Like buying an ice cream or building sandcastles, picnics are a rite of passage for the summer. Eating outdoors is a novelty, especially in this cloudy little country, so we grab those warm afternoons and evenings with both hands, venture outside and load our paper plates high. Summer essentially equals messy eating and we all go full-throttle over the best picnic food we can get our grubby hands on, scoffing sticky chicken drumsticks, dipping our fingers into a jar of cornichons, or spearing pink and white marshmallows on a skewer, melting them over a barbecue and squashing them between two biscuits.
This summer I’ve already managed to spend an unfathomable amount of time inside (there’s been a World Cup on after all) but now I feel the need to redeem myself and actually leave the flat. With plans to go swimming next weekend (in a lake in fact!) this one was reserved for a traipse to Heaton Park, picnic under arm and a Calum in tow.
Picnics in the UK are infamous, not for the pleasant green scenery (although that is lovely), but for the favoured traditional picnic grub: at the end of the day, what we know to be the best picnic food. Stodgy scotch-eggs, sausage rolls and pork pies, cheese and pickle sandwiches, strawberries and maybe a few Mr Kipling cake slices are part and parcel of a day out in the countryside. Family picnics when I was younger included plastic tubs of tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, potato salad, a couple of cold sausages, and my aunt’s tuna pasta salad – full of peas, diced apple, cucumber and halved cherry tomatoes. These picnics were a big family occasion with cousins, aunties and uncles, and a treat I always anticipated eagerly even if the lettuce was slightly limp and somehow grass managed to make its way into my pasta. There is just something magical about eating outside. It makes the food taste better.
Nowadays, thanks to cookbooks, the internet and all those creative chefs out there, picnics with sad salad and scotch eggs are a thing of the past – unless you make your scotch egg from scratch. DIY cooking has transformed picnic dining into a banquet on a blanket. Keeping it rustic is the fashion – warm crusty bread, homemade pickles and chutney, cheese, flaky puff pastry tarts, salads with couscous or rice, cucumber, grilled courgette or broad beans, peas and feta. This rustic style is not always convenient – no bags of mixed salad leaves allowed I’m afraid. Now you really should have at least two salads, one meaty, one vegetarian, and ideally gluten-free. Picnicking no longer involves stale packaged food, it is a pick ‘n’ mix delight (my favourite), sampling all the various dishes on display.
Take the picnic in which Calum and I indulged last week. Planning to venture into the green unknown we peeked out from behind the curtains, saw the cloudy sky and instead stayed in the safety of the flat (see, I really need to redeem myself) thus demolishing the picnic on the balcony. Outdoor eating is delicious in all circumstances. On the menu was:
Thinly sliced cold beef
Prawns and sugar snaps marinated in ginger, soy sauce, honey and rice wine vinegar
Roast potato salad
Chicken salad with romaine lettuce, roasted sweet potato, charred sweetcorn, jalapeños and chipotle dressing
Calum, previously known as a salad-phobe, dug into the chicken salad in which was tucked chunks of breaded chicken, fragrant coriander leaves, red onion and sweet kernels of corn. I piled pink prawns onto pieces of baguette and mopped up the tangy marinade with the crust. Calum constructed himself a sandwich – more like a foot-long sub – stuffed with beef and mayonnaise. I sipped my cold beer, another perk of picnicking at home as there is a convenient fridge, and basked in the sun’s rays. Could the best picnic food simply be what we eat and share from the safety of the house?
One of my family’s favourite picnic dishes is a pasta salad. Many of you will immediately lose interest at that – some pasta salads are thick with mayo, too claggy and heavy for summer – however I must insist you try this one. Taken from a food-stained cookbook on the kitchen shelf, my dad brings out this recipe every summer. Packed with roasted peppers and sweet sundried tomatoes, the pasta sauce is silky from the juicy sautéed veg, a little veg stock and a splash of balsamic vinegar, without a single mayo jar in sight. Salty with capers, the sauce is rich with sundried tomato-infused oil and the soft sloppy peppers. It is delicious cold so perfect for outdoor eating.
So, take a blanket, a tub of pasta salad and a baguette, and journey outside this summer, dear reader, the adventure to devour the best picnic food awaits.
Roasted pepper and sundried tomato pasta salad
- 2 peppers 1 red, 1 yellow
- 1 onion finely diced
- 1 clove of garlic crushed
- ½ a red chilli finely sliced
- 100 ml vegetable stock
- 125 g sundried tomatoes drained from the oil or hydrating water (if they're dried) and chopped
- 2 tbsp capers drained and rinsed
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 300 g pasta shells, bows or twists
- Fresh basil for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 230°C/210°C fan/450°F. Place the peppers on a baking tray and bake for 30 minutes until soft. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, peel off the skins, deseed and chop.
- Heat a glug of olive oil in a frying pan and once hot throw in the chopped onion. Lower the heat and sweat gently for 5 minutes until the onion is soft and golden. Add the crushed garlic, chilli slices and 2 tablespoons of the veg stock. Let it cook gently for a couple of minutes.
- Toss in the sliced peppers and sundried tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes, gradually adding more stock as it heats and dries. Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to packet instructions.
- Mix the capers and vinegar into the sauce, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and heat through. Once the pasta is al dente drain and toss with the sauce. Garnish with torn basil. Serve at room temperature on a picnic blanket.