The Blanket Banquet Three Ps: Plan, Prep & Picnic!

It doesn’t need to be a fabulous Summer weekend to enjoy a perfect picnic, it just needs to be fabulous.   Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend days in the kitchen packing up a feast full of moreish munchies.  It’s all about the three Ps:  planning, preparation & picnic!  With a bit of clever organising, you can pack up a portable party & be out of the door in no time.

First thing to do is the planning.  Most people (including me) don’t have a hamper or an ice box for picnics, but obviously we all want our treats to arrive cool, fresh & full of flavour.  What I do have though is a couple of those freezer blocks/bricks (I always have at least two in the freezer, ready to go) & a few padded freezer food shopping bags from my local supermarket.   This also ensures that everyone can help carry the food & nobody is left lugging a huge ice box behind them.  No freezer blocks?  That’s easy – just stick a bottle of lemonade in the bottom of the fridge overnight to act as a cooling aid in the bag!  Mini plastic bottles can be frozen, but the liquid expands as it freezes, so tip a little out of each before doing that or you’ll have to do some cleaning up before you go!    Don’t forget to put cups, cutlery & condiments in a separate bag too – wrap them up in a couple of tea-towels to pad them out & avoid breakages.  This can all be done the night before, ready to go.

Whatever you can do the day before, do it.  Because I bake bread most days, I’ve usually got a couple of baguettes or focaccia & slice them before we go, so they can be filled when we get there – no pre-made sandwiches taking up your time.  If there’s any leftover pizza (I’m being optimistic here), that gets sliced, wrapped & put into the picnic bag.  I’ll also pop in a couple of jars of “sandwich enhancers” too – olives, sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers, that sort of thing.  Then I’ll chuck in a selection of our favourite foods: salads, cream cheese (great for spreading or dipping), a couple of mozzarella balls, some sliced ham, spicy breaded chicken strips (I make these in huge batches so there are always leftovers), cooked pasta & pretty much whatever I’ve got stashed in the fridge, along with a jar of my homemade tomato sauce.  Although I make this sauce for pasta, it’s perfect as a dip or relish & I’ve usually got a couple of jars in the fridge (OK, at least four).  Anything that needs slicing or chopping, do it now & put it in a bag or a container.  You don’t want to be trying to cut up a tomato on a wonky blanket!  One thing I do bring along is a nice dessert or pudding, usually a few cupcakes or slices of fruit pie – individually portioned & wrapped, so no messing about when we get there.

That’s the planning, now for the preparation!  Everyone likes a nice cold beverage & obviously ice doesn’t travel well, so if you like your drinks chilled, this can be a problem – nobody likes a warm drink on a hot Summer’s day (unless it’s a cup of tea!).  One of my favourite solutions is to use frozen fruit instead – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, anything I can get my hands on!  Just before you set off en route to your picnic, put a box of frozen fruit in the bag with a freezer block underneath them.  This should keep them cold for a couple of hours.  Then when you pour your drink, pop a couple of frozen fruit pieces in your glass for instant chill!  Plus, you can eat them when they’ve done their job & defrosted (we all love a bit of multi-tasking!).  Don’t just use berries though – freeze thin slices of fruit like peaches, pineapple, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, even cucumber (yes, it’s a fruit!).  Or try a couple of frozen grapes plopped into a glass of Pinot Grigio.  This time of year is great for blackberries – freeze them in a single layer on a tray, then once frozen you can pile them into a plastic tub with a lid on, ready in the freezer for whenever you want a few!  Create you own frozen fruity flavours & enjoy their colourful combinations.

Now you all know I enjoy finding ways to use everything up & have very little food waste.  Here’s a lovely little snack to make the day before & add to your picnic.  Do you peel your carrots, potatoes & parsnips, then throw the peelings out or compost them?  Why not turn them into healthy homemade crisps instead (no waste & free snacks – what’s not to love?).  Before you peel your veg, wash them thoroughly beforehand, making sure you trim any bad bits off.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a baking tray – don’t be stingy, this oil will add flavour.  Lay your peelings onto the oiled tray, ensuring they are well coated all over.  Sprinkle on some sea salt & a little freshly ground black pepper, then bake them in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes until crispy (depending on how many you make).  You can shake them halfway through cooking if you think they need it.  Once cooked, pop them on some kitchen paper on a cooling rack until cooled or tip into a metal sieve, then put them in an airtight container until you need them.  Have a taste & add a bit more seasoning if you like – take some vinegar with you to sprinkle on them just before eating too.  These taste great on their own or dipped in cream cheese or salsa.  Not bad for something we would usually chuck in the composter!

Want more oven baked goodies?  How about some really easy, low fat, low fuss onion rings.  These can go in the oven at the same time as the crisps, just to make things easier.  Get yourself a couple of big onions, top & tail them, peel the outer skin off, then slice them thickly.  Separate all the layers, keeping the rings whole if you can (although you really won’t care once you taste how good they are!).  Beat a large egg in a bowl, then put the onion rings in the egg & toss around to coat them thoroughly (I will warn you, this smells awful at this stage).  In another bowl, tip a couple of tablespoons of plain flour, add a pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then stir well.  Chuck in the egg coated onion rings, a handful at a time & toss around in the seasoned flour, making sure they are completely coated.  Shake off the excess & lay them on an oiled baking tray.  Drizzle on a little more olive oil & bake in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning over half way through to ensure they are crispy on each side.  Once out of the oven, let them cool before stashing them in an airtight container to eat later!  They’re lovely hot or cold, naked or dipped, plus all the flaky crispy bits leftover on the baking tray taste so good sprinkled on a salad (bonus gift!).  These gorgeous onion snacks go very well with a tub of Greek yoghurt to dip them in (mayonnaise is lovely, but I like the slight sourness of the yoghurt).

Once you’ve devoured your fabulous feast, there’s the little problem of sticky hands & fingers, but I’ve got a simple solution for that & it’s re-usable.  This  was originally something I saw on a random TV show one afternoon as an addition for packed lunches, but it works equally brilliantly for picnics too.  What you need is a packet of those small washing up sponges (without the scratchy side), a large fresh lemon (sliced thinly), a few sandwich bags with little handles & some room in the freezer (I always forget this bit & end up on my knees in front of the freezer, trying to rearrange everything like some sort of frozen Jenga!).

Run a sponge under the cold tap & squeeze out the excess water, but leave it quite moist.  Put a slice or two of lemon on top (lemon is a natural de-greaser) & put the whole thing in a sandwich bag.   Tie the little handles to seal the bag (try to remove any air without squeezing the sponge) & pop in the freezer overnight.  The next day, put one of these little bags in with the picnic for each person – not only will it keep the food lovely & cool, but once defrosted it will also act as a refreshing wipe after they’ve eaten!  No more greasy, sticky little mitts – just fresh, lemon-scented clean hands (you’re welcome!).  Plus you can re-use them as I mentioned – simply wash them in warm soapy water when you get home, rinse well, repeat the steps above (replacing the lemon with fresh slices) & they’re ready to be used again – much better than a one-use wet wipe!

Finally, all that’s left to do is the last P – picnic!  So don’t panic over your picnic pack up – just follow the three Ps & you’ll have a blanket banquet to remember!  A 🙂 x

 

 

 

Fabulous Fresh Focaccia!

Sometimes, all you need is a warm slice of homemade focaccia, topped with chopped garlic & rosemary, ready to dip into some fragrant extra virgin olive oil & dark balsamic vinegar.  So while dinner is cooking nicely & the Husband is gardening his socks off, I decided to warm through one of these lovely flatbreads that we made last night (leftover from making pizza) & get him an ice cold IPA beer (well, it would be rude not to).

When we make pizza (usually at the weekend, because it’s more relaxed), there is always enough dough to make four pizzas & so I like to make two for us, then use the leftover dough to make either baguettes or focaccia, depending on which dough I’ve made (I’m always planning ahead – two meals for the effort & price of one!).   If it’s a Saturday morning, I love to make fresh baguettes filled with crispy bacon & fried eggs.  But if it’s a Sunday, I’ll use the leftover dough to make some focaccia for us to nibble on while we’re doing chores or watching a film – just enough to keep us going until dinner is ready & definitely healthier than some other snacks!

Because focaccia dough has olive oil in it, it’s smooth & tactile, making it easy to shape into whatever you like (I made ovals this time because the only baking tray not being used was a large one!).

Simply stretch it into the shape you want (use a rolling pin if you like), spread some olive oil over the top with your hands, making dimples with your knuckles, then top with a little freshly chopped garlic & rosemary leaves, plus a dusting of sea salt & black pepper.  Sprinkle a little flour or coarse semolina onto a baking tray (you really don’t need much, but this stops it sticking) & pop the focaccia on the top.  It takes about 8-10 minutes in a hot oven (& about 8-10 seconds to munch through a slice!).  When it’s done, I like to give it another drizzle of olive oil before letting it cool slightly (this adds more flavour), before slicing & dunking (if like me, you live with guys, I advise you to always make an extra one so you don’t miss out).

And if you’re making one for your Gardener too, don’t forget to give them a beer to go with it!  Bellissimo!  A x

La vita non e’fatta di solo pane (you cannot live on bread alone), but you can bake it!

 

During my extreme shopping trip today (which is where I hit three supermarkets before 10.00am like some sort of ninja with a trolley), a couple of people asked me about baking bread & how come it’s so hard/messy/time-consuming (you get the picture).   My reply:  it’s not (well, it’s not the way I do it).

Firstly, I don’t possess a bread making machine (save your money – buy a pasta machine instead).  I make all my bread by hand – I’m not built like a brick shed with muscles & you don’t need to be either.   Baking bread is like creating some sort of magic in the kitchen!  There really is nothing quite like that heady, warm scent of a freshly baked loaf – especially if you’ve made it yourself.  Both my husband & son bake bread – I taught my son this recipe when he was at junior school (which he proudly told his teacher was better than her packet bread mix & refused to make it – she wasn’t impressed!).

Now I’m not disputing that there are some beautiful artisan breads out there which take time, effort & years of experience, but if you just want some good, basic bread to feed your family, then this is for you.   It’s cheap, really easy & you get a free mini workout with every batch (“Yay – free stuff!” I hear you say).   So, let the floury fun commence!

What you need:

12g fresh yeast (or the equivalent of dried)
500g strong bread flour (I have tried them all & my favourite is Allinson’s), plus a bit extra for dusting your worktop
330ml (approx just over half a pint) lukewarm water (stick your finger in it & it should be the same temperature)
Half a teaspoon of ground sea salt
A little olive/sunflower oil or melted butter – to brush around the inside of your loaf tins
2 loaf tins (standard size) – you can do it free-form too, just dust a baking tray with a little flour
Cling film

Optional ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive/sunflower oil – this is down to individual taste
Seeds/herbs/dried fruit – you can put whatever you like in (my favourite is to mix a teaspoonful of poppy, linseed, sesame & pumpkin seeds together).

How to do it:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, which should go a light muddy colour (give it a good stir with a fork).

Put the flour & sea salt in a large mixing bowl, slowly pour in the yeast water (add the oil at this stage, if using) & stir into the flour until it forms a dough ball & the bowl is clean.  Sprinkle a little flour in the bottom of the bowl & set aside for later.

Dust some flour on a clean worktop, place the dough on it & start kneading – here’s your free mini workout!  Kneading is simply stretching the dough, making the gluten in the flour flexible & will make your bread rise well.  Give it ten minutes, firmly pushing the dough away from you with the heel of your hand, then pulling it back on itself. Once kneaded, it should feel more elastic, so just put it in the floured bowl, brush a bit of oil on some clingfilm & put this on top of the bowl (oiled side down), making sure there are no gaps.  Put it on a tray in the airing cupboard or a warm place, where there are no draughts & leave it for about half an hour.  This is called proving the dough.

Heat your oven to 220*C.  Brush the inside of your tins with a little oil & place on a baking tray.

Take the now risen dough from the airing cupboard (put the oiled cling film to one side) & put onto a floured worktop.  To knock out any large air bubbles, I like to throw it on the worktop a couple of times, knead it for a few seconds, then split it into two equal balls.  If you’re putting seeds/fruit/etc in, gently stretch it with your hands into a rectangle, sprinkle some seeds on a third, fold it over, sprinkle some more, fold it again, then sprinkle the rest.  Fold it gently again to distribute the seeds/fruit in the dough, shape it to fit your loaf tin & pop it in.  Repeat with the other dough ball.  Cover with the oiled clingfilm & leave for a further half hour to prove again.

Now you’re ready to bake!  Remove the clingfilm from the tins – the dough will have risen again & is ready to go into the oven.  Put the tray in the middle of the oven & bake for about half an hour.

Once done, it will be golden & risen above the tins, so just tip out onto a wire rack to cool.  To test if it’s cooked, give your loaf a tap on the bottom – it will sound hollow if it’s ready. Resist the urge to eat it before it’s cooled a bit! Once cooled, slice it, spread it, dunk it & dip it! Whatever you do, share & enjoy it.  As the old Italian saying goes “La vita non e’fatta di solo pane” (“You cannot live on bread alone”) – but you can bake it!   A x