Off the Rails

With outdoor autumn events like the Montpelier Races nearly upon us, it’s time to plan a sumptuous, over-the-top tailgate repast.

Photography by Robb Scharetg • Recipes by J Frank • Prop Styling by Joy Mouledoux

NOVEMBER 3, 2007

Today, Montpelier sparkles. The 73rd running of the Montpelier Hunt Races on James Madison’s estate takes place on a perfect, blue day that has people putting on and taking off sweaters and jackets as the sun winks in and out between great, white, painterly clouds. The grounds are a softly rumpled crazy quilt, swaths of green interspersed with scraps of calico that are scattered groups of brightly clothed people. President Madison’s mansion presides over the scene from atop a gently sloping hill.

Regulars report that the 2006 event was freezing and overcast, and the year before was so hot that the horses needed hosing down. Someone remembers a year with snow. Who knows what 2008 will bring?

Well, certain things are dependable at the iconic event launched 74 years ago by Marion duPont Scott: Start with up to 14,000 spectators, many of them repeat visitors, most nattily attired. There are seven races, two on the flat and five over fences, with plenty of friendly wagering. Teenagers kick soccer balls, families toss footballs and Frisbees, small children run madly in circles. Gentlemen bring their touring cars—a baby-blue Jaguar convertible, a goldenrod-colored Caddy with fins. Dog events begin the day (but no pets allowed!), followed by, for the wee ones, stick horse races. Vendors offer jewelry, kettle corn, equine art, wool, wine and hot, fresh apple-cinnamon donuts. The affable announcer gives updates about the Cavs’ football game (“The Virginia-Wake Forest game score is Wake Forest, 16, the Cavs, 10.” Pregnant pause, widespread groaning. “My feelings exactly”).

From time to time, prompted by instructions that would sound odd in any other context—“Please close the gates and gaps at this time. Close all gates and gaps, please”—the crowd shifts and gathers at the rails ringing the great lawn. Outriders, resplendent in their black or red jackets, trot past, ensuring the way is clear and gates are closed. All attention is on the steeplechase course, all ears cocked for the rumble of hoofbeats. The sound precedes the first flash of sun on the jockeys’ bright silks as the pack surges around a bend or over a hill, then fades as it gallops out of sight. The horses may appear again or not, depending on the length of the race. Except for those moments, everyone not at the finish line must rely on the announcer to learn what’s happening: “Luvyoudad appears to have lost its rider,” he reports, or “Dynamite is now making up some ground on the inside.” When winners are announced, some folks do happy dances. The people spread out again, to settle back into conversation with friends, to browse the vendors or just wander, people watching. Most likely, though, they return to grazing the treats they’ve brought and laid out.

The tailgate parties of the Montpelier Hunt Races are legendary, such a hallmark of the event that there’s even a contest around them, named for Montpelier chatelaine Dolley Madison herself. And many of them are worthy of the name, whether they’re the catered feasts offered under the sponsors’ tents, a grill sending up heavenly aromas from behind a pickup truck, a table laden with fruit trays and chicken tenders, or an elegant repast served in crystal and antique china amid floral centerpieces. Champagne chills in buckets, coolers are filled with beer, thermoses emit steam, bottles full of golden spirits catch the late-afternoon light.

By the sixth race, perhaps it’s well-lubricated camaraderie that has a circle of men, lounging in soccer-mom chairs, singing, “Duke, duke, duke, duke of Earl, Earl, Earl, duke of Earl, Earl, Earl …” at the mention of a horse so named (he comes in fourth). Or it could simply be the jollity that infuses the event—it seems no one is here who is not happy to be here. Especially when they hear over the PA, “The score is final: Virginia escapes with a one-point victory.”

Here, an easily transportable feast, to be laid out as elegantly or as humbly as you please. Enjoy. And mind those gates and gaps.

Romaine spears with Brittany dip

1 head romaine lettuce

Pull the innermost leaves of a head of Romaine, wash and dry well (many of the outer leaves can be used, as well).

For the dressing:

1 large clove garlic

1 shallot

1 or 2 anchovies

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup olive oil

In a food processor, pulse all ingredients except the olive oil and romaine spears until frothy. With the machine still running, slowly add the olive oil.

Candied walnuts

1 cup oil

1 cup walnuts

1 cup sugar

1⁄2 teaspoon cumin

1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

For one cup of walnuts, boil the nuts in water for two minutes. Drain and dry them. Heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a deep saucepan. Fry the nuts until crisp, about 1 1⁄2 to 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels, then roll in a mixture of the sugar, cumin, cayenne and salt. Let dry.

Serve romaine spears with dressing, candied walnuts and pear slices.

Herb-Infused Olive oil

2 cups olive oil

2 cloves garlic

1 bay leaf

1 sprig thyme

small branch of rosemary

1 teaspoon peppercorns

Place all herbs in a carafe or bottle. Warm the olive oil gently, and pour into the bottle. Serve with crusty bread to dip.

Mushroom, Onion, Bacon and Gruyère Crustless Quiche

4 slices bacon

1 cup mushrooms

1⁄2 cup onion, finely diced

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

salt

pepper

3 large eggs

1 cup half-and-half

3⁄4 cup grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 375, and butter a 9-inch Pyrex plate. Cook the bacon until crisp, and drain on paper towels. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the fat and, over medium heat, add the onions and mushrooms, stirring until lightly browned (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic and parsley, and cook for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Crumble the bacon and add to the mushroom mix. Whisk the eggs with the half-and-half. Add the mushroom mix to the baking dish, then the cheese, and pour the egg mixture over all. Bake until quiche is puffed and golden, about 35 minutes.

Kabobs

2 chicken breasts, cut in 1-by-1-inch pieces

2 sirlion strips, cut in 1-by-1-inch pieces

1 large red pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch cubes

1 large yellow pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch cubes

1 red onion, cut in wedges

1 bulb fennel, cut in 1-inch pieces

domestic mushrooms, whole

for the marinade:

1 cup olive oil

1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme

salt

pepper, freshly ground

Mix together all the marinade ingredients. Using either metal skewers or bamboo skewers that have been soaked in water overnight, alternately skewer the meats with the peppers and onion and fennel. Finish each skewer with a whole mushroom. Marinate overnight, and season well with salt and pepper before grilling.

Brownies

1 1⁄4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

1⁄2 cup dried cherries

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces

2⁄3 cups all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

2 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ounces semisweet chocolate in coarse chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Toast the nuts until fragrant, then cool. Melt the unsweetened chocolate and butter, and set aside to cool slightly. Sift the flour and salt. Beat the eggs until fluffy. Gradually beat in the sugar. Add the vanilla. Alternately fold in chocolate and flour. Add the nuts, remaining chocolate and cherries. Fold until blended. Transfer to prepared pan. Bake until center is still moist, about 25 minutes. Cool completely before cutting.

Mulled wine

1 bottle red wine

1–2 sticks cinnamon

2 cloves (whole)

1 slice lemon

1 slice orange

1⁄4 cup honey

Warm all ingredients in a saucepan, allow the mixture to cool, then strain.

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