What is it about picnics that makes everything taste so much better? From the time I was a kid, I have absolutely adored picnics. While all the other kids wanted to be a part of the Famous Five because they solved mysteries and had cool adventures, I mostly wanted in because of the lovely food they ate – in caravans and caves, on farms and islands. If you’ve read the introduction to my blog, you’ll know of the impromptu picnic days I used to have with my dad. On long summer vacations, to get me out of my mom’s hair, he would take me to ‘town’ (downtown Bombay), where he worked. After he had finished his meetings, we would take the tiffin mom had packed to the park or the beach. (Stop giving me spell-check errors! Tiffin is a legitimate word to describe a mid-day meal and also the tiered metal lunch box it is carried in.) The name of this blog was derived from the memory of these happy meals. And I could not be more overjoyed when the next Project Food Blog* challenge, which was to design a meal to go, gave me an excuse for another picnic.
But before we get into that, let’s take a little detour. Because no story about tiffins could be complete without a special mention of Bombay’s tiffinwalas (or dabbawalas – literally, someone carrying a box). Their business is to deliver freshly prepared lunch from people’s homes to their offices, an uninterrupted service that delivers 200,000 lunches everyday! The BBC filmed a documentary on them and they even caught the attention of Prince Charles on his visit to India. The Bombay lunch scene would not be the same without these hard working, humble group of people. For this post, I wanted to prominently feature the tiffin, but couldn’t find one in any of the Canadian stores. So I just decided to take a page from the dabbawala’s philosophy for my picnic food – simple ideas perfectly executed.
I wanted food that was simple but still creative, could be made ahead of time (no one wants to spend hours in the kitchen on picnic-day) and traveled well. I also resisted the urge to carry fancy plates and cutlery; for me, picnics are a hands-on affair and I needed food that looks good on its own. I was sifting through ideas when I heard someone in office complain about pop tarts that taste like cardboard. Immediately I knew I was going to make homemade pop tarts. But instead of going the usual dessert route, I decided to turn them into a savory side and the Pepper Jam Pop Tart was born. I layered my favorite sweet-sticky-spicy red pepper chutney, which I had featured here previously, on sheets of homemade pastry dough. A little cheese and another sheet went on top; an egg wash, a sprinkle of poppy seeds, some primping and poking with a fork and the little buggers were ready for the oven. When they came out half an hour later, I couldn’t resist a bite. Pastry flakes flew everywhere, the pepper jam complemented the cheese and buttery pastry perfectly and I’m not ashamed to say that I didn’t stop at one bite.
Continuing with my theme of dessert for side, I turned to the French and their Cake Salé or savory cake. Baked in a loaf pan, it is popularly served with apéritifs but I think it makes fabulous picnic food. Cheese is an essential element of this loaf but apart from that, you can add in what you like – I added sun-dried tomatoes and olives and used basil as my herb of choice. The cake came out with a golden, craggy top and a loose crumb. What was leftover from the picnic is going to be toasted and buttered for breakfast. Excuse me while I make a quick trip to the kitchen.
The French are really good with picnic food, and living where they do, why wouldn’t they be? For the mains, I made a sandwich that is meant to be made ahead of time – the Pan Bagnat, the traditional sandwich from Nice. As with all classic recipes, there are as many versions as there are people. Mine had an abundance of tuna, hard boiled eggs, olives, red onions, tomatoes, roasted pepper, garlic, basil and a red wine-olive oil vinaigrette layered on a crusty baguette. A lot to fit into one sandwich but once you wrap it up tightly and sit a heavy pot or kettle or books on it, the sandwich becomes easily manageable and all the flavors mingle and meld with one another. All you need is a napkin.
My vegetarian roommate gave me a good excuse to make the Bombay Sandwich – street food and picnic fare that gets me all nostalgic. What is it, you ask? 3 slices of bread, one layered with vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onions), another with a gently spiced, boiled potato mixture, the third with a thin layer of cilantro and mint chutney; all layers spread with butter and heaped with cheese like it was going out of style, and grilled to triple-decker sandwich perfection. Even though I showed restraint while making mine, a bite still had the power to transport me to snacks outside college and road trips back home.
Although coffee is my favorite all-time drink, and snowy winter mornings just beg for hot chocolate, when it’s fall and raining outside, there is no better cure than my mom’s masala chai, a milky tea simmered with warm Indian spices. I was also inspired by the pumpkin latte that is ubiquitous in coffee shops during this time. Thus came to be the Pumpkin-Spice Chai – pumpkin puree whisked into milk and simmered with a mix of cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, ginger and tea leaves. Hot and steaming (my thermos did a really good job), it was the perfect thing to sip on a cold day.
Is it time for dessert already? Do you have space for a giant cookie – one that’s crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, studded with white chocolate chips, cranberries and roasted macadamia nuts, and that exudes an aroma of browned butter when unwrapped; a cookie that’s the pinnacle of cookie perfection? Yes? I thought so.
But I hope you leave some room for this apple cake adapted from Marie-Helene in Dorie Greenspan’s Around my French Table. This is less cake and more an excuse to hold in buttery suspension the many, many apple chunks that go into the batter. Needless to say, it’s a very moist cake and, as I’ve discovered, only improves with age. A perfect ending to a beautiful fall picnic.
Did you say fall picnic? Well, a picnic in October has its own pitfalls. Apparently it was raining all over the world yesterday (a scientific fact deduced from my fellow food bloggers’ tweets). Despite the fact that it had rained all week and that it was just the two of us, my roomie and I optimistically planned a trip to St. Jacobs Country, rich in Mennonite heritage. Public transport can be a boon, because we arrived in style aboard a historic steam train (the car we were sitting in was built in the 1920′s), winding our way through parks and woods and fields. We spent a happy hour poking around the railway yard, admiring the beautifully maintained carriages; one had even been turned into an ice cream store!
The weather was being friendly, so we took a short hike on a section of the Trans-Canada trail. Ravenous by now, we found a quiet spot for our picnic and unpacked our goodies from the Project Food Blog hamper. No sooner had I taken a few quick pictures than it started pouring. (Of course!) Luckily, there was a covered picnic area nearby and we scrambled for it.
In spite of the weather turning cold and gray, we spent a few happy hours eating, talking, giggling, taking pictures (me), patiently posing for pictures (H) and eating some more. (If you saw a crazy lady fiddling with her camera timer and a stack of napkins as a tripod and running to get into a picture, that was not me.) A rainy afternoon is a perfect excuse for shopping and we spent another relaxed couple of hours roaming the picturesque St. Jacobs’ village. A hot cup of coffee and a chocolate treat (we couldn’t resist) later, we were on the bus back home. Tired, happy, full and content – signs of a day well spent.
P.S. *PFB voting is now open. Thank you so much everyone for your love and support.
P.P.S. To give the recipes the attention they deserve, I’ll be featuring all of them in upcoming individual posts. Keep your eyes out for them.