Life's a picnic

For many families, the Independence Day celebration marks the start of the season for outdoor dining.

Life is a picnic (photo credit: Courtesy)
Life is a picnic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For many families, the Independence Day celebration marks the start of the season for outdoor dining.
With pleasant, sunny weather that’s not overwhelmingly hot, it’s the ideal time to relax with friends and family members around a tasty spread.
What people consider the perfect food to eat outdoors is entirely a matter of taste.
When we lived in Paris, we liked to picnic with friends on a simple selection of fine quality foods – fresh baguette, several kinds of pâtés or cheeses, wine and seasonal fruits. Usually we stopped at a patisserie on the way to the park and bought a piece of sweet pastry or cake such as a “gateau de voyage,” a cake that travels well. My choice was often pain de Genes, a buttery almond cake. The idea of cooking anything at a picnic didn’t cross my mind.
On the other hand, some people prefer picnics of hearty cooked food. I’ve even seen a family carrying a blanket-swaddled pot of cholent to the park.
These days when I prepare food to eat outdoors I include cooked vegetables. Salads of cooked vegetables taste good at room temperature and go well with all sorts of foods, from hard-boiled eggs to grilled meats.
Potato salads are popular picnic food but if a salad will be sitting outdoors for a while, it’s best to make it without mayonnaise.
One I like is a spicy Tunisian potato salad flavored with olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, caraway seeds, hot pepper sauce and fresh coriander.
A mustard and olive oil dressing also gives a flavor boost to potatoes. Jamie Gwen, author of Good Food for Good Times 2, makes such a dressing for her lemonbasil potato salad, and notes that adding the dressing to the warm potatoes allows the flavors to soak in wonderfully. To make the salad, she roasts quartered small potatoes and whole garlic cloves with olive oil, salt and pepper until tender and golden, and adds a blender dressing of Dijon mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, a generous amount of fresh basil leaves, salt and pepper. Tossing the potato mixture with baby spinach leaves and cherry tomatoes adds color and freshness.
Just about any vegetable that you like to cook can be made into a salad. Such salads are convenient to prepare because they can be made ahead. Often, if the vegetable sits in its dressing for a few hours, it tastes even better.
Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, makes a delicious rendition of Moroccan carrot salad. His spicy salad calls for mixing the cooked carrot pieces with garlic, fresh hot peppers, cumin, cloves, coriander and other spices, as well as onion sauteed in olive oil.
A generous amount of chopped fresh coriander gives the salad a spring-like appearance and a lively herbaceous flavor.
Vegetables roasted with olive oil make fine picnic food. Claudia Roden, author of The Food of Spain, makes sweet roasted tomatoes with a “deliciously intense flavor” to serve as an appetizer or to accompany meat or fish. To prepare them, she halves plum tomatoes through their stem ends, sets them on a baking sheet lined with oiled foil, sprinkles them generously with sugar and lightly with salt, pepper and olive oil, and bakes them slowly for 31⁄2 to 4 hours.
Another baked tomato dish, good for serving cold at a picnic, is Roden’s light tuna-stuffed tomatoes. The filling, which bakes in the hollowed out tomatoes, is a mixture of tuna canned in oil, chopped black olives, and onion and garlic sauteed in olive oil.
Marinated vegetables are another great choice for eating alfresco. I especially like marinated fried eggplant slices with roasted red pepper strips and a spicy dressing of cumin, garlic, hot peppers, olive oil and wine vinegar. The eggplant goes well with meat or with flavorful cheeses, or simply with pita and hard boiled eggs.
Roden prepares Spanish marinated mushrooms by dry-cooking mushrooms in a skillet so they lose their juices and better absorb the dressing, which she makes from lemon juice and grated zest, olive oil, salt and pepper. The mushrooms, which “keep for many days,” are finished with a sprinkling of parsley.
Ottolenghi uses marinated mushrooms as the basis for a rich salad that he recommends for picnics or springtime buffets. He marinates uncooked mushrooms with olive oil, wine vinegar, lemon juice, a little maple syrup, salt and pepper. Next he mixes them with lightly cooked fresh fava beans and toasted chopped walnuts and flavors the salad with cumin.
The salad is topped with a tehina dressing with Greek yogurt (thick strained yogurt similar to labaneh), garlic, lemon juice and salt, and finished with a sprinkling of chopped fresh dill and oregano. If you wanted to serve such a salad with meat, you could make a tehina dressing without the yogurt.
Whether you’re taking these salads to the park or eating them in the garden or on the porch, packing them is simple and so is serving them. All you need to serve with one or two of these salads is sliced cheeses, hard-boiled eggs or perhaps cold roast beef or chicken, with any fresh bread that your family likes and ripe fruit for dessert. This type of troublefree picnic is my favorite way to celebrate Independence Day.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
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In this recipe, the spiced vinegar penetrates the sauteed eggplant and balances its richness. Generally the marinated eggplant slices are served as an appetizer, but they are also good in a sandwich or as a side dish with cold meats or sliced cheese.
2 medium eggplants (about 900 gr. or 2 pounds),unpeeled2 tsp. saltabout 1⁄2 cup olive oil, or more if needed (for frying)6 medium-sized garlic cloves1 fresh small hot pepper, halved lengthwise2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (for marinade)1 tsp. sweet paprika1 tsp. ground cumin3 Tbsp. mild white wine vinegar (5% acidity)Freshly ground black pepper1 sweet red pepper, roasted and peeled (see Note below),or from a jarPita or sliced French or Italian bread (for accompaniment)
Cut eggplants in 1-cm. (1⁄2-inch) slices crosswise, discarding ends. Arrange slices in 1 layer on a rack set over a tray. Sprinkle both sides evenly with about 1 teaspoon salt. Let slices drain for 1 hour, turning them over after 30 minutes. Pat them dry very thoroughly with several changes of paper towels.
In a large, heavy skillet heat 2 or 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Quickly add enough eggplant slices to make 1 layer. Saute eggplant about 21⁄2 minutes on each side, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer slices to a plate.
Add 2 or 3 tablespoons oil to skillet, heat oil and saute remaining eggplant in batches, adding remaining oil between batches as necessary.
Transfer eggplant to a large shallow serving dish or baking dish.
For marinade: Peel 2 garlic cloves without crushing them.
Cut them in very thin slices lengthwise. Peel and mince remaining garlic cloves. Heat oil in a small saucepan, add chopped garlic and halved hot pepper and cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Stir in paprika, cumin and a small pinch of salt. Add vinegar and sliced garlic, bring to a boil and cook over low heat for 1 minute. Remove marinade from heat and discard hot pepper.
Pour marinade evenly over eggplant slices and sprinkle them with black pepper. Turn slices over so that all come in contact with marinade.
Cut roasted pepper in strips about 1 cm. (1⁄2 inch) wide. Put pepper strips on top of eggplant. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes or refrigerate up to 3 days before serving.
Serve eggplant slices cold or at room temperature, topped with pepper strips and garlic slices and accompanied by fresh bread.
Note: To roast sweet peppers, broil or grill them, turning them often, until their skins blister all over, about 15 minutes.
Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly; or let stand in a closed plastic back for 10 minutes. Peel peppers using paring knife and remove seeds.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
This recipe is from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. He serves his intensely flavored salad with fried fish or pilaf of freekeh (green wheat). His recipe calls for Greek yogurt; use thick strained yogurt or labaneh. For serving with meat, you can make the salad without yogurt. If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can omit it or add 1⁄2 teaspoon of grated lemon zest.
900 gr. (2 pounds) carrots1⁄3 cup olive oil, plus extra to garnish1 medium onion, minced1 tsp. sugar3 garlic cloves, crushed2 medium-sized hot green peppers, finely chopped1 green onion, finely chopped1⁄8 tsp. ground cloves1⁄4 tsp. ground ginger1⁄2 tsp. ground coriander3⁄4 tsp. ground cinnamon1 tsp. sweet paprika1 tsp. ground cumin1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar1 Tbsp. preserved lemon, choppedsalt2 1⁄2 cups cilantro (fresh coriander), chopped, plus extrato garnish1⁄2 cup thick strained yogurt or labaneh, chilled
Peel carrots and cut them, depending on their size, into cylinders or semicircles 1 cm. (1⁄2 inch) thick; all the pieces should be roughly the same size. Place in a large saucepan and cover with salted water. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or until tender but still crunchy. Drain in a colander and leave to dry.
Heat the oil in a large pan and saute the onion for 12 minutes over medium heat until soft and slightly brown.
Add the cooked carrots to the onion, followed by the sugar, garlic, hot peppers, green onion, cloves, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, vinegar and preserved lemon. Remove from heat. Season liberally with salt, stir well and let cool.
Before serving, stir in the cilantro, taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve in individual bowls with a dollop of yogurt, a drizzle of oil, and garnished with the extra cilantro.
Makes 4 servings