Fresh herb muffin in a meadow: A perfect treat for a sophisticated picnic.
What is it about a picnic that makes the food taste incomparably better than when it is in your own kitchen? Is it the planning, the packing, the sharing, or maybe the preceding hike to reach that perfect patch of green with a view?
About that last ingredient, though, it would be a mistake to think of picnics as strictly reserved to beach and countryside settings. In fact, city picnics may provide even more delightful an escape.
Clotilde Dusoulier is the 26-year-old Parisienne behind the popular food blog Chocolate & Zucchini. She is working on her first cookbook.
At the first signs of warm weather, Parisians round up their friends and meet to enjoy a nice evening of open-air, sit-on-the-grass dining, basking in the combined light of the moon and the streetlamps.
Popular spots abound, from the Champ de Mars gardens beneath the Eiffel Tower to the Pont des Arts footbridge, from the banks of the Seine (the Quai St.-Bernard in particular, where there is music and dance) to the Canal St.-Martin.
As the perfect embodiment of dining freedom and playfulness, a chic picnic can and should be the simplest of things.
Try to stick to edibles for which your fingers are the only silverware you'll need. I love salads but find them awkward to eat outdoors: try balancing your fork and plate on your lap while reaching out for a piece of cheese and being served a little more wine, only to discover that dressing has been slowly dripping onto your skirt the whole time.
A cold soup, packed in a thermos and served in regular cups, serves the double purpose of a tasty starter and a refreshing drink. Bryan Miller's gazpacho, featured previously in Kitchen Window, is a perfect make-ahead choice that gets better as it sits.
A popular item at French picnics is the cake sale, our version of the American quick bread. While I like to bake and slice a loaf for a party buffet, I find the muffin shape better suited to picnic enjoyment. You will find my recipe for fresh herb muffins below.
A picnic isn't truly a picnic without sandwiches, and my favorite formula is the "sandwich bar." Bring different kinds of bread and a variety of fixings in containers, and have picnickers assemble their own sandwich on location. Some of the elements can be homemade, but you should also make the most of what the grocery stores, ethnic stores and delis have to offer.
For the bread, great options include fresh baguette, herbed focaccia, individual rolls of specialty bread, pita pockets, flour tortillas and/or anything else that looks good at the bakery.
Bring a few spreads: Pesto, tapenade, anchovy paste, fresh cheese (plain or flavored), Middle Eastern eggplant dip (baba ghanoush), chutneys and relishes will all make a fine lining for your bread.
Pack a combination of meats (slices of ham, prosciutto, roast beef, poached chicken breasts) and terrines, cans of sardines (make sure they have easy-to-open lids), a few of your favorite cheeses (you can pre-slice them), shavings of Parmesan or pecorino and slices of marinated tofu.
To put a little green in your sandwiches, combine baby spinach, lamb's lettuce (mache) and arugula leaves with a handful of basil leaves, cilantro or other fresh herbs, snipped or torn roughly.
Finally, throw in a few flavor enhancers such as roasted and marinated vegetables (from the Italian deli), sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (drain before you leave), bean or alfalfa sprouts, cornichons and pitted olives.
For dessert, easy-to-eat fresh fruits are a great choice (plums, cherries, apricots, grapes, figs, berries — rinsed and dried before you leave), paired with crowd-pleasers like butter cookies, ladyfingers or a moist chocolate cake, pre-cut into individual servings. You can also put together dessert sandwiches on fresh brioche or challah, filled with jam (or fruit compote) and roasted nuts, or make sweet club sandwiches with multigrain sandwich bread (crustless and toasted), filled with raspberries and chocolate-hazelnut spread.
Bring several bottles of water; you can slip in a few leaves of mint or slices of lime. You can also bring iced green tea in a thermos, and a light and fruity red wine (keep in the fridge until ready to leave).
You will also need disposable plates, napkins and cups — keep an eye out year-round for pretty and eco-friendly ones. Bring a tablecloth and a few beach towels, a serrated knife for slicing bread, a few knives for making sandwiches, a corkscrew, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and garbage bags. To pack the food, use your usual airtight containers, save the ones they give you at the deli, and look in Japanese stores for beautiful stackable lunch boxes.
These are of course mere suggestions. As everyone pitches in with their own contribution, your menu will be a colorful reflection of the culinary personalities of you and your friends, for such is the spice of picnics!
Fresh Herb Muffins
A small bunch of fresh flat parsley, about 25 sprigs
A small bunch of fresh cilantro, about 25 sprigs
A small bunch of fresh chives, about 20 sprigs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup pesto
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
A pat of butter to grease muffin tins
Yields 6 to 8 medium muffins
Preheat the oven to 350° F and butter a medium-size muffin tin (unnecessary if you use muffin liners or a silicon pan).
Rinse and dry the fresh herbs. Pluck the leaves from the parsley and cilantro and chop them roughly. Snip the chives and set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, salt and pepper until white and frothy. Pour in the buttermilk, pesto and parmesan, and whisk again. In a small bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Pour the flour mixture into the egg mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon until incorporated. Don’t overmix the dough; it’s fine if a few lumps remain. Add the fresh herbs and stir again to combine.
Pour the batter into the prepared muffin tin, filling them to about two-thirds of their capacity. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 25 minutes or until golden. Let cool for a few minutes on the counter and turn out on a rack to cool completely.
This is a great picnic item, but it will also work well in place of bread with a salad of young greens and fresh goat cheese, or with a summer soup.