Four Chefs Pack Their Favorite Picnics
by: Susan Simon
photography by: Terry Pommett
A springtime picnic is the perfect way to celebrate winter’s end. In addition to the several organized island events that give us the opportunity to plan an outdoor meal, don’t dismiss an improvised visit to one of the breathtakingly beautiful island spots – just because.
“After a long winter it’s always nice to see the first tender leaves,” says Colleen Suhanosky, referring to the eagerly-awaited arrival of the delicate greens of springtime at the local markets. Colleen and her husband Ron, chefs and owners of Sfoglia restaurant, along with three other island food purveyors, have offered four tantalizing picnic menus to encourage us to exit from our winter hibernation and venture into the outdoors with a tailgate meal in Sconset during the island’s Daffodil Festival April 27-29.
As Provisions & Juice Guys’ co-owner Beth English says, “My favorite springtime picnics are all-afternoon excursions to Great Point and Coatue, when you have the place to yourself.” Beth has offered a menu that fits right in with her philosophy that sandwiches, soup and cookies make an ideal picnic meal. The menu is designed specifically for Daffodil Weekend as some of the food takes its cue from the bright yellow color of the trumpet-shaped blossoms that line the island’s roadways. Her menu is also a harbinger of the bright summer days to come.A vintage picnic basket and tablecloth work very nicely in such a setting – one needs little else. Just be sure to dress warmly and bring blankets!
“Daffodil Weekend,” says Beth, “is a celebration of spring which means that summer is not too far ahead. I chose this menu, featuring our Poppyseed Egg Salad, because it hints of summer, and our Daffodil Soup because it’s cold in Sconset. April seldom feels like spring. Ice tea is another hint of summer and in my opinion, Peanut Butter Cookies are a great treat anytime and should go in every picnic lunch.”
The Suhanoskys say that their menu was “mostly inspired by spring.” A family Christmas vacation on the Aeolian island of Salina, off the coast of Sicily (where “Il Postino” was filmed) and where capers thrive on the sunny, volcanic island, and anchovies and tuna practically jump out of the Mediterranean Sea onto your plate, however, influenced the creation of their menu’s main attraction.
The Suhanoskys’ Pane Bagnato is an Italianization of the classic French Riviera sandwich, pan bagnat – literally wet bread, in both languages – filled with ingredients from anchovies to spinach doused in a garlicky vinaigrette that is then stuffed into a loaf of bread and left to marinate overnight. Ron’s Insalata di Farro, Fave e Pecorino – a salad made with the ancient grain, farro, fava beans and bits of nutty pecorino Toscano cheese – also recalls the food of Salina where spring arrives a few months ahead of ours.
Colleen’s sweet-tart, homemade Apricot Soda is one in a series of sodas that she’s been making recently using seasonal ingredients. Because spring is a kind of fruit limbo-land, the use of dried apricots seemed like a good plan. It is. Colleen recognized, with her Strawberry Parfait dessert, that the red berry does signify springtime – albeit late spring. So, cooks, go ahead and buy those non-local, other-hemisphere berries that are already available in all of the island markets – close your eyes while enjoying a spoonful of parfait and pretend that you had picked them the day before out of Bartlett’s strawberry field.
Cut and marinate organic strawberries with sugar, lemon juice, fresh mint, a few grinds of black pepper and a splash of Anisette. Make a cream with mascarpone, plain whole-milk yogurt, honey, orange zest and vanilla bean. Beat together until soft, not too stiff, but not too loose. In your most precious squat glasses (or plastic tumblers), layer crushed biscotti, shortbread or ladyfingers with strawberries and mascarpone cream. These are even better made a day in advance to allow the flavors to meld together.
Colleen suggests that the last layer of the parfait should be mascarpone cream. Cover the glasses tightly with plastic wrap to transport them. In a separate container, pack the remaining strawberries so that they can be added to the parfaits just before serving.
The Suhanoskys like to set their picnic meal on colorful, Southeast Asian-designed heavy cotton fabrics. The contrast of bright color with Nantucket’s neutral tones is exciting and sets off their food to its best advantage.
It’s a wonder that E.J. Harvey found time to create a picnic, let alone go on one. Harvey owns the island’s SeaGrille restaurant, is a managing partner in The Brotherhood of Thieves, and co-owns Island Events Catering, which provides food for 1,000 people on Memorial Day weekend for the Figawi sailboat race and another 600 for the annual Boys & Girls Club Summer Concert.
But he created a perfectly delicious menu. He loves his twist on a classic potato salad recipe that he calls Nantucket-German-Style Potato Salad.
“I serve it at my home (and on various outings) in the warmer weather and I am basically substituting linguica (Nantucket) for bacon (German). I slice the potatoes very thin on a mandoline and cook them in chicken stock until they have just a little bite,” he says.
He went on to explain his recipe for his Sirloin Rolls with Boursin Cheese, Pan Roasted Asparagus, Pea Shoots and Red Peppers. “Spring makes me think of asparagus – which I love pan-roasted – and pea shoots suggest a picture of all the young spring flowers getting ready to bloom. Roasted sirloin chilled and sliced seems very elegant for a festive picnic and a good wrapper for the other ingredients. Boursin cheese goes very well with the beef and the asparagus and will serve as glue to hold the bundle of vegetables together.”
Harvey completed his explanation of the savory part of his picnic with a much-requested salad straight from the SeaGrille’s menu: Oven-Charred Grape Tomatoes, Rocket Greens and Shaved Parmesan Salad.
“I roast grape tomatoes with garlic, rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper. Grape tomatoes are always flavorful year-round, and roasting them with the herbs really makes them stand out,” he says. He uses the oil and juice from the tomatoes to dress the rocket greens. The salad is finished with shards of Parmesan cheese. Each item used in the composition of the salad should be packed separately to transport to your chosen picnic spot and then assembled when ready to serve.
“The Old-Fashioned Sugar-Cookie Tart with Orange Marmalade and Toasted Walnuts is my daughter’s creation. It’s a spur-of-the-moment dessert which she brought to a dinner we had at my house. I have refined it a little – it is very easy and light,” he says.
Harvey has a very specific directive to serve all this food. And one that is certainly worth copying.
“Serving is easy.” he says. “I like to use old Nantucket floorboards as serving platters. They have to be sanded down, but they are cheap, easy to cut on and do not break. I get them at the island antique shop, Nantucket Stock Exchange.”
With very specific instructions for everything from food and wine, choices for stemware, china and flowers to decorate the table, Peter and Wendy Jannelle of Fifty-Six Union have offered a sumptuous picnic menu.
For example, Peter and Wendy suggest using Reidel O’s – the very chic new design from the premier glassware manufacturer – for their flavor- and texture-filled Triple Eight Bloody Mary with Spicy Shrimp and Asparagus. The stemless and baseless O works perfectly for their fancy take on the eye-opening Blood Mary. “They’re great for wine as well,” Wendy says.
The Jannelles’ first course is appropriately a Vegetable Spring Roll filled with carrots, daikon radish, popcorn shoots, avocado and cucumber accompanied by spicy sweet and sour dipping sauce. They think the Sancerre La Croix du Roi, Domaine Lucien Crochet, 2004, well-chilled, is the perfect choice to accompany the crunchy spring rolls.
The picnic’s featured dish, Marinated and Grilled Colorado Lamb Pops with Bearnaise Aioli, was cleverly chosen for their built-in feature of a natural eating utensil – the bone. Patricia Green Cellars’ Pinot Noir, 2005, is the suggested wine for the chops.
The spring rolls and the lamb with minted tabouli salad are served on Villeroy & Boch “Wonderful World” china. Wendy likes this china because there are “lots of colors and shapes.” Without a doubt, Peter and Wendy’s “Sweet Endings,” Strawberries Dipped in White Chocolate Limoncello Ganache with Toasted Coconut, will look sensational on one of the scallop-edged plates in this collection.
You may wonder about the logistics of transporting this multi-section meal to your favorite picnic place. Not to worry, according to the Jannelles.
“Wooden wine boxes are great,” they say. Once you’ve unpacked the food, “Turn them over and use as individual place settings, or together as a display table. Different styles and sizes make for an interesting set-up.”
The final and most essential element for a winning picnic according to Peter and Wendy is, “good friends who enjoy delicious food and great music.” They set up their iPod on site, with a playlist that includes Steely Dan and Miles Davis, Annie Lennox and Norah Jones and glorious libations.
Susan Simon is the author of several cookbooks about Nantucket and Italy. She writes about food and wine for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, and is a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.