There’s no time like the present for a picnic

Has the picnic gone the way of blue eye shadow and the Backstreet Boys?

Alarmed by the fading popularity of picnics, two men have written new cookbooks they hope will inspire a resurgence of interest in eating outdoors. Russell Cronkhite, author of “A Return to Family Picnics” (Multnomah Gifts, $32) said picnicking is becoming a lost art.

“If it is lost, we lose something valuable, the getting away from the TV and video games, spending quality time together, having fun, getting the kids outdoors,” said Cronkhite in a phone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. “We lose the social transaction.”

Jeremy Jackson hopes his recipes in “Good Day for a Picnic” (Morrow Cookbooks, $22.95) will inspire people to pack a bag, basket or backpack and head outside.

“I, like a lot of people, carry some fond memories of picnics of my childhood, and thought it would be nice to remind people how lovely they are – a great time to connect with friends and family,” said Jackson of Iowa City, Iowa. “I want to try to introduce some new recipes, not just fried chicken and potato salad.”

Although Jackson’s recipes are enticing and often unusual, they are, for the most part, very simple. Like his Pine Nut Butter, made with just one ingredient: pine nuts. This taste bud-rousing spread can be served on crackers with grapes, goat cheese, honey or apple slices.

“A lot of time when you get the impulse to go, it may be, ‘Hey, the weather’s great, we’re not doing anything, let’s go.’ You don’t want to mess with a recipe with multiple stages, just get something done and go,” Jackson said. “And simple food tastes so good outside.”

Jackson is convinced that food actually tastes better in sunshine. In his book he reports the results of a very unscientific study in which he ate a bite of sandwich inside, then walked into his sunny yard and ate another bite. He repeated it with an orange and a cookie.

“Admittedly, it was a silly experiment – one that anyone who has ever been on a picnic knew the answer to anyway,” Jackson writes. “Yes, food tastes better outside. All food is a product of the sun, after all, and maybe that’s the reason food tastes better under its benevolent warmth.”

You have to eat anyway, so why not eat outdoors? Cronkhite says opportunities for a simple, impromptu picnic occur regularly.

“The sandwich picnic is easy. Make some great subs or wraps – wraps are great for picnics. Make a green bean salad, or vegetable slaw or orzo salad. You can always grab some olives, cheese and grapes at the deli,” Cronkhite said. “We used to do a lot of impromptu picnics when I as growing up, and then again with our kids. We’d do it after soccer practice. Just sit under a tree and eat while the others were in the cars in line waiting to leave.”

A great accompaniment to sandwiches is Cronkhite’s supersimple green bean and cherry tomato salad. A luscious dressing of bacon, onion and red wine vinegar can be made a day ahead, then tossed with the vegetables just before serving.

Jackson encourages people to get a start on a picnic by cooking a little extra the day before.

“Some recipes that are good hot for dinner, the leftovers make a good picnic the next day,” he said. “Quiche is an example of that. Also, flavorful chicken pieces. Or meatloaf for meatloaf sandwiches.”

It has to be asked. Where do these two picnic experts like to picnic? And what do they eat?

“One of my favorites is a nice romantic picnic, like a tailgate picnic with friends,” Cronkhite said. “Get a group together and go to wine country or a concert in the park, something not expensive. Everyone brings something to share.”

His favorite recipes include fried chicken, watermelon pickles and Upside-Down Rhubarb Plum Cake, a moist, fruity cake with an unusual texture from cornmeal.

Because the famous Maytag blue cheese is made in Jackson’s home state of Iowa, it’s no surprise that his favorite picnic recipe is crostini with peaches and blue cheese.

“It’s a really simple appetizer,” Jackson said. “You just chop up some fresh peaches, then macerate them in balsamic. Put them on the crostini and top with blue cheese, then broil them a bit. The sweetness of the peaches, the bitterness of the blue cheese and the slight acidity of the balsamic just go together beautifully.”

And where would he enjoy these morsels?

“I’m a fan of just taking a blanket out to a park and finding a good spot on the lawn or under a tree. You don’t have to go far afield to enjoy the outdoors,” Jackson said. “In this day and age, there is an impulse to try and overplan everything to make the perfect picnic. It’s not about stressing out, it’s about going out and having fun.”

GREEN BEAN AND CHERRY TOMATO SALAD

2 pounds green beans

2 pints ripe cherry or grape tomatoes

4 strips thick-cut smoked bacon, diced

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Yields 8 servings.

Trim green beans; blanch in boiling water until just bright green, about 3 minutes. Drain and plunge into ice water to stop cooking. Wash tomatoes and remove stems; slice in 1/2.

Cook diced bacon in skilled over medium-high heat until it begins to brown, then add onion and saute for 1 minute. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, 4 to 5 minutes.

Whisk oil and vinegar together in small bowl, add sugar, and season with salt and pepper. Add onion and bacon mixture to oil and vinegar, cool to room temperature. Just prior to serving, toss dressing with beans and tomatoes.

– “A Return to Family Picnics” by Russell Cronkhite.

SPICED SUMMER PEACHES

4 cups granulated sugar

3 cups water

1 cup apple cider vinegar

12 cinnamon sticks

12 whole cloves

2 dozen medium firm ripe peaches, pitted and halved

Yields 40 servings.

Combine sugar, water, cider vinegar, cinnamon sticks and whole cloves in large saucepan; bring to a low boil. Drop peach halves, 8 at a time, into the syrup and simmer for 5 minutes; then strain and cool to room temperature. Repeat the process until all of the peaches are cooked. Pour syrup over peaches and cool.

– “A Return to Family Picnics.”

UPSIDE-DOWN RHUBARB PLUM CAKE

3 large stalks fresh rhubarb

3/4 cup granulated sugar

5 medium-size ripe, firm plums

Cake:

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cornmeal

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup whole milk

Topping:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

Yields 10 servings.

Trim away any woody ends from rhubarb stalks and then slice enough into 3/4-inch-thick pieces to yield 2 cups. Transfer cut rhubarb to stainless mixing bowl and toss together with sugar. Allow mixture to stand at room temperature for 2 hours so that the sugar can extract some of the excess moisture. Thoroughly rinse and drain rhubarb.

Cut plums in 1/2, discarding pits.

Sift together flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt.

Use mixer fitted with paddle to cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy, 6 to 8 minutes, scraping sides of bowl. On medium speed, add eggs 1 at a time, mixing well after each addition; then add vanilla.

Reduce mixer speed to low and add dry ingredients in 3 stages, alternately with milk; mix just long enough to form smooth batter.

Lightly butter and flour inside ring of 9-inch springform pan and secure bottom. Pour melted butter into bottom of pan and sprinkle evenly with brown sugar. Arrange plum halves in bottom of pan and scatter rhubarb over, filling in any spaces between plums. Slowly pour cake batter over fruit.

Bake in 350 F oven until wooden toothpick comes out clean when inserted in middle, 55 to 60 minutes. Cool on wire rack until cake is completely cooled, 2 to 4 hours. Run thin knife around inside edge of springform pan, loosen spring and remove ring; invert onto your favorite serving plate. Slice and serve with freshly whipped cream.

– “A Return to Family Picnics.”

CROSTINI WITH PEACHES AND BLUE CHEESE

12 thin slices baguette or similar bread

Olive oil, for brushing

3 to 4 ripe peaches

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled

Freshly ground black pepper, optional

Yields 6 appetizer servings.

Brush bread slices with just a bit of oil, then toast, bake, grill or broil until almost dry.

To peel peaches, drop in boiling water for 30 seconds then transfer to bowl of ice water. Skin will peel easily. Slice peaches in very small and thin pieces and combine with balsamic vinegar.

Preheat broiler to low. Arrange bread on baking sheet. Top bread with peaches and their juices, then top with crumbled cheese. Add touch of black pepper, if desired. Broil until cheese is hot, soft and just tinged with brown. Serve at any temperature, preferably within 2 hours of being made.

– “Good Day For a Picnic” by Jeremy Jackson.

PINE NUT BUTTER

1 cup raw pine nuts

Yields 1 cup pine nut butter.

Toast nuts in dry skillet over medium heat, shaking frequently, until they begin to sizzle softly and show first signs of lightly browning (about 3 to 4 minutes). Let nuts cool a bit, then process with a stick blender until it’s the consistency of natural peanut butter. Can be stored at room temperature for 2 days.

Serve on crackers or bread with fresh goat cheese, honey or grapes. Or serve as a dip with apple slices, carrot sticks or celery sticks.

– “Good Day for a Picnic.”

WALNUT AND FETA MICRO QUICHES

1/2 recipe whole-wheat pastry, chilled (see below)

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/4 plus 1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup whole milk

1 large egg

1 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup feta cheese, or more as needed

Yields 24 micro quiches.

Roll chilled pastry dough into 14-inch circle and cut out 24 (2 1/2-inch) circles with biscuit cutter or rim of small glass.

Fit circles into nonstick mini-muffin pan. Chill until needed.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Heat olive oil over medium heat, add onion and saute until soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in flour, salt, thyme and pepper. Beat milk and egg together, then stir into onion mixture. Divide onion mixture among 24 cups. (There may be a little leftover filling.) Top quiches with walnuts.

Bake for 12 to 18 minutes, until set and puffed. Top hot quiches with crumbled feta, then put them under broiler just until cheese is hot and soft.

Best if eaten the day they are made, but can be refrigerated for 2 days. Serve hot, warm or room temperature.

WHOLE-WHEAT PASTRY

3/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup plain yogurt

Yields enough dough for 48 micro quiches.

Stir together flours and salt. Cut in butter with pastry cutter (or pinch butter into flour) until largest bits of butter are pea-size. Stir in yogurt. Be patient and stir until it starts to clump together. Knead it a few times to incorporate any remaining flour. Pat dough into thick disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 30 minutes (or up to 24 hours).

– “Good Day for a Picnic.”

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