Sunday, March 20, 2011

Picnic Season is Fleeting......

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.


That sound you hear is the sound of time slipping away moment by moment, the last precious days and weeks of spring ebbing away (in central Arizona, spring ends and summer begins in about, oh, April) until all we're left with is...........summertime. A cruel joke of a season in which temperatures soar to temperatures well in excess of 115 degrees and nothing fun is possible. No long, leisurely hikes in the desert. No mid-afternoon bicycle joyrides. No picnics.

No picnics.

The horror.

Picnics and roadtrips are like an American birthright, the predictable offspring of our wanderlust and our zest for eating anything on the move combined with some darker, murkier instinct from our distant European heritage to relaaaaax, spread out on the grass of the hillside for the whole afternoon and sip wine one small glass at a time until the sun is low and the whole bottle is gone. There should be sandwiches, of course, crisp with meat and juicy with other succulent things. There should be a real picnic blanket, and paper napkins, crisp with a briefly lingering fresh coolness from their proximity to the ice pack, and a refreshing bubbly beverage served in real glasses. There should be a cooling, crunchy salad of some kind, zesty with vinaigrette. There should be simple sweets, and a dog and a beloved partner by your side on the picnic blanket, if you can manage it. There should be a whole afternoon devoted to lazing, eating, sipping, lake-gazing, half-heartedly fishing (really just an excuse to enjoy the perfect weather lakeside, and you won't mind if you don't catch a thing, as we didn't), and just being in that one perfect moment before the weather turns horrible and it's all a distant, faded memory.

In full awareness of this weather-related dilemma, Mr. Orange & Salt and I decided a fancy weekend picnic outdoors was a long overdue event. We might even be instituting a 'mandatory fancy picnic' policy every weekend until the temperature tops 100, who knows? Because once we get there, my friends, it is a long, sweaty slog until late October or so, when it finally cools down again. And there are no picnics in sight along the way. Woe. So let's focus on the present while the weather here is gorgeous--mid 80s, sunny and clear! Hooray!

The Fancy Lakeside Picnic Menu:

Brie, Apple and Bacon Panini on Ciabatta Bread

Cold Asparagus Salad with Shallot Vinaigrette

Fresh Ataulfo 'Champagne' Mangoes & Dark Chocolate Squares

Finest Champagne*

( *if 'finest champagne' is readily available for $6 at the local grocery store, then yes, yes it certainly was the finest champagne)

It's important to consider a few variables when planning your fancy picnic.Is there anything that could melt or fall apart when moved around too much? Is my fancy picnic heavy or light? Am I going to be hiking beforehand, or driving directly to the picnic spot? Does it all need to fit into a cooler, a backpack, a series of tupperware containers? For our own fancy picnic, we knew we'd be driving most of the way, then hiking out a short distance to the lake, so we packed ours in a cooler with plenty of ice (seriously, food-borne illnesses are NOT your friend--ask me how I know--so use ice, ice, ice!!) in the car, then transferred it all to an easily-carried bag for hiking. All the edibles were securely wrapped in plastic or in sealed containers to protect them from melting ice, and all the breakables (champagne bottle, glasses) were wrapped in the picnic blanket itself. We know what we're doing--this ain't our first rodeo (picnic), yo. Make sure you plan accordingly!

Our picnic destination, beautiful Canyon Lake!

You can't be properly fancy until you've sipped champagne from a real glass (even if that glass is made from a recycled root beer bottle) al fresco. Pinkies out, please!

Our panini were crusty perfection, layered inside with crisp smoky bacon, sweet apple slices and gently oozing brie. Panini are actually a perfect picnic choice because they're so tightly compressed and easy to hold--all the filling stays in place, both while traveling and eating! And this particular variety is fantastic at 'room' (lakeside?) temperature. A picnic must.

Cool, crispy, asparagus vinaigrette salad. The key to this is not steaming the asparagus, but rolling them around for a few brief but intense minutes in a hot pan with some olive oil. They cook just enough to lose their raw edge, but still retain most of their primal crispiness. The heat and olive oil work to coax out just enough of the sweet, nutty asparagus flavor before reaching the 'overcooked sock' point (so easily attained by steaming), and best of all, some of them even pick up a little browned char spot here and there. Then cool them immediately and dunk in a savory, acidic vinaigrette, and you've got a perfect, elegant little salad. Easily tupperware'd for ease of travel.

Mr. Orange & Salt shows his appreciation for a masterpiece of a sandwich.

Our gorgeous picnic site, directly lakeside and right in the midst of the all the cattails. Mr. Orange & Salt bravely did some experimental fishing, after we'd stuffed ourselves silly with all that wonderful bread, cheese, wine and fruit, but didn't catch a single thing......and really, it was just as well. I don't think I could have eaten another bite. I am, however, hungry for another picnic. And we'd better hurry. Time's ticking awaaaayyyy..........

Brie, Bacon and Apple Panini

Ciabatta bread
1 Granny Smith apple
6 slices bacon
Brie cheese

Preheat oven to 350. Bake slices of bacon on foil-lined baking sheet until desired degree of doneness is achieved (this is a hotly contested point of debate in our house, and so I won't even presume to tell you how far to cook or not to cook them. Chewy versus crispy is up to you, just make them look delicious!). While bacon is bakin' (heh heh), peel and thinly slice the apple. Toss in a dry saute pan over medium high heat for a minute or so. The goal should not be to cook them, just heat them enough to take the 'rawness' out of them. Look for them to begin to wilt slightly and smell nice and 'apple-y,' then remove from heat.

Slice desired amount of brie. Slice desired quantity of ciabatta lengthwise to form a bun. Assemble sandwich with fully cooked bacon slices, apple slices, and cheese slices. Press down firmly to flatten. Place in dry saute pan (you may use a panini press here instead. What, you have one? I don't. I find you can achieve the exact same result with a hot, dry pan and a little watchfulness, so I'm not investing in one) over medium heat, pressing down slightly to crisp the surface of the bread.

Toast for a few minutes on each side, until bread begins to turn brown and crispy. Remove from heat, cool, wrap in plastic wrap for picnic time!

Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette Salad

One bunch fresh asparagus
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon peanut oil
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. dijon mustard
Honey, to taste
Salt & pepper, to taste

Clean & trim bottoms of asparagus. Take 2 of the tablespoons of olive oil, heat in a saute pan over medium high heat. Toss asparagus in hot oil for a few minutes until slightly browned in a few spots, but still crispy inside. Remove from pan and place on a plate in a single layer (I usually chop them into thirds at this point, too, for ease of eating later on); refrigerate to cool.

In medium sized bowl, place remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil, plus peanut oil, vinegar, shallot, garlic and mustard. Whisk to combine. Taste, and add honey to taste to balance acidity, plus salt and pepper. Add chilled asparagus and either consume immediately or continue chilling.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Banoffee Pie: Keep Calm & Carry a Fork!


Oh, I know. I disappear for months without a trace or even a hint of a a recipe, not one little blog post, and now I return here to you with..........banoffee pie? But just bear with me! It's going to be good.

Those of you reading this from North America may have never experienced the charms of banoffee pie; you may never even have heard of it. Let me briefly enlighten you. Banoffee (one of those delightful food-name portmanteaus, constructed from 'banana' and 'toffee') pie is a quintessentially English dessert, like trifle or sticky toffee pudding. It is a sticky, sweet, rich slice of creamy heaven. And it's even better when you top it with caramelized nuts.

It's also traditionally made by boiling an unopened can (yikes!) of condensed milk until the contents transform into a sticky brown caramel sauce known elsewhere in the world as dulce de leche. Right away, I knew that I would be deviating from tradition for three excellent reasons:

- One, that boiling a sealed can of anything for hours and hours until it either reduces and become delicious or, alternatively, explodes violently in your face in an eruption of molten liquid and shrapnel, killing you very much dead.......scares the living daylights out of me.

- Two, that I've actually heard that the dulce de leche base is a touch too thin for proper pie filling, resulting in fruit slices that sink to the bottom. And while that still sounds delicious, it's somewhat lacking in presentation appeal.

- And three, I had just discovered a recipe at one of my favorite cooking blogs, The Smitten Kitchen (I owe her so much!), for caramel pudding. Which is most likely what put the idea of banoffee pie into my head in the first place. Soft, yielding, puddingy, but stiff enough to stand up to a mound of banana slices and whipped cream--it sounded like the ideal middle layer for the pie of my dreams.

The crust is a simple crushed graham cracker crust, my favorite choice for creamy desserts like pudding-filled pie or cheesecake (versus say, a fruit pie, for which a pastry base is the only logical choice). Crumbly and delicious. The pudding, I have to say, is delicious. I added a touch more salt than Deb's original recipe calls for because I am a sucker for that 'salted caramel' flavor. I also have to say, because I feel somehow obliged to disclose it.......that this pudding is too thick and gelatinous for me, as pudding. I say this having made it twice now, it takes most of its texture from the six (six!) tablespoons of cornstarch that get stirred into the mixture. The end result is quite stiff, almost bouncy, and I just can't imagine sinking a spoon into it and eating a cup of it on its own as pudding. As banoffee pie filling, however, its very stiffness is its best feature, making for a gorgeous and easily sliced pie that holds its shape perfectly.

My husband, who has never understood the proud & historic cuisine of the British people, unreasonably insisted that we try putting sliced strawberries on the pie instead of the traditional bananas. I gasped and clutched my pearls. I told him that such a thing would be a crime against decency and Mother England, if not an abomination before humanity itself! But because I love my husband senselessly, even more than I love banoffee pie, I agreed to the compromise you see above.

And okay. Actually, it was delicious. Listen to your heathen husbands once in awhile. Only......what should we call it? Strawbanoffee pie? Banoffeeberry pie?

Top with fresh whipped cream, and a handful of nuts if desired. I recommend that you toss them lightly in a pan with some butter and sugar to glaze them, then let them cool before sprinkling them on top.


You know you want it. :)

Orange & Salt's Banoffee Pie

Graham Cracker Crust:
1.5 cups crushed graham crackers (I ended up using about half a box)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
6 T. melted butter

Preheat oven to 350. Mix dry ingredients together in bowl, add butter and stir or blend with your hands until the mixture resembles wet sand. Press well into bottom and sides of tart pan. Bake for 8-10 minutes.

Caramel Filling:

Here's a link to the excellent caramel pudding recipe over at Smitten Kitchen. Enjoy! (Don't forget to let your pudding base cool in the fridge after you've cooked it and spread it in the tart crust base, so as not to melt the whipped cream all over the place)

Pie Topping:

One perfectly ripe banana (and some ripe strawberries, if you're making Strawbanoffeeberry Pie, you weirdo you)
Half pint of whipping cream
Sugar (enough to lightly sweeten the cream, plus a little extra for the nuts....maybe a few tablespoons in all?)
Chopped walnuts (pecans would also be awesome here)
Small amount of butter

Slice fruit thinly, and place in an even layer over pie base (crust & pudding mixture, cooled). Whip cream and sugar (to taste) with electric mixer or whisk until it holds soft peaks. Spread over pie base, chill in refrigerator until ready to eat.

Heat a small amount of butter (very small, like half a tablespoon) in a skillet over medium high heat. Add chopped nuts and sugar, toss to coat. Cook until nuts are glazed with browned sugar, immediately remove from heat. Let cool, then sprinkle on pie.



Do it for England. :)