I'm a fan of The Little Rascals and ever since I saw that the solidarity of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club couldn't keep Alfalfa from being lured into a picnic with Darla, I've been a fan of the picnic too. The meal Darla laid out (although heisted by Spanky and replaced with soap) was so simple and unfussy, yet looked delectable pulled from a hamper to sit atop a blanket in the schoolyard. There sat her cheese sandwiches and mouthwatering cream puffs wrapped neatly in wax paper for transport. This Little Rascals picnic had all the crucial elements: simple food, impulsive sentimentality and nature in manicured form.
The true value of picnics is how effectively they reflect our humanity. Here we are, a species that probably ate al fresco out of necessity throughout most of our existence, grabbing whatever fruit was on the ground and edible weeds were close at hand. And then we got cultured and found ourselves eating elaborate meals on china plates in gilded dining rooms. The day we decided to take our highfalutin recipes to the great outdoors (most often to humanly manipulated versions of the outdoors, mind you) is the day we triumphed over our primal selves. Picnics effectively mix nature and culture like no other meal.
Traditionally, picnics are uncomplicated events, with every guest responsible for preparing and sharing, much like potlucks. Medieval Europeans are credited for turning outside eating into social events, usually celebrating the end of a hunting outing. Besides roasting the kill, they also served provisions common in baskets today, such as pastries, ham and other baked meats.
The Victorian era brought refinement to the outdoor table, replacing raw hides and root satchels with hand-woven blankets and artistic reed baskets. The upper class sought idyllic settings, perfect for romantic trysts imagine a gentleman removing his cloak for a lady friend to sit upon while she delicately nibbled.
Today we still link picnics with idyllic settings, which, for me, usually involves a lighthearted frolic in the park or a romp at the beach. It's as easy as grabbing food and stuffing it in a basket, but here are my suggestions for keeping things simple while still affording the necessary appeal of luxury.
THE 10 ESSENTIALS
A BASKET big enough to store the necessities, but not so big that it can't be easily carried. I've seen a surplus of suitable baskets at World Market, but thrift stores have a lot, too.
Any old BLANKET or sheet will do, but a red-and-white gingham tablecloth makes for a particularly pretty spread. You can also find some nifty blankets made especially for picnicking that are waterproof on one side (www.everythingpicnic.com).
Cotton NAPKINS are important for dabbing dainties like rose-petal jam from the sides of your lips.
When it comes to PLATES, I find it handy to use melamine, which is durable and light but looks like china. I keep eight dessert-size plates in my basket. Full-size plates are overkill, since picnicking is all about grazing. Use smaller plates and save room in your basket for containers that look pretty on your spread.
Short melamine CUPS look equally good with cocktails, sweet tea, lemonade or plain old water and are my preference. If you like special wineglasses, keep some in reserve for those picnics where you'll be swilling Cabernet. Don't bother with plastic wineglasses they look cheesy.
SILVERWARE and I do mean silverware. Buy the cheap stuff, but never plastic. Remember we're going for a sense of lavishness.
At almost any home-goods or hardware store, there are decorative CONTAINERS WITH PLASTIC LIDS. Look for something eye-pleasing, be it bowl- or box-shaped.
An absolute must is a small CUTTING BOARD for displaying those artisanal cheese selections.
A KNIFE or pocketknife, because nothing in the wild can be substituted for a steel edge.
CITRONELLA CANDLES help keep pesky mosquitoes away.
NEARBY PICNIC SITES
Orlando's picnic prime time is around February, but don't let the summer weather stop you from dining in the fresh air. All you need is a little shade, a body of water, or maybe a sunrise/sunset to make a memorable adventure. Here are some of my favorites:
Enzian Theater screens films in its "Popcorn Flicks" series once a month at Winter Park's Central Park off Park Avenue. Superman is scheduled for July 21, and who of my generation would want to miss Sixteen Candles Aug. 18? (407-629-1088; www.enzian.org)
An hour's drive south of town sits a historic landmark that is overwhelming in scope and beautiful in stature: Bok Tower Gardens with its bird sanctuary and genuine carillon centerpiece that rings out briefly every half hour, in addition to a schedule of longer concerts. Since preserving wildlife is one of their goals, you have to sit in a designated area to picnic, but it's well worth the extra effort. (863-676-1408; www.boksanctuary.org)
Ponce Inlet Lighthouse in Mosquito Bay is so close to the beach that you can hit both in one day. This exquisite structure with a great view was built in 1887 as a working lighthouse that could be seen 20 miles out at sea. It has the distinction of being the tallest lighthouse in Florida, and it's only 10 miles south of Daytona Beach. Enjoy a bountiful picnic at the adjoining Lighthouse Park, or go a mere two blocks to the public beach. Then walk off the meal by climbing to the top of the 175-foot structure. (386-761-1821; www.ponceinlet.org)
North Frontage Road near Orlando International Airport sidles up to the East/West expressway and has a great view of the runway. Spread a blanket (even if only on the hood of your car) and watch the world come and go by plane. It's also a scenic spot to see the sunrise, so head here for an early morning excursion. Take State Road 436 toward the Orlando International airport. Turn right on North Frontage Road, right before the airport entrance. Follow the road around and look for an open spot.
MENUS AND RECIPES
SWEET SUMMER PICNIC
Almond butter & rose-petal jam on brioche
A romantic take on the PBJ. Rose-petal jam is available at www.fauchon.com. Almond butter can be found at Whole Foods. If you can't find brioche, country-style white bread will do.
Cold green beans with hazelnuts
1 pound green beans, ends trimmed
Salt to taste
4 tablespoons hazelnut oil
1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt until it tastes like seawater. Add beans and cook until tender, about four or five minutes. When they're done, immerse in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. When the beans are thoroughly cold, drain on a paper towel. Toss beans with hazelnut oil, then sprinkle nuts over the top.
Ambrosia fruit salad
5 oranges, peeled
1 cup frozen shredded coconut, available at Indian markets
Sugar to taste
Cut the oranges into 1/8-inch discs. (Make sure you catch any juice in a bowl to add to the salad.) Cut the pineapple into 1-inch cubes. At the last minute, cut the bananas into half-inch slices and toss the fruit together. Add the coconut, and stir around until everything is coated. Add sugar to taste. Serve with a block of St. Andre triple cream brie.
Prosciutto and sweet cream butter on baguette
This is my favorite sandwich for picnics because it not only tastes superb thanks to the contrast of sweet butter and salty ham but it also transports very well. Some people think eating butter on sandwiches is strange. I did, too, once upon a time, but I picked up this practice while living in Europe several years ago, and now I find I like it better than mayo or cheese. The key to this simple recipe is buying the highest quality ingredients that you can find.
Grilled zucchini and tomato salad
2 medium zucchinis, sliced
2 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup good quality olive oil
Fresh basil leaves, chopped coarsely
Heat grill or indoor grill pan until smoking. Toss the zucchini slices in vegetable oil. Place the slices on the grill and let cook until charred stripes are visible, about five minutes. Do not crowd; cook in two batches, if necessary. Turn the slices and cook on the other side until charred. Put in a bowl with the tomato halves and stir a few times to mix around. To make the dressing, whisk mustard, salt, pepper and vinegar until well-blended. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until a smooth emulsion has formed. Dribble dressing over the vegetables and toss around to coat. Sprinkle the fresh basil over the top.
2 pints of strawberries, quartered
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
Dissolve sugar and balsamic vinegar over medium heat until slightly thickened and reduced by half. Let cool slightly and then pour over the strawberries. Serve with a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
BREAKFAST AT THE AIRSTRIP
Quick morning pastries
These are kind of a cheat, but they taste so good nobody will care. If you don't want to make your own puff pastry (most people don't), just use the frozen stuff. My favorite brand is Dufour's, if you can find it. If not, Pepperidge Farms works well.
1 package puff pastry
1/4 cup almond paste
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cups brown sugar
Thaw the puff pastry according to the instructions on the box. Cut into squares and refrigerate about a half-hour. In the meantime, pulse almond paste, sugar and butter in food processor until well-blended. Add one egg and vanilla and pulse until moist and evenly blended. Remove pastry from the fridge and turn each pastry a quarter-turn so that they are facing you as a diamond shape, rather than a square. Spread about two tablespoons of the almond mixture on the bottom half of each diamond. Beat the remaining egg. Brush edges of diamonds with beaten egg and turn the tops over, pinching together. Brush the tops with egg, and sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until browned.
Peaches & Cream
3 peaches, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons sugar
Toss all ingredients together and let rest for a half-hour before serving.
Café Con Leche
You'll need to pack a thermos in your picnic basket, but hot coffee in the great outdoors at sunrise is quite spectacular. For serving, I like tin coffee mugs, like those found at camping stores. The best way to make coffee for this preparation is to use a stovetop espresso maker. Follow the instructions for making 4 cups of espresso. Add 1 cup of milk and sugar to taste. Stir while hot and put in the thermos for transport.