After months of hibernation, the time has come to emerge into the spring sunshine, shake out our picnic rugs, find a patch of grass and feast. Here in Victoria, the chance to finally venture outside to relax in our local parks has been met with huge enthusiasm and relief.
For the first time in many weeks, things are beginning to seem a little more normal, a little less heavy. While the idea of a picnic – preparing food, packing it up and trekking to a park – may perhaps feel arduous, I am here to tell you, it is always worth the effort.
After all, picnics combine some of life's very best things – lunch, lounging and quite possibly, a nap in the afternoon sun. So with our masks tucked beside us as we sip drinks and shoo flies away from the salad, let's vow never to take picnics for granted again. Just be sure to keep the food simple and the drinks icy cold!
Edamame and avocado dip
When thinking about food to pack for a picnic, my mind automatically drifts towards some sort of dip. Dips are such a crowd-pleaser, and making them at home is incredibly easy and quick. Here I've gone for a bright edamame and avocado dip that zings with lime juice. I like to serve it with tortilla chips but of course standard supermarket corn chips will be delicious, too.
To make the dip, simply blanch 200g of shelled edamame (soybeans) and allow them to cool. Reserve a few for garnish then in a blender or food processor blitz the rest with the flesh of 3 avocados, 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the juice of two limes and a small handful of mint leaves.
If the mixture is a little stiff and difficult to blend, drizzle in a tablespoon or two of water to loosen it up. Season well with sea salt and ground white pepper. Spoon onto a plate or into your container, top with the reserved edamame and serve with plenty of tortilla chips for dipping.
Clockwise from top: Barbecue chicken baguettes; Green tabbouleh; Edamame and avocado dip with tortilla chips. Photo: William Meppem
Barbecue chicken baguette
For something more substantial, I seek help from a time-saving hero – the pre-cooked barbecue chicken – to fill a few baguettes. Shred a whole barbecue chicken (easiest while it is still warm) and set it aside in a bowl.
I chop up skin, too, add it to the meat, but discard the stuffing. Feel free to mix the stuffing with the meat if that's your thing. Make a quick lime mayonnaise by mixing 150g (½ cup) of store-bought mayonnaise with a handful of finely chopped chives, the zest and juice of a lime and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Season it with salt and pepper, then set aside. Grill a cob of corn until cooked and slightly charred and then shave off the kernels with a knife.
To assemble, split two baguettes lengthwise and open them like a door. Butter the bottom half of the baguette and cover it with a layer of baby gem or cos lettuce leaves. Top with the shredded chicken and grilled corn and spoon the mayonnaise on top. Season with sea salt and pepper and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Cut the baguettes in two, wrap in baking paper, tie with string and pack away, ready for the picnic basket.
A salad is a lovely thing to take to a picnic too, but no one likes soggy leaves, so I always turn to something more robust. Tabbouleh is the perfect choice. Since it's spring, we're going green! Blanch 200g of peas (frozen are fine if you don't have fresh) and one bunch of asparagus, woody ends trimmed and discarded, in boiling water. I love the addition of 200g blanched broad beans but the salad will still be lovely without them if you cannot find them. Double pod the broad beans if they are large and cut the asparagus into 4cm lengths.
Warm 1 tablespoon each of unsalted butter and extra virgin olive oil in a medium pot over a medium heat and add 100g of coarse burghul, stirring for a minute or so until the burghul is slightly toasty. Add 200ml of hot water or chicken stock and a pinch of sea salt and allow to simmer gently for 15 minutes without stirring. Cover with a lid and leave to stand for a further 15 minutes.
Transfer the burghul to a bowl, with the blanched greens and a bunch each of finely chopped mint and parsley leaves, 70g toasted slivered almonds and 100g of marinated feta. Make a lemony dressing with 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the juice of one lemon, 1 tablespoon of finely chopped preserved lemon and a good pinch of sea salt. Pour the dressing over the tabbouleh and toss to combine.
Watermelon and strawberry salad
A refreshing salad of watermelon and strawberries is one of my favourite fruit combinations. Make a light sugar syrup by combining 2 tablespoons of caster sugar with 125 millilitres (½ cup) of water, 4 slices of ginger and a vanilla pod, split in half, in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over a low-medium heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, and continue to simmer until lightly syrupy. Let cool then stir in 1 teaspoon of rosewater.
Arrange 8 slices of watermelon on a plate and top with 250g strawberries, sliced into rounds, and pour over the syrup. Just before serving, scatter over some roughly sliced pistachios. Dollops of natural yoghurt turn this salad into a light summery dessert.
Raspberry frangipane tart (left) and watermelon and strawberry salad. Photo: William Meppem
Raspberry frangipane tart
This frangipane tart has flaky pastry and is studded with raspberries to balance out the sweetness. Slices can be picked up with your hands, making it the ideal dessert to take to a picnic.
- 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- pinch of fine sea salt
- 150g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 3-4 tbsp iced water
- 150g unsalted butter, softened
- 150g caster sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
- 150g almond meal
- 3 eggs
- 3 tbsp plain flour, sifted
- 200g raspberries, plus extra to serve
- icing sugar, to dust
- creme fraiche, to serve
- To make the pastry, mix the flour, sugar and salt together in a large bowl. Rub the cold butter into the mixture using your fingertips or a pastry cutter until it has the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Some larger pieces of butter are good. Sprinkle in the vinegar and enough iced water to just bring the dough together, around 3-4 tablespoons. Flatten into a disc, wrap and chill in the fridge for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- While the pastry chills, make the frangipane filling by creaming the butter, sugar and vanilla either using a wooden spoon or a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, until light and fluffy. Mix in the almond meal until combined, followed by the eggs, adding them in one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Finally, add the flour and continue mixing until just incorporated. Cover and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 160C fan-forced (180C conventional). Place a loose-based 25cm round fluted flan on a baking tray.
- Take the pastry dough out of the fridge 10 minutes before use. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a large round about 2mm thick and ease it into the prepared tin, gently pressing the dough into the edges. Trim excess by running your rolling pin over the rim. Line the tart shell with baking paper and fill with baking beads or dried beans. Blind bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until the edges are beginning to colour. Remove the paper and baking beads.
- Arrange a third of the raspberries on the base of the pastry and cover with the filling, spreading it evenly over the base with a spatula. Press the remaining raspberries into the tart and bake for 30-35 minutes until the tart is puffy and golden. Allow to cool. Dust the tart with icing sugar and serve slices with extra raspberries and a dollop of creme fraiche.
And to wash it all down? A wonderfully refreshing iced tea, which barely requires any effort at all. Place ½ cup of tea leaves in a large jug or jar – I used English breakfast, but oolong and orange pekoe work well, too. Add a handful of mint leaves and 2 litres of cold water. Let the tea steep for 8-16 hours at room temperature.
Meanwhile, combine 100g of caster sugar with 150 millilitres of water in a small saucepan. Add a few cardamom pods, cloves and a cinnamon stick and set the pan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 4-5 minutes until syrupy. Allow to cool, then strain. Strain the tea, discarding the leaves, and stir in the sugar syrup, then chill in the refrigerator.
Serve with plenty of ice, fresh mint, and slices of cucumber and lemon. If it's high summer, some peach slices are delicious, too.
This article appears in Good Food in Sunday Life magazine within The Sunday Age on sale October 4.