Paradise Found: The Perfect Picnic

Pascales-picnic-spot
Pascale’s secluded Santa Barbara County meadow picnic spot. Photo by Pascale Beale

By Pascale Beale

The day announced itself with one of those breathtaking sunrises awash with color and a touch of warmth carried on the breeze coming in off the ocean. It was a day to spend outside. It was the perfect day for a picnic.

A few hours later I was driving the car down a pothole-filled dirt path, which was, in theory, a road in the local national forest, but “weather” had obviously taken its toll on the now nonexistent tarmac. You might well ask why I was putting my fellow passengers and myself through this bumpy and dusty drive, but when going on a picnic half the fun is finding an unusual place to eat al fresco. Although, perhaps I should have heeded Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth’s words of wisdom, penned in 1900 in Queen of the Household:

“If the party is to drive or ride, let not the distance be too great. There should be a stream or spring of pure water, materials for a fire, shade intermingled with sunshine, and a reasonable freedom from tormenting insect life. Charming as is the prospect of picnicking in some grand dell, some lofty peak, or in some famous cave or legendary ruin, there are also other considerations which would not be forgotten. One does not feel too comfortable when banqueting in localities where Dame Nature has had her queer moods, and has left imprinted certain too observable evidences of her freakiness. Such places may be included within the excursion itself, but let the feast and the frolic take place where weird effects are not the prevailing characteristic of the locality.”

I particularly like her comment about “tormenting insect life” as many a good picnic can be ruined by a plethora of pesky ants or insistent wasps, but I digress. The road was horrendous and the dreaded words  “Are we there yet?” emerged from one of the children. “Soon, soon,” I answered cheerfully, inwardly praying that the idyllic spot would emerge around the next bend. The car lurched across a dried-out stream crossing, dust flew. I caught furtive and slightly anxious looks in the rearview mirror. I slowed down to 10 miles an hour as we climbed over the rise in the next hill and there it was: a flower-filled meadow overlooking the valley with an abandoned water trough adrift in a field of tall grass. Sunlight dappled through the trees as we all piled out of the car. The dog danced and chased butterflies. Smiles were in abundance.

After spending a few minutes surveying the landscape we found the perfect spot and proceeded to unload the car. I grew up in England and in France. I only mention this because these two countries have grand traditions when it comes to picnics and my family was no exception to this rule, on either side of the Channel. There were hampers for rowing regattas and cricket matches in England, and there were elaborate picnic baskets with tables, chairs, linens, glasses and silverware in the French Alps. Close to 200 years of perfecting the art of eating outdoors had led to writers waxing lyrical about its merits. Think of Dickens, Trollop, Chekov, Jane Austen’s exceedingly proper affair in Emma and D. H. Lawrence’s rather more exotic and sultry versions in Women in Love, to name a few. And painters have lauded its merits—Manet’s Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe is probably the most famous. Suffice it to say that I felt I had certain customs to uphold.

We carried our two picnic baskets to the chosen spot, unpacked a tablecloth, plates, glasses and other necessary items. Blankets and jackets were laid out on the ground and everyone helped unpack the food. The picnic was centered on a vegetable quiche with various salads, bread and cheese laid out alongside.

Someone brought chocolates; another, a fruit salad and a rather delicious chilled wine. I realized that we epitomized the original meaning of the word “picnic,” which, taken in its pre-1860 definition, meant a meal at which each guest brought a dish or contributed something to the event. A potluck, in other words. America, with its multi-ethnic population, has perfected the art of potlucks, each person bringing a piece of their culinary history with them to the meal, and picnics are the perfect vehicle for this.

Unlike the elaborate Victorian picnics, which required significant planning and a prodigious number of dishes to be deemed a success—according to Mrs. Beeton in her book Household Management, no less than 35 would do—picnics today can be as simple as a couple of sandwiches enjoyed on the beach whilst wiggling your toes in the sand, or dipping your feet into a cool stream after a walk to your picnic spot.

This is exactly what we did on that warm afternoon. There was a stream nearby (perfect for keeping the water and wine chilled) and the children were soon playing in it. The water burbled appealingly as it meandered downstream and we ate strawberries sitting on rocks dotted up and down the banks. One or two of us dozed in the afternoon sunlight. As James Beard wrote in his book James Beard’s Treasury of Outdoor Cooking, “Do not rush. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Take your time.” The perfect recipe for a lovely picnic.


Pascale Beale grew up in England and France surrounded by a family that has always been passionate about food, wine and the arts. She was taught to cook by her French mother and grandmother. She is the author of A Menu for All Seasons—Spring, A Menu for All Seasons—Summer, A Menu for All Seasons—Fall and A Menu for All Seasons—Winter. Visit her website at PascalesKitchen.com.


 

 Recipes

Summer Pea and Mint Salad

Makes 8 servings

  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Olive oil
  • 4 shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 2 pounds English peas, shelled
  • 1 pound snap peas, trimmed and sliced
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon wine vinegar (champagne or white wine)
  • 1 bunch chives, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch mint, finely chopped

Pour a little olive oil into a large pan placed over medium heat. Add in the sliced shallots and lemon zest and cook for 3–4 minutes, until lightly browned. Add in the shelled peas and snap peas, a large pinch of salt, some fresh pepper and cook for 3 minutes more. Set aside.

In the bottom of a large salad bowl pour 1⁄4 cup olive oil. Whisk in the vinegar, a pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper and stir until well combined.

When you are ready to serve, add the peas and herbs to the salad bowl and toss to combine well. This is excellent served with olive bread.

Note: If your picnic is more than an hour away, then reserve the vinaigrette and add it to the peas and other ingredients just 
before serving.

Pascales-prosciutto-and-goat-cheese-quiche

Prosciutto and Goat Cheese Quiche

Makes 8 servings

FOR THE CRUST

  • 9 ounces (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 5 ounces (10 tablespoons) slightly softened butter, cut in small pieces
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 400°. Butter a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. You can use a square or round tin for this. Set aside.

Place all the ingredients in the bowl of the food processor fitted with a metal blade. Use repeated pulses until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs and then use longer pulses until the dough forms a ball.

Wrap up the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it until ready to use. You can make the dough ahead of time and leave in the fridge. You will need to remove from the fridge approximately 20 minutes before using it. Remove the pastry from the fridge. On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry dough in an even manner to the size of the mold.

Trim the edges of the dough with a sharp knife. Cover the dough with parchment paper or foil and then place pie weights on top.

Place in the oven and bake for 10 minutes or until the dough is a pale golden brown. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes.

FOR THE FILLING

  • Olive oil
  • 6 shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 8 ounces spinach
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 8 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons crème fraiche
  • 6 ounces prosciutto, cut into small pieces
  • 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese
  • Salt and pepper

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour a little olive oil and then add the sliced shallots. Cook until soft and lightly browned, about 4–5 minutes. Whilst the shallots are browning, in a large frying pan or heavy skillet, pour a little olive oil and cook the spinach over high heat for 2 minutes. It should be just wilted. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Return the same pan to the heat, add 1 tablespoon butter and, once melted, add in the mushrooms. Sauté until lightly browned. Set aside. Combine the eggs, goat cheese, crème fraiche, prosciutto, pinch of salt and some pepper in a medium bowl and whisk well together. Set aside.

Once the vegetables have cooled slightly, place all the shallots over the bottom of the quiche crust. Place the spinach over the shallots and then place all the mushrooms over the spinach. Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and bake in the center of the oven for a further 20 minutes.

The quiche can be made a few hours ahead of time. Do not refrigerate before serving. To serve, cut the quiche into equal parts and serve with the salads.

 

Lemon-Lime Quatre-Quart (Pound Cake)

Quatre-quart means four parts in French. It is a term that applies to most pound cakes, because the amounts of the four main ingredients are in equal proportion.

Makes 8–10 servings

  • 8 ounces butter (2 sticks), cut into small pieces
  • 8 ounces (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar
  • 8 ounces (112 cups plus 2 tablespoons) flour
  • 4 extra-large eggs or 5 large eggs, separated
  • Zest of 1 large or 2 small lemons
  • Zest of 2 limes
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • Preheat oven to 400°

Melt the butter in a saucepan placed over medium heat. Once the butter has melted add the sugar and stir until melted. Add in the flour and stir until completely absorbed by the mixture and then remove from the heat. Add in the lemon and lime zest and stir to combine. Add in the lemon and lime juice and stir to combine. Don’t worry if the batter looks as if it has separated—it’s meant to look like this.

When the cake mixture has cooled enough to touch comfortably, add in the egg yolks and stir together. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl so that you have soft peaks, plus an additional 30 seconds—the egg whites should not be stiff. Very gently fold half of the whisked egg whites into the cake batter. Once the batter looks completely homogenous, very carefully fold in the remaining egg whites.

Line a metal 8-inch square pan with parchment paper (do not use glass) or you can use paper loaf molds—these are very useful for picnics. Pour the cake mixture into the pan. Place the pan onto a cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Serve with seasonal berries and some whipped cream, crème fraiche or ice cream.

 

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