Articles in Drinking w/recipe
It all began (or shall I say culminated?) on a boat with a friendly competition between friends. We were cruising along the coast of southern Mexico on the Mindy, Larry Mindel’s beautiful yacht, when my friend and famed restaurateur challenged me to a margarita competition.
"Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food"
By Joanne Weir,
Oxmoor House, 2015 288 pages
I measured my ingredients carefully into a cocktail shaker and loaded it with ice. After shaking so vigorously my hands turned numb and frost coated the metal cup, I strained the magical elixir into a chilled glass garnished with a lime wheel and handed it to Larry. In my clear-as-day memory, he took one sip and declared, “This is the best margarita I’ve ever had.” Larry tells a different tale, one in which his cocktail was the victor, but we all know tequila has a tendency to do that to people.
Regardless of the details, my way with tequila inspired Larry to propose opening a restaurant together. Though I’d never told anyone, opening my own restaurant had always topped my bucket list, but only if I had the right partner. With a résumé as long as my arm, including nearly 100 successful restaurants like Chianti in Los Angeles, Prego in San Francisco and the Il Fornaio restaurants all over the West Coast, Larry Mindel was certainly the perfect partner. He was also smart, worldly and dashingly handsome. I was thrilled and terrified, but mainly I was worried it was just the tequila talking. I desperately hoped something would actually come of Larry’s proposal.
A culinary journey
My lifelong love affair with food began on my grandparents’ farms (yes, plural — both my maternal and paternal grandparents ran farms in New England), infusing me with a passion for seasonal, homemade, homegrown and artisanal food. I had forged a successful career in the food industry without working in a restaurant since my days as a cook at Chez Panisse in the mid-1980s. And yet I always suspected owning a restaurant was something I was destined to do.
Each step in my winding culinary journey through the world laid the foundation for restaurant ownership. During a rigorous year with Madeleine Kamman earning my Master Chef degree, I learned that loving food meant knowing it inside and out: the origin, history and science behind a dish. Madeleine taught me to sample and truly taste the nuances of individual ingredients and dishes as a whole. She was tough and didn’t take any crap, another lesson that’s served me well in the food world, and life in general.
I followed up my studies with Madeleine at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, my culinary mecca. At the time, Chez Panisse was at the epicenter of the California food revolution, and I was lucky enough to experience everything firsthand. Committed to serving seasonal, local, organic and sustainable food, the restaurant let California’s abundant ingredients speak for themselves without masking their flavor, a philosophy that inspires my cooking to this day. Chez Panisse confirmed what I’d intuited on the farm: highest-quality, fresh ingredients are paramount to good cuisine.
Inspired by seasonal ingredients
As I’ve traveled the world teaching cooking classes in some of the most picturesque locations, I continue to reaffirm that the quality of your ingredients will make or break a meal. Many of my favorite travel memories include trips to the local market — whether shopping the Rialto in Venice, the souk in Marrakech, or the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in my adopted hometown of San Francisco, the market truly is my happy place.
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Surrounded by beautiful, fresh, seasonal ingredients, I am inspired. I always take ideas home with me from my journeys — from markets, local restaurants, purveyors and friends I encounter along the way. I am literally bursting with ideas … ideas that desperately need a restaurant menu as an outlet. I’d done everything else, and the idea of a restaurant was still gnawing at my heart. I wanted to put everything I’d learned along the way from my grandfather, my mother and my travels to work all in one place and see a restaurant come to fruition. It would be fun, creative and truly the challenge I was looking for.
So when, a few months after that fated cruise and margarita competition, I found myself looking at restaurant spaces with Larry, I decided it was finally time to reach my destiny. Thirty years after my first stint in the kitchens of Chez Panisse, I’m back in the exhilarating environment of a restaurant, this time at the helm of Copita Tequileria y Comida in beautiful Sausalito, California. Our menu is seasonal, changing regularly based on inspiration and availability of fresh ingredients. I know for a fact my grandparents would be proud.
It feels like this kitchen gypsy’s culinary journey has finally landed her home. Thank goodness for friends. With boats. And margaritas.
Yield: Serves 1
2 ounces blanco tequila, 100% agave
1/2 ounce agave nectar
3/4 ounce water
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 ice cube, 1 3/4-inch square
1 lime wheel, thinly sliced
Place the tequila, agave nectar, water, lime juice and plenty of ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously for 5 seconds or until you see the frost on the outside of the shaker. Place 1 ice cube in a glass. Strain the margarita into the glass and garnish with a lime wheel.
Main photo: Joanne Weir serves up fresh, seasonal food at Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito, California. Credit: Copyright Chuck Miller
With fall approaching and colder months on the horizon, it’s time to switch from ice cold bottles of beer, glasses of crisp chardonnay, salt-rimmed margaritas and minty mojitos. On a recent trip to the Finger Lakes Region in upstate New York, James Ouderkirk, general manager at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge introduced me to a cocktail he thought perfect to celebrate the change of seasons: a gin cocktail flavored with apricot preserves and burnt orange peel.
Like many cities in the Northeast that prospered during the early part of the 20th century, Syracuse suffered when heavy industries declined in the 1970s. Now enjoying a resurgence, a revitalized downtown centered on Armory Square is home to new restaurants, bars and shops. One of those is Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge.
A trip back in time
The bar’s storefront has served many masters. Once a beauty school and then a cigar store, as Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge the space was transformed into the kind of bar my grandfather would have visited in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The walls are painted bordello red or built out of weathered bricks. Besides the front area, there are several rooms, one filled with overstuffed upholstered sofas and chairs. Another has a pool table. Yet another is filled with arcade style video machines.
With a large plate glass window facing South Clinton Street and a two-story-high ceiling, the main room is focused on a 35-foot wooden bar behind which the floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with an encyclopedic collection of spirits curated locally and from around the world.
A custom cocktail to suit your mood
Unlike many bars serving craft cocktails, Al’s does not have a cocktail menu. According to Ouderkirk, the philosophy of the bar is that patrons should describe how they are feeling and which spirits they enjoy, then the bartender will make a drink that will make them feel better.
On the night we met, I was tired. I very much needed a cocktail that would improve my mood. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to drink. I had one specific request: I wanted him to use a local product.
Discovering hard cider in the Finger Lakes
For the past several days I had been traveling through the Finger Lakes region, visiting orchards that distilled their apples, pears, peaches and plums into spirits.
On the trip, I tasted hard apple ciders with an effervescence as light as champagne at Embark Craft Ciderworks in Williamson and at the Finger Lakes Cider House in Interlaken. At Apple Country Spirits, I sampled brandies made from apples, pears, peaches and plums as good as any eau-de-vie I enjoyed in France and Switzerland. The biggest news for me on the trip was the fact that in the region apples were being used to create premium vodkas and gins.
Local sourcing for gin and other spirits
Tree Vodka is produced from apples grown in the Apple Country Spirits orchards in Wayne County close to Lake Ontario. 1911 Vodka and 1911 Gin are produced from apples grown at Beak & Skiff Apple Orchards in LaFayette. Different from vodka and gin flavored with apples, these distillations are mellow with a clean flavor.
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Ouderkirk suggested he make a cocktail using 1911 Gin. With a portion of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, a splash of soda water and a hint of freshly squeezed lime juice, he quickly mixed the drink. After he placed a piece of burnt orange peel on top, I gave it a taste. The cocktail had a light summer freshness. The aromatic gin anchored the flavors while the apricot preserves and burnt orange peel hinted at the fall.
To accompany the cocktail, Ouderkirk platted a selection of local cheeses and charcuterie. Sitting in the darkened room, sipping my cocktail, half listening to conversations at the bar and sampling Camembert, goat cheeses, cheddar and salami, I forgot entirely how tired I had been after my very long road trip.
1911 Gin, Apricot, Lime and Burnt Orange Peel Cocktail
As with all cocktails, the best and freshest ingredients will yield better results. Use a quality gin, apricot preserve and farmers market citrus.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
1 3/4 ounce 1911 Gin (or a gin of your choice)
3/4 ounce St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Dash of freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon apricot preserve
Splash unflavored soda water
2-inch-by-1-inch orange peel, unblemished, washed
1. Mix together all the ingredients except the orange peel. Shake well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.
2. Hold the orange peel against the flame of a lighter or a gas stove burner until the peel lightly burns but does not blacken.
3. Place the burnt orange peel atop the cocktail and serve icy cold.
Main photo: Gin Cocktail with fresh lime and burnt orange peel at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge, Syracuse, N.Y. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
The best summer cocktails are light and refreshing and reflect the flavors of the season. Across the United States, bartenders are turning to summer herbs to add bright, fresh flavors to their drinks. Here are 10 easy ways to add your favorite herbs to your own cocktails.
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Main photo: Give your summer cocktails a summer kick with basil, rosemary, thyme and other herbs. Credit: Copyright Josh Wand
Walk the farmers markets and enjoy a grand show of summer’s bountiful harvest. Leafy greens have reappeared along with all manner of beans and peas. Stone fruit, including peaches, nectarines, cherries, plums and pluots, are available in abundance. They are perfect to make fruit salad cocktails, a delicious way to celebrate summer’s bounty.
Sun-loving Spaniards created sangria, probably the best-known alcoholic-fruit beverage. The inspired combination of wine (tart), fruit (sweet and acidic) and spirit (sharp) creates an umami of flavors that delivers a satisfying punch.
Getting creative with fruit infusion
Infusing spirits is another way to complement the heady flavors of vodka, gin, tequila, scotch and bourbon. Taking a familiar spirit, say vodka, and layering on fresh-from-the-farm ingredients adds unexpected brightness.
Some enjoy an edgier infusion, using vegetables, herbs and greens such as cucumbers, rosemary, basil and lavender, and those are all good. But my palate prefers sweet to savory when it comes to cocktails.
Walking past farmers stalls and seeing mounds of Valencia oranges, pink grapefruit, tangerines, Blenheim apricots, doughnut peaches, Santa Rosa plums, white and yellow nectarines, and Bing cherries, I begin thinking about throwing a party and inviting friends to have my favorite cocktail that celebrates the season.
Choosing fruit flavors and textures for cocktails
Use any fruit you enjoy. The goal is to create a flavor-texture contrast that combines acidity with sweetness and soft with crunchy as in a mix of grapefruit, cherries, apples and peaches. Experiment and be bold when you choose fruit for your cocktail. Mangos, papayas, pineapples, guavas and persimmons are also good.
Adding a pinch of cayenne gives the cocktail an appetizing heat.
Peel and section all citrus, removing the peel, pith and membranes to create what are called suprêmes.
Stone fruit should be firm but ripe enough to eat. Do not use overly ripe fruit. Cut and discard any brown or damaged areas.
Getting the most flavor into your fruit salad cocktails
Stone fruit should be pitted, except for cherries. With peaches and nectarines, using a pairing knife, cut away the dark areas around the pit and discard.
Peeling the fruit is a matter of taste. Personally I prefer to peel apples, peaches, apricots and nectarines to maximize the flavor transmitted from the flesh of the fruit to the wine or spirit.
Cut all fruit into dime-sized pieces.
Because the fruit flavors dominate the cocktail, there is no need to use premium wines or spirits.
Using just the right timing and sweetener
Using sugar is a mater of taste. If the fruit is especially sweet, sugar may not be needed. Artificial sweeteners should not be used. Taste and decide at the end if the cocktail needs the added sweetness of sugar.
Red wine is preferred, but white wine can be used. Because the fruit adds sweetness, use a dry wine.
Add the fruit one hour before serving. Any longer and the fruit will turn unpleasantly soft.
Put an espresso spoon or other small spoon into the glass when serving the cocktail so the fruit can be eaten before, during or after consuming the wine or spirit.
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Summer Fruit Salad Cocktails
Prep time: 30 minutes
Infusion time: 60 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
Yield: 1 quart
1 (750 ml) bottle dry red wine (or white)
1/2 cup brandy or vodka
Juice of one lemon or two limes
Pinch cayenne (optional)
2 tangerines, washed
3 oranges, preferably Valencia, washed
1 large grapefruit (pink or white), washed
2 Fuji apples, washed, peeled, cut into quarter-sized cubes
2 nectarines or peaches, washed, pitted, peeled, cut into quarter sized cubes
12 Bing cherries, washed, stems and pits removed, quartered
1/4 cup white granulated sugar (optional)
1. In a large pitcher, mix together the wine, brandy, lemon juice and cayenne (optional). Cover and refrigerate.
2. Using a sharp knife, peel the tangerines, oranges and grapefruit, removing and discarding the peel and rind. Cut the sections free from the membrane. Hold the peeled citrus over a bowl to catch the juice. When all the sections have been removed, squeeze the membrane to capture the last bit of juice. Discard the membrane.
3. An hour before serving, cut up and add the orange and grapefruit suprêmes, citrus juices, apples, nectarines and cherries to the wine and spirit mixture. Stir well.
4. Taste and add sugar (optional) if needed. If sugar is added, stir well to dissolve.
5. Refrigerate and serve ice cold.
6. Use a ladle to fill glasses with a good amount of the fruit. Top off with the wine and spirit mixture. Place an espresso or small spoon in each glass.
Main photo: Fruit Salad Cocktails with espresso spoons. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
American life is full of references to cherries, from George Washington chopping down a tree of them (Why did he do that?) to the popular song “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” sung by Ethel Merman in 1931. But the actual fruit itself, beloved by most, is a sweet, juicy reminder that spring is almost over and summer is just around the corner.
Here in California, our local cherry season lasts just a bit longer, while the Pacific Northwest and Midwestern harvests are still weeks away, guaranteeing that the cherished cherry will be in good supply until the end of July.
Many varieties of cherries are on the market these days. Some of my favorites are the sweet Brooks variety, the meaty Bing, the orange-red Queen Anne and the pink and yellow Rainier. Generally, the lighter-colored varieties are more fragile and need to be used up quickly.
Virtually any recipe using cherries begins with pitting them. The easiest way is with a pitter hand tool, which also works nicely on olives.
Cherries lend themselves quite well to both savory and sweet sauces. For a dessert sauce, combine 2 cups of pitted cherries with 1 cup of water and half a cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add 1/4 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved with 2 tablespoons of water, and 1 tablespoon each of amaretto and fresh lemon juice. Continue cooking at a low simmer until mixture thickens. Serve over ice cream with brownies or as a topping for chocolate or sponge cakes with whipped cream.
For an easy pan sauce for pork tenderloin, brown a 1- to 2-pound tenderloin in 1 teaspoon of olive oil in an oven-proof skillet until golden on all sides. Put the skillet in a 350 F oven until pork is done to your liking, (165 F internal temperature), about 20 to 25 minutes, depending on thickness. Pull the skillet out, move the tenderloin to a plate and tent with foil. Over medium-high heat, brown 2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion in the pan juices then deglaze with 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Cook down until liquid is reduced by half. Add 1 1/2 cups of pitted, halved cherries and sauté until they are tender and release their juice, about 7 minutes. Finish the sauce with 1 heaping tablespoon of crème fraiche. Slice the pork and fan out on plates, then top with the sauce. The sauce is also delicious with roast or grilled duck, chicken or turkey.
Tender spring greens pair perfectly with cherries in salads. Use 4 packed cups of mixed baby greens or baby spinach leaves with 1 cup of pitted and halved Queen Ann or Rainier cherries, 1/2 cup of crumbled blue cheese and 1/4 cup of toasted hazelnuts. Make a dressing using 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (I like O brand) and 3 tablespoons hazelnut oil, whisking together until an emulsified dressing forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then toss with the salad and serve.
You can switch out the hazelnuts for toasted walnuts and use walnut oil in the dressing, and you can also substitute goat cheese for the blue cheese.
Cherries are a dessert baker’s dream and work just as well in pies and tarts as they do in crumbles and cobblers. They pair well with apricots, peaches and berries of all kinds.
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For a different take on pie, mix 3 cups pitted, stemmed and halved cherries (a red variety works best) with 3 cups blueberries, 2 ounces of butter and 4 1/2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the blueberries release their juice and the cherries become slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3/4 cup white sugar and 3/4 cup brown sugar; cook until mixture thickens, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add flour by 1/4 teaspoons if mixture doesn’t develop heavy syrup consistency. Remove from heat and cool. Fold in 3 cups of fresh blueberries and pour into a baked pie shell and chill until set. Serve with whipped cream.
To make the volume of filling for the pictured tart, reduce the quantities of all ingredients by two-thirds.
Cocktails and drinks
Whether you’re muddling, blending or slushing, cherries add a burst of flavor to warm-weather cocktails. Purée pitted cherries in a blender with lime juice, agave syrup and ice and then add tequila and triple sec for a spin on the traditional margarita. Or try a cherry julep: Muddle fresh cherries and mint with superfine sugar in a little water in the bottom of a highball glass, then fill the glass with crushed ice and pour in bourbon. Give it a stir, garnish with a mint sprig and gallop away.
For a sweet cherry take on the mojito, combine ¼ cup fresh mint leaves, 3 ounces rum, 1 1/2 ounces agave syrup, 1/2 ounce lime juice, 6 pitted cherries and 2 ice cubes in a blender jar. Blend on high speed until the mixture is slushy. Pour into glasses and garnish with 1 fresh cherry and a mint sprig.
How to buy and store cherries
If you can get cherries at your local farmers market, then taste your way through the vendors to find your favorite varieties. At grocery stores, try to taste before buying, if possible, to make sure cherries are sweet and ripe. Look for ones that are plump without wrinkles or mold and are firm to the touch.
Store cherries in the refrigerator for longer shelf life and wash just before using.
Given the fleeting nature of cherry season and the fruit’s amazing versatility, life can just be a bowl of cherries, at least until the end of July.
Main photo: A bowl of fresh cherries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Brooke Jackson
Infusing vodka with fruit is perfect for summer and holiday entertaining. Colorful and easy to make, all you do is place the washed fruit into a clean glass jar, pour in the unflavored vodka, cover and store until the fruit has transferred its flavors to the vodka. The resulting infused spirit can be sipped by itself or used in a deliciously refreshing cocktail. That’s it. Wash, pour, cover, wait and enjoy.
Flavored vs. infused
You may have seen vodkas labeled as infused with lemons, oranges, cranberries, pomegranates and raspberries. In point of fact, they are actually flavored artificially. The taste of those vodkas ranges from passable to medicinal.
Creating your own flavors allows you to control the quality and the strength of the infusion. Using a farmers-market-fresh approach will bring a farm-to-table excellence to your cocktails.
How long to infuse?
Generally speaking, soft fruit needs less time to transfer its flavors. Strawberries for instance need only a few hours or a day at most. With quick infusions, taste frequently and strain out the fruit when you have the flavor you want. When the fruit is removed, the infusion stops.
With a firmer fruit such as cherries, infusion can take longer. To make the Italian liqueur limoncello, lemon peels remain in the vodka for several months. When making umeshu, Japanese plum wine made with green plums called ume, the plums take a year to complete the infusion process.
When making infusions, no need to use premium vodkas. The fruit so dominates the flavor, buying affordable vodka is definitely the way to go.
Infused vodkas can be used as the basis of any number of cocktails. Personally, I enjoy them over ice, neat or with a mix of soda water. Simpler is better. The result is deliciously refreshing, especially on a warm summer day.
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Buy good quality, unblemished cherries, preferably Bing cherries because they are fat and sweet. The cherries can be pitted, in which case they will give up their flavor more quickly. But over time the cherries will become less firm. I prefer to keep them whole so they can be served as an adult dessert.
Use glass jars, any size you have on hand. Wash the jars and tops in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Quart juice or canning jars work very well. Use the cherries separately as a dessert by themselves, with plain yogurt or as a topping on ice cream.
The infused vodka can be served cold as a shooter with a cherry as garnish or in a mixed cocktail of your choice. Leave the cherry whole or finely chop when using as a garnish.
Add more vodka when needed to keep the cherries covered. Keep refrigerated.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: a week to a month
Yield: two quarts
3 pounds fresh cherries, preferably Bing, washed, pat dried, stems removed
1 quart unflavored vodka
1. Examine each cherry. Reserve for another use any that are blemished or over ripe.
2. Remove and discard any stems.
3. Place the whole cherries into the jars.
4. Fill with unflavored vodka.
5. Cap and place in the back of the refrigerator.
6. Serve cold. Pour the infused vodka into small glasses garnished with cherries (whole or finely chopped) from the jar.
7. Add vodka to keep the cherries covered. Refrigerate.
Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot and umeshu is a liqueur. Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan.
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Ripe ume should not be used.
Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile
Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, dull green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.
After a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon.
Only use unblemished, unripe fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Infusion time: one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated umeIngredients
2 pounds ume or green plums, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 ml unflavored vodka
1. Wash well a gallon glass jar.
2. Place the ume into the jar.
3. Add the rock sugar.
4. Pour in the vodka. Stir well.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for a year.
7. Serve ice cold with macerated ume whole or chopped up as garnish.
Top photo: Bing cherry-infused vodka in quart jars. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Latt
You’re standing on a rooftop in Portland, Ore., Aperol spritz in hand. The bubbly orange cocktail matches the summer sky at sunset. Prosciutto-wrapped grissini — long, crispy breadsticks enveloped in buttery ham — appear as if by magic for snacking. City lights sparkle below and bridges reach across the Willamette River as you dine on a salad of juicy peaches, creamy burrata and fresh basil, followed by succulent roast pork with green garlic sauce. Dessert is zabaglione with ripe berries. When the sun goes down, all eyes turn to the crisp white sheet taped to the wall, where a projector beams Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” a film about two brothers from Italy who open a restaurant in New Jersey. You sigh contentedly as you munch on a bowl of Pecorino popcorn.
This may sound like a delicious culinary dream, but it was the Portland Picnic Society’s La Dolce Vita gathering last summer. This group of 20 ladies meets monthly in the spring and summer to throw fabulous fetes. With summer on the horizon, we’re anxious to steal some of their picnic pointers. But don’t fret if an Italian-themed al fresco gathering seems like too much to plan. “Picnics are so flexible: You can dress them up with involved recipes and elegant touches, or you can head to your favorite market and throw together a pop-up party in a matter of minutes,” says Jen Stevenson, a founding member of the Portland Picnic Society, co-author of “The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket,” and the gastronomical genius behind the food blog Under the Table With Jen. Get inspired for your own gathering with these ideas.
Rethink deviled eggs
The classic recipe always pleases, but it’s fun to take a crack at a new version. Here, two that Stevenson loves:
Try a BLT: Mix minced cooked bacon into the filling; garnish with ½ cherry tomato and a piece of baby arugula.
Perk it up with pesto: Mix in a bit of store-bought pesto to the filling, then top with tiny fresh basil leaves.
Make a daring dip
Crudité and dip are an easy appetizer, but it’s fun to wow your guests with a shock of color.
“Hummus doesn’t have to be boring,” says Stevenson. “Add roasted red beets to turn the dip a gorgeous shade of magenta, or blend in a handful of parsley for a fresh flavor and a pretty green hue.”
Prep individual desserts
What’s cuter than a mini mason jar? A sweet treat for one inside that itty-bitty container. Serve lemon curd topped with whipped cream, chocolate pudding with fresh strawberries, or a fruit and yogurt parfait. Or bake a crumble (like the Portland Picnic Society’s drool-worthy Blueberry Cardamom Crumble, pictured here) right in the jar.
“Most crumble recipes can be baked in jars or ramekins; just be careful not to overfill since they tend to bubble up while cooking,” recommends Stevenson.
Forget tired sandwiches
Turkey or tuna salad on whole wheat screams “school lunch,” not glam outdoor gathering. One of the most colorful and delicious sandwiches to bring is the classic pan bagnat, which is based on salade Nicoise.
It’s easy: Split a fresh baguette from your favorite bakery, then layer it with high-quality canned tuna, sliced hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, olives, sliced fresh tomatoes and lettuce. This is a seriously picnic-proof sandwich; the hardy crust protects the gourmet goods you stuff inside. It’s a cinch to transport if you wait and slice on-site (bring toothpicks to secure each individual sammy).
Get creative with props
Sometimes the most picturesque spots lack a picnic table, but a basket with a flat, hard top can serve as a miniature table once it’s unpacked. You can also incorporate everyday kitchenware into your spread for easier serving. Bring cutting boards and platters to set food on.
“We like to fill a Le Creuset Dutch oven with ice, then keep our wine and bottled cocktails in it,” says Stevenson. “Eight-ounce jam jars make the perfect glasses, because they’re easy to nestle into the grass.”
Another idea: Schlep goodies from the car to the picnic site in an old-school red wagon, then use the wagon as a table. If someone asks you to pass the three-bean salad, you can just give the wagon a push in her direction.
Sip in style
With all those delicious snacks, don’t forget about drinks. The Pimm’s Cup, a classic gin-based English cocktail, is refreshing but not too sweet. With this version, from “The Picnic,” each guest gets his or her own mason-jar cocktail for easy transport.
Elderflower Pimm’s Cup
Yield: 1 serving
Excerpted from “The Picnic” by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker and Jen Stevenson (Artisan). Copyright 2015. Photographs by David Reamer.
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Lemon Simple Syrup:
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
1 small lemon, zested with a peeler into ½-inch strips
2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
1 ounce St. Germain liqueur
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Lemon Simple Syrup
1 strawberry, hulled and quartered
1 thin slice orange, quartered
3 thin slices cucumber
1 mint sprig
1 1/2 strips lemon peel, from Lemon Simple Syrup
Before the picnic:
1. Make Lemon Simple Syrup by bringing sugar and water to a gentle simmer in a small pot. Stir frequently until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is clear. Remove from heat and add the lemon peel. Let the syrup steep for one hour. Strain the syrup into a jar. Reserve the lemon peel for garnish.
2. Combine the booze, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a Mason jar. Add the strawberry, orange, and cucumber. Replace the lid and pack in a cooler filled with ice.
At the picnic:
3. Add ice, top with club soda, garnish with a mint sprig and lemon peel strip, add a straw, and serve.
Pick a theme
Instead of just throwing food in your basket willynilly, pick a theme to tie everything together. Make it meze madness (meze are small plates, dips and salads common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East) with feta-topped figs, bunches of fresh grapes, hummus and pita, kalamata olives, and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice).
Host a Southern soiree with deviled eggs, macaroni salad, fried chicken and sweet tea. Plan a Parisian party with roast chicken; Lyonnaise potato salad; crusty baguette with brie, Camembert and chevre; rainbow-hued macarons; and plenty of rosé.
Main photo: Turn your picnic into a feast with a few simple twists. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Reamer, from “The Picnic” by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker and Jen Stevenson (Artisan).
I was born in Harlem, a child of Southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants. I witnessed what the women in my family could do with food.
Rarely is our history taught through the lens of food. Yet, it was over the hearth and in kitchens large and small that they impacted our nation’s culture and created economic, political and social independence through ingenious culinary skills.
That is why I honor African-American women cooks for Women’s History Month this March.
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The women in my family created and passed down masterful meals from ancient, unwritten recipes. They built communities and paved my way with proceeds from selling sweet potato pies, fried chicken dinners and roti lunches: a Trinidad flatbread cooked on a griddle and wrapped around curried vegetables or meats. My mom made these popular rotis and sold them in box lunches to employees at the hospital where she worked.
Whether they were free or formerly enslaved, the women I descended from cooked their way to freedom and wealth in America.
In their honor, I have chosen to feature two vintage recipes from two of the oldest cookbooks written by African-American women.
Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook was long known as the first African-American cookbook until Mrs. Russell’s book was discovered in 2001. Both women wrote their books at the behest of friends, fans and patrons.
Mrs. Russell, a free woman from Tennessee and an owner of a local bakery, was known for her pastries. Most of her recipes are European-inspired. Her cookbook also includes remedies and full-course meals. It was published after she moved to Paw Paw, Michigan.
Mrs. Fisher, a formerly enslaved person, won cooking medals for a wide range of dishes, including preserves and condiments in California. She moved out West from Alabama after the Civil War.
Below are their original recipes and my interpretation.
Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies
Jumbles were cake-like cookies popular from the 1700s. Mrs. Russell’s recipe was exceedingly spare on details, like all of her recipes:
“One lb. flour, 3/4 lb. sugar, one half lb. butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and caraway, to your taste.”
The popular vintage cookies have been adapted through the ages — even by modern food bloggers. I personally sampled a reimagined version of a Jumbles recipe at a culinary event that Anne Hampton Northup was said to have made when she cooked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Northrup was a chef and the wife of Solomon Northup, whose life was depicted in the Oscar-winning picture “12 Years a Slave”.
Here is a more detailed recipe so you can make Mrs. Russell’s Jumbles Cookies, using her ingredients. Since she suggested using mace, rosewater and caraway to taste, feel free to alter the suggested amounts of those ingredients:
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies
3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspons mace
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
8 ounces salted butter (2 sticks, at room temperature)
5 eggs (small- or medium-sized)
4 tablespoons rosewater
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, mace and caraway seeds.
3. In a large bowl, cream the sugar and butter together.
4. With an electric mixer on low speed, beat in eggs to the butter and sugar mixture.
5. Add the flour mixture and mix until combined.
6. Add the rosewater and mix until combined.
7. Using a tablespoon measure, spoon tablespoon-full size drops of the batter on your baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.
8. Bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges turn golden.
9. Cool the cookies for two minutes on wire racks. Serve, and store the remainder quickly in a sealed container or bag.
Mrs. Abby Fisher’s Blackberry Brandy
This old recipe holds up very well today. Many of Mrs. Fisher’s recipes called for huge amounts of each ingredient:
“To five gallons of berries add one gallon of the best brandy; put on the fire in a porcelain kettle and let it just come to a boil, then take it off the fire and make a syrup of granulated sugar; ten pounds of sugar to one quart of water. Let the syrup cook till thick as honey, skimming off the foam while boiling; then pour it upon the brandy and berries and let it stand for eight weeks; then put in a bottle or demijohn. This blackberry brandy took a diploma at the state Fair of 1879. Let the berries, brandy and syrup stand in a stone jar or brandy keg for eight weeks when you take it off the fire.”
I was so inspired by Mrs. Fisher’s recipe that I made my own version — which is now in the middle of the eight-week fermentation process. I used the same ingredients, but reduced the amounts, and poured them into a glass jug instead of a brandy keg. And I used cognac, because Mrs. Fisher’s recipe called for the “best brandy.”
We’ll have our own taste test — at my next family reunion.
Main photo: Abby Fisher’s 1881 cookbook was long believed to be the first African-American cookbook until Malinda Russell’s 1866 book was discovered in 2001. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis