Picnics

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What gorgeous weather for a picnic…well at least it’s heavenly here, blue skies and the sun’s shining.  Sod’s law will probably dictate that it’s lashing rain as you read this…but there’s optimism in the air so grab your picnic basket and head for the countryside…

I come from a long line of picnickers, those who know me will be well aware that there’s always a picnic basket in the boot of the car plus a ‘Granny trolley’ (not sure if that’s what you call one of those roll-along deep shopping bags).  In case I need to schlep my picnic over rough terrain to reach the perfect spot – a sheltered nook along the seashore, in a woodland, on a river bank or beside a lake or babbling brook…

I also keep an old frying pan, some firelighters, a little pack of kindling, a box of matches and some newspaper so I can build a little fire on a circle of stones (where appropriate) to cook a few sausages.  Good breakfast sausages take on a whole new dimension of flavour when cooked and eaten outdoors.

So what to pack into your picnic basket.  My picnics are often super simple, a loaf of good soda or sourdough bread and Jersey butter….a few ripe cherry tomatoes, a bunch of radishes, perhaps a smoked duck or chicken breast or maybe some smoked mackerel or salmon to slice into thin slivers – all brilliant pantry standbys.  The Gravlax recipe I gave on the 1st May 2021 is also a brilliant picnic food, we’ve been having fun experimenting with a beetroot and dill version which is moist and succulent as well as gorgeous to look at when sliced into thin beetroot tinged slices.  Bring a little pot of sweet dill mayonnaise to drizzle over the top and enjoy it with a brown yeast or rye bread. 

It’s hard to beat a freshly roast chicken.  Time it to come out of the oven just before you leave so it’s still juicy and gorgeous when you unpack your picnic.  A bowl of homemade mayonnaise with a little tarragon snipped in would complete the simple feast and of course a jar of Ballymaloe Relish.  Another favourite is a piece of glazed freshly cooked loin of bacon with a sugary glaze spiked with cloves.  A picnic can be super simple, I love to have some artisan salami or chorizo, canned mackerel or sardines too…  For bang for your buck, it’s hard to beat a couple of ripe avocados sprinkled with flaky sea salt, what could be easier…

Pop in some fruit, maybe ripe cherries or a punnet or two of Irish strawberries.  We love to dip them in a little mound of castor sugar and then into a little pot of whipped cream – simple, delicious and super easy.  Bring a chilled ripe watermelon in a cold box and cut it into wedges– instant deliciousness and of course an oozy cheese and crackers.

For a less spontaneous picnic, one can make a creamy quiche or some empanadas, a crunchy filo pie and a seasonal fruittart. 

Don’t forget Myrtle Allen’s chest of sandwiches which takes a little time to prepare but always gets a brilliant reaction and is pretty much a complete picnic in a loaf.  Bring along a bottle of chilled rosé and maybe some homemade lemonade, elderflower fizz and some artisan beer.

Here are a few suggestions….

Myrtle Allen’s Picnic Chest of Sandwiches

Serves 8 approx.

1 x 900g (2lbs) pan loaf

50g (2oz) approx. butter

a long sharp knife with a pointed top

a serrated bread knife

Sandwich fillings might include:

scrambled egg and chives

gravlax with sweet mustard sauce

roasted pepper, Mozzarella and pesto

mature Cheddar cheese with Ballymaloe Country Relish and cucumber pickle

roast chicken with red pepper mayonnaise and sunflower sprouts

tomato, buffalo Mozzarella, tapenade and basil leaves…..

Garnish: salad leaves, watercress, flat parsley, cherry tomatoes, spring onions

Insert the knife at the side just over the bottom crust, just inside the back of the loaf. Push it through until it reaches but does not go through the crust on the far side. Without making the cut any bigger through which the knife was inserted, work the knife in a fan shape as far forward as possible, then pull it out. Do the same from the opposite corner at the other end of the loaf. The bread should now be cut away from the bottom crust inside without a noticeable mark on the exterior of the loaf.

Next cut through the top of the loaf to make a lid, carefully leaving one long side uncut, as a hinge.

Finally, with the lid open, cut the bread away from the sides. Ease it carefully, it should turn out in a solid brick or a round, leaving an empty case behind.

Cut it into slices, long horizontal ones, square vertical ones or rounds, depending on the shape of the loaf. Carefully stack them, butter them and fill them with your chosen filling or fillings in the order in which they were cut. Don’t forget to season each sandwich. Press the sandwiches together firmly and fill them back, still in order into the loaf.

For a picnic.

Close the top of the case and wrap it up, it will gape slightly because of the extra bulk of delicious filling. The sandwiches will keep very fresh.  Add some crisp lettuce and watercress leaves, small ripe tomatoes, spring onions etc. to look like a little hamper overflowing with fruit and vegetables.


Cheddar Cheese Focaccia Sandwich

This soda bread focaccia can be whipped up in 2-3 minutesand it takes just 20-30 minutes to bake.  It is best eaten on the day it is made but is still perfectly edible next day and is also very good toasted.  Here we bake it flat with a bubbly Cheddar cheese topping.

Cheddar Cheese Focaccia (see recipe)

Filling

slices of chorizo or salami of your choice

hard-boiled eggs

homemade mayonnaise, sweet chilli sauce

rocket leaves

First make the bread (see recipe).

To Assemble

Cut the bread in squares and split or hinge. Butter or drizzle with extra virgin oil, top with slices of chorizo, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, sweet chilli sauce and rocket leaves or another filling of your choice.

Cheddar Cheese Focaccia

450g (1lb) plain white flour, preferably unbleached

1 level teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon bread soda (Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Soda)

sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 400ml (14fl oz) approx.

110-175g (4-6oz) Irish mature Cheddar cheese

1 rectangular tin with deep sides 31 x 21cm (12 x 8 1/4 inch)

First fully preheat your oven to 230˚C/450˚F/Gas Mark 8.

Sieve all the dry ingredients.   Make a well in the centre.  Pour all of the milk in at once.  Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky.  When it all comes together, turn it out onto a floured board.  Tidy it up, flip over and roll the dough into a rectangle, approx. 31 x 23cm (12 x 9 inches).   Brush the tin with extra virgin olive oil. Press the dough gently into the tin. Scatter the grated cheese evenly over the top.

Bake in a hot oven for 5 minutes, then turn down the oven to 200˚C/400˚F/Gas Mark 6 for about 20-25 minutes or until just cooked. The cheese should be bubbly and golden on top.

A little sprinkling of sliced spring onions would be delicious over the top.


Heirloom Tomato and Ricotta Tart

How about this gorgeous tart for your picnic.  It was originally inspired by a photo on the cover of Delicious magazine. The ricotta and pecorino filling is uncooked, so be sure to assemble the tart close to the time of eating.  Choose really ripe tomatoes.  I use the delicious buffalo ricotta made in West Cork for this dish.

Serves 8

For the Pastry

150g (5oz) plain white flour

75g (3oz) cold butter

a little water, to bind

1 beaten organic, free-range egg, to seal

For the filling

250g (9oz) buffalo ricotta

100g (3 1/2oz) pecorino cheese, grated

2 tablespoons double cream

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons chopped basil, thyme and marjoram, plus extra leaves to garnish

zest of 1/2 organic lemon

flaky sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

650g (1 1/2lbs) mixed ripe heritage and cherry tomatoes, including striped zebra (green), red and yellow cherry tomatoes, if available

First make the pastry. All the ingredients should be cold. Sift the flour into a large bowl. Cut the butter into cubes. Toss the cubes into the flour and then proceed to lift up a few cubes of butter at the time in each hand. Using your thumbs, rub the cubes of butter across the middle three fingers, towards the index fingers.

Allow the flakes of floured butter to drop back into the bowl, then pick up some more and continue until all the butter is rubbed in. As you rub in the butter, hold your hands well above the bowl and run your fingers through the flour to incorporate as much air as possible to keep the mixture cool. This whole process should only take a minute or two – careful not to rub the butter in too much, or the pastry will be heavy. The pieces should resemble lumpy breadcrumbs. If you are in doubt, shake the bowl and any larger pieces will come to the top. Add salt if using unsalted butter.

Using a fork, toss and stir the pastry as you add just enough water to bind, 2–3 tablespoons should do the trick. If you are in doubt, discard the fork and collect up the pastry with your hand as you will be able to judge more easily by feel if it needs a little more water. Careful not to make the pastry too wet or it will shrink in the oven. If the pastry is too dry, it will be difficult to roll out.

When the pastry has come together, turn it out onto the work surface and flatten it into an approx. 30cm round. Cover with greaseproof paper and, if possible, set aside in the fridge to rest for at least 15 minutes to allow the gluten to relax. The pastry will then be less likely to shrink in the oven.

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°C/Gas Mark 4.

Roll out the pastry to a circle approx. 25cm (10 inch) in diameter. Lift the pastry over a 23cm (9 inch) greased tart tin and press down gently around the sides. Trim around the edges with a sharp knife and prick the base gently with a fork. Line with baking parchment and fill with baking beans.

Transfer the pastry case to the oven and bake ‘blind’ for about 25 minutes until pale and golden. Remove the baking beans and paper. Brush the part-baked pastry case all over with a little beaten egg and pop it back into the oven for 5–10 minutes until pale golden brown all over. Set aside to cool.

To make the filling, combine the ricotta and pecorino in a bowl. Add the double cream, extra virgin olive oil, honey, herbs, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Mix gently together. Taste a little dollop of the filling with a slice of tomato and correct the seasoning, if necessary. It might need a little more honey.

Slice the larger tomatoes and cut the smaller cherry ones in half lengthways or crossways, as you prefer.

Not long before serving, spoon the ricotta filling into the cooked pastry case and arrange the tomatoes on top. I like to arrange the sliced, bigger ones, including the green zebra over the base and top with the smaller cherry tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, a little drizzle of honey (about 1/2 teaspoon) and lots of thyme and marjoram leaves. Garnish with a few little basil leaves and serve soon.

From ‘One Pot Feeds All’ by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books


Spanakopita

Greek Spinach and Cheese Pie

Spanakopita can also be made in individual ‘snails’, but this delicious flaky version comes in a sauté pan.  This version is good for a picnic feast as it serves 12–15 people.  You can halve the recipe if you’re serving smaller numbers.

Serves 12-15

150g (5oz) butter

900g (2lbs) leeks, sliced and washed really well

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

500g (18oz) onions, finely chopped

8 spring onions (both white and green parts), finely sliced

900g (2lbs) fresh spinach, weighed after the stalks have been removed, washed really well

6 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

6 tablespoons chopped dill

350g (12oz) feta cheese, crumbled

125g (4 1/2oz) Parmesan cheese, grated

4 organic, free-range eggs, beaten

9 sheets of filo pastry, 30 x 43cm (12 x 17 inch) (about one packet)

15g (1/2oz) melted butter, for brushing

egg wash, made by beating 1 organic, free-range egg with 2–3 tablespoons whole milk

flaky sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.

Melt the butter in a 26cm (10 inch) ovenproof sauté pan and cook the sliced leeks with 2–3 tablespoons of water for 4–5 minutes until tender (older leeks may take slightly longer). Scoop the leeks out of the pan and set aside on a plate while you cook the spinach.

Heat the olive oil in the sauté pan, add the onions and spring onions, and sweat over a low heat for 3–4 minutes, covered, until soft but not coloured. Increase the heat to medium, add the spinach and toss well to coat it in the oil.  Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Add the chopped parsley and dill, and continue to cook for 4–5 minutes, stirring, until the spinach has wilted.  Turn out the spinach mixture into a colander and set aside to drain and cool.

Combine the crumbled feta and 100g (3 1/2oz) of the grated Parmesan in a medium bowl and beat in the egg.  Add the well-drained spinach and the leeks and season to taste.

Brushing each sheet of filo with melted butter as you go, layer up the pastry in the base of the sauté pan or roasting dish so that it comes up the sides, leaving enough pastry hanging over the sides to fold over and encase the filling.

Spread the filling evenly over the pastry and bring up the sides of the filo to enclose the filling.  Score the top of the pie into a diamond or square pattern and brush all over with the egg wash.  Sprinkle the surface with the remaining 25g (1oz) grated Parmesan.

Put the sauté pan onto a gas jet at medium, cook for 3-4 minutes or until the pan heats and the base starts to brown.  Transfer to the oven and bake for about 45 minutes until puffed up and golden.

Serve, cut into wedges, while still warm and fluffy.

From ‘One Pot Feeds All’ by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books

JR Ryall’s Dundee Cake

This cake is famous – we all love it.  JR Ryle, head pastry chef at Ballymaloe House is also an avid picnicker and always includes this in his basket.

Makes 1 x 18cm (7 inch) round cake or 900g (2lbs) loaf

225g (8oz) softened butter

225g (8oz) caster sugar

grated rind of 1 large orange

4 eggs

225g (8oz) plain flour, sifted

50g (2oz) ground almonds

25g (1oz) mixed candied peel

100g (4oz) currants

100g (4oz) sultanas

100g (4oz) raisins

50g (2oz) glacé cherries, quartered

40-50 split blanched and peeled almonds

Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2 and line an 18cm (7 inch) round tin or a 900g (2lbs) loaf tin.

Cream butter and sugar until smooth and light.  Beat the eggs.  Add in three stages alternating with a tablespoon of the flour between each addition. Beat thoroughly.  Mix ground almonds, dried fruit and orange rind before folding into the mixture.  Fold in the remaining flour carefully.  Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the split almonds over the entire top.

Bake in the preheated oven for 2 1/2 – 3 hours until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow 10 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool.

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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