There's something magical about a casual meal of salads or sandwiches, a good baguette, a ripe cheese and some fruit enjoyed en plein air; in other words, a picnic.
The word picnic comes from the French pique-nique and was originally a potluck social event. By the 19th century, picnics were linked to excursions and eaten outside in beautiful settings.
A pleasure excursion, a beautiful setting — the romance is undeniable. That must be why picnics have been portrayed in films, literature and even captured on canvas (think Manet's Le Dejeuner sur L'herbe.)
These fine-arts versions conjure an ideal pique-nique: a lush period piece shot through a gold-filtered lens, a checkered blanket set out by a lake on a cloudless day, the young and glamorous unpacking a wicker basket overflowing with rare delicacies. And if children exist, they are either at home with the nanny or off riding horses.
In the real-life version, though, the nanny must have the day off because the kids are not only present, they're complaining of starvation; the little one is crying because she won't eat deviled eggs or chicken salad; and the beautiful fruit salad she will eat is at home on the counter where we forgot it. Then, before anyone's taken a bite, a greenhead fly attacks.
We've moved from a verdant period film to the set of a B-movie. And we Bostonians are the lucky ones, because as you travel to warmer parts of the world, bugs take on even more horrifying proportions. (Even though it happened more than a decade ago, I still vividly remember a hand-sized spider scurrying across my hotel room wall in St. Kitts. A picnic in the tropics must be the quest of a hero — or a fool.)
Despite all the travails, a casual repast eaten outside hasn't lost its allure. My family of four has reached a compromise with nature, though. Rather than packing everything up, hauling it somewhere off the beaten track and keeping our fingers crossed that the weather-insect-pickiness stars all fall into alignment, we opt for the less exotic.
For us, it's the narrow walkway in front of our house, but it could just as easily be a fire escape or even a cement stoop in New York City. It really doesn't matter as long as we're able to feel the sun on our backs as we eat, while still maintaining easy access to running water, the bathroom and extra napkins, not to mention any critical foodstuffs we might have forgotten.
In fact, my 5-year-old daughter and I love picnics so much we'll happily set one up in the living room if we're in the mood for a party but are having what New Englanders call "weather," which is most of the time. I realize naysayers would assert these don't technically qualify as picnics, but 5-year-olds are masters of imagination.
On these special outings (innings?), we're enjoying a perfect meal on a flawless day in our minds. It's always insect-free, and we each have something we like on our plate.
True, it's not the picnic of our dreams. But given what we have to work with here in Boston, it just may be the best of all possible worlds.
4 cups boneless, skinless chicken breast, cooked and cooled (this is about 1 1/2 pounds uncooked)
1 cup seedless red grapes, rinsed and halved
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
1 minced shallot
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup tarragon leaves, chopped
1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Dice the chicken, then toss with the grapes and almonds in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, combine the shallot, mustard, tarragon, vinegar, oil salt and pepper; whisk vigorously. Add to chicken mixture and toss well. It will keep in the fridge for up to three days, although based on the raves I got, it probably won't last that long.