In 1991, Zaca Mesa Winery sent our good friend Jim Fiolek on a marketing tour across the U.S. in a custom recreational vehicle in an effort to promote their wines. The official name of the promotional RV was the ZacaMobile but for reasons I no longer remember, we came to call it the Pinot Bus. Perhaps after the amount of Pinot Noir consumed by our illustrious dinner guests one night on the said Zaca tour, there was no other name that made sense to us except the Pinot Bus. At that time, Zaca Mesa made Pinot Noir, one of our favorite varietals which was pioneered in Santa Barbara County by Richard Sanford, but sadly Zaca Mesa stopped producing Pinot Noir in 1994.
Jim was to be visiting Zaca Mesa clients in Chicago on his tour so we welcomed him for a stay at our house on the North Shore. Jim is a character like none other and when Jim comes to visit, it would be a crime to keep him to yourself. A dinner was organized to celebrate the arrival of Jim and the Pinot Bus. Hors d’oeuvres on the bus of course, followed by dinner in the house.
There is a recurring theme in my stories about not thinking things through and just diving into my oblivion. This is no exception. I had an 8-month old baby, no one to help cook, and we offered to host the Wine Writer for The Chicago Tribune, along with the Zaca Mesa winemaker, our friend Jim and our foodie neighbors, for a winemakers dinner, Chez Moi.
I decided to make veal, which I had never made before, and polenta, also never made before. Who knows what else I served? I only remember the veal and polenta because somehow, someway, by the graces of the Pinot Bus Gods, they were fabulous.
I can’t take much credit for the veal chops being delicious. Our local butcher in Hubbard Woods was an old-school professional butcher and he special-ordered spectacular 2″ thick veal chops that literally just needed to not be screwed up. As I recall, I grilled them and they were luckily just perfect with the Pinot.
The polenta was a choice of necessity because as the only cook for my 7 guests, and a baby on my hip, I needed a plan! There is nothing amazing or difficult about grilled polenta, fortunately for me since I had never made it before that night. The brilliance is that you cook a few simple ingredients up ahead of time and then the last minute grilling elevates it to a side dish suitable for company. Minimal effort, maximum outcome! I cooked the polenta in the morning, refrigerated it, and when it was time to cook dinner I just grilled it alongside the veal chops so everything was done at the same time. I thought it would be pretty and tasty and I was right.
The evening was a huge success. The entertainment of the Pinot Bus and Jim, the knowledge of the winemaker and the wine writer, the stellar company of our wonderful neighbors and friends, and my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants cooking all came together with fun and festivity that went well into the night which I much regretted the next morning when Firstborn Daughter did not get the memo that 6am was not a welcome wake-up time during Pinot Bus season.
Just to ensure that our night was not forgotten, when the Pinot Bus went to depart the next afternoon, we discovered that the weight of the bus plus seven guests inside was a bit too much for our driveway. The tires had sank into the asphalt about three inches, leaving permanent reminders of our night with Jim and the Pinot Bus. Not that we needed reminding.
“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” -W.C. Fields
Pinot Bus Polenta
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tsp salt
4 T butter
Bring broth to a boil in a pot over high heat and slowly whisk in cornmeal until it is smooth. Switch to a wooden spoon lower heat to medium and stir constantly for about 15 minutes or until the polenta is quite thick. Remove from heat and stir in salt and butter. Pour into a 9″ buttered square pan.
Cool completely and refrigerate.
1 hour before serving, cut cold polenta into triangles and set aside on a tray.
Brush polenta triangles liberally with olive oil and place on hot grill for 2-3 minutes until the polienta has nice grill marks.
Serve immediately, with or without Pinot Noir.