Tuesday, June 15, 2010

CULINARY SMACKDOWN: PICNIC

Welcome to Team Eggplant's entry for the June Culinary Smackdown: Picnic Basket. We seem to be developing a little tradition of wacky accessories and occasional costume changes. Odie, who humored us by donning a lobster apron for our last Smackdown entry, came up with the idea of wearing a bear costume for this one. With no bear-ware readily available, Cindie moved on to the next best thing, borrowing this fellow and a vintage picnic basket that looks just like the one my grandma used to have.

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY MORNING
Posing a borrowed bear in the rain, however, would not be a good idea. So when the weekend forecast called for thunderstorms on Saturday, we decided to postpone our pic-a-nic fest to Sunday. And, boy, were we glad we did. Saturday morning brought torrential rains under a sky so thick with clouds it looked like dusk at 10:00 a.m. It doesn't get much more humid than this on the banks of the Ohio River, where Cindie and Odie live, and their air conditioners had not yet been installed for the season, leaving sweat pouring off us, and every bit of paper - be it t.p. or recipes - damp to the touch.
Sunday was an improvement in the weather department and, even better, Cindie and Odie's go-to guy, Wayne, helped get the a/c's in! He and his girlfriend, Karen, were added to our guest list for the evening's feast - the more, the merrier, and I always make enough food for an army :). As the heat and humidity began to drop in the kitchen, Cindie and I could finally begin to think about prepping, cooking, and baking. 

SAVORY CAKE
Soon after this month's theme was announced, I contemplated picnic possibilities as I drove to Tennessee, over-thinking as I sometimes do. As La Diva (last month's Smackdown winner and therefore this month's host/judge) always advocates, I wanted to challenge myself and try something new. After a good night's sleep, I opened this book (which Cindie had passed along to me) to the page where I'd left off, and fell upon a recipe that seemed perfect for the occasion.
One of "Three Recipes for a French Picnic," and described by the author as "somewhere between a tea cake and a quiche," this savory cake, featuring pancetta, figs, and comte cheese, sounded like just the starting point I needed to explore new picnic territory.
What's not to love about pancetta?
The cake/bread was easy to put together, and looked tempting in its parchment paper-lined loaf pan even before I put it in the oven.
After baking its prescribed hour, it had a nice glossy top crust.
The flavors turned out a bit more muted than I anticipated, and the lovely loaf was a little too dry, as I'd foolishly skimped on liquids (we running low on olive oil, and the recipe calls for milk and olive oil as well as 4 eggs). But I will revisit this recipe, using the proper proportions next time, and am eager to try some of the author's other suggested fillings: olives, hazelnuts, feta, bacon, artichokes, and sun-dried tomatoes. I always love a dish that takes well to variation.

EXPLORATIONS IN THE VEGGIE ZONE
I'm always on the lookout for intriguing new ways to use in-season produce, and have been further spurred on by committing to contribute some recipes to my local Hyde Park Farmer's Market that will be available as giveaways to the market's customers. Here are two I've submitted, and which I tried out myself for our picnic.

ROASTED RADISHES
I had never thought of applying heat to radishes until recently. Roasting radishes brings out the turnip-y side of their flavor, mutes the bite/heat/sharpness I associate with (and, frankly, enjoy about) raw radishes, and tends to make their color pale. An entirely different way to look at - and taste - radishes.

For this recipe, I started out with these vibrant red radishes.
Then placed them on a sheet tray, drizzled them with olive oil, and added kosher salt and sprigs of fresh thyme.
Served at room temperature, here's how they turned out. I don't know that I'd go as far as the Leite's Culinaria folks who blogged this recipe and described them as crack, but I did enjoy them and am happy to now have the concept of cooked radishes in my repertoire.

PICKLED SUGAR SNAP PEAS
I confess to being a pickle girl, as is, apparently, Deb from Smitten Kitchen. I discovered a wealth of pickle recipes on her site recently and decided to try out this one, with sugar snap peas I found at the great new farmers market in Madeira.
Also at the market, I purchased some garlic scapes, which I've never tasted or cooked with before, but was eager to try. They're 2-3 feet long, and I used thin slices in several of our picnic dishes - in the case of the pickled snap peas, in place of the called-for 4 sliced garlic cloves.

I think I was the only one of us who'd eaten sugar snaps before. Cindie and Wayne really liked them in their raw state, and were less impressed by my pickled version, which of course made them less sweet. When we dined Sunday night, they'd been in the brine a little less than 24 hours, which Smitten Kitchen suggests is sufficient. But I too was a little non-plussed - I like a little more punch in a pickle, which I might have gotten had I used dried chiles instead of chipotle seasoning (?). The fresh thyme I added was barely discernible. I'm letting the leftovers sit in the brine longer to see if I find them more satisfying that way. If not, I have plenty more pickling recipes to try out, and there are loads of other ways to prepare sugar snaps that retain their sweetness.

STEAK SALAD
Cindie and I knew we'd have to appeal to conventional male appetites with our cold/room-temp picnic menu and that some meat offerings would help satisfy the guys at the table. For her main course, Cindie marinated flank steak overnight, seared it on the grill, and let it cool.
Then, with salad greens, some blanched/chilled asparagus, ripe Georgia tomatoes Cindie brought back from her beach vacation, blue cheese, and more garlic scapes, she turned out this salad.

MARINATED SAUSAGE AND GRUYERE SALAD
This one was my contribution in the meat salad arena, a dish that piqued my interest as soon as I read this recipe  - one that would never have occurred to me if left only to my own devices. It turned out to be the hands-down favorite of all our picnic dishes Sunday evening, by consensus of men and women alike. It is definitely a "keeper" that I will make again.

An old-style Alsatian peasant dish using a local (there) garlicky cured sausage called cervelas, for my version, I used preservative-free, house-smoked kielbasa and Swiss brats (think cheddarwurst, but with Swiss cheese) from one of my local go-to sausage places, Avril-Bleh's, close enough to walk to on my lunch hour.
This recipe is pretty much dead simple. I think it's the marinade - mustard, sherry vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and parsley (I added thyme, too) - which you drizzle over the sausages after cooking them, as well as over the grated cheese - that makes this dish something special.
For even more decadence, I made some croutons with a rye from local fave Shadeau Breads (they're also at the Madeira farmers market on Thursdays) with garlic in the pancetta renderings.

WATERMELON AND GAZPACHO APPS
When I first broached the idea of joining forces with Team Eggplant for this Smackdown, Odie liked the idea of picnicking on the boat. Alas, the boat is in the shop, and after something like 7" of rain in three days, the mighty Ohio is mighty murky, so boating would not have been a good idea anyway. Still, I wanted to keep to the terms of the challenge, and needed a way to lure people outdoors and away from the thankfully installed a/c.
My theory was to go cold, crunchy, and spicy. So I made gazpacho with watermelon "ice cubes," shrimp, and avocado. I also cajoled Cindie into helping me try out a rum and lime juice drink with more of said watermelon "ice cubes," which never fully froze, despite a good 6 hours in the freezer. I'm sure La Diva has better cocktail ideas up her sleeve, but, hey, at least we tried.

With the rest of the avocados I made some guac (just for you, buffalodick), which somehow did not have its picture taken. Odie used the tortilla chips (which Karen was kind enough to bring for this last-minute idea) to scoop up my admittedly chunky gazpacho, pronouncing it one of the best salsas he'd ever had.

DESSERT: CINDIE'S GEORGIA PEACH AND BLUEBERRY PIE, PLUS BERRIES AND BALSAMIC
The best part: Cooking for friends, especially when they're willing to try my food, and end up liking it.
But for now, I'm with the bear - tummy full and ready to sleep soundly.
Check out La Diva's blog for links to more entries and news of the eventual Culinary Smackdown winner.

17 comments:

BamaTrav said...

That looks awsome. I have never seen garlic like that, nor heard of it. Live and learn. It's great that you have people to eat it with you, mine usually is put in the fridge after the initial eating.

Heff said...

Wow ! My butt has been KICKED ! Nice use of the traditional picnic table cloth as well. (I printed mine off from a Google jpg picture, lol !)

doggybloggy said...

de-friggin-luxe - I want to come to your picnic!

buffalodick said...

Enough food and choices for an army! The sausage name actually translates into sausage made from brains! Nice job!

Dani said...

What a spread Eggy! Great job!

Boxer said...

What a great job you did. LOVE the multitude of recipes and pictures.

moi said...

Mah gawd, what an entry! I'll be trying each of these, I'm sure, as I have a lawn pahtay coming up in a month and I need ideas. Great job!

Buzz Kill said...

Jeez Louise, no one can ever accuse you of going half throttle. I know you had help but that's like 9 dishes by my count which must have taken all day. I have never seen that preparation for the radishes. That's a definite one to try. I'm liking the Kielbasa Salad too.

I like that you don't have a no-shirt rule at the table. The Mrs would never go for that. Bwahahaha Diva will be by later to name you as winner.

Sandcastle Momma said...

That all looks so good! I'm making a list now and will have to try it all. The radishes really sound good. If I'm ever in your neck of the woods I want to come to one of your picnics :)

intuitive eggplant said...

Bama, those garlic scapes are cool - a good description I read somewhere is they are to garlic what green onions are to regular onions, smaller and less intense in flavor.

Heff, glad you liked the tablecloth - Cindie gets all the credit for decorations this time around.

Doggy, you would be most welcome and I'm sure any dish you might contribute would be awesome.

BD, glad you liked the spread, but your translation is slightly disturbing, lol.

Dani, thanks!

Boxer, oh, yeah, we had plenty o' choices.

Moi, absolutely help yourself to any of these that would work for your pahtay. I linked to all the recipes that are online; if you or anyone else wants the recipe for the savory cake, just let me know.

Buzz, yeah, I did kind of go overboard I guess, but I really wanted to try all these recipes and I'm glad I did :) And yep, I spent the better part of a day getting all this food ready. But a big difference between you and me is that I don't have to get meals on the table everyday for the family. So when I do cook, I can go hog wild. LOL about the lack of no-shirt rule :)

Sandcastle Mom, you would be most welcome!

Chef Dennis said...

OMG....what a feast you prepared!!! so much good food to share, and what a wonderful selection! I have been roasting so many veggies, your roasted radishes really intrigue me!
thanks for sharing such a wonderful french picnic!

LaDivaCucina said...

Wow, Eggy, you've impressed the pants off of everyone! heheh! I've not seen or eaten or cooked garlic ramps before, I think they are too delicate to grow down here perhaps?

I am LOVIN' the idea of a sausage and bread salad too, oh yes, the Polish side is coming out!

Flank steak is such a great choice to feed a crowd.

Jeez, you made so much, I almost forgot about the eggy-quiche-loaf thing you made! That sounds like perfect picnic food.

Yeah, I like cooking the lowly radish but would I ever crave it? NO. And maybe the sugar snap peas are best left to their own sweet selves? Nice idea, I'm so glad you challenged yourself!

Great effort and what wonderfully encouraging friends you have! Now pass me that gazpacho cocktail thang! Thanks for playing.

LaDivaCucina said...

Crikey, how did I miss peach and blueberry pie! Oh dear, this is gonna be tough. Great, beautiful setting too. Tell Odie thanks for not donning the bear costume! I think i would have had nightmares! (haha!)

Making Space said...

That's fabulous! That is the most incredible picnic evah. I'm so glad you had fun with it and had appreciative picnickers too. Gorgeous!

LaDivaCucina said...

Hello! I am UP with the culinary throwdown winner! I'm sorry I can't stick around to comment, have 18 year old niece in town and am still working! Thanks for playing! x

buffalodick said...

Congrats on win!

moi said...

Congrats on your win! I'd love the recipe for the savory pancetta/fig cake, por favor.