Food plus friends minus furniture = picnic!

Green Cotton
by Evin O’Keeffee

Picnic season is upon us! In my mind it is always a good time for a picnic, especially when the weather cooperates to make a picnic outing possible.
I look for excuses to turn a normal outing into a picnic feast, whether it be an afternoon spent fishing, or a morning at the beach, and we still make time for those traditional picnic moments, too.

Over the past seven years, I have gathered with a group of friends for at least one evening of al fresco dining, and though many things can change in our lives, every picnic dinner has the same memories of relaxation and fun.

Sandwiches are a classic part of picnic meals, but the one that I prefer to make is the California BLT Sandwich—hearty enough to make Dagwood Bumstead envious!

The deliciously simple Picnic on the Green Cheddar Muffins are an excellent side dish adapted from a recipe in Paul Newman & A. E. Hotchner’s The Hole in the Wall Gang Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

You can almost picture Paul Newman in your kitchen baking with you, and doesn’t that make it worthwhile?

Ideal for seaside and park picnics alike, Nicoise Tuna Pockets are refreshing and nutritious.

California BLT Sandwich
2 avocados
1 lime (or 2 tablespoons lime juice)
3 tablespoons mayonnaise (not salad dressing style)
2 teaspoons fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic paste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 slices 1-inch thick sourdough, ciabatta, or focaccia bread, lightly toasted
8 pieces of butter or leafy lettuce, about the same size as the bread
2 medium ripe tomatoes, washed and sliced
2 dozen bacon slices, cooked almost crispy
8 slices Monterey pepper jack cheese (optional)

1. Cut around the avocado completely, but not cutting through it. Separate the two sides and remove the pit from the center. Scoop out the avocado meat, but avoid any bruised or brown spots. Place it in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Repeat with the second avocado. Roll each lime back and forth against the counter or cutting board a few times. Cut in half and squeeze the juice on to the avocado meat. This will keep it from turning brown at its usual speed. For bottled lime juice, simply sprinkle on the avocado meat while stirring to mix. Press the avocado against the side of the bowl to mash some of the pieces. The end result should be smooth, but with a varied texture that includes some avocado chunks. Cover and refrigerate.

2. In a small mixing bowl, mix the mayonnaise, cilantro leaves, black pepper, garlic paste, and cayenne pepper. This can be done with a hand mixer or a whisk. Transfer the mixture to an air-tight container and refrigerate.

3. Arrange 4 pieces of toast to assemble the sandwiches, set aside the other 4 slices. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over each slice and add a piece of lettuce. On top of this, gently spread a layer of avocado meat. Follow that with 2 or three tomato slices. Then add a layer of bacon (3 pieces). Spread more avocado meat over the bacon layer then add a piece of lettuce and a slice of cheese (optional). To finish the sandwich, spread mayonnaise on one of the pieces of toast that was set aside and place it on top of the sandwich. Continue with the other 3 pieces of toast until all 4 sandwiches have been prepared.

4. Wrap each individually in aluminum foil and refrigerate until it is time to pack your picnic cooler. When transporting to a picnic site, use an insulated bag or place the sandwiches in a cooler with ice or cooling packs.

Picnic on the Green Cheddar Muffins
Adapted from a recipe in The Hole in the Wall Gang Cookbook
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup honey
5 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
1 egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Monterey pepper jack cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat one 12-cup or two 6-cup muffin pan(s) with nonstick spray or butter.

2. In a medium mixing bowl, blend the flours, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and the peppers. Make sure the ingredients have been evenly mixed.

3. Blend the honey and mustard in a small dish then set aside.

4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg, buttermilk, milk, and cheeses together. Add all but 2 tablespoons of the honey-mustard mixture. Combine well.

5. Add the dry ingredients to the large mixing bowl by stirring and folding gently. The batter should be slightly lumpy.

6. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin pans, filling them only 3/4 of the way. Drizzle a little bit of the remaining honey-mustard mixture over the top of each muffin.

7. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and dry.

8. Cool the muffins for 5 minutes before removing them from the pans. Serve warm or cold.

Nicoise Tuna Pockets
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup smooth Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup roasted bell peppers, finely sliced
20 ounces canned tuna, drained
2 tablespoons black olives, pitted and finely chopped
2 tablespoons capers, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
6 pieces of medium-sized whole wheat pita bread, lightly toasted
12 pieces of butter or leafy lettuce, about the same size as the pita bread
2 hardboiled eggs, cooled, peeled, and thinly sliced

1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon and lime juices, vinegar, Dijon, garlic, shallots, and anchovy paste. Continue to whisk as you slowly add the olive oil. Sprinkle black pepper into the mix.

2. Using a funnel, pour the sauce into a clean sealable bottle or container. I recommend using one designed for salad dressing to make it easier to pour later. Refrigerate the container. Before using the dressing, shake the container to mix the ingredients again.

3. In a large bowl, add the roasted bell pepper slices, canned tuna, olives, capers, and parsley. Pour the Nicoise dressing over the mixture and toss the ingredients until they are evenly coated with the sauce.

4. Slice each pita pocket in half to make 12 semicircles. Slip one piece of lettuce into each half so it lines the pocket. This will help prevent the pockets from becoming soggy in the time between preparation and serving.

5. Spoon the salad mixture into each pocket, being careful not to overfill the pita. Add 2 or 3 slices of hardboiled egg to every sandwich half. Wrap each pocket half in aluminum foil individually. Refrigerate until you pack your picnic cooler.

Picnic Tips
Prepared foods should be at room temperature for no more than two hours for both preparation and serving time. The great outdoors shortens this rule to a mere hour if you’re in sunny south Florida, where summer weather is hotter than 90 degrees.

To keep your picnic spread safe and delicious, try using coolers to protect your food from the elements. A well-insulated cooler packed with ice or cooling packs can help you ensure your cold foods are kept below 40 degrees. Remember, the more often the cooler is opened, the quicker it warms to the outside temperature.

For this reason, it is a good idea to have a separate cooler for frequently accessed items, such as beverages, ketchup, and mustard. Don’t bother with leftovers either. Discard anything that doesn’t abide by the two-hour rule.