Like so many things in Paris that have to do with food, the idea of picnicking, too, has been elevated to something incredibly stylish, when frankly, a slice of homemade pate, a fresh baguette, a wedge of gooey Camembert and a bottle of Burgundy would say “picnic” to me — and has, many times.
Every year, the food magazines feature elaborate, stylish spreads on picnics, because that’s what people do here — they love tossing down a blanket wherever there’s a bit of ground and enjoying lunch or dinner.
After being cooped up for months or otherwise slogging through the endless cold, gray and wet days, when the sun finally shows its face, you want to be out in it — even if that means sitting on the grass in a park with a few hundred others who have the same idea.
Anyone who has lived through the soggy North Texas spring understands this idea.
The French are sort of experts in the art of le pique-nique. It is, in fact, its own season, kicking off around May and lasting until the end of September, give or take. Stores trot out picnic displays with this year’s versions of wooden knives, forks and spoons and dinnerware and bowls made of bamboo.
There are thin cotton cloth napkins that come on rolls like paper towels, in bright colors and prints, and naturally, champagne and wine glasses — the idea being for all of these things, that you can use them once, then toss them in the nearest poubelle (trash bin) on the way back to the car or house.
I actually prefer to use things for picnicking that I already own — my sturdy Duralex bistro glasses work as well for wine and water at a picnic as they do at home, and my plates, all flea-market finds, travel easily, too, especially when I use cloth linen napkins in between them to keep them from breaking. The idea is to keep the menu simple, and to use as few utensils as possible.
Dips, such as the artichoke and spinach hummus that follows, only need pita chips or another rugged dip holder.
The two salads require only a plate and a fork. And the yogurt cake, more hearty than delicate, can be eaten, hand-held, with very few falling crumbs.
Not that the French would ever eat a piece of cake like that, but I won’t tell if you won’t. Pass the rosé and let’s toast to eating outdoors on sunny days.
Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of “Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent” (Running Press, $25). www.cowgirlchef.com, @cowgirlchef.
Chopped Greek toasted pita bread salad
Makes 4 first-course servings
- 3 pieces stale pita bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
- About 1/2 cup olive oil, divided use
- Sea salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped shallot
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 10 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 4 green onions, chopped
- Handful Kalamata olives, halved
- Small handful fresh mint leaves
- Small handful fresh oregano
- About 1/4 cup crumbled feta
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the pita bread pieces with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, a pinch of sea salt and pepper, and lay out on a cookie sheet. Bake until pieces are brown and crispy, about 10 minutes; then take them out of the oven, flip them over and cook for 5 minutes more.
2. Make the vinaigrette: Put chopped shallot, vinegars, mustard, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a jam jar and give it a good shake. Let it rest for about 10 minutes, then add the remaining olive oil and shake again. Taste for seasonings.
3. Put the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl and, just before serving, add the crispy pita pieces and some of the vinaigrette, and toss. Eat right away.
Nutritional analyis per serving: 378 calories, 30 grams fat, 24 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 291 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 69 percent of calories from fat.
Radicchio and basil pasta salad
Makes 6 servings
- 1/4 pound small pasta, such as orzo
- Salt (to taste)
- 2 small heads radicchio, chopped into ribbons
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
- 12 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- Small handful fresh basil leaves, torn
1. Cook pasta in generously salted water until al dente. Let the pasta drain and cool in a colander.
2. When the pasta is cooled, place it in a large bowl along with everything else except the Parmesan cheese and basil. Toss ingredients and refrigerate until right before serving (or going on your picnic). At the last moment, add the Parmesan and basil, and toss again. Taste for seasonings and serve right away.
Cowgirl tip: Buy the best pasta you can find. It’s worth paying the extra buck or two for something that’s flavorful.
Nutritional analyis per serving: 170 calories, 9 grams fat, 19 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 170 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 45 percent of calories from fat.
— Inspired from a recipe in Bon Appetit
Artichoke and spinach hummus
Makes 3 cups
- 1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 2 tablespoons tahini
- 1 small clove garlic
- 2 large handfuls fresh baby spinach
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained
- Sea salt (to taste)
1. Pinch the skins off of the chickpeas (yes, really — it’ll make for a smoother, creamier hummus) and put the peas in a food processor. Blend, adding a bit of water to help the peas puree.
2. Now add the rest of the ingredients and blend. Let rest for at least a half-hour before serving.
Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving: 25 calories, 1 gram fat, 3 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 49 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 46 percent of calories from fat.
French yogurt cake
Makes 8 to 10 servings
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup whole-milk yogurt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil (I use sunflower oil in France), plus slightly more for oiling the sides of the pan
- Powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the sides. Place the pan on a cookie sheet to catch any spillage.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set this aside.
3. Mix together the zest and the sugar, using your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar — by doing this, you release the oils, making the cake more fragrant.
4. Using a mixer, beat the eggs until light, then add the yogurt, zest and sugar, vanilla and oil, and mix well. Now add the flour mixture and mix just until combined — you don’t want to overmix. Pour batter into the pan, and bake 30 to 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Let cool on a rack. Slice and sprinkle with powdered sugar, if you have some on hand. (It makes the cake pretty.)
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 8: 320 calories, 10 grams fat, 51 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 83 milligrams cholesterol, 337 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 28 percent of calories from fat.