I spent my first year of marriage in a new, strange city. My new husband and I were living in graduate student housing at the University of Chicago. We had two rooms with a closet that held what would have to pass for my kitchen: a miniature stove, a sink and a fridge. The only personal decorating items were presents from my hope chest that my mother had gathered for me through the years. Back in the day, it was the custom, in my family at least, to gift daughters with beautiful linens like tablecloths, sheets and pillowcases, some of which would likely be hand-embroidered with flowers and initials. Mothers would keep these items for their daughters in trunks — known as a hope chest — until the man of their dreams would come along.
Before I even started to date, my mother had crocheted a blanket for the crib of an anticipated grandbaby, a trivialization of the role of women that feminists now look down upon, I am sure — but in those days we weren’t thinking about whether children could be fit into our lives. That we would be married by our early twenties and having kids moments later was just assumed.
I was always cautious about using that blanket for my kids — when I had them — for fear that they would become tangled in their sleep. I still have the darling piece that I cover myself with as a summer blanket when reading in my favorite chair or while watching TV. The baby quilt with the hand embroidered alphabet is still intact, too, and I use it for picnics. I don’t worry about staining it anymore, but I can hear my mother’s voice warning me that certain foods do stain. I figure these items have endured 50 years, why not just enjoy them! Besides a few tablecloths, a quilt and an afghan that my mother made, we had a large Van Gogh print of sunflowers. These items worked together to personalize our tiny, institutional apartment in Chicago, creating some feeling of home. Together with the pans and dishes my mother packed, enough to open a petite cafe, a certain air of coziness was achieved, a goal I have always strived for in my decorating.
My friend Elery is a gifted carpenter, and although it is not his occupation, he enjoys working with wood. On Saturday, he came over and put together a shelf for me, a small shelf, but still, one large enough to accommodate my tablecloths. I had a pair of antique iron brackets that have played many supporting roles through the years which Elery mounted at the bottom of the stairs to hold the shelf. He trimmed a piece of plywood so that it looks like a heavy piece of wood, creating a shelf that is substantial enough but not too big, and I couldn’t have been more pleased if he had brought me a gift from Tiffany. The shelf is right off the kitchen and handy to our kitchen table which will adorn these items. Some were my mother’s cloths from the ’40s, others are juvenile prints, like from Alice in Wonderland, a few small quilts that are great for picnics. Often, if I find some Marimekko fabric, my favorite, I will make my own table cloths. All those cloths, collected and cherished through the years, now sit comfortably on the new shelf — so happy together.
My shelf inspired me to get my picnic ware ready for the season. On the shelf that previously held those tablecloths, in my laundry room, I have gathered my baskets and small coolers. They look festive and colorful and it is a welcome change. In a storage container in the basement I placed my collection of plastic plates that have been collected, a few at a time, from favorite thrift shops. I have enough tableware left over from my restaurant days so I don’t need plastic forks and utensils. Other items include plastic glasses, paper towels, a serrated knife, a cutting board and small knife and of course a bottle opener, along with a bunch of non-matching little cloth napkins, which I prefer to paper. Insect repellent, sunscreen, citronella candles, trash bags are in their own basket. When inspired by warm days or special people mood, a picnic can quickly be made ready to go. With all these essential items in place, I only need to decide what to cook when inspiration strikes.
A few food rules for picnic safety: Keep food chilling in the fridge for as long as possible, then pack it in a cooler surrounded by ice packs. Be very careful with meat, seafood and eggs, and protein in general. If you plan on grilling at the picnic, pack raw meat and marinade in drip proof containers at the bottom of your cooler. Never serve the meat’s marinade without bringing it to a boil first. Ideal storage temperature is 40 degrees or below. Never partially cook food to finish off later. Bacteria thrive in moderate temperature. As I used to constantly tell my staff at Rosalie’s, remember “Food that should be hot or cold.” When you are transporting food in a car, keep the perishable items out of your hot trunk. Don’t leave food out longer than one hour. The five-day Sanitation course that I took years ago made quite the impression on me, can you tell?
Some of my favorite picnic foods: I love deviled eggs with green tomato jam mixed with the yolks, especially. A variety of cheese with fig jam, fruit, cured meats, baguette and a nice bottle of wine make an easy, simple picnic. Cold soups like potato leek, gazpacho, watercress, spinach, pea are wonderful. Don’t forget to bring paper cups or plastic bowls. Meat such as pulled pork, meatballs, sausage with broccoli rabbi, chicken salad and meat loaf all work well on herbed focaccia, which makes an easy to handle sandwich in natural environments because it is softer than a baguette. The spinach pie that I served at Rosalie’s makes a delicious picnic with a tomato, mozzarella and basil salad or — a family favorite in recent years — a salad of watermelon, mint and feta is wonderfully refreshing in warm weather. Bring a simple dressing of oil and lemon packed in jar and finish your salad to order.
White wine sangria provides great refreshment on a picnic. Put cut up peaches, orange slices, 1/4 cup sugar, half a bottle of white wine and 2 cups of soda water or ginger ale, and a sprinkle of cinnamon in a jar. At serving time, pour over ice and add a little fresh fruit and mint. Fresh fruit and cookies are always nice for dessert.
Whether you choose the beach, a park, or your own backyard or porch for your picnic, spread out one of your old quilts or tablecloths, gather a few friends and family and celebrate the heat with a delightful meal.
The New York Times magazine on Sunday always has a recipe that can be inspirational. Recently, the paper featured an item about leftovers, one of my favorite subjects, and how to “repurpose” them.
My recipe with inspiration: from Potato and Radicchio Tart. N. Y. Times.
Make a dough:
In food processor place a cup and a half of white flour, a half tsp. salt and a tbsp. sugar. Pulse a few seconds to combine.
Cut up a stick of butter into eight pieces and add to the processor with a tbsp. Crisco. Pulse until it is crumbly.
All at once add 4 1/2 tbsp. ice water, pulse a few seconds until a ball is formed. Refrigerate for thirty minutes.
Check any leftovers in fridge. Spinach, rabbi, any leafy greens, but broccoli works as well. Ham, bacon, sausage, leftover sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, cauliflower, mashed potatoes, pasta, rice anything cooked like that.
Herbs: parsley, chives, cilantro, turmeric or any annual.
Ricotta, mascarpone, any hard cheese, grated or Swiss, cheddar or the like is nice, too.
Roll out the dough to a twelve-inch circle and place on a greased cookie sheet. Spread about a cup and a half of ricotta almost to the edge with a spatula.
Mix any veggies that you think will complement each other in a large bowl and sprinkle with a few tbsp. olive oil.
Add any chopped herbs, salt and pepper.
Spread over the ricotta, sprinkle with about a cup of cut up cheese.
Fold an inch at the edge of the dough inward like a crostata.
Brush the dough with egg wash and bake for forty-five minutes at 350 until the edge and bottom are nicely browned.
If you like you can sprinkle it with grated Parmesan and serve with a radicchio salad dressed with olive oil and a sprinkle of lemon, arranged on top of the slightly cooled tart.
Good for three days in fridge.