Now that it’s more or less officially summertime, it seems appropriate to write something about picnics. I’ve always been a fan of eating outdoors. My mother tells me that when I was a child, I used to point out likely picnic spots as we sped down the roads of Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina — the states where I spent most of my early childhood. I had a rudimentary set of criteria for judgement; the best spots were shady and close to restrooms, with extra points awarded for proximity to water. However, I was not at all fond of picnicking in cemetaries, a common practice in the South. It didn’t seem right, somehow, to be eating on top of the dead. Besides, for some reason, cemetaries attract fire ants, the scourge of all picnics.
As an adult, I moved to Vail, Colorado, a place filled with perfect picnic spots. During the Summer months, I ate many enjoyable meals on the shores of Gore Creek or high above the Vail Valley at Big Pine Lake, sometimes with friends but just as often alone. I was a committed picnicker.
These days, I eat plenty of meals outside, mostly seated at the new dining table on my patio. As pleasant as this is, I can’t exactly call it “picnicking.” It’s more like dining al fresco. A little too refined to count. Still, I treasure the memories of picnics past.
One of these took place in Tunica Hills, Louisiana, right next door to Angola State Prison. Louisiana is a famously flat state, so the Tunica Hills are remarkably, umm, hilly. A bike trail runs through the hills with some commanding views of the Angola rodeo grounds through a tangle of concertina wire. And, in spite of its proximity to “The Farm,” the Tunica Hills are really quite peaceful, with several surprisingly large waterfalls interspersed throughout the steep hills and the deep dark woods.
I picnicked in Tunica about 10 years ago with my long, lost friend Sherry Castle. We drove there in the morning, biked all day, and came home late at night, thoroughly exhausted. It was a beautiful Spring day; the trails were a little slick from an overnight rain shower. The hills did not disappoint.
At lunchtime, we stopped near a waterfall for one of the best picnic meals I’ve ever had. Sherry brought homemade blueberry scones, which she used as the base for smoked turkey sandwiches. My more meager contributions included a jumbo-sized bag of blue corn chips and a thermos full of sweet tea, “the house wine of the South, according to Pat Conroy. The chips were good, but those sandwiches were little bits of heaven. The combination of flavors was unexpected and surprisingly satisfying: the slightly sweet scones, the smokey turkey, and the hint of spice from the Dijon mustard.
There we sat, Sherry and I, dangling our legs over the side of a rock face, tired, sweaty, and streaked with mud, eating scones — of all things — within shouting distance of one of the most notoriously bad prisons in the country. Another perfect combination of unexpected elements, also surprisingly satisfying.
The two of us consumed three sandwiches each, nearly the entire bag of chips, and all of the slightly warm and very sweet tea. Then we staggered onto our bikes and tried to remain erect for the mercifully downhill ride back to the car.
I’ve been thinking about Sherry and those sandwiches lately. With blueberry season upon us, it seems like a good time to post a recipe for something containing these magical berries. Perhaps it’s also time to dust off the picnic basket and take it out for a spin.
Blueberry Scones (adapted from marthastewart.com)
Scones are not difficult to make, but you must handle the dough VERY carefully to avoid building up the glutens in the flour. In fact, the less you handle it the better. I find it easiest to mix the dry ingredients in the food processor, but you can also use a fork to blend the butter into the flour and sugar.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries, picked over and rinse
1/3 cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing tops
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling on the tops
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, with rack in center. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, process flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, zest and salt using small pulses. Add butter and pulse just until the largest pieces are the size of peas.
3. Transfer dry ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Add blueberries and gently stir until just combined. In a separate measuring cup, whisk together cream and eggs. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients, and pour in cream mixture. Stir very gently with a fork, just until the dough comes together. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to mix well.
4. Pat dough into a 6-inch square about 1 1/4 inches thick. Using a floured knife, cut into four 3-inch squares. Cut squares in half on the diagonal to form eight triangles. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Brush tops with cream, and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 22 minutes. Transfer scones to wire racks to cool. Makes 8 scones.
A scone makes a delicious unadorned accompaniment to a well made cup of coffee. However, you can always gild the lily by topping them with butter, jam, lemon curd, or clotted cream. If you want to make sandwiches, split the scones in half and spread both sides with good quality Dijon mustard. Layer on thinly sliced or, better, shaved smoked turkey. Find a likely picnic spot using your own criteria for perfection. Enjoy.