Autumn picnic ideas
Even with a chill in the air, a fine day offers an irresistible opportunity for a picnic.
Legendary food writer Claudia Roden opens her book Picnic with this: “Everything tastes better outdoors. There is something about fresh air and the liberating effect of nature which sharpens the appetite and heightens the quality and intensity of sensations. It is enough to see the contented expression of someone sitting at a sunny outdoor cafe to realise it. The sense of smell especially is extraordinarily keen and every little perfume from a nearby blossom or resinous bark adds to the flavour of the most banal sandwich filling.”
I couldn’t agree more but when it comes to taking food on a picnic, I would rather rely on the quality of the food than nature.
Picnic food can be completely prepared food that can be eaten in your hand, it can be prepared components that can be put together on site, or it could be something like a paella — to the Spanish, quintessential food for outdoors, which requires cooking over a fire. Lighting fires is probably out these days, although depending on where you go, you could have a barbecue. I will concentrate on cold food that falls into the first two categories.
The great thing about this kind of picnic food is it has to be made in advance, so there is no performance anxiety of cooking while guests are waiting.
Forget banal sandwiches and make a classic pan bagna, the southern French pressed sandwich. This is a bit like a salad nicoise in a baguette. Split a baguette in half horizontally length ways, rub each half with a cut clove of garlic and on the bottom half put stoned black olives, capers, sliced chargrilled red capsicum, sliced tomatoes, lightly boiled green beans, quartered hard boiled eggs, chunks of good quality canned tuna in oil, baby cos lettuce leaves, thinly sliced red onion and anchovy fillets. Dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar — you want the bread to soak up plenty of dressing. Put the top half of the baguette on top, wrap in plastic wrap and press lightly under some plates for an hour so the bread soaks up the dressing. Serve cut into portions.
Use the same method to make a Vietnamese version with cold poached prawns, cold roast chicken or pork, sliced gherkins, grated carrot, mint and coriander leaves and a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and sesame oil.
A cold omelette may also sound banal but a Spanish omelette is simple and delicious, usually served cold, and makes great picnic food served in hand held wedges.
Slow-fry sliced onions, garlic and lots of thinly sliced peeled agria potatoes in extra virgin olive oil until the potatoes are tender. You can add things like sliced chorizo, diced Spanish ham or grilled vegetables if you like. Cool this mixture and mix with plenty of beaten eggs. Pour into a clean frying pan in which you have heated more oil and cook until it bubbles around the edges. Traditionally the omelette is cooked on the stove top but it is easier to finish in a hot oven like a frittata. Cool, wrap and pack it in the hamper. Don’t forget a knife to cut it and, untraditionally, some spicy chutney to go with it.
Take paper plates and plastic forks with you and a salad made with cold fried sliced merguez sausages (or your favourite sausages), cooked large couscous, peeled diced cucumber, chopped coriander, roasted almonds, green olives, sliced sundried tomatoes and sliced spring onions, well dressed with a vinaigrette into which is stirred a dollop of harissa.
Make a rice salad with cold steamed jasmine rice, crumbled hot smoked salmon, lots of watercress, capers, halved cherry tomatoes and very thinly sliced fennel, dressed with a mix of plain unsweetened yoghurt, lemon juice, chopped mint and garlic.
Did anyone ever turn up their nose at sliced mozzarella di buffalo, sliced tomatoes, lots of basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, black olives, and a bottle of balsamic vinegar for drizzling it with at the picnic venue. A side of sliced toasted ciabatta (yep! Italians eat cold toast all the time) and plenty of paper thin sliced prosciutto completes that picture.
Roast a well-seasoned chicken with plenty of garlic and a halved lemon inside it. Take that with you and serve it on disposable plates with a salad of diced melon, sliced radishes, red onion and oranges dressed with extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar.
Stuff soft pita bread with sliced roasted beetroot, dill sprigs, cold sliced fried duck breasts or roasted sliced pork belly, toasted walnuts and plain yoghurt and give eaters a lemon wedge to squeeze over before devouring.
To satisfy my wicked sweet tooth I’d also take Turkish delight, pistachio halva, a small chocolate cake (buy it), fresh fruit and some mascarpone.