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Monday, July 03, 2017

Anything but Sandwiches

From the Food Vault Dept.: After a while, it became difficult to come up with fresh ideas for the annual Outdoor Dining article, but here’s one from eleven years ago that seemed to work and remains just as appropriate.


WE PACK THE CAR with folding canvas chairs, a cooler for drinks, a cooler for food, a portable grill – just in case – and the usual array of blankets and umbrellas and plastic plates and cutlery. And a wine opener. Never forget the wine opener.

Beirut Restaurant, Troy, NY
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But even before we rally the forces to head picnic-ward, the cry goes up: “A B S!” And that stands for Anything but Sandwiches.

Not that there’s anything horribly wrong the things. There’s no beating two slices of lightly toasted bread as a container for that toothsome mix of meat, veg and sauce, a container that travels easily to the mouth and waits until only until you bite down hard to spatter your shirt with sandwich guano.

We have been enchanted by the empanada, impressed with the Cornish pasty and, more recently, seduced by the wrap. But a sandwich of any kind never lets you forget that it’s food on the go. And what we want is food that helps us relax – food you’re better off consuming while sitting still.

Salads, of course, are key to the repertory, but I’m using the term to describe anything that’s mixed together with appropriate dressing and seasoning. Pretty much ABS, you see. And your salad assembly will help you clean out icebox and larder.

I’m probably a fool not to have written a cookbook by now, but, much as I enjoy reading them, I don’t think in cookbook terms when I cook. For this picnic meal, I need an array of vegetables, some salad-friendly meatstuffs and a bunch of the stuff that lives in the refrigerator door.

Onions and garlic, oil and vinegar. This theme will repeat. But let’s start with the items that should marinate the longest, first of which is a tomato-and-onion salad. Slice some big beefsteak tomatoes, then halve the slices. Do the same with a couple of onions. Add salt and pepper, and toss them in good wine vinegar and some olive oil. Fresh basil can’t hurt. Let it sit for a couple of hours.

Next is a bean salad. Use what you’ve got, or pick up some kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans – look for color and texture contrast. Toss the beans with minced onion and garlic, and throw in some chopped red pepper if you can. I also add cilantro and cumin for a south-of-the-border effect, soon to be regulated by the National Guard.

Got some leftover slices of cooked (preferably grilled) squash? Toss it in oil and vinegar. Add cumin or caraway seeds to cooked string beans as you dress them. Roast some beets and toss the slices with onion slices and crumbled gorgonzola.

Now you’re cooking. Leftover pasta you can toss with anything, and dress it with O&V or go for a richer mayo. “ABT,” my wife whispers, and I understand: Anything but Tuna in the pasta salad.

Slices of grilled chicken breasts are similarly versatile, ever seeking the right salad host. A Caesar salad of romaine lettuce tossed in a homemade garlicky mayo is the classic, but there’s no reason not to pair the meat with one of your other inventions.

Hummus is also excellent picnic fare, and you’re seeing it – and many variations – on the supermarket shelves for amusingly high prices. Make it yourself and you’ll never buy it again. Again, onions and garlic – lots of the latter – which you can throw in a food processor along with a handful of fresh parsley. Add a can or two of chickpeas and let the machine continue to pulverize the mixture. Combine it with the sesame seed paste called tahini, and grind it into a paste. Add fresh lemon juice, cumin, salt and pepper, and drizzle some good olive oil on top.

While we’re looking at Middle Eastern dishes, consider tabouleh. Its only exotic ingredient is bulgur, a cracked wheat, but you can find it at health food stores and store sections. Put the bulgur a bowl and pour boiling water over it, enough to cover the grains as they absorb and expand.

Add chopped scallions, lots of chopped parsley, chopped mint, diced tomato and a lot of lemon juice. I usually cut in some vinegar as well. Toasted pine nuts and cucumber slices also complement this dish.

The basis of baba ganouj is eggplant, roasted whole until soggy. Scoop out the inside stuff and mix it with minced garlic, scallions, chopped parsley and tahini, seasoned with cumin and moistened with lemon juice and olive oil. Like hummus, it’s a great pita bread accompaniment.

You can beat the sandwich rap and still enjoy its components by taking the salad approach, incidentally replicating what you find as appetizers at fancy restaurants. Cold meat or fish, smoked trout or salmon, meatloaf and country pâté can be part of a plate that includes mustard, a pungent, fruity salsa, pickles, chopped onions – whatever it takes to keep the flavors humming.

Toss a fruit salad for your dessert (or just as a break from the more savory flavors). Mix apples, pears, citrus fruit, mangoes, fresh watermelon. Just keep the bananas out. Bananas persevere poorly. Sprinkle the compote with a little rum to add an adult nuance to the dish.

The biggest drawback I’ve found to this menu is the amount of containers you need. Your kitchen runs the risk of turning into a Tupperware palace, and I have yet to discover a cooler into which those containers fit conveniently. There’s always an odd-shaped item that keeps the lid from closing.

But put together a feast like this and you’re ready for anything from a quick trip to the backyard to a fancy tailgate party at a polo match. Add a crisp Chardonnay and you’re ready to go.

Metroland Magazine, 18 May 2006

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