

½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

½ teaspoon dried chile flakes

1 tablespoon salt

— Cilantro stems (reserved from quinoa salad recipe)

1 whole chicken, backbone removed

Combine the orange juice along with all the spices and herbs in a bowl. Stir well to dissolve the achiote paste. Put marinade into a heavy-duty zip-close bag, and place chicken inside to marinate overnight.

Remove chicken from marinade and pat dry with several paper towels. Leave out to bring up to room temperature. Fire up your gas grill to get the coals to medium heat and place chicken on grill, turning at least four times to evenly cook through. It should take about 45-50 minutes total to cook.

Allow to cool before wrapping up to take along on your picnic.


Toasted Coconut Panna Cotta in Mini Mason Jars

Makes 6 servings

10 fluid ounces heavy cream

¼ cup toasted coconut flakes

¼ cup sugar

1½ teaspoon powdered gelatin, plus 2 teaspoons water to bloom

1 (13.5-ounce) can of coconut milk

1 mango, diced

— Mint, chopped

— Toasted coconut flakes, for garnish

Bring the cream just to a boil with the toasted coconut and sugar. Add water to gelatin in small bowl. Remove cream from heat, add coconut milk, and stir in the gelatin vigorously. Pour through a fine mesh strainer, and immediately pour into six 5-ounce Mason jars. Let cool and refrigerate to set.

Top with fresh diced mango, chopped mint and toasted coconut flakes.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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