Advance preparation can make for a romantic, elegant opera-in-the-park experience
Peaches with your Puccini? Mojitos with Mozart?
Brewskis and a hoagie or two may suffice for a run-of-the-mill picnic, but when the venue involves arias in the park or opera in the vineyards, picnickers yearn for slightly swankier fare.
Great music sounds even better when you have a nectarine mojito in hand, and are anticipating a bright three-pea salad, perhaps, and a pork tenderloin sandwich with arugula, fresh mozzarella and a garlicky, roasted red pepper spread.
The trick, of course, lies in the preparation.
“The idea of a picnic is really romantic, but the preparation part should be really practical,” says Seattle food writer and blogger Heather Christo, who tackles the al fresco topic in a chapter of her new, seasonal, menu-centric cookbook, “Heather Christo’s Generous Table” (Kyle Books, $29.95, 208 pages).
“What can you make ahead of time, so you’re not stressing out? That’s what I really dig,” the former catering chef says. “Make it in the morning or the night before, and then throw everything in the picnic basket. I have kids and a job. I don’t have time to be slaving on a picnic all day.”
Who does? So the pork tenderloin and a batch of decadent peach-raspberry bars go into the oven the night before. The zesty red pepper mixture gets a quick puree in the food processor up to three days ahead, and everything is packed up in the easiest-to-serve manner possible – wrapped in simple parchment paper or spooned into Chinese takeout boxes or Mason jars.
Some picnic mavens, such as Annie Bell, the former food editor for British Vogue and author of “The Picnic Cookbook” (Kyle Books, $19.95, 176 pages), prefer to mix vintage china with the paper and melamine. Plastic dishes are “soulless en masse,” Bell says.
China is heavy and fragile, of course, but it heightens the “glamour and risk,” she says, if you use real serving bowls to hold Cucumber, Chili and Pumpkin Seed Salad, perhaps, or lemony Pea-Mint Salad that combines snow peas, English peas and sugar snaps.
While Christo agrees that the china approach is definitely elegant, she offers some alternatives that will make your picnic memorable without risking the good stuff. Mason jars are a happy medium. So are the colorful dish towels she uses as napkins – “If you spill mojito all over it, you can throw it in the laundry later” – and disposable bamboo silverware, which she decorates with chevron stripes.
“You want a hint of whimsy in your picnic basket. Mason jars are cute without being too,” she says. “Just screw the lids on, keep them in the refrigerator and then put them in an ice chest.
But first fill them with rum, ripe nectarines, limes and fresh mint.
Cucumber, Chili and Pumpkin Seed Salad
Recipe courtesy of Annie Bell, “The Picnic Cookbook”
2 cucumbers, halved, seeded and sliced into thin half-moons
1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 scallions, finely sliced
1/2 medium-hot red chili, seeded and finely chopped
Handful coarsely chopped cilantro
Sprinkle cucumbers with salt; let stand 30 minutes. Rinse in cold water; dry between double thickness of paper towels.
Heat a skillet over medium heat; toast pumpkin seeds until lightly colored, stirring. Let cool.
In a serving bowl or sealable container, combine oil and lemon juice. Scatter cucumber on top, then scallions, chili, cilantro and seeds. Cover to transport. Toss salad just before serving.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Pea and Mint Salad
From Annie Bell, “The Picnic Cookbook”
2 1/2 cups fresh green peas
2 cups snow peas
2 cups sugar snap peas
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 strips lemon zest
9 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A couple of large handfuls mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Sea salt, black pepper
A couple of squeezes fresh lemon juice
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add green peas; cook 1 minute. Add snow peas and sugar peas; cook 2 minutes more. Drain, refresh under cold running water, then let stand for a few minutes for the surface moisture to evaporate.
In a large bowl, combine garlic, shallot, lemon zest and olive oil. Add peas, then toss to coat. Let cool, then mix in mint and sesame seeds. Cover and chill overnight.
Discard lemon zest. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Pack the salad and a lemon wedge for your picnic. Just before serving, add fresh lemon juice.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Raspberry Peach Bars
Recipe courtesy of “Heather Christo’s Generous Table”
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
2/3 cup raspberry jam
3 cups raspberries
3 cups sliced peaches
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch pan; line with parchment.
Using a stand mixer, combine butter and brown sugar, beating until fluffy. Beat in egg yolk, salt and vanilla. Add 2 cups flour; mix until well combined.
Spread dough into bottom of prepared pan, pressing firmly with your hands.
Using an offset spatula, spread jam over dough.
In a bowl, combine berries, peaches, sugar, remaining 1/4 cup flour and cornstarch. Gently toss, then distribute over crust.
Mix crumble ingredients, cutting butter into dry ingredients until the crumble is the consistency of peas. Sprinkle over fruit.
Place the pan on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, until topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling. Cool completely before slicing.
Yield: 12 servings
Yellow Nectarine Mojitos
Recipe courtesy of “Heather Christo’s Generous Table”)
1/2 cup nectarines, diced
6 fresh mint leaves, roughly torn
1/2 lime, sliced in half
1 tablespoon sugar
2 ounces white rum
2 ounces club soda, chilled
In the bottom of a heavy drinking glass, combine the nectarines, mint, lime wedges and sugar. Use a muddler to smash them together and release all the oils and juices.
Fill the glass with ice cubes, then add the rum. Top off the mojito with chilled club soda. Stir well, and serve with a straw.
Note: You can substitute peaches or cherries for the nectarines. For picnicking, tote the cocktails, minus the club soda, in Mason jars stashed on ice. Top with club soda just before serving.
Yield: 1 serving
Roasted Pork Tenderloin Sandwich with Zesty Roasted Red Pepper Spread
From “Heather Christo’s Generous Table”
1 pork tenderloin
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
1 cup arugula
Red pepper spread:
4 ounces roasted red peppers, packed in water, drained
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a pan with foil. Lay the pork tenderloin on the foil. Drizzle with olive oil, then generously season with salt and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, or until juices run clear.
Meanwhile, make the red pepper spread. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the red peppers, parsley, 2 tablespoons olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic and a pinch of kosher salt. Pulse until the garlic is well chopped and the spread has a thick but uniform consistency. Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container up to 3 days.
Remove pork from oven; let rest 5 to 7 minutes before slicing thinly.
Cut each baguette in two; slice each piece horizontally. Evenly spread the roasted red pepper spread on each of the 8 baguette pieces. On the bottoms of the baguettes, evenly distribute the mozzarella, followed by the pork, then the arugula. Replace baguette tops; slice each sandwich in half again.
Serve immediately, or wrap in parchment paper and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Note: These are great made early in the day, so the flavors can meld and soak into the baguette.
Yield: 8 servings
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