Sunday, August 20, 2006

From the Picnic Basket

August, truly, is not a month that sane D.C.-area residents look forward to with particular relish. True, there are ripe tomatoes everywhere, and just how good a thing a ripe tomato is cannot really be overstated, and true, the traffic is considerably attenuated because many people are out of town, and true, a significant portion of the gay population (including a few, but not many, of my friends) thinks of August as the month that it spends largely in Rehoboth where, it is sure, it will find its soulmate. I will omit any extended discussion about the hordes who return from Rehoboth looking as deflated (and occasionally as sunburnt) as a tomato that has sat far too long on the vine and simply say that August in D.C. is mostly the month when it's too hazy, hot, and humid to venture out of doors very much.

Because August is generally dreadful and because this August in particular came in on a wave of days where the high temperatures were either flirting with or surrendering themselves entirely to the three-digit range, it is easy to get a little bit giddy when one sees a forecast with a high temperature that is below ninety and to forget that eighty-nine degrees is still perhaps a bit hotter than the ideal temperature to spend a couple of hours walking in the middle of a partly cloudy day. And when the members of the walking party have either not walked the path before or have not walked the path recently, and the path is very pleasant, it is easy to forget that for every step you take on the way out, you will have to take another on the way back.

The ideal picnic, of course, involves only a small amount of mandatory walking with ample opportunities for additional walking by those who are so inclined while those who are otherwise inclined recline on their blankets, chatting idly, reading a novel, or making daisy chains. The ideal picnic also involves at least eight (and preferably ten) people, a spot under a shady tree on the edge of a bluff or at least near the top of a hill in a meadow of considerable size, wine, and a sky full of billowy clouds in which one can see the shapes of small animals, distasteful politicians, and/or scenes from famous Renaissance paintings. ("I say, doesn't that cloud formation look like George Allen calling Botticelli's Venus a macaca?"1)

Life, like Virginian senators, often falls short of the ideal, but even if your picnic involves picnic tables, hungry geese who have not waited for a proper introduction, a National Park allowing no alcohol, and three people who have just walked over four miles and are mildly dehydrated and decidedly subdued, you still ought to make a nice meal to help replenish the body and spirit before the trip home.

You can, of course, make a perfectly acceptable picnic without doing any cooking of your own. And even if you do want to prepare some or most of the food yourself, a picnic will generally involve approximately equal parts cooking and procuring. This past Saturday, when V. and I and a friend of ours went walking at Great Falls, I took a trip to the supermarket in the morning and picked up some very nice local nectarines and an assortment of olives as well as some beverages and ingredients for the food that I was preparing.

There is no point in giving the recipes for everything, especially since some things weren't really made from recipes. I made, for example, some roast beef and Brie wraps. I took a three flour tortillas, softened them in the microwave for about ten seconds, spread each of them with a smear of Dijon mustard, added a few slices of Brie and two large, thin slices of roast beef to each, and then added some mixed greens (from Costco, of course) that I had tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette. Then I wrapped them. They were very nice, but next time I will replace the Dijon with some horseradish mixed with a bit of sour cream.

I will, however, give you the recipe for my chicken salad, which I will probably make again, without change. Displaying a terrific lack of imagination, I also wrapped the chicken salad in tortillas, but I think it would be nicer on a whole grain roll.

Chicken Salad

2 boneless chicken breasts
olive oil
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup chopped celery
green mayonnaise (recipe follows)

Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper on both sides. Put a skillet over moderate heat and pour in a small amount of olive oil. Cook the chicken breasts, without moving them, for six minutes on one side, then flip them over and cook for six minutes on the other side. Adjust cooking time as necessary. Turn off the heat, and let the chicken breasts rest in the pan for at least fifteen minutes. Then cut them up into pieces of whatever size you like. If you are making the chicken salad the night before, put the cut-up chicken in a bowl, cover, and store in the refrigerator.

Toast the almonds at 350 degrees until they are nicely browned but not burned.

Just before you are ready to making your sandwiches or wraps, Combine the diced chicken, the almonds, and the celery in a bowl. Add mayonnaise until you have salad of the consistency that you like. Taste the chicken salad and add some more salt and pepper if it seems like a good idea at the time.

Green Mayonnaise

2 egg yolks
1/2 t. salt
1 t. Dijon mustard
3 T. red wine vinegar*
One small or one-half large clove of garlic
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves**

Place the first five ingredients in the bowl of your food processor and process briefly to combine. With the processor running, pour in about half of the olive oil, in a slow stream. Turn the processor off and scrape down the top and sides with a rubber spatula, then turn the processor back on and add the rest of the oil, again in a slow stream. Add the basil leaves, process until they are very well incorporated, then correct seasoning.

* - Lemon juice is probably a better choice here, but I somehow didn't have any fresh lemons.

** - I completely failed to measure the basil leaves, but I reckon a half cup, well packed, would work. Use as much basil as you like. Remember that basil has a peppery flavor, so you probably won't need any black pepper. In any case, don't put any in until you've tasted the mayo.

The mayonnaise recipe makes almost a cup and a half, which is much more than you'll need for the chicken salad. Of course, if you're making chicken salad for a larger party, you'll want to scale up the recipe, and then you'll use more of the mayo. Otherwise, you'll just have to find another use for it, but it's awfully good, so you shouldn't have much trouble.

This recipe should be plenty acidic to forestall any problems with salmonella provided that you handle your food safely. You must, of course, be sure to keep your cold foods sufficiently cold when you are going on a picnic. Use a good cooler and an adequate number of freezer packs, frozen bottles of water, or whatever you use for such purposes. But carry your fresh fruit, cookies, etc. separately: they're much better at room temperature.

For dessert, I made some lemon almond cookies, based on the crust that I used in my cherry pobbler recipe, but with the addition of some lemon zest and juice. Because I didn't freeze my butter first, and because I had limited time, I couldn't make the cookies as refrigerator cookies, so I made them as drop cookies. I made them Friday night, and they seemed lackluster to me, but they developed a decent amount of flavor overnight, and they were a good addition to the picnic. I am determined, however, to make them as refrigerator cookies, and, even as I write, I have a batch of batter cooling its heels in the refrigerator. I will give the recipe when I have perfected it. I hope that will happen later this week.

1If, by some chance, this sentence refers to something that is only well known locally, you can find out what I'm referring to by googling, but you are advised to leave both Botticelli and Venus out of it.


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