Recipe-phile: Everything tastes better outdoors; pack up some salads & fricadelles
While so many great food memories from childhood have drifted away from me, I can still visualize almost everything I ever ate outdoors.
Summertime breakfasts sometimes meant an egg sandwich eaten outside, legs banging against the deck ... or heavily buttered toast, or a half-frozen candy bar slowly melting as I contemplated the empty day ahead.
Even the hastily-made tuna salad sandwiches our mother made for our rowboat fishing excursions tasted better when we ate them while out on the water. (By the way, that was cute, Mom: fish sandwiches for the anglers.)
But our best childhood picnics took place in the old Norway plantation. We flapped out our blankets in the darkest, most interior spot of the plantation where the rust-colored needles were piled into a particularly thick rug and the high overhead branches knit together into an impressive light-blocking shade.
At the time, around age 9 or 10, part of the appeal of picnicking was pretending to be "lost," so the more remote and more secretive the spot, the better.
Properly dark and spooky, the Norway plantation fit all requirements. And best of all, the food we ate in there tasted better - potent and more delicious. I remember unwrapping the wax paper wrapper from a salami sandwich made with thick-cut summer sausage, a few slivers of sour dill pickle, soft white bread and a substantial layer of cool butter. For drinking we had the water in our canteens and for dessert we had some kind of a bar, but usually Special-K.
As kids we had no tabletop habits to break - no adult tics that demand proper utensils, a napkin on the lap or a glass of water - and we walked outside with our meals whenever we could get away with it. So why is it that it took having a kid of my own to get me back to picknicking?
I tried not to moon too much over the lost opportunities the other day as I contemplated what to make for our impromptu picnic. I had about an hour to pull it together so I reached for whatever was closest at hand.
Tomatoes, sitting and ripening in a basket outside, would become a tomato salad with fresh torn basil and a few shavings of young pecorino (admittedly, a rare cheese here in the north woods; I squirreled mine up from Minneapolis) and I'd make another cucumber salad with dill--but, please, not creamy this time. Instead, it would be vinegary, and spiked with chili flakes.
The smoked salmon left over from the weekend would make a great pasta salad, especially if it had strong lemon flavor and included a few capers. I thought it might taste even better if I used a long noodle instead of a shape, seeing that spaghetti that was the only kind of pasta my pantry held.
After all, why not? There's no rule dictating that pasta salad has to be made with penne, or farfalle, or elbow macaroni. Rules about pasta are for adults; a kid just makes do.
Lemony Smoked Salmon Pasta Salad
1/2 pound pasta, spaghetti or bucatini (hollow spaghetti)
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
zest of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup of pasta cooking water
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup minced chives
6 ounces smoked salmon, crumbled roughly
3 ounces ricotta salata, crumbled (can substitute plain feta)
Handful of basil or dill (optional)
salt to taste
lots of cracked black pepper
Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. Season the water with salt, enough to taste like seawater.
As the water heats, heat the olive oil in a large, wide saucepan and add the garlic. Cook over medium heat until the garlic sizzles. Add the capers, lemon zest and give a stir. Add the pasta cooking water (about a ladle-ful) and butter and boil until reduced to a thin sauce. Add the lemon juice, chives, salmon, optional herbs and remove from the heat.
When the pasta tests al dente (still chewy, but not hard to the bite) drain it. Cool the pasta down under cold running water. Drain well.
Add the pasta to the warm salmon mixture in the pan, tossing to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste (and more lemon juice, if desired). Sprinkle with the crumbled cheese, toss to combine, and transfer to a picnic-friendly container.
2 small (or one large) beefsteak tomatoes
8 cherry tomatoes
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 basil leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 ounce young pecorino or parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
salt and pepper to taste
Slice the beefsteak tomatoes ¼-inch thick and layer decoratively on a platter (or in a wide-bottomed picnic-portable container). Halve the cherry tomatoes and scatter them on top. Sprinkle the tomatoes with salt and pepper and squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon over all. Tear the basil leaves into large pieces and scatter on top. Drizzle the salad with the olive oil and shave thin peelings of cheese on top. Can be made up to an hour ahead of time; best if not refrigerated.
French Pork Fricadelles
Adapted from Everything Tastes
Better Outdoors, by Claudia Roden.
(My husband loves these--hot, cold or in-between.)
1 1/8 pound ground pork
1 large potato, boiled and mashed
2 cloves garlic, finely grated
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Combine the above ingredients (except flour and oil) and knead into a smooth paste. Fry a small sample to taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Shape into flat round cakes, dip in flour, and gently fry in oil until brown, turning over once. Drain on paper towels before packing hot or cold.