“Some evenings we took a picnic into the woods, with a bottle of white wine wrapped in a crisp tea towel, wine glasses in a cedarwood container, and a flask of coffee. This was high table sur l’herbe.”
- Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth (2012)
There is much to recommend about Ian McEwan’s latest novel, a story about love and spies in 1970s London.
It also contains inspirational passage about picnics, taken in true British style—with proper china and silverware. Brits love their gardens, and we’ve always adored how they think nothing of indoor furniture---sofas and cushions and the like—relocated outdoors.
We’ve long been fond of the “carpet picnic,” a tradition we appropriated years ago when penniless students, with time on our hands and romance in our hearts.
Life with young children can make date nights an ordeal, but a carpet picnic allows for a little glamour at home. Farmers’ markets are popping up all over our cities right now; seasonal offerings make for delicious fare.
Components should be near to hand: a bright tablecloth spread out on your prettiest carpet. Real china (your best; why not?) Cloth napkins. Mismatched plates. A Mason jar with a spring bouquet.
Inside or out, this makes for an instant, simple pleasure.
The Bourbon Sour also helps.
(And, yes, while the menu below is tailor-made for you and your love, children are big fans of picnic suppers. Pour icy apple juice into a crystal wine glass, make a plate of tiny tea sandwiches, and let them join the party.)
Parmesan Roasted Asparagus
Preheat the oven to 400° degrees F.
Snap the thick ends off of asparagus at their natural breaking point.
Lay them in a single layer on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil.
Sprinkle with salt, pepper, NSS, and chilies. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes (or longer if you prefer softer spears).
Sprinkle with the Parmesan and return to the oven for another minute. Serve with lemon wedges.
Spicy Citrus Olives
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large mixing bowl, combine olives, garlic, chilies, olive oil, pepper, orange zest, and NSS. Add a squeeze of juice from the zested orange. Marinate well.
Place olive mixture on parchment lined baking sheet. Place another baking sheet on top and weight with a cooking brick or other heavy object. Bake for 20 minutes. Plate and enjoy!
“Anyone who spends any time in the kitchen eventually comes to realize that what he or she is looking for is the perfect chocolate cake.”
This sentence opens a chapter in More Home Cooking, a novelistic cookbook by the late, great American writer Laurie Colwin (if you don’t know her writings, track her down). She then presents a trio of easy recipes for scrumptious chocolate cakes.
We are going to offer another one.
Who doesn’t like cake? It says birthday and party. If it’s from a posh bakery, it will likely be delicious; if it’s from the grocery store, it will at least look delicious, all swagged with sugar roses and frosting swirls.
As with most things, though, homemade is the best.
When we were young, our mother used to make a special cake for our birthdays. It was often chocolate. But what made it magic was the money.
She would wash silver coins and drop them into the batter. Your slice would be thick with icing, and glinting with dimes and nickels. Or even better, in those pre-loonie days, a nice fat quarter.
When we were teenagers, she made her signature a vanilla bundt cake stuffed with walnuts, chocolate chips, and of course, money. It was called “Better Than Sex Cake,” and when she served it at our sixteenth birthday party, she told us that it was. And to take her word for it.
(She remains known for her sharp tongue, yes.)
The base of this cake turned out to be a Duncan Hines packet. It was really good. But times are different now, and everyone’s upped their game to homemade-and-healthful. This is that, and decadent too.
Our mother’s birthday is in May. So this is our present to her.
Note that we are using light spelt flour—it has a slightly nutty flavor, as well as more nutrients and fibre. It’s also vegan! But don’t tell anyone unless you have to.
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large mixing bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cocoa. Add chocolate chips and pecans, mix together, and set aside.
Blend (still loving our Magic Bullet!) rice milk, canola, vanilla, lemon juice, and banana.
Combine wet and dry ingredients and gently stir until mixed, but not stiff.
Pour ingredients into a greased 8x8 cake pan. Place some wrapped coins throughout the batter. Top with extra nuts and chocolate chips and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake in oven for 30-35 minutes. Let cool. Serve on a pretty plate, think about birthdays past and present, hope for a shiny toonie, and enjoy this “rich” cake!
Serves 1-16, depending on portion size!
Here at “A Bowl of Cherries” we love girly beauty: pretty china, vintage crystal, posh scented candles. But even to us, the Victoria Day weekend—when many Canadians open their cottages for the season—suggests one thing: a few cold beers. It’s not nicknamed “May 2-4” for nothing. Which raises the possibility of a bleary morning after.
Childless hipsters can head to their neighbourhood diner for a curative fry-up, but those of us with families have to improvise.
The solution? A grownup grilled cheese, chased with a spicy Bloody Caesar. The basic sandwich debuted sometime in the 1920s in the U.S., but the Caesar is a uniquely Canadian creation, invented in a Calgary restaurant in 1969.
We recall once ordering a Caesar and it arrived nearly a foot tall, in a souvenir CN Tower glass, its rosy depths pierced by a giant plastic sword layered with olives, pickles, onions, salami, swiss cheese, you name it. The salted rim was hung all round with curled jumbo shrimp. It was absurd. Mortifying. And celebratory? Definitely.
We’ve recreated our version below. And while a plain grilled cheese can be slapped together effortlessly for any ankle-biters around, take a moment to gussy it up for yourself and your weekend guests. A perfect blend of salty and savoury…good for what ails you. Even if you’re not hungover.
Grownup Grilled Cheese
Construct your sandwich by spreading a thin layer of butter or oil on the outside of the bread.
Layer in cheese, arugula, and prosciutto/avocado; place in buttered/oiled skillet or sandwich press (we used my mum’s George Foreman for recipe-testing purposes!)
Flip if necessary when bread is golden and cheese is gooey (technical culinary term…)
Serve with a dollop of spicy ketchup on some retro diner ware, pair with the beverage below, and kiss your hang-over good-bye!
Makes 1 sandwich
Spicy Bloody Caesar
Place 3 tablespoons celery salt in a thin layer in a small dish or shallow bowl. Take empty serving glasses and wet their rims with a lime wedge. Dip rims in celery salt to coat. Shake off excess.
In a pitcher, mix lime juice, Clamato, Worcestershire, hot pepper sauce, pepper, remaining celery salt, horseradish, and vodka. Stir. Pour into retro highball glasses (we like our Red Lobster one!) over ice.
(Oh, and if you have any cocktail swords lying about, stab any spicy olives or pickles with abandon and plop ‘em in!)