This time of year, along the country roads in France, when it is time for lunch, cars with several passengers can be seen pulling over to the side of the road for a picnic. It is not a hasty affair with a quickly purchased baguette of French bread and some cheese. These picnickers take folding chairs, small portable tables, and the requisite linen from the trunks of their tiny European cars.
Beautiful dishes emerge from picnic hampers and baskets. There are patesm and savory tarts and cold vegetable salads. These are casual meals, carefully planned so they seem impromptu, though only the selection of the site is spontaneous.
Enjoying a beautiful meal outdoors is an idea that is appealing to everyone. There are many dishes that sit well at room temperature so you can avoid taking coolers to your location, and if there are volunteer passengers for holding them , all food looks its best on platters or trays suitable for the dining table.
Here is a colorful picnic menu that fits all these requirements: a latticed mushroom tart rich with cream; a rice and vegetable salad made with squash, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and peas; a simple vinaigrette of asparagus; and a buttery almond cake for dessert for serving with ripe fruits or berries.
This tart is bursting with the flavor of mushrooms; it is a specialty of La Varenne, the Paris cooking school. Latticed Mushroom Tart Pastry: 2 3/4 cups flour Pinch of salt 1/2 cup butter, cut up 1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
% egg 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar 1/3 cup ice water Filling: 2 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, finely chopped 12-ounce box mushrooms, very finely chopped 2 tablespoons flour 1 1/2 cups light cream Pinch of grated nutmeg Pinch of ground allspice Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 3 egg yolks 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1 egg, beaten to mix, for glazing pastry
To make pastry sift flour and salt into a bowl and add butter and shortening. Combine with a metal palette knife or pastry blender until the mixture resembles bread crumbs.
Mix egg, vinegar, and water together, add flour and cut the liquids in until mixture comes together and forms a dough. Knead on a lightly floured board a few times, then divide in half and wrap each piece in plastic film. Refrigerate 15 minutes.
For filling, melt butter in a skillet and cook onion for 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook a few minutes until moisture is released, then turn up heat and cook until all moisture is evaporated, stirring constantly at the end.
Add flour and cook 1 minute. Add light cream and bring to a boil, stirring. Add nutmeg, allspice, and salt and pepper to taste, and simmer 3 minutes. Remove from heat, let bubbles subside, and add yolks, one at a time. Stir in parsley and set aside to cool.
Set oven at 400 degrees F. Roll out half the pastry on a lightly floured board and line a 10-inch tart pan with removable base. Trim off excess; prick bottom a couple dozen times and spread cooled filling in the shell.
Roll out remaining pastry and use a ravioli cutter or knife to cut into half-inch strips. Make a lattice on the filling, setting the strips half an inch apart and making the second set of strips diagonal, not perpendicular, to the first. Glaze lattice with beaten egg.
Set tart on a baking sheet and bake it on bottom rack of oven 20 minutes. Transfer to top oven rack and continue baking another 10 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Carry to the picnic in the pan, then just before serving, remove ring and cut into 6 wedges.
The mimosa flower which lends its name to this garnish is a bright golden yellow color with a fluffy texture. It is nearly the identical color to the cooked egg yolk used in the garnish. Asparagus Mimosa 2 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 egg
Snap off stems of asparagus where they break naturally when you bend each spear and discard ends. Peel the base of each stalk with a rotary vegetable peeler.
Cook in a skillet of boiling water for 3 to 4 minutes or until tender but still crunchy. Lift out, rinse with cold water, and dry on a clean kitchen towel.
Whisk vinegar, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Dribble in oil a little at a time, whisking constantly.
Prick hole in the rounded end of the egg. Lower it into a saucepan of boiling water, return to the boil, and let the egg cook steadily for 12 minutes exactly. Lift it out, plunge it into cold water, and leave to cool. Peel and halve it.
Arrange asparagus in a shallow dish and pour dressing over it. Work the egg white through a wire sieve and make a band near the base of the spears. Work the yolk through the same sieve and make a second band next to the white one. Cover tightly with plastic film and refrigerate until serving. Serves 6.
This salad is a colorful mixture of red, orange, yellow, green, and white. The vegetables discolor if they sit in the vinaigrette dressing for long, so mix the salad a couple of hours before serving. Rice Salad 1/2 lemon 1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice 2 tomatoes, cored 2 stalks celery, trimmed at both ends 1 yellow squash 1 package (10 ounces) frozen green peas 1 green pepper, cored, halved, and seeded 1 red pepper, cored, halved, and seeded, optional 4 carrots, peeled and trimmed 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard Pinch of cayenne pepper Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste 3/4 cup vegetable oil
Bring a large pan of water with lemon half to boil, sprinkle in rice, stir, and let water return to boil. Cook steadily 12 minutes exactly. Drain into a colander, poke half a dozen holes with the end of a wooden spoon into the rice, and leave to drain.
Drop tomatoes into boiling water and count to 10. Drain, peel, and halve them through their equators. Squeeze each half in your hands so seeds pop out. Cut flesh into strips and pile into a bowl.
Halve celery lengthwise and slice very thinly on an extreme diagonal. Add to tomatoes.
Cut 4 lengthwise slices from 4 sides of the squash so that all that is left is a squared-off column of seeds. Halve the yellow strips lengthwise, then slice thinly on the extreme diagonal. Add to tomatoes.
Pour boiling water over frozen peas, leave 2 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water. Cut peppers into 1/2-inch dice. Cut carrots into 1/2-inch dice and put into a saucepan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, cook 2 minutes, then drain and rinse with cold water. Combine vegetables. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Whisk vinegar, mustard, cayenne, and salt and pepper together and dribble in oil, whisking constantly, until dressing emulsifies. Discard lemon from rice and pile rice into a large bowl. Add vinaigrette dressing, toss with a rubber spatula, and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate.
A couple of hours before serving, combine vegetables and rice, stirring with a rubber spatula; taste for seasoning, and serve. Serves 6.This simple buttery cake is fine served on its own, or it can be accompanied by fresh fruit and whipped cream. Jeannette's Buttery Almond Cake 1 cup unsalted butter 3/4 cup sugar 2 eggs 1 egg yolk 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 1/3 cup blanched ground almonds 1 2/3 cups flour 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon salt1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon milk, for glaze Confectioners' sugar, for sprinkling
Set oven at 350 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch round layer cake pan and line bottom with waxed paper and grease paper. Sprinkle with flour, tapping out excess.
Cream butter in an electric mixer until soft and light. Add sugar, eggs, egg yolk, and beat constantly 8 minutes. Beat in vanilla extract.
Combine almonds, flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt. Add to mixer ingredients in 3 batches, beating just to incorporate them.
Pour batter into prepared pan, smooth top and brush it with the egg yolk glaze. Make a lattice pattern with the tines of a fork.
Bake cake 30 minutes or until top is browned and cake pulls away from sides of pan. Leave in pan to cool completely, then turn out, peel away paper, and set right side up on a dish.
Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar and cut into wedges for serving. Serves 6.