Monday 11 December 2017

Rachel Allen's... Electric picnic

If you're planning on going down to the woods today, then Rachel Allen has some perfect picnic treats for you to bring along. Photography by Tony Gavin

Rachel Allen: 'The key to a good picnic is to be prepared'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen: 'The key to a good picnic is to be prepared'. Photo: Tony Gavin
Rachel Allen's chest of sandwiches. Photo: Tony Gavin

Do you know what makes me really happy? Having a picnic. There, I've said it. I can practically hear you all muttering from behind your Sunday papers, 'that Rachel Allen one needs to go and get a life'. And maybe I do. But come on, isn't there something just so uncomplicated and pleasurable about eating outside in the elements? Everything tastes better, for a start. There's minimal cleaning up to do afterwards and, unless you eat outdoors all the time - which, as we are in Ireland, I doubt - there is a certain novelty factor to picnicking that I just adore.

A picnic doesn't have to be a palaver. If you don't have time to whip up a 'chest' of sandwiches (I'm enjoying these in my photo, right; and the recipe is opposite) and a sponge cake, then a basket filled with goodies from your local deli or market can be just as divine. My mother-in-law, Darina, must be the queen of picnics. She practically takes one to the shops at the end of the road. She packs sea salt and freshly ground black pepper into tiny little tubs; she has one flask for tea, one for coffee, and another for hot milk. She thinks nothing of bringing a loaf of brown bread - with a bread knife, of course; a butter dish full of butter; a whole avocado, with a little knife for cutting; and some sliced smoked salmon. If you have ever wondered what the best sandwich in the world tastes like, then try making that and eating it outside, and you'll see.

The key to a really good picnic is, as we used to say in Girl Guides: be prepared. Don't scrimp on the extra bits that make a difference. Salt and pepper, butter, mayonnaise, chutney, olive oil, salad leaves: everything that you would eat with your meal if you were at home, bring with you on your picnic. And don't forget something sweet to finish it all off. Fresh air gives one a great appetite, and besides, a slice of cake, accompanied by a cup of tea from a flask, may well be food heaven.

Chest of sandwiches

This is the ultimate picnic recipe, one that Myrtle Allen has been making decades. The original recipe is in her re-released book, The Ballymaloe Cookbook, originally published in 1977 by Gill & Macmillan. It's also great for children's parties. You slice and open the top of a loaf of bread, like a treasure chest, then cut the inside out, slice the inside piece and make layers of sandwiches, then refill the 'chest' crust of the loaf with all the sandwiches, close the lid, and, hey presto: you will dazzle everyone with your picnic prowess!

Serves 8.

To make the chest, you will need:

A whole, unsliced rectangular loaf of white yeast bread, approximately 2lb (900g)

50-75g (2-3oz) softened butter, for buttering the bread

Sandwich-filling suggestions:

Scrambled egg and chives (see my Tip, above)

Smoked salmon and sliced cucumber

Roasted pepper, mozzarella and pesto

Cheddar cheese with Ballymaloe Country Relish

Roast chicken with lettuce and mayonnaise

To make the chest of sandwiches, you need to cut a 'brick' of bread from the inside of the loaf. When you're finished, you'll be left with a rectangular 'brick' of crustless bread (with which you can make the sandwiches) and a hollowed-out loaf (the chest).

First, you'll need to cut the bottom of the loaf away from the crust. To do this, insert a bread knife into one long side of the loaf, just above the base. Push the knife through the bread, but don't allow the knife to pierce the crust on the far side. Without making the cut through where the knife was inserted any bigger, work the knife, in an arc shape, inside the loaf, then pull the knife out.

Next, make the lid of the chest by cutting through one of the the top long sides of the loaf and both short sides - leave one long side uncut to act as a hinge. When you open the lid, if it looks to be in danger of falling off, keep it propped up from behind with a couple of jars or something similar.

Finally, with the lid open, cut the bread away from the four sides, just inside the crust, cutting down to within 1cm (about ½in) of the bottom crust. Carefully ease the 'brick' of bread out - it should leave an empty chest behind. Cut this 'brick' of bread into four long horizontal slices, and make two long sandwiches using the softened butter and the fillings of your choice. Cut each long sandwich into 4 or 5 smaller sandwiches, press them together firmly, then put them back into the chest. Close the top of the chest with the lid and wrap the chest in cling film - don't worry if it gapes slightly, this is because of the extra bulk of the sandwich fillings. The sandwiches will keep well like this throughout the day, as long as there's nothing soggy, such as tomato, in them.

Pickled beetroot, sweet potato and lentil salad

This is a brilliantly portable picnic salad. Serves 3-4.

You will need:

2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

150g (5oz) Puy lentils

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

110g (4oz) pickled beetroot, cut into cubes

110g (4oz) feta, cut into cubes

A good handful of chopped fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 200°C, 400°F, Gas 6. First, put the sweet potato cubes in a bowl, toss them with two tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Put them on a roasting tray and into the preheated oven. Roast them for 25-30 minutes until they are soft and golden. Remove the cooked sweet potato cubes from the oven and set them aside.

To cook the Puy lentils, put them in a saucepan and cover them with water. Bring to the boil and simmer them for 15-20 minutes until they are tender, then drain them.

While the lentils are cooking, make the dressing. Mix together the remaining three tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil with the red wine vinegar. Once the lentils are cooked, drain them, and stir through two-thirds of the dressing. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To serve, spread the lentils out on a serving plate, then scatter the sweet potato cubes, the pickled beetroot cubes and the cubes of feta over them. Drizzle over the remaining dressing, and sprinkle over the chopped fresh parsley.

Lemon slab cake

Makes about 24 slices.

You will need:

225g (8oz) butter

300g (10oz) sugar

2 eggs

250g (9oz) creme fraiche

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

225g (8oz) plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

For the icing, you will need:

225g (8oz) icing sugar, sifted

Juice of ½ lemon

You will need one 20cm x 30cm (8in x 12in) Swiss-roll tin. Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. Line the base and sides of the tin with parchment paper.

Melt the butter on a low heat, then pour it into a mixing bowl. Add in the sugar and whisk to mix with the melted butter, then mix in the eggs, the creme fraiche, the lemon zest and the lemon juice. Sift in the flour and the baking powder and fold them into the mixture. Tip the cake mixture into the prepared tin. Place the tin in the preheated oven and bake the cake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely before icing it.

To make the icing, put the sifted icing sugar into a bowl and add the lemon juice gradually - you may not need it all. If it's still too stiff when you've added it all, then add a tiny bit of water to bring the icing to a spreadable consistency.

Spread the icing over the top of the cooked cake, and allow it to dry - this should take about 20 minutes - then cut it into slices to serve.

Rachel's tip

If a picnic isn't a picnic for you without an egg sandwich, then can I recommend scrambling some eggs in a little butter, adding some chopped chives, and allowing this to cool before placing between buttered slices of bread? Divine.

Rachel recommends

Of course, there are times when just a flask of tea and a few biscuits thrown into a bag will suffice, but for the proper picnic purist, nothing beats a wicker basket with all the crockery and cutlery strapped down inside.

Add to that something delicious to eat, and a gorgeous blanket or three, and you have, dear readers, the perfect picnic. Avoca has a great selection of wicker picnic baskets and blankets, while at The Ballymaloe Shop, you can find brilliant picnic blankets with waterproof backing, perfect for the Irish weather, for just €29.95, as well as baskets and rugs galore.  

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