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.
To waffle: v. British informal; to talk incessantly or foolishly; prattle; engage in double talk.
I don’t know what to say about the American Democratic party these days. Apparently, Democratic politicians don’t know what to say either, so they just keep saying a bunch of nonsense, hoping to sound attractive to someone out there. They definitely don’t sound attractive to me. Why is it that everytime there’s some setback somewhere, the party interprets the political message as “head to the center?” The fools are waffling, I think.
And I wish they would stop it.
Instead, maybe they could just make waffles. It’s easy enough to do and much more productive. So, here’s a recipe for all of the Congressional Democrats (and for those of you higher up the food chain as well). You’ll need to start the night before. Plan ahead.
Waffles for Democrats
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 package of yeast
1 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1.5 sticks of butter, melted
1 cup of whole milk
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
The freshly grated peel of one orange
3 eggs, room temperature — ahem — separated
In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients, save the eggs. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel or plate and keep it overnight in a place full of hot air. Like maybe your briefcases.
In the morning, beat the egg whites in a stand mixer until they hold stiff peaks. Meanwhile, gently mix the yolks into the waffle batter. Next, carefully, fold the egg whites into the batter. Don’t deflate the egg whites as you’ve deflated your own legislative prospects with a year’s worth of incessant waffling.
Cook the batter in a waffle iron according to the manufacturer’s directions. This recipe makes enough waffles for five Democratic members of Congress, assuming 2 per stooge. You don’t really deserve that many, so don’t even think of asking for more. Top with butter and maple syrup. Now, sit down, shut up for a bit, and eat.
When you’ve finished, stop all of your tiresome waffling and go pass meaningful health care reform legislation. Hell, even the Senate version is better than nothing (and I can’t belive you morons have forced me to say that).
And, please, please, please Act Blue. Do try to remember that half of American voters elected you people to do so. Instead of waffling around, pathetically trying to appeal to bankers and nutters, you might actually attempt to do something for us — your justifiably angry supporters.
It’s a sad reality, but oatmeal is not a photogenic food. Have a look.
Unphotogenic when cooking
I suppose you can’t expect much beauty from a food that is often referred to as “nature’s broom.”
Unphotogenic when cooked
"Food styling" doesn't really help
The thing is, it hardly matters. Oatmeal is the superlative breakfast food. It’s unbelievably good for you and it tastes…well, the way I make it, it tastes like an oatmeal cookie with cranberries and pecans thrown in for fun and fiber.
Not a bad way to start the day.
The key for me is to cook it for a very short amount of time–seconds, really. Basically, I just toss the uncooked oatmeal around in the boiling water. You can’t really tell from these pictures, but the flakes here are mostly intact.
I grew up in an “oatmeal household.” Both of my parents ate oatmeal regularly, especially when the weather turned cool, and they encouraged my brother and me to eat it too. There was never any chance of that. To me, oatmeal was the kind of food that was served in orphanages and mental asylums, the kind of food that a person with any say in the matter would refuse to touch. No amount of butter and brown sugar could compensate for that oatmeal’s most salient quality–its unrelenting mushiness. I was never able to stomach it.
Until, that is, I learned that oatmeal need not resemble flavorless paste. Of course, I had to leave home for that to happen.
Inevitably, a recurrent theme in this blog will be stories of how I have come to terms with the food traumas of my youth. What do I mean by “food trauma?” We all suffer from food traumas; some of us have lists of them. These aren’t exactly food aversions, although they can be. Specifically, food traumas are negative memories of those foods that your parents regularly served or prepared so badly that, decades later, you still cringe to think about them.
It seems to me that an especially large percentage of my generation suffers from food traumas because when so many of our mothers entered the workforce in the early 70s, a lot of them bought into the idea of processed convenience foods in big ways. Foods that saved time and energy were good, regardless of how they tasted. Remember Swanson T.V. dinners? The ones in the divided metal containers that you heated up in the oven? The rubbery fried chicken? The plastic mashed potatoes? The greyish lump of green beans? The mysterious fruit cobbler? They took an hour to cook, but the oven did all the work, and that qualified them as good food. Oh, heavens… My generation was on the frontlines of an American culinary revolution, and we have the scars to prove it.
These scars are mostly mental.
I look at the oatmeal situation now and can clearly see what the problem was. Their oatmeal was insanely mushy because my parents bought “instant” oatmeal. They did this because, as a modern couple, they reasonably believed that anything”instant” was better than anything “old-fashioned.” And they weren’t alone. Many of us were traumatized as a result of this kind of thinking.
But sometimes food traumas can be squarely faced. My oatmeal barely resembles the stuff my parents ate. I use “old-fashioned” oats, not the instant stuff that looks more like oat dust than oatmeal. I also cook it on the stove, not the microwave. I add crunchy and chewy things for textural variety and spice for–if you can imagine– flavor.
Here’s a quick recipe for two servings, one adult-sized and one toddler-sized. This oatmeal isn’t pretty, but it does taste good, in a solid, old-fashioned kind of way.
1/3 cup water
1/4 cup chopped nuts (I use pecans)
1/4 cup dried cranberries or other dried fruit
8-9 tablespoons old fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt*
Milk or turbinado sugar to finish
In a serving bowl, combine oats, cranberries, pecans, and cinnamon. In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling gently, drop in the vanilla and pinch of salt (if using) and then immediately add oat mixture. Stir very gently. You’re just trying to wet the oats. Heat oatmeal through for about 30 seconds; you may need to add a splash of water. Remove from heat. Pour cooked oatmeal into waiting bowls. I add milk to my daughter’s oatmeal; my own gets a sprinkle of about a 1/2 teaspoon’s worth of turbinado sugar. Serve immediately.
*The salt is a matter of some debate in my household. My husband maintains that the salt contributes to the flavor of the oatmeal. It certainly does, but the pinch of salt also makes the oatmeal just a tiny bit mushy, which is why I do not add it. Given my history,who would blame me?