Photographs by Brigitte Bouvier
Picnics are essential summer fun. We offer three versions of this intimate al fresco dining tradition
Persian poet Omar Khayyam summed it all up with these well-known lines: “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and thou.”
One thousand years after those lines were written, they remain the essence of all that’s needed for the perfect picnic: Good food, good drink (alcoholic or not) and good company. (If Khayyam had been living in Ottawa, he might have added a word or two about good weather; we’ll have to forgive him for that lapse. Besides, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread — and temperatures in the high 20s, with less than a 20-per-cent-chance of rain” doesn’t flow trippingly off the tongue.)
Picnics are an essential summer activity. Think of a picnic as an intimate garden party — one that can be enjoyed by young and old. They can be simple al fresco meals made with store-bought fixings, barbecues involving meats and vegetables grilled over an open fire at the beach or in the woods, or more elaborate meals served on silver and crystal in sylvan settings.
Whatever the case, a picnic involves eating food in close communion with nature. And because that means leaving home, fridge, barbecue and kitchen behind — sometimes a long way behind — the secret to a good picnic is planning.
The meal must be completely thought out in advance, from start to finish; there’s no going back for missing hot dog buns if you’ve canoed to an island for a family lunch, no getting around the fact you’re got six people to feed, but only two plates when you’re out in the wilds.
You must also take account of possible health issues: No egg salad sandwiches with mayonnaise unless you’ve refrigerated them properly from the moment they’re made until the moment they’re eaten. In fact, when you’re away from home, food safety has to be more of a consideration than usual.
Portability is another thing to consider. Sure, it would be fun to take along that huge pepper mill you’re famous for, but do you really want to lug it on a two-hour hike just to get a laugh?
With all that in mind, we asked three chefs to suggest fare for three picnic lunches : A romantic picnic for two, a family picnic for four, and a girls’ afternoon out picnic for six.
Romantic picnic for two
Chef Eric Patenaude, Todric’s Fine Dining and Catering
- A picnic basket or cooler
- Several resealable containers (for the food)
- Plates, forks, spoons, napkins
- Wine glasses
- A jug for the sangria
Optional add-ons: This picnic consists of only two dishes, a salad and a main course. Depending on your appetite and your inclinations, you could also bring fresh baguette and cheese (if you do, remember to bring knives) and dessert. Eric Patenaude, of Todric’s Fine Dining and Catering, suggests buying nice pastries that don’t require a fork and plate to eat. You might also consider a blanket (if you’re eating on the ground) or a tablecloth if you have access to a picnic table.
Menu: Asparagus and omelette salad with salsa, Cornish game hens with lemon and thyme, fingerling potatoes, sangria.
The concept: At its simplest, a picnic can be sandwiches and an apple each. But Patenaude, didn’t think sandwiches were appropriate for a romantic picnic for two. He came up with a simple menu of only two dishes — three if the couple wants to add a dessert — that can be prepared in advance and enjoyed languidly between smooches and long periods of gazing into each other’s eyes. “Everything can be prepared the day before,” says Patenaude. “You just pack it all into a picnic basket and go off.
“I like picnics that are really simple, because few people have picnic baskets with all the trimmings,” he says. He chose Cornish game hens because they convey a feeling of luxury and can easily be shared. To add a bit of sensuality, Patenaude says the hens can be eaten with one’s fingers. (That may actually be the practical thing to do if you’re picnicking on the ground rather than at a picnic table.) He suggests taking the time to add some elaborate touches to the picnic. Sparkling sangria helps. He also suggests taking your time to eat. “Picnics let you relax,” he says, suggesting the couple eat the asparagus salad, then go for a walk and come back later for the main course.
Grilled asparagus and omelette salad with salsa
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) milk
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) olive oil
- Kernels from 1 cob of corn or 1 cup (250 mL) canned or frozen corn kernels
- 1/2 small red onion, diced
- 1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) chopped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon (5 mL) dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) balsamic vinegar
- 12 asparagus spears
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) nut oil (try macadamia).
- In a small bowl, beat the eggs and milk to combine. Heat 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of the olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, add the beaten egg and milk mixture, and cook over medium heat until just set. Flip and cook the other side. Remove from the pan, cool, then roll up and cut into thick slices.
- If using fresh or frozen corn, cook the cobs in boiling water until tender, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly, and then slice off the kernels. Make salsa by gently combining corn, onion, bell pepper, thyme, remaining olive oil and the balsamic vinegar.
- Trim off woody ends from the asparagus, lightly brush the spears with the nut oil and grill on the barbecue until tender, about 10 minutes. Chop asparagus into bite-sized pieces.
- Pack the sliced omelette, salsa and asparagus in separate containers. When you are ready to eat, put the asparagus on the plate and top with the omelette and the salsa.
Cornish Game Hens Roasted with Lemon and Thyme
- 2 Cornish game hens
- 1/2 lemon, cut into two pieces
- 2 garlic cloves, unpeeled
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) salted butter, softened
- Salt and pepper
- 6 fingerling potatoes
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) olive oil
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) dry white wine
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) chicken stock
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF (220ºC). Stuff each bird with a piece of lemon, a garlic clove and a few sprigs of thyme. Truss each bird with string. Spread 1 tablespoon (15 mL) butter on each hen breast. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Place the birds on a rack in a baking dish. Toss the potatoes in the olive oil and sprinkle over the bottom of the baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes, or until temperature on an instant-read meat thermometer reads 165°F (74°C) when inserted into the thigh. Remove the hens and potatoes from the baking dish and let cool.
- To make the sauce, scrape the juices from the baking dish into a small pot. Sprinkle the flour over the juices and stir over low heat until smooth. Gradually add the wine and the stock until the sauce boils and thickens, then simmer 5 minutes. Cool the sauce.
- Cut each hen in half and pack in a container along with the potatoes. Pack the sauce in a separate container. To serve, place the hen halves on a plate along with the fingerling potatoes. Serve the sauce on the side. This dish is probably easier to eat with fingers.
- Makes about 8 cups (2 L)
- 1 bottle (750 mL) dry red wine
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) sugar
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) cognac
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) Cointreau
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) fresh orange juice
- 1/3 cup (75 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 orange, sliced (optional)
- 1/2 pink grapefruit, sliced (optional)
- 1 cup (250 mL) fresh cherries, pitted (optional)
- 2 cans (355 mL) chilled pop (ginger ale, Sprite or 7-Up) or same amount of chilled sparkling wine (optional)
- Pour the red wine into a large bowl or pitcher. Add sugar, cognac, Cointreau and orange and lemon juice. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Refrigerate until chilled.
- Pour into a jug or container that can be taken on the picnic. If you want the fruit slices, add to the jug at this point. If you want bubbles, you can add the pop to the jug just before serving. An alternative is to add a bottle of
inexpensive sparkling wine to the sangria instead of the pop. Keep in mind, though, that this makes an impressive amount of wine — too much, in all likelihood, for two.
A family picnic for four
Chef Bruce Enloe, The Branch Restaurant
- Picnic basket or cooler
- Several resealable containers
- Plates and napkins
- Serving spoons for dishing out the toppings
- A blanket if you plan to eat on the ground, a tablecloth if you have access to a picnic table.
Optional add-ons: This menu does not cover things to drink — consider lemonade, juice, milk, or iced tea — nor does it feature snacky foods. So you may want to bring drinks and glasses.
Menu: Asparagus “fries” with rhubarb-maple “ketchup,” black bean hummus burritos, Abigail’s raspberry-coconut muffins
The concept: As both a chef and a father, Bruce Enloe knows how hard it can be to find foods for a family meal. It’s not only that kids can be picky eaters, it’s also that allergies and food intolerances often get added to the mix. “At The Branch Restaurant, we have found that an ever-increasing proportion of our clientele are seeking out gluten-free and healthy options for their families,” says Enloe, adding that he knows just how difficult that can be, since his own daughter, Abigail, is on a gluten-free diet. “That leaves folks like us, who have always enjoyed the comforts of easy picnics with foods like burgers, hot dogs or even just plain old peanut butter sandwiches, scrambling for new ways to feed our kid and other kids with these issues,” says Enloe. He adds that the foods must be not only healthy and tasty, but also fun “and not too far out there for the more skeptical eaters.”
“This southwestern-style hummus is a call back to my Texas roots,” Enloe says. “It is both a delicious and healthy filler for tacos or burritos and it travels well, which, as we all know, is an essential for any successful picnic. Serve it on fresh, homemade corn tortillas if you have the time, or on your favourite gluten-free (or regular) wrap. “Make your picnic a fun party by bringing a selection of different toppings and, if you are like me, a couple of fresh diced jalapeños. But it’s best to keep those away from the non-Texan kids. That is the voice of experience talking…”
Abigail’s Raspberry Coconut Muffins
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) coconut milk
- 3 tablespoons (50 mL) sunflower seed oil
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) honey
- 1 cup (250 mL) coconut flour, sifted (available at many health food stores, or substitute nut flour or rice flour)
- 2 cups (500 mL) frozen raspberries, chopped if they are not separated.
- Pinch, salt
- Preheat oven to 375º F (190º C). Prepare a standard 12-muffin tin with spray or cupcake liners.
- Using a beater or mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until stiff and hard peaks form.
- In a separate bowl, combine the yolks with the coconut milk, oil and honey. Whisk together. Sift in the coconut flour and stir gently to combine. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the beaten egg whites, taking care not to over-mix. Sprinkle on the frozen raspberries.
- Place the muffin tin, empty, into the hot oven for five minutes to preheat. Remove the heated tin to a heat-safe surface and, working quickly, use an ice cream scoop to portion the batter into the hot tin. Return tin to the oven as quickly as possible and immediately reduce the heat to 350ºF (180ºC). Bake for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick
inserted into one of the central muffins comes out dry.
- Turn out when cool.
Black Bean Hummus Burritos
For the hummus:
- 3 cups (750 mL) black beans, canned or home-cooked
- 6 tablespoons (100 mL) pumpkin seed butter (available at health food stores, or substitute tahini or peanut butter)
- 1 large lime, juice and zest
- 2 teaspoons (10 mL) cumin seed, toasted and ground
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (7 mL) salt
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4-6 tablespoons (60-100 mL) fresh cilantro, tough stems removed and roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) salad oil, such as sunflower seed or canola
- 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) cayenne pepper or to taste
- Combine all ingredients in a blender or small food processor and blend until smooth, adding a bit of water or more oil if necessary.
- Pack into a container and refrigerate.
For the burrritos:
- 2 packages store-bought tortillas
- Topping choices include:
- Shredded lettuce
- Salsa (home-made or store-bought)
- Sour cream
- Shredded cheese
- Chopped onions
- Guacamole (home-made or store-bought)
- Fresh chopped cilantro
- Sliced jalapeños, fresh or bottled
- Pack toppings in containers that will allow easy access to the contents. Everyone assembles his or her own burrito at the picnic site.
Asparagus ‘Fries’ and Rhubarb-Maple ‘Ketchup’
For the ‘fries:’
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) vegetable oil
- 2 bundles of asparagus, trimmed and washed
- 1/4 cup (50 mL) cornstarch, or arrowroot powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- n a large skillet, heat the oil until hot.
- While the oil is heating, dust the asparagus spears with cornstarch or arrowroot powder.
- Pan-fry the asparagus in batches until done, about 5 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels.
- When cool, place in a container to take on the picnic. Refrigerate until you pack the
For the ‘ketchup’
- 3 cups (750 mL) rhubarb stems, washed and thinly sliced against the grain
- 1/2 small red onion, peeled and sliced
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) maple syrup
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) wheat-free tamari soy sauce
- In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups (1 litre) of salted water to a boil.
- Blanch the rhubarb and onion together for just one minute, then drain and cool.
- In a blender or small food processor, combine blanched rhubarb and onion, maple
syrup, tomato paste and tamari soy sauce and blend until smooth.
- Pack into a container and refrigerate until you prepare the picnic basket.
- At the picnic site, pack the fried asparagus spears in small paper bags to look like your kids’ favourite french fries and serve with the rhubarb ketchup for dipping.
Picnic for a six-gal-pal afternoon
Patrick Kostiw, Culinary instructor, Algonquin College School of Hospitality
- Picnic basket and/or cooler
- Cooler for the wine (if serving) and the water
- Several resealable containers
- Plates, forks, napkins
- Knives for spreading the paté and cheese
- Serving implements (spoons and forks for the salads and the tapenade)
- Glasses for water, glasses for wine
Optional add-ons: A blanket (if you are sitting on the ground) or a tablecloth if you have access to a picnic table.
Menu: Poached chicken and guacamole sandwiches on baguette, roasted beetroot salad with honey garlic vinaigrette, heirloom tomatoes and basil with red wine vinaigrette, grilled vegetables and black olive tapenade, water, still and sparkling
Suggested wine: Cave Springs Estate Reserve Riesling
The concept: Patrick Kostiw, who was executive chef at the Wakefield Mill Inn and Spa before becoming an instructor at Algonquin College, says variety is the theme of his picnic for six. “It’s hard to get six people to agree on anything,” he says.
“I wanted to make sure there is enough choice here so everyone can be happy, and that all the food can stand up to being out in the park for a couple of hours before anyone had to eat it.” The ingredients for the dishes that have to be cooked or assembled can all be bought at normal grocery stores. “For the heirloom tomato salad, there are nice colourful tomatoes available; even in places like Loblaws, there’s quite a variety.” And making the salad is easy, particularly if you use store-bought vinaigrette.
“When I created this menu, the picture I had in my mind was a leisurely day out,” he adds, saying he imagines the picnic taking place under leafy trees in dappled sunlight, kind of like an Impressionist painting. Oh, and with a babbling brook running nearby to chill the wine. With that in mind, he says, the menu is more appropriate for women in summer dresses and hats than a group of women who are going off on a hike.
Poached Chicken and Guacamole Sandwiches on Baguette
For the chicken :
- 8 cups (2l) water
- 1/2 cup (125ml) dry white wine
- 5-inch piece (20g) fresh gingerroot, peeled and sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons (20ml) lemon juice
- 6 springs fresh cilantro
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) whole black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 pounds (700g) boneless, skinless, chicken breasts
- Place everything but the chicken in a pot large enough to ensure the chicken will be covered with the poaching liquid. Bring the poaching liquid to a light boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
- Add the chicken to the poaching liquid and poach until fully cooked, about 20 minutes.
- Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and cool completely. Slice the chicken for sandwiches and pack into a container.
For the guacamole:
- 2 cups (500ml) diced ripe avocado
- 1/2 cup (125ml) diced red onion
- 1/2 cup (125ml) diced sundried tomato (use the tomatoes that have been packed in oil)
- 2 tablespoons (25ml) chopped cilatro
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 4 drops Tabasco sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon (2ml) salt
- 1/4 teaspoon (1ml) pepper
- Place all ingredients in a large bowl and stir together until blended, then pack into a container and chill.
Other sandwich ingredients:
- 2 baguettes (Kostiw recommends bread from Art-Is-In Bakery)
- 6 slices smoked cheddar cheese
- Fresh arugula, washed
- Cut each baguette into three equal segments. Slice each segment in half horizontally. Wrap the bread in plastic wrap to keep fresh. Pack
into picnic basket.
- Pack the sliced cheese, if using.
- Pack the washed arugula in a plastic bag
- Assemble sandwiches at the picnic with a slice of cheese, a dollop of guacamole, a few slices of chicken, a few leaves of arugula.
Roasted Beetroot Salad with Honey-Garlic Vinaigrette
- 1 1/2 pounds (700 g) red beets
- 2 ounces (60 g) chopped walnuts
- 2 ounces (60 g) pistachios
- 1/4 pound (227 g) red onions, diced
- 4 ounces (120 g) dried cranberries
- 4 ounces (120 g) dried apricots, chopped
- 4 ounces (120 g) dried figs, chopped
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) chopped fresh chives
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the vinaigrette:
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) honey
- 1 teaspoon (5 mL) chopped fresh garlic
- 4 tablespoons (60 mL) cider vinegar
- 3/4 cup (175 mL) vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350º F (180º C). Place whole beets, washed but unpeeled, on a tray. Bake until tender, about 1 hour. Remove from oven and cool. Peel and cut into dice.
- When the beets are cooked, place the walnuts and pistachios on a baking tray. Bake to toast lightly, about 15 minutes. Stir frequently to avoid burning the nuts. When toasted, remove from oven and cool completely.
- Prepare the vinaigrette by whisking together the honey, garlic and cider vinegar in a mixing bowl. Slowly pour the oil into the bowl while whisking. Whisk well to combine. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Assemble the salad in a large bowl. Combine the diced beets, toasted nuts, diced red onions, dried fruits, parsley and chives. Stir to mix and add salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 cup honey-garlic vinaigrette. Stir to mix. Place in a container and refrigerate.
Roasted Vegetables and Black Olive Tapenade
For the vegetables:
- 1 b unch asparagus
- 2 or 3 zucchini
- 3 sweet peppers, either red, yellow or orange.
- Wash and trim the vegetables. Slice the zucchini and sweet peppers into bite-sized lengths.
- Grill the vegetables on the barbecue for 10 minutes, or broil 10 minutes in the oven, turning once.
- Cool and place in a container that can be taken to the picnic.
For the tapenade:
- 5 ounces (140 g) Kalamata olives, pitted
- 2 ounces (60 g) capers
- 2 tablespoons (25 mL) chopped shallots
- 4 tablespoons (60 mL) olive oil
- 1/5 teaspoon (l mL) prepared Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon (5 mL) fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon (15 mL) lemon juice
- Place the pitted olives, capers and shallots in a food processor and pulse until chopped and mixed. Add the olive oil and the Dijon mustard and pulse until blended. Remove from the food processor and fold in fresh thyme leaves. Flavour to taste with lemon juice. Store in a container and refrigerate.
- To serve, let people pick what they want from the vegetable container. Place a spoon in the tapenade and allow guests to help themselves.
Heirloom tomato salad with red wine vinaigrette
- 6 medium sized tomatoes, or 1 cup (250ml) mini tomatoes
- 3 medium sized tomatoes
- 1/2 cup (125ml) fresh basil leaves
- quality red wine vinaigrette of your choise
- If using regular-sized tomatoes, slice thinly and put into a container that can be covered tightly and brought to the picnic. If using grape or cherry tomatoes, cut them in two.
- Chop the basil and sprinkle over the tomatoes
- Add 1/2 cupt (125ml) of your favourite vinaigrette. Cover tightly and refrigerate before packing for the picnic.