Pairings: Perfect Picnics

As summer approaches, picnic season hits full swing; herewith, some suggestions for wining and dining in the not-so-wild.


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Perfect Picnics

I had the pleasure, on a late-wintry day, of sitting down with noted New England chef Carole Peck and invoking the rites of summer. Hastening the season, we talked of sunny days and green fields, beaches and blue skies. We talked about picnics.

WE: My favorite picnics have been ad hoc, like stopping for some local wine, cheese and bread in the French countryside. But when you're starting from home, cheese doesn't always travel well. What makes a perfect picnic?
CP: You have to remember how far you're traveling. Do you want to carry a lot of ice, or go au naturel? Use a pretty basket or an Igloo cooler? If you're traveling any distance, you want foods that will keep well without too much refrigeration. Then there's the question of utensils or not. Why would you want to have a lot of things to bring back with you? You can plan it so there's not a lot of garbage or utensils. I think picnics should be simple, not overdone.

WE: When we think of finger foods, we think of sandwiches. Suggest something wonderful.
CP: Stuffed breads are a good sandwich alternative. Depending on the number of people, you could hollow out one large round loaf, which would serve four to six, or individual rolls. The bottom layer should be something solid and absorbent, like lettuce, so the bread doesn't get soggy. You could add roasted peppers, some great tomatoes, grilled eggplant or zucchini, some chopped arugula and radicchio with a basil/tarragon/parsley vinaigrette, some soft cheese, ricotta, goat cheese, or very thin slices of cheese. You could use some sautéed spinach. It could also be good with portobello mushrooms, marinated with olive oil, garlic and a little lemon, grilled.

Another idea would be your own rendition of a pain bagna. The classic is an anchovy or sardine sandwich on crusty French bread. Top it with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and wrap it up in foil. If you can make a fire, you can heat it. Then sprinkle with olive oil before eating. You can use greens or not.

WE: What about side dishes? What are your favorites?
CP: Pickled foods are good for picnics. People get scared because they think of pickles off the shelf. But you can just take some rice wine vinegar and sugar, boil it, and pour it over cut vegetables. Marinate them anywhere from three hours to three days.

WE: Pickled foods don't always work very well with wine. What are some alternatives?
CP: You can substitute wine for some of the vinegar. You can also marinate with yogurt. My grandmother's dilled cucumber recipe (which follows) does that. Or thick yogurt and chopped vegetables—cucumbers, carrots, beets, green beans, peas, celery, fennel, radishes, green onions—with dill and garlic. You can bring it with you in a plastic container or a jar. Or make a charred eggplant salad; grill an eggplant whole with the skin on until it's cooked—small Italian eggplants are sweeter—let it cool and pull off the skin. Mix with raw minced garlic, lemon juice, finely diced zucchini, some very good olive oil, and some basil or chervil. You could add anchovies too. Serve it with pita chips.

WE: We've been talking a lot about vegetables. How about something for the meat-eaters among us?
CP: Cold sliced Asian pot roast would be great. Roast chicken is so nice and juicy. Sliced lamb with onion or garlic confit and lettuce would be good on olive bread. You could also put lamb in a pita with grilled eggplant, feta cheese, chopped red onion, and chopped tomato. I'd keep the vegetables separate and assemble them right before eating so the pita doesn't get soggy traveling.

WE: Pasta salads are a pretty popular picnic food. Any suggestions without vinegar?
CP: Speaking of lamb, you could toss bowtie noodles and pieces of lamb loin with some flat parsley, some chopped celery. You could have it plain or with a curry sauce, then you could eat it with some store-bought mango chutney.

WE: What would make for a very romantic picnic?
CP: I've been married a long time so I haven't thought about seduction lately ... hmm. You can't go wrong with Champagne and oysters! Some good cheese, a really good Camembert, something that's nice at room temperature and small enough for two; maybe a small goat's cheese. Some great olives. You can make a pork tenderloin, rolled in a spice blend and roasted ahead of time; that's good at room temperature. Or grilled shrimp that was marinated first. If it's marinated and cooked it will keep for a couple of hours.

WE: How about some suggestions for courses, making it a more elaborate meal?
CP: It's easy to bring along a cold fruit soup. And we've talked about vegetable salads. For dessert you wouldn't want anything creamy, gooey or runny. Nothing with frosting. You could make individual tarts or cakes, or some great cookies. A pound cake, a lemon-almond cake with raspberries blended in, something like that.

WE: What's your best picnic memory?
CP: Years ago, I was traveling back from Florida with a friend who was also a chef. We stopped in Tennessee; we were doing the back way up, through the Blue Ridge Mountains. We'd been cooking and bringing food with us, we'd made some marinated mushrooms and we had cheese—Roquefort, I think; we were eating a lot of that at the time. We had some potato-and-egg salad. We saw a fish-for-trout place and caught some and did a little campfire at the side of a stream. We had a heavy cast-iron skillet in the car; you should always travel with one. We chilled some white wine in the stream. It was impromptu and it was great.

Chilled Cherry Soup

  • 1 quart water
  • 2 bags cherry herb tea or 1 pint red wine
    2 pounds cherries, washed, stemmed and pitted
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 ounce raspberry vinegar
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Boil water in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat (if you are using wine rather than tea, only use 1 pint of water). Add the tea bags or wine, all but 1 cup of the cherries, sugar, cinnamon sticks, allspice and pepper, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove tea bags.
Combine the cornstarch, vinegar and lemon juice, then add the mixture to the soup. Bring the soup back to a boil and cook over medium heat until it thickens, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Discard cinnamon stick.

Using a blender or food processor, purée the soup until smooth. Pour through a very fine strainer. Serve chilled, garnished with halved cherries and (optional) a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream. Makes 1 quart.

Note: This soup can be made up to five days ahead and kept in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen.

Blue Cheese Poppy Seed Shortbreads

  • 2 ounces (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 ounce blue cheese or Roquefort
  • 1 ounce sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1/8 cup poppy seeds

Combine the butter and cheeses in a food processor. Add the flour, cayenne and salt, and process until a dough ball is formed.

Shape the dough into 2-inch-diameter logs. Roll in the poppy seeds. Wrap the logs in plastic and chill thoroughly, at least 1 hour or up to two days.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange slices about 1 inch apart on a baking sheet; bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Makes about 15 shortbreads.

Note: Baked and stored in a tightly covered container, these shortbreads will keep up to one month. The dough logs can be frozen for up to six weeks and cut and baked as needed.

Dilled Cucumbers

  • 2 European or 3 domestic cucumbers
  • Coarse salt
    1 1/2 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 ounce sour cream
  • 1 ounce plain yogurt
  • 1/8 cup fresh chopped dill
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • Pinch of lemon zest
  • Dash of freshly ground black pepper

Peel the cucumbers and cut in half lengthwise. Scrape out any seeds and slice into
1/16-inch pieces with a sharp knife or mandoline. Place a colander over a bowl. Put a layer of cucumbers in the bottom of the colander, sprinkle liberally with salt, and continue layering until all of the cucumbers are in the colander. Cover with plastic wrap, put a plate on top, and weight down with a can for up to 12 hours. This procedure will remove a lot of liquid from the cucumbers. Drain and discard the liquid as often as necessary.

Place the cucumbers in a large bowl and toss with the garlic, sour cream, yogurt, dill, lemon juice and zest, and pepper. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 3-4.

Note: The cucumbers can be prepared up to three days in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator. Don't mix them with the other ingredients too far in advance, however, because cucumbers, even when pressed, continue to give off more liquid, which will dilute the dressing.

Rose Geranium Cakes

In her book, Carole Peck writes, "The rose geranium is a pretty, leafy geranium plant that smells good, repels mosquitoes, and best of all has edible leaves. In this recipe, the leaves are used to line the bottoms of the pans in which the cakes are baked. The dessert can be served with either side up, but I like to see the pattern and texture of the leaves."
This is a basic pound cake, which means that the ingredients can be increased or decreased as long as the weights of the butter, sugar, eggs and flour are always equal.

  • Unsalted butter for greasing pans
  • Sugar for sprinkling
  • 12 rose geranium leaves
  • 8 ounces whole eggs (approximately 4 large eggs)
  • 2 teaspoons rose water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 8 ounces (approximately 1 1/4 cups) sugar
  • 8 ounces (approximately 2 cups) flour

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease with butter a 12-insert muffin pan or one 9- to 10-inch-round cake pan. Sprinkle the bottom(s) with sugar and line with geranium leaves.
Break the eggs into a cup and weigh. Combine the rose water and vanilla in a medium bowl, add the eggs, and beat lightly.
Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light in color. With the machine running on low speed, slowly add the egg mixture and mix well. Fold in the flour.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake; 20-25 minutes for muffins, 30-35 for a cake. Let cool, loosen around the edges, and invert to remove. Cool on a wire rack.
Serve with your favorite fruit sauce, such as black currant. Makes 12 individual cakes or one 9- or 10-inch round cake.

Carole Peck is the owner of the Good News Cafe in Woodbury, Connecticut, where she lives. Often called the "Alice Waters of the East Coast," she is in demand as a caterer, guest chef, and cooking teacher.

Recipes are adapted for quantity from The Buffet Book, by Carole Peck with Carolyn Hart Bryant, published by Penguin Books USA, ©1997.

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