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

 

 

 

Bling up the Bananas!

Bananas – love them or loathe them, they are one of the most versatile foods & make some of the best tasting treats.  Now I don’t usually get all fired up about fruit, but they’re getting a bit of press recently & it’s not good – apparently, people are throwing away millions of pounds worth of bananas a year because they’re a bit blemished, bruised & generally not very beautiful!  So don’t throw them away – show the banana some love!

As with most things, it’s what’s on the inside that counts & for me, bananas are pure gold.  Growing up, my Mum loved banana sandwiches (I really didn’t!) & she would put bananas in smoothies, pancakes & a plethora of puddings, just to get me to eat them.  Beautiful banana splits were piled high with vanilla ice cream, squished strawberries, a swirl of cream smothered in chocolate curls, soft fragments of fudge & a handful of the original 1970s dessert topping: hundreds & thousands!  It took minutes to make & seconds to demolish.

When my son was a baby, I mashed bananas with other soft fruits for an easy but healthy dessert – in fact, I would purée all kinds of foods for him when he was weaning & freeze it in small batches, so I always had a supply of mini meals for my mini me (he’s very tall now & makes me look dinky!).  Jars were great, but it was cheaper & easier to make my own, plus I knew exactly what was in them.  As he got older, I would blitz a banana in a blender with some Greek yoghurt, a bit of honey, a splash of milk & a few strawberries or blueberries (or both).  Less than a minute later, smoothies for breakfast & minimal washing up (always a bonus!).

And then came the delightful discovery of the chocolate banana loaf & it’s one my family’s favourite treats.  Use really over-ripened bananas here – as bruised & blotchy as you can get – check out the reduced section of your local shop & if you have a few leftover, just freeze them.  My tip is to double the mixture & make two – they tend to evaporate rapidly!

What you need:

2 medium-large very ripe bananas
4oz light Muscovado sugar
5oz self-raising flour
2oz softened butter, plus a little extra for greasing the tin
1 large egg
A tip of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (just a tiny bit)
A few drops of Vanilla extract
3 tablespoons semi-skimmed milk
50g walnut pieces
100g plain chocolate chunks (smash up a bar of chocolate)

What to do:

Heat the oven to 180*C & prepare your loaf tin (standard size) – brush the inside with melted butter, then line with greaseproof paper.

Put all the ingredients in a big mixing bowl, except for the walnuts & chocolate.  Mash them up together until squishy & lumpy – you want it to be combined, but not purée.

Add the chocolate chunks & walnut pieces, stirring gently to evenly distribute them in the mixture.  Add the milk a little at a time until it’s a bit looser – more like a thick, natural yoghurt consistency (but with nuts & chocolate in!).

Pour it all into your prepared loaf tin (use a spatula to make sure you get all the mixture out of the bowl) & bake in the centre of the oven on a baking tray for approximately 45 minutes.  Use a skewer to test if it’s cooked – poke it in the middle (the thickest part) of the loaf & if it comes out clean, then it’s ready.  If not, give it another five minutes & check again.  Once cooked, leave it in the tin on a cooling rack for five minutes, before gently easing the loaf out onto the rack.  Carefully remove the greaseproof paper from the edges & leave to cool completely (about half an hour or so).

All that’s left to do is indulge in a thick slice with a cuppa – it’s moist, chocolatey & comforting, plus it makes a great addition for afternoon tea.   Store the rest in an airtight container or freeze a few slices for when you fancy a treat.  I really want to say this keeps well, but it never lasts very long in our house!

So get baking & bling up those bin-bound bananas!  A x

 

 

A Sea of Strawberries

There is something heavenly about the heady fragrance of fresh, ripe juicy strawberries that always makes me think of Summer.  When my son was young, we would spend many a sunny afternoon in a strawberry field, gently plucking plump berries from their leafy beds & enjoying their tantalising fragrance on the way home, eagerly looking forward to devouring them!

Now we all know they go very well sandwiched in a scone with jam & cream (if you don’t, you’re missing out), so I like to include these beautiful berries in other delights too.

For a quick impromptu dessert (unexpected guests will love this), whip up a fluffy, fat-free sponge & layer between thinly sliced strawberries & piped cream.  It looks like you’ve spent all afternoon baking, but actually takes about 20 minutes from start to finish & most of that time is spent on the assembly!   Dust it with icing sugar & if you really want to make it look extra fancy, make a pattern in the sugar with a hot metal skewer across the top (wear an oven glove though – the scent of burning fingers is never attractive).

Then there is the fabulous “Fraggle Tart” from one of my favourite Italian cookbooks – my family call it this because the Italian name is crostata di mandorle e fragoline (please note, no fraggles were harmed in the making of this treat).  Of course, the pastry has to be homemade with soft butter, eggs, sugar & flour – if you’re going to do these beauties justice, have a go at making your own.  I’ve used various types of flour, even wholemeal once as you can see, but if I’m honest I prefer plain.  

Another favourite of mine are strawberry jam tarts – I have my own take on these jammy little pastry cups & this is for those over-ripened fruits, the slightly squishy, sad looking ones that have been living in your fridge for a few days & need eating.  Put a spoonful of the squished berries in the bottom of pastry cases, spoon a little warm, seedless jam over them (only half fill, as jam tends to grow), then bake. Once cooled, just add a swirl of soft cream & a sprig of mint!  I try to keep a few in an airtight container for the next day, but they somehow evaporate …. !

However you decide to honour the strawberry, I hope I’ve inspired you to do more than just chuck them in a bowl with some sugar on.  A x