Last week it dawned on me that it was almost time for my book group’s annual picnic, which meant it was time for me to get cracking. We’ve been meeting roughly every three weeks for the past 17 years–that’s a lot of books. Since I live the furthest from where the other three are clustered (also since I am a scary bad housekeeper and have rambunctious dogs), we very rarely meet at my house.
At the end of every summer, however, I host a little book group picnic at the shore, with the best food I can manage. It is the gods’ honest truth that one day I wanted to clean the living room (can’t think why) and I had to call my husband at work to ask him where we kept the vacuum cleaner–I was a long time living that one down. But I am a pretty good cook, and I try to whomp up (as my southern relatives might say) a meal in which the food and the ambiance are apropriate to the season or the theme or setting of the book. I am still rather proud, for instance, of my Sorrows of Gin dinner last summer when we’d read the collected short stories of John Cleever, at which every course contained gin (or juniper) in some form and we toasted himself with veddy dry martinis.
The past month here has been rather hectic, what with kids getting off to schools, some traveling, a few family crises, the death of our senior cat, a family member’s illness (all’s well now–my favorite word this week is “benign”). I took a deep breath and declared that the picnic was going to be very simple this year, just beer and sandwiches at the beach. But planning the menu is half the fun, so a recent day found me sitting at the picnic table under one of our big maples with my actual work (you know, the stuff I’m supposed to get paid for) spread out in front of me and a stack of cookbooks within reach:
Yesterday I cooked and cooked all day to get this stuff ready. We’d read a terrific book, Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, which we loved and admired for its honesty and skill and subtlety, but there wasn’t anything about the book that really dictated the menu. In the end, this is what I decided on, just because it all sounded good:
Blue Ginger crackers
spicy salted almonds
Thai vegetable slaw
grilled Thai chicken sandwiches on foccacia bread with red onion and heirloom tomatos
sweet potato and beet chips
peaches and blackberries in blackcurrant liqueur
beer and iced tea
Second Child, who is becoming quite a dab hand in the kitchen, helped out tremendously by making a batch of Barefoot Contessa shortbread cookies (it’s one of my most strongly held beliefs that if Ina Garten were ever to stop cooking and writing about cooking, the butter industry would collapse overnight but the fond memory of these cookies would linger in our collective memory), doing general chopping and mixing, and by taking some of these pictures for me, including this one
of me using a pasta machine for rolling out the dough for the Blue Ginger Crackers, a Ming Tsai recipe that’s one of our staples–it should be in everyone’s repertoire. The thinner you can get the dough the better, but even if you don’t have a pasta machine (we found ours for $4 at a tag sale), you can still roll the dough thin enough for damned good crackers using a rolling pin.
It was a lovely picnic, from the afternoon to the evening.
At this point it would be appropriate to confess that I forgot to serve the chips, but everything else was pretty good. In keeping with trying to be casual about the meal, I stitched up 4 little canvas lunch bags with freezer paper stencils of summer leaves , and packed the dinners in them along with cloth napkins, recyclable cutlery, and small reusable screw-top jars (for the slaw). I will eventually make more of these bags (which everyone took home) and may do a few things differently when I do (these seemed a tad small, for instance–the Trader Joe’s shopping bag and the beer– are there for scale), but they came out pretty well if I do say so myself.
It was a spectacular day with wonderful company (including, as last minute guests who pretty much went off and did their own thing at the beach, Second Child and a friend of hers), a brisk breeze that held the mosquitoes at bay, the sea just a few steps away, and a beautiful half moon that came out as we were finishing dessert and thinking of packing up in the growing dark.
And, oh–a special thank you to the folks a few tables away who opened our beers for us when we discovered I’d forgotten the bottle opener. Did you ever find your cutting board?