The Art of the Picnic

There’s something about a picnic that can elevate even the lowly balogna and cheese sandwich to gourmet status, well, at least make it seem more special than it really is. Foods taste different outdoors too, not to mention the fact that when you’re off on a picnic, you are with people you choose to be with.

There are different types of picnics. Lounging on a good blanket on the lawn, or in a meadow, or on a riverbed, or at a concert doesn’t have a hold on the idea of picnicking. A picnic, by definition, is any meal eaten out of doors, generally on an excursion.

If you’re anything like me, you might prefer those lovely fall days on which to picnic. Indian summer is a great time for picnicking! The first frost has passed, coloring the leaves, and suppressing the ants to the underground, but the sun shines bright, warming the ground and the air for what could well be the nicest time of year for a picnic. But I’m not selling Indian summer picnics. I’m touting the picnic as a do-ahead-so-you-can-enjoy-yourself meal. For two or twenty, the picnic has its roots in the prepare and transport methodology. You can prepare your picnic the day before, instead of the morning of and thoroughly enjoy your day. Most picnic food is actually better if it’s leftover. Envision a picnic: a meal eaten outdoors on a blanket in the grass, under a shady tree perhaps, sans ants.

Eating on the picnic table in the backyard of your home (or somebody else’s home) is perhaps the most popular form of the picnic. The fare tends to be more traditional, with more of everything. Throw in whatever the neighbors bring and your heading towards a block party or a pot luck. Nevermind; if you’re eating all of those wonderful foods outside, it’s still a form of the picnic.

Food safety is of the utmost importance when picnicking. As much as it gets a bad rap, store-bought mayonnaise contains pasteurized eggs and enough salt and lemon juice or vinegar that it actually inhibits bacterial growth. Low-acid foods in picnic dishes such as potatoes, chicken, and ham are much more susceptible to bacterial growth than the mayonnaise itself. It’s the foods that breed bacteria, not the mayonnaise. It’s easy to deal with ants and other little picnic pests you can see; the tough ones to avoid are the invisible organisms that can make you sick. Here are some guidelines for packing and transporting picnic foods safely.

The bugs that cause food poisoning thrive at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. Don’t leave prepared foods in that danger zone more than two hours. When the outdoor temperature rises above 90 degrees, the time limit is one hour. Discard any leftovers or any questionable foods. Wait until just before leaving home to pack chilled foods in an insulated cooler, and make sure you have plenty of ice or ice packs to surround them. Containers of frozen juice or juice concentrate can help keep other foods cold.

Take two coolers, one for drinks, the other for perishable foods. That way, warm air won’t reach the perishables each time someone reaches for a beverage.

In hot weather, keep the cooler in the air-conditioned passenger compartment of the car, not in the trunk. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade.

Wash your hands before and after handling food. Soap and hot water are ideal, but bring along a jug of water and paper towels in case none are available at the picnic site. Disposable moist towelettes are an easy-to-carry option.

Wrap uncooked chicken and meats in separate tightly sealed bags or containers, and put them in the bottom of the cooler. Cook them within one hour of leaving home.

When grilling, use a meat thermometer to be sure meats and poultry reach a safe temperature. Cook chicken breasts to 170 degrees Fahrenheit; other poultry to 180 degrees Fahrenheit; beef, lamb, and veal steaks and roasts to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for medium-rare or 160 degrees Fahrenheit. for medium doneness.

Make your picnic/Memorial Day weekend/4th of July memorable for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Serving pieces (pocket knife, spoons, corkscrew, etc.) utensils, napkins (preferably cloth for less litter), cups, cutting board (one without feet: saves space and you can use both sides), plates, and trash bags are de rigueur. Tow everything in a gorgeous fabric-lined picnic basket to add a level of sophistication to the event. Or use any large basket or bag. Just make sure it’s big enough to carry the food and enough cold packs or zipper bags filled with ice to keep food cold.

Keep your picnic simple or elaborate, but definitely safe, and FUN!

Turkey, Jarlsburg and olive salad sandwiches

Inspired by those expensive but addictive sandwiches from those ubiquitous boulangiers around the country

Plan ahead, these pressed sandwiches need to be weighted down for at least 8 hours

Ingredients
2/3  cup green olives
1/4 cup black olives
7 ounces canned or thawed frozen artichoke hearts (not bottled and marinated)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 crushed garlic clove
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
Pinch of kosher salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 white sandwich rolls
8 ounces white turkey meat, sliced
8 ounces Jarlsburg or Aged-Swiss cheese, sliced
Extra Virgin olive oil or mayonnaise

Method
Coarsely chop the olives and quarter the artichoke hearts, transferring to a bowl

Mix vinegar, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil. Pour the marinade over the vegetables and leave covered at room temperature for 30 minutes

Split the rolls. Brush the interior of the tops with Extra virgin olive oil (or mayonnaise). Divide the sliced turkey and cheese on bottom half. Top with olive salad and cover with top half of roll. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then in foil. Place the sandwiches on a half sheet pan or tray platter with some heavy cans on top to weight down on the sandwiches. Refrigerate under the weight 8 hours or up to 24

Unwrap the foil from the pressed sandwiches and distribute. Serve with kettle-cooked potato chips and cold beverages

Clam & fennel chowder

Mother Nature must like Chicago in the world of winter, so the idea of a big bowl of chowder remains a great weeknight option even as we approach the middle of April

The foundation of any good soup is a mire poix (onions, carrots and celery) that is well-cooked to bring out the flavors which in turn flavors the soup

In my version of Clam Chowder, fennel bulb replaces the celery, but less you think “Mr. Celery” has gone mad, fresh celery leaves are included in the saute and the chowder is garnished with the same

If you don’t have rendered bacon fat on hand, cook 3 slices to get 4 tablespoons of fat; then, if desired, garnish the chowder with the diced bacon

Ingredients
4 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
2 cups diced onion
2 cups diced fennel bulb
1/2 cup diced carrot
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 teaspoons House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1/3 cup fresh celery leaves, plus additional for garnishing
4 cups peeled and diced boiling potatoes
1 quart clam juice, warmed in a saucepan
8 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
2 cups Half & Half
3 cups cleaned and trimmed chowder clams, about the same dice as the potatoes
Pinch of cayenne, optional

Method
Heat the bacon fat in a large Dutch oven until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally until the onions are translucent. Add the fennel, carrot, thyme, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the simmering clam juice and celery leaves and stir to incorporate. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender, 10 to 12 minutes

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan, sprinkle in the flour and whisk to combine and cook for 3 minutes. Add a ladle-full of the stock to the roux (the butter-flour mixture) and whisk to incorporate. Add the roux to the soup and stir to incorporate and simmer until the chowder has thickened, 2 minutes

Add the Half & Half and the clams (and cayenne if using), stir to incorporate and simmer for 2 minutes. Taste for salt, freshly ground black pepper and cayenne

Ladle chowder into bowls and garnish with fresh celery leaves

Japanese linguine bowl

Traditional Italian pasta turned into a non-traditional noodle bowl

Feel free to add a few pieces of leftover cooked fish or poultry to the bowls before ladling over the soup

Quantities here make 4 bowls

Ingredients
For the pasta
80 Linguine (see Note)
1/3 cup House salt

For final plating and presentation
8 ounces sliced button mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon butter
House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
2 cups diced butter lettuce
Soy sauce
Sesame oil
Chili oil
10 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups prepared white miso soup per serving (see Note 2), prepared according to the package directions, kept hot

Method
For the pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring constantly, until the pasta is fully submerged. Bring to the boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. Drain and keep warm

Meanwhile, add the chopped mushrooms and butter to a small saucepan, add a touch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook over medium high heat until the mushrooms have softened and are glossed with the butter, 10 to 12 minutes

For final plating and presentation
Divide the linguine, mushrooms and butter lettuce (and any leftover cooked fish or poultry if using) to individual bowls. Ladle in 1 1/2 cups miso soup and season with 1 tablespoon soy, 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil and 1/4 teaspoon chili oil. Garnish generously with sliced scallions

Serve Japanese linguine bowls piping hot with chopsticks and a big soup spoon

Note: About 20 noodles per person is a good balance between the pasta and the other ingredients

Note 2: You can find white miso paste in plastic tubs in the International aisle of most supermarkets

Steakhouse creamed spinach

Potatoes are not my favorite steakhouse side, my version of my favorite steakhouse creamed spinach is

Not only great with grilled steaks, but grilled pork, grilled chicken and heartier pan-seared fish … heck, even as a great filling in vegetarian tacos with rice and fresh-chopped vegetables topped with cilantro, parsley leaves and thinly sliced radish

Ingredients
2 pounds fresh curly spinach, coarse stems discarded and the leaves washed well and drained
1/3 cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 cup half & half
3 1/2 tablespoons sour cream
1/3 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons House salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill

Method
Bring a large kettle of water to the boil. Slowly add the salt followed by the spinach. Reduce the heat to medium, submerge the leaves and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Drain the spinach in a colander under cold running water. Drain completely and squeeze out any excess water. Transfer the spinach to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade. Pulse the spinach 5 times in 1 second intervals then let the machine run until all of the spinach is uniformly pureed

Heat a heavy bottomed sauce pan over medium high heat for 2 minutes. Add the  butter, swirl to coat the bottom of the pan and reduce the heat to medium. When the foam from the butter has subsided, add the shallot and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Whisk in the flour, whisking constantly, and cook 3 minutes

Slowly whisk in the milk, bring to a boil reduce to a simmer, whisking constantly, and cook for 3 minutes until thickened. Reduce the heat to medium low

Add the spinach puree, sour cream, freshly grated nutmeg, lemon juice, salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Heat, stirring, until heated through

Creamed spinach should be served hot

Leftovers, if there are any, keep up to 2 days

Dessert Monday: Eton Mess

Dessert Monday: Because you have to have something to look forward to on Monday

Eton Mess is a classic English dessert (“pudding”) created by student rugby players at Eton College where it is, to this day, traditionally made at their annual Cricket competition against Harrow School

The dessert consists of meringues, heavy cream and, typically, strawberries, though versions with berries and even bananas have been known to exist. It comes together in a matter of moments making it a terrific last-minute dessert

The first time I ever had meringues I hated them. I found out later it was because the person who made then for me made it improperly. I missed out on many meringue desserts because of that initial singular incident. I actually like meringues (the cookie, not the stuff that is usually piled way too high on a lemon tart … for which I whip cream if I top it with anything) and this is one of my favorite applications … strawberries and cream with meringues

Ingredients
3 cups strawberries
1 cup raspberries
3 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons kirsch
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 meringue cookies

Method
Hull and core the strawberries and cut them into quarters. Tumble them into a bowl with the raspberries, sugar and kirsch. Give everything a big stir and let the fruit macerate at room temperature

Meanwhile, whip the cream to soft peaks. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla extract and whip to incorporate

Break the cookies into pieces, shards and dust into the whipped cream. Add most of the macerated fruit and some of the juices, leaving some behind to top each serving

Gently fold everything together then mound in rocks glasses or Champagne saucers or juice glasses. Top each mound of Eton Mess with a few berries and the juices

Serve Eton Mess immediately

Recipe of the week: Steakhouse macaroni & cheese

What makes this mac n cheese recipe all ‘Steakhouse’? Its multiple cheeses and crème fraiche for extra-richness and smoked paprika for a hint of smokey heat

Ingredients
1 pound dried bite-size pasta tubes
6 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
6 tablespoons flour
1 bay leaf
1 fresh nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, then to taste (see Note)
4 cups half & half
1 1/4 cups crème fraiche
1 1/2 teaspoons fine grey sea salt, plus extra as needed
3 cups freshly shredded Gruyere cheese
1 3/4 cups freshly shredded aged cheddar cheese
3/4 cups freshly grated mozzarella cheese
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs

Method
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 4 quart square baking dish

Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente

Melt the butter in a 4 quart sauce pan. Whisk continuously and sprinkle in the flour. Continue to wish and cook until the roux starts to take on a lightly golden color. Add the bay leaf and, whisking continuously, gradually pour in the half and half and cook until smooth. Simmer, whisking occasionally, until the mixture has thickened, 14 to 16 minutes. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, cayenne and freshly ground black pepper. Retrieve and discard the bay leaf. Whisk in the crème fraîche and salt and bring the mixture to a simmer

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1 1/4 cups each of the Gruyere and Cheddar until melted

Add the pasta to the cheese sauce. Stir in 2 cups more of the Gruyere and the 3/4 cup mozzarella. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish, and spread evenly. Sprinkle the remaining Gruyere and Cheddar evenly over the top and finish with an even sprinkling of breadcrumbs

Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the oven and cook until it is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack and let sit for 10 minutes

Serve Steakhouse macaroni and cheese very warm with a vinaigrette salad and Chenin blanc

Note: Smoked paprika is readily available in every major grocery store. If you cannot find or do not have smoked paprika, substitute ground cayenne pepper

 

Method of the week: Wedge salad

The recipe is in the method: make the dressing, cut the lettuce, dress the lettuce. Easy peasy

Method
Puree 1 cup mayonnaise, 1 cup blue cheese crumbles, 1/2 cup buttermilk, 1 peeled shallot, zest from 1 lemon, juice from half the zested lemon, 3 shakes of Worcestershire sauce, a handful of parsley, a big pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade … conversely, mince the shallot and parsley and whisk together with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl

Cut 2 chilled Boston lettuce into quarters. Plate 2 wedges among 4 chilled salad plates and divide the dressing over each serving

Press 3 hard cooked eggs through a fine mesh strainer with the back of a dinner tablespoon (you just made an egg mimosa)

Garnish the wedges with egg mimosa and crispy bacon

 

Dessert Monday: Almost-flourless chocolate cake

Dessert Monday: Almost-flourless chocolate cake

Because you have to have something to look forward to on Monday

Ingredients
1 tablespoon butter, for pan
3 tablespoons cocoa, for pan

10 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao), finely chopped
1 cup butter, cut into 1/4 inch dice
5 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
5 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Special equipment
Springform pan

Method
Heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour with cocoa a 10 inch springform pan

Stir chocolate and butter together in a heavy bottomed medium saucepan over low heat until chocolate  melts and mixture is smooth. Beat eggs and sugar together in large bowl until well blended and mixture begins to thicken

Sift flour and baking powder over eggs and gently fold in. Gently fold in chocolate mixture. Pour batter to prepared pan

Bake cake 20 minutes then, carefully remove pan from oven and carefully over pan with foil. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs still attached, about 30 minutes longer. Uncover cake, place on a cooling rack and cool to room temperature, 3 hours (cake will fall as it cools)

Cut around perimeter of cake and release ring mold

Cut Almost-flourless cake into wedges and garnish with 10X sugar, Any berry coulis, whipped cream, fresh berries, or nothing at all

Pork tenderloins with Chimichurri sauce

I became smitten with Chimichurri sauce, an Argentinean herb sauce, at my favorite 5411 Empanada food truck a couple of years ago. I love dunking my baked spinach empanadas into herbaceous garlic-oil and savoring it. Sometimes I need 2 orders of their delicious sauce, but I haven’t quite figured out why or when that is

After a couple of years of eating someone else’s Chimichurri sauce, I decided to start working on my own version. The key elements are parsley, garlic, cilantro, oil and vinegar. Getting that balance of ingredients correct makes for a delicious Chimichurri

This pork tenderloin dish is a great weeknight main course, but it would also be a great salad using leftovers tossed with your favorite fresh lettuce leaves or a delicious hors d’oeuvres arranged on crostini

Ingredients

For the Chimichurri
1 cup packed fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish
1/3 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
2 medium cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1/2 teaspoon grey sea salt
Scant 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch red pepper flakes, then to taste

For the pork tenderloin
2 16 ounce pork tenderloins, silver skin and sinew trimmed, skinny end tucked under, entire tenderloin tied in 2 inch intervals with cotton kitchen string, extra string trimmed
2 teaspoons grey sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon canola oil
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Special equipment: 13 x 9 x 3 disposable aluminum roasting pan

Method
Set oven rack in upper third of oven, 5 inches from broiler element. Heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit

For the Chimichurri
Grind the ingredients for the Chimichurri into a sauce in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade or in mortar and pestle. Cover and set aside at room temperature. Make ahead: Chimichurri can be made up to 4 hours ahead kept at room temperature

For the pork tenderloin
Mix the salt, pepper, canola oil and baking soda together in a small bowl. Rub the tenderloin all over with the salt mixture. Set the rubbed tenderloin inside the center of the 13 x 9 x 3 aluminum roasting pan with an even amount of space between and all around them

Turn heated oven to broil; transfer roasting pan to the oven and set a timer for 5 minutes. Turn the tenderloins over and roast another 9 to 12 minutes or until the tenderloins registers 130 degrees Fahrenheit

Remove the pan from the oven, tent with foil and let the tenderloins rest for 10 minutes (carryover cooking time will allow the pork to reach 140 degrees, the proper temperature for pork tenderloin … so letting the pork rest is key)

Cut the strings off the tenderloins and slice on the bias into 3/4 inch slices

Arrange 3 slices on each dinner plate and dress lightly with Chimichurri; pass additional sauce at the table

As an hors d’oeuvres for your cocktail party
Slice a sourdough baguette into 1/4 inch slices, place on a half sheet pan and drizzle lightly with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper; bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly golden; remove from oven

Once the pork has rested, slice into 3/8 inch (between 1/4 and 1/2) slices. Schmear a scant 1/2 teaspoon Chimichurri across each crostini (baked sourdough slices) and center a slice of pork atop the sauce; top the pork with a drop of extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground rainbow, pink and/or black pepper

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