I’m going to generalise here and say that country people love entertaining outside and this is why (again generalising); because it’s a rare chance to down tools and actually enjoy the space and scenery we call home, because picnics are kid heaven and because surely we can all agree that fresh air is conducive to good appetites and good times. Plus, on a far more prosaic level – picnics are great because your house never gets trashed by hoards of kids running in and out with muddy boots, usually followed by a dog or three and maybe a chicken or poddy lamb too. I’ve a friend who goes a step further and locks her house when having friends over for a bonfire or picnic behind her house so nobody (read no child) gets inside. Harsh but once you’ve seen what those muddy kids can do to a tidy house, you’ll understand.
So whether your nearest open space is right on your doorstep or at the local park, I hope this column inspires you to get outside this weekend and celebrate the soft, golden light of Autumn with a picnic. And here’s what to pack; a big pot of magic pudding minestrone (recipe below), a loaf of sourdough, marshmallows for toasting, cake and a bottle or two of rose.
Next, gather your friends and neighbours together and share an afternoon of tasty food and conversations that don’t need to be rushed because there’s nowhere else to be. And as a bonus, you’ll get come home to a mud-free house.
T’is is the season for winter picnics so I hope that the below list of ideas for things to make and pack for your next picnic help make it as easy, delicious and fun as possible.
When it comes to packing a good picnic basket, you can’t go wrong if you just keep it simple and tasty. Especially at this time of year when all people really want is something warm and filling (soup or sausages and chops?). I’m all for a big pot or thermos of soup, something hearty and filling that kids and adults will all love, then all you need to add to the mix is a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, some apples and a cake. Below please find a recipe for my ‘magic minestrone’, but first, a master list for the perfect picnic (of course, this is all subjective and so I guess I should call this a master list for our idea of a perfect picnic).
Packing the picnic…
- A jar of spiced, roast nuts and/or homemade popcorn to hand around while the fire gets going.
- A good hunk of cheddar cheese to be plonked on a plate or board with some crackers, a couple of crunchy apples, sliced, and maybe a jar of chutney.
- The classic spinach cob loaf is a picnic winner because it comes in it’s own bowl, with it’s own dipping material too. And everyone, I mean absolutely EVERYONE loves this.
- When I was little, a family friend would always serve Devils on horseback when hosting a paddock picnic. This retro classic is so simple to make – just wrap prunes in bacon, hold together with a matchstick and pop into a moderate oven and cook until the bacon is cooked nicely. She’d cook them at home then bring out covered in foil and far out they were good. Definitely worth revisiting.
- When it comes to the main part of lunch, and assuming there are no fire bans in place, you really can’t go wrong with barbecued chops and sausages served with bread rolls, chutney and salad.
- If wanting to posh it up a bit, I also love a paddock paella.
- For sweets, a tray of brownies is always a hit, and/or a jar of biscuits like these chocolate wheat ones,a tray cake, rocky road or a good sturdy picnic cake full of fruit and spices. Or you could just keep it really simple and grab a bag of marshmallows to toast.
- And because I come from a line of game tragics, I always love to organise some kind of group activity when the eating is done, Finska is a favourite of ours at the moment, or boules or a bit of football to run off our lunch.
- On the beverage front – a thermos of mulled wine is always popular and for the kids, this orange cordial is lovely (I heat it up too on very cold days and they love it).
MAGIC PUDDING’ MINESTRONE
So-called because you really can just throw anything (within reason) into your soup pot, cook slowly and coax the flavour out of every ingredient. And in return, your soup pot will just keep on giving. Start with a good base and your pot will take you where it needs to go…
Perfect fuel for a cool day. A hale bowl of goodness that is patient, will wait for you and accommodate more if necessary too. This recipe serves 8-10
For the base;
2 brown onions, peeled and diced
2 carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
4 bay leaves
2 tbsp thyme leaves
2 tbsp rosemary leaves
100g thick-cut bacon, cut into lardoons
6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 x 800g tins chopped tomatoes
3 x cups chicken stock
2 x parmesan rinds (these are important, they give such great flavour!)
2 cups cannellini beans, soaked overnight and cooked until tender (or canned)
1 handful green beans, chopped into thirds
2 bunches kale, torn from the stems and roughly chopped
Lots of freshly grated parmesan and olive oil, to serve
So to make your minestrone base, start by cooking off the onions, carrots and celery in plenty of good olive oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Cook for five minutes or until soft and translucent then add the herbs, bacon and garlic. Cook for another five minutes, stirring often, then pour in the tomatoes, stock and parmesan rinds. Stir well, season to taste and bring to the boil.
Now you have your base you can mix things up a bit. For this lunch, just five minutes before serving, I added a couple of cups of pre-soaked and cooked cannellini beans to the hot soup, the chopped green beans and the kale then finished things off with some freshly grated parmesan and a drizzle of Kimbri olive oil. But you could instead add cavolo nero or spinach and perhaps a couple of handfuls of cooked small pasta shapes. A bit of chilli doesn’t go astray here either. In any case, as I said, just keep adding to it as numbers and need dictate. The base will happily take an extra can of tomatoes, a little more stock and/or more greens as and when you like.