Easy recipes for bringing on a picnic

Leave modern dining behind and get into the great outdoors

Tabbouleh with spring onions and lemon zest. Photograph:  Emma Jervis

Tabbouleh with spring onions and lemon zest. Photograph: Emma Jervis

 

The great outdoors was once referred to as “the first dining room of man”. We have, sadly, failed to continue this tradition of eating outside and I think it begs some important questions about how we approach our food.

On a windy day, a few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a walk in Cortmacsherry to enjoy the famous bluebells. Despite the blustery weather, it was a beautiful day to be in nature. As we walked we passed a mother sitting out with her two daughters, who were proudly donning pink oilskins while snacking on cashews and apple segments, with the bluebells sweeping out behind them. It was such an endearing sight and the two girls were glowing with joy in the fresh air. 

We all know that feeling of having a better appetite and more openly appreciating our food when we find ourselves eating outside. After a long walk on the beach a packet of crisps can take on a whole new appeal while a crab sandwich feels like a gift from the gods – basic foods become extraordinary.

Why is that? What is the magic? I have a theory.

We live in a world so laced with convenience and a focus on immediacy. We have deadlines, shopping lists and school collections. We often go through the days with relentless to-do lists in our minds and aim only to tick those boxes. It’s a busy world and understandably, our food has gone this way too.

While convenience food is one symptom of this, I think another is that we have detached from the source of our food. To eat has become functional and we forget the true glory that lies in it. We tell ourselves that “food is fuel” and we eat as methodically as we fill up our cars. In doing this, we firstly forget that food is so much more complex and wonderful than petrol.

Secondly, we forget that we respond emotionally to our food in a way cars do not to petrol. We forget what it is to be those little boys and girls cheekily shoving blackberries into our mouths, fresh from the bush, or, in my case, stealing apples from the neighbouring orchard. This comes from the fact that we’ve completely forgotten what it is to be truly hungry and to have food seem like a gift.

Of course, it’s a privilege to not know hunger and we should be so aware of that. However, I think there are steps we should take, as a culture, to get ourselves back to our food’s source. We need to remember that our food comes from nature (at least it should), and how better to see that than to enjoy it among that which it came from.

Moreover, we all came from nature, our original diningroom, and I think that’s why we see spirits, appetites and faces glow when we eat outdoors. We’re returning to our source and the source of what we’re eating. That’s the magic – being a part of nature again and leaving the confines of modern dining behind.

 Often picnics and eating outside can cause the trusted cook to heave a sigh of despair. The effort! The tupperware! The lifting! But – as I always say – if you plan, there’s no problem. Divide up jobs. Leave one person in charge of drinks, another in charge of the ware, one in charge of the trusty citronella candles and the matches.

As for the food, I’ve supplied a few ideas below. Of course, all these recipes can be eaten indoors too, but they fit snugly into standard containers, they taste incredible and they don’t require anything but unpacking when you get to your chosen picnic destination.

If this all seems like a bit too much hassle, try filling a flask with tea and heading to the coast, the woods or a lake, and soak it in (maybe with a packet of biscuits). Ease your way into it.

Tabbouleh

 This is one of my favourite salads when spring onions and parsley are plentiful. The freshness of the parsley makes this a special dish. Remember not to chop your herbs too fine as you are loosing the flavour as you chop. Green in your bowl not on your board.

I don’t add tomatoes as I find they don’t travel well, but you can always add them just before eating.

Serves 6

150g bulgar wheat/cracked wheat

200g spring onions

100g - 150g parsley

30g mint leaves

2 lemons, zest and juice of

175ml olive oil

Salt and pepper

Method

1. Soak the bulgar in cold water for 20 minutes.

2. In the meantime, chop the spring onions and herbs (not too fine) and add to a large bowl.

3. When the bulgar is soaked add to the herbs followed by the lemon zest, juice and olive oil.

4. Mix everything very well and season with salt and pepper. Allow to stand for about an hour until the wheat absorbs the dressing and the grains become tender. Taste again and add more seasoning if needed.

5. Ideally served with cos salad leaves which can be used to scoop up the salad.

Poached chicken with spicy red pepper mayonnaise: Photograph: Emma Jervis
Poached chicken with spicy red pepper mayonnaise: Photograph: Emma Jervis

Ratatouille tart

This is a clever way to serve ratatouille, especially with the addition of cheese. Who has ever said “no” to melted cheese?

If you find making pastry too daunting, this works equally well with the almond base from a few weeks ago.

Serves 6

For the pastry:

250g plain flour

1/2 tsp salt

125g butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

1 egg, beaten

2 to 3 tbsp water

 For the ratatouille:

100ml olive oil

2 medium onions, sliced

2 large aubergines

2 red peppers, seeded and cubed

4 small courgettes, sliced

4 large tomatoes, sliced

Salt and pepper

4 cloves garlic, crushed

25g parsley

25g basil

Half a lemon, zest and juice

200g Mozzarella, or your favourite melting cheese, chopped or grated

Method

1. First, make the pastry by mixing the flour and salt together, then rub in the butter until you have what resembles fine breadcrumbs. Bring the crumbs together with the beaten egg and the water, making sure you add just what is needed. Allow the pastry to rest for 20 minutes.

2. While the pastry is resting, make the ratatouille. Heat the oil in a pan and add the onions, season well with salt and pepper and cook until they are soft, allowing them to brown a little.

3. Next, add the aubergines and peppers and cook until soft and starting to brown, then add the tomatoes and the courgettes and a little more seasoning. Mix well and cover with a lid and allow the vegetables to stew in their own juices on a low heat for 20 minutes.

4. Finally, stir in the crushed garlic along with the herbs and lemon and mix well. Allow to stand for 20 minutes for the flavours to develop.

5. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and while the vegetables are cooking roll out the pastry and line a loose bottom 30cm tart tin. Bake it blind (without a filling) until golden brown. Allow to cool.

6. Finally, fill the case with the vegetables and scatter it with the grated cheese. Return to the hot oven until the cheese has melted.

Poached chicken with spicy red pepper mayonnaise: Photograph: Emma Jervis
Poached chicken with spicy red pepper mayonnaise: Photograph: Emma Jervis

Poached chicken with spicy red pepper mayonnaise

Usually when I mention poached chicken to people it is met with a raised eye brow. School dinners, granny and insipid, seems to spring to mind. Over the years I have now learned that less detail is the way to go. The secret here is to buy a very good chicken, cook it gently and add plenty of seasoning.

Poaching a whole chicken is a joy for the cook as there is a delicious stock to play with later. So gather up all the bones, return them to the cooking liquid and let it simmer for an hour or so. This will then be the base for a quick supper dish later in the evening or for the week ahead.

Serves 6

1 whole 2kg chicken

2 large onion

2 carrots

3 celery sticks

1 head of garlic, halved across the middle

A few sprigs of tarragon

Salt and pepper

The sauce:

2 red peppers

1 chilli, chopped

2 cloves garlic

4 egg yolks

1 lemon, zest and juice of

600ml olive oil

To garnish:

Tarragon, basil or parsley

Method

1. Put the chicken into a large pan. Chop the carrots and celery and add to the chicken along with the split head of garlic. Add salt and pepper and cover the chicken well with water. Bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

2. Now turn off the heat and place a tight fitting lid on top of the saucepan and allow to sit for another 30 minutes.

3. In the meantime, make the mayonnaise. Roast the red peppers whole until blistering black. Remove from the oven and place in a bowl with a plate on top and allow to cool (this process loosens the skin and makes it easy to remove). Once cooled, remove the skin and roughly chop the flesh.

4. Place the skinned peppers in the jug of a liquidiser along with the chopped chilli, garlic, egg yolks and zest and juice of the lemon. Liquidise until well pureed, scraping the sides down a couple of times if needed. Next, turn the speed to medium and slowly add the oil until it’s all incorporated. Season well with salt and allow to stand until needed.

5. Remove the chicken from the liquid and allow it to cool. Remove the skin (add this back into the liquid, which will be the base of your stock) and portion the chicken into pieces with a sharp knife, then place them on a serving plate. Scatter chopped herbs over the chicken and serve the mayonnaise on the side.

Fraise Escoffier: serve with yoghurt, cream or on its own. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Fraise Escoffier: serve with yoghurt, cream or on its own. Photograph: Emma Jervis

Fraise Escoffier

This sounds very posh and rightly so. Strawberries always seem like the royalty of summer fruits. I’ve been serving this simple dessert for years now. It appeals to my lazy side as it is low effort but high reward. Serve with yoghurt, cream or on its own.

Serves 6

750g to 1kg strawberries

2 oranges, zest and juice of

1 lemon, zest and juice of

2 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp chopped mint leaves

Method

1. Hull, half or quarter the strawberries according to size and place in a serving bowl.

2. Chop the zest of the fruits finely and add it, along with the juice, to the strawberries.

3. Mix well and add the sugar and the mint. Give it another stir and allow to sit for an hour before serving on its own, or with lightly whipped cream.

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