Chef Duskie Estes shares tips for creating the perfect summer picnic

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Welcome to picnic country.

Sonoma County not only has a raft of refreshing wines — hello rosé — but a delicious array of artisan bread and cheese, salumi and charcuterie, perfectly ripe roadside strawberries and peaches alongside a plethora of picnic-friendly destinations.

We’ve got panoramic views from every redwood ridge and hillside vineyard plus, in summer, live concerts and performances almost every day of the week — often free to the public — in every city and hamlet. We’ve even got bocce ball and pétanque courts to keep your muscles limbered up between bites and sips.

If you want to add extra pizzazz to your picnic basket — whether it’s a side of pickled fruit for your cheese board or a homemade cookie for a sweet finale — we’ve got you covered like a plaid blanket.

Chef Duskie Estes, chef/owner of the flooded-out Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol’s The Barlow, is currently running The Black Piglet food truck with her husband John Stewart. The couple are serving their BLTs and other tasty fare al fresco at various wineries and music festivals this summer. An inveterate chip’n’dip girl, savvy salad-maker and mad cookie-baker, Estes shared a few of the delicious dishes she would make for her own picnic in the North Bay, as well as some essentials she would pick up to jazz up her moveable feast.

“When I go on a picnic, the first thing I want to pick up is some bread, meat and cheese,” she said. “It’s so easy, and we have some amazing products here.”

For a cheese board, Estes would head straight to one of the Oliver’s Markets to source one of the local cheeses from Andante Dairy, Cowgirl Creamery, Joe Matos Cheese Factory, Bellwether Farm and Point Reyes Farmers Cheese, among others.

“I would get a cheese from Soyoung (Scanlan) of Andante Dairy,” she said. “I love her Minuet, Picolo and Largo (triple-cream, soft-ripened cheeses made from goat’s milk and cow’s milk).”

Next up, she would head up to Journeyman Meat Co. in Healdsburg or down to Thistle Meats in Petaluma for a selection of salumi; then source a crunchy baguette from one of the county’s beloved bakeries: Della Fattoria in Petaluma, Nightingale Bread in Forestville, Redbird in Cotati or Goguette Bread in Santa Rosa, to name a few.

After stopping by a roadside stand such as Lao’s in Sebastopol for fresh strawberries, she would head back to her home kitchen in Forestville to whip up a few homemade dips, salads and condiments to tuck into her picnic basket.

One of her favorite things to serve with a cheese board is a side of pickled cherries or grapes, to offset all that creamy goodness.

The tart and the sweet in the pickled cherries is awesome with meat and cheese,” she said. “It cuts the fat.”

Then she would whip up one of her favorite dips — the South’s trusty pimento cheese — a yummy concoction that started in New York in the 1870s when Spain started exporting its pimiento peppers.

The cream cheese spread was such a hit that Georgia farmers started growing their own red peppers and roasting them. As its popularity spread, the dip got even more comforting (and calorie laden) with the addition of Cheddar cheese and a dollop of mayonnaise. Yum!

“We always had it on the menu at Zazu,” Estes said. “I make the pimento cheese with Fiscalini Cheddar, cream cheese, aioli, piquillo peppers and oil-marinated Calabrian chiles.”

While she likes to serve pimento cheese with baguette slices or pretzels, she suggests serving her Smoky Eggplant Dip with a side of crunchy, salty pita chips, preferably from Stacy’s. The dip is similar to the Middle East’s beloved baba ghanoush.

“I slash the skin of the eggplants and grill it until the inside is soft,” she said. “Then you scoop it out with a large spoon.”

Summer salads are delicious cold or at room temperature, making them ideal picnic fare. Estes suggested a simple Chickpea and Feta Salad along with an Orzo Salad with Sungold Tomatoes, perfectly ripe, of course.

“For the Orzo Salad, we toast the orzo first, then put it in boiling water,” she said. “That gives it a nutty flavor.”

When the heat is soaring, it’s always a good idea to bring a non-alcoholic beverage along with that chilled rosé or viognier. Estes likes to pack a rosewater lemonade to slake thirst.

And for dessert? The cookie queen suggests a handful of her Salty Oat Cookies, a crumbly shortbread made with butter, sugar, oats, a little bit of flour and brown sugar. Those can be dipped in chocolate and served alongside a basket of fresh strawberries.

“On my picnics, I like to bring a little jar of Nutella for dipping,” she said. “Everything is better with a little chocolate.”

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“Pickling fruit can be an exciting surprise for your taste buds,” she said. “The acid and sweet in a pickle cuts through the fat and salt in a cured meat or terrine.” Warn your friends that the cherries still have the pit!

Pickled Cherries

Makes about 2 quarts

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup water

8 ginger slices (fresh ginger cut into coins)

6 cloves

1 jalapeño, sliced into rings

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon mustard seeds

2 cinnamon sticks

3 star anise

1 bay leaf

1 pound Bing cherries (or red seedless grapes if they are not in season)

In a non-reactive pot, combine the vinegar, sugar, water and spices. Bring up to a boil, allow to cool to room temperature. Pour over the cherries. Let steep at least one-half hour (these last up to 2 weeks refrigerated.) These are great with pork, poultry, salumi.

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You can substituted roasted, peeled and seeded red bell peppers for the piquillo peppers and cayenne for the Calabrian chiles. You can purchase the Zazu Pimento Cheese at Siduri Wine Lounge in Healdsburg.

“When we have any left over, we use this as our base for the best macaroni and cheese ever,” Estes said. “Add cooked pasta, heavy cream, more grated Cheddar cheese and bacon topped with crushed cheese crackers.”

Fiscalini Cheddar Pimento Cheese

Makes 4 cups

3 cups Fiscalini Cheddar cheese, grated

4 ounces cream cheese

1/3 cup aioli or mayonnaise

1/2 cup piquillo peppers

2 Calabrian chiles (more or less to taste)

— Pickled jalapeños or pepperoncini (optional garnishes)

Combine first five ingredients in a mixer with a paddle attachment. Serve with pickled jalapenos or pepperoncini and a baguette or pretzel chips.

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“We like to serve this with pita chips,” Estes said. Zasumac spice rub is available at blackpigmeatco.com and at Siduri Wine Lounge in Healdsburg. To make your own pomegranate molasses, simply reduce pomegranate juice down until it has the thickness of maple syrup.

Smoky Eggplant Dip

Makes 1 quart

2 globe eggplant

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/3 cup quality extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup tahini

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablepoon zasumac spice rub (or substitute 1 teaspoon each ground cumin, coriander and sumac)

— Kosher salt to taste

Fire up the grill and slash the skin of the eggplants with the tip of a knife. Grill until skin is blackened and the inside is mushy.

Cut eggplants in half and scoop out the eggplant with a large spoon. Discard the skins. Place the olive oil and garlic in a saute pan on medium heat until the garlic is slightly browned and soft. In a food processor, combine the eggplant, garlic and olive oil, tahini, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and spices. Blend and season to taste with salt.

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This is a simple salad but it requires dead-ripe cherry tomatoes and high-quality olive oil. Estes suggests the Sungold tomatoes from Soda Rock Farm and olive oil from the Dry Creek Olive Oil Co. (Trattore Farms), DaVero or the Olive Queen.

Toasted Orzo Salad + Corn + Cherry Tomatoes

Makes 10 cups

1 pound orzo

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

4 ears corn, husk removed

1 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, chiffonade

1 cup green onions, sliced thin

2 pints cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 cup chopped marjoram, basil or oregano

— Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and fire up your grill. On two baking sheets, orzo and pint nuts in the oven until browned, about 10 minutes.

Set a pot of boiling, salted water on the stove. Pour the toasted orzo into the boiling water and cook until just done, about 8 minutes. Strain and place on baking sheet, sprinkle with extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar and refrigerate.

Grill the corn a few minutes, rolling to cook on all sides. Cut kernels from cob.

In a mixing bowl, combine orzo, pine nuts, corn, parsley, green onion, cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, lemon juice and herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ceci + Redwood Hill Feta Salad

Makes 1 quart

1 15-ounce can chickpeas (or 1 2/3 cups cooked)

1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced

1/2 English cucumber, diced (or 1 cup)

1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 cup Redwood Hill feta, crumbled (or other quality feta)

1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, chiffonade

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

— Kosher salt

— Pinch red chile flakes, if desired

Rinse the chickpeas and place in a mixing bowl. Add the red pepper, cucumber, olive oil, lemon juice, feta and herbs. Season to taste with salt (and chile flakes.)

Salty Oat Cookie

Makes 16 cookies

1 cup soft unsalted butter

3/4 cup sugar

11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

12/3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups oats

— Maldon (large flake) or kosher salt for sprinkle

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the oats.

Scoop small, 2-ounce balls of the dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet and flatten with the palm of your hand. Sprinkle the cookie with the Maldon or kosher salt. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the edges are beginning to turn golden brown. Let cool.

Rosewater Lemonade

Makes 1 quart

1 cup sugar

4 cups water

11/2 cups lemon juice

1 tablespoon rose water

Bring the sugar add 1 cup of the water to a boil. Add the remaining water, lemon juice and rose water. Serve over ice. Garnish with lemon slices or rose petals.

If you have rose geranium in your yard, you can add it to the simple syrup (sugar and water) instead of adding the rose water.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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