The Recipe for a Perfect Picnic—With a Real Recipe!
When I was little, the neighborhood my family lived in had a big vacant lot on one corner. This was no ordinary vacant lot filled with junk and mud: on this lot, a carpet of wild violets grew in between the tufts of thick, soft grass. And every spring (until a house eventually went up on the lot), my mother and I would have picnics among the violets.
To this day, I hold a special place in my heart for meals eaten outside and away from home. Friends love hiking with me because they know that along with my water bottles, I typically carry a nice selection of charcuterie and cheeses, as well as crusty bread and olives. Almost as soon as he started eating solid food I’d take my son to the local park, where we’d sit on our blanket and eat our lunch as we watched the rabbits and quail go about their business.
When I picnic, I like to bring my handwoven napkins with me. Using cloth when you’re dining al fresco is just logical. It won’t blow away, so you don’t have to worry about chasing a stray napkin across the park. It’s thicker and sturdier than paper, so it makes a good buffer between your food and the ground or a particularly grimy table. When you’re done, you don’t need to find a place to throw it out; you can just fold it and pack it back up. Perhaps most importantly, it just looks and feels nicer—more elegant, even.
In my mind, handwoven cloth napkins are an absolute must. I like to use a set I wove based on my 8-shaft Pinwheels Redux Napkins from the May/June 2014 issue of Handwoven. I gave away that original set to friends who were getting married, so I wove up the napkins again, this time in a deep brown and a dusty violet. They’re just the right size for a picnic and terribly fun to weave, especially if you make each one using a different tie-up.
If you don’t have 8-shafts, Gayle Pace’s lovely Finnish Lace Dinner Napkins are another excellent choice. This 4-shaft pattern is light and lacy and is a great project for using up stash yarn. I think the lemon yellow and olive green colors Gayle used are a perfect outdoorsy palette, but I think it would also be wonderful to weave these napkins in warm, summery oranges and goldenrods with a hint of maroon to outline the checks.
Are you a rigid-heddle weaver? I have napkins for you, too! Jenny Sennott’s Easy Street Napkins from the Best of Handwoven: Rigid-Heddle Techniques and Pattern Book #3 eBook are plain weave and perfectly fabulous. Jenny used a cotton flake yarn to give the napkins wonderful texture and a rustic feel.
If you’re feeling very motivated and want to also weave a picnic blanket, then look no further than Rebecca Fox’s Fresh Citrus Napkins and Tablecloth. The colors are perfectly summery, and I can easily picture myself eating cucumber sandwiches and sipping lemonade at the local park while sitting on top of this wonderful tablecloth. I might change the white to a pale pink or beige, but otherwise it’s practically perfect.
Of course, now that you have your suggested recipes for weaving, I have to suggest a recipe for the picnic itself. One of my favorite things to bring on a picnic is a couscous salad. The salad is more a method than a precise recipe, and I often switch out the vegetables or herbs to whatever I have on hand. It takes minimal effort and the only “cooking” you have to do is boiling water, so it’s perfect for extra-hot days when you can’t bear to be in the kitchen longer than you absolutely have to. It’s inspired by Michael Twitty’s Leftover Couscous Salad from his blog Afroculinaria. It’s best if you can let it sit overnight in the refrigerator, but if you’re like me you’ll end up greedily eating half of it at the kitchen counter as soon as you’re done mixing.
Happy weaving (and cooking!)
Christina’s Couscous Salad
(Makes 4 cups couscous)
1 cup instant couscous
1–2 T olive oil (optional)
1 cup water or broth (I like to use homemade veggie broth)
½ t salt
Bring the water or broth to boil in a medium saucepan. Once boiling, turn off the burner, remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the couscous and salt. Cover and let sit for at least 10 minutes or until couscous is thoroughly softened. Fluff with a fork.
4 cups cooked couscous, preferably cold
1 avocado, cut into bite-sized pieces
Juice of half a lemon, 1 T separated
¼ cup dried tart cherries (golden raisins would also be lovely)
1 English cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, and cut into ¼” thick half moons
1 cup small diced bell pepper, preferably red or yellow
1 scallion, white and light green parts sliced thin
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, cut chiffonade
Red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste
1. Fluff couscous with a fork until it’s not too clumpy. Drizzle in a bit of olive oil as you do so to help keep the separated grains from sticking too much.
2. Toss the avocado in 1 T of the lemon juice and put it aside. This will keep the avocado from browning as quickly.
3. Mix the cherries, cucumbers, bell peppers, scallion, and herbs into the couscous. Stir it well so everything is evenly spread throughout the couscous.
4. Tasting as you go and adding a little at a time, season with red wine vinegar, more olive oil, the rest of the lemon juice, salt, and pepper, mixing after each addition. How much you’ll need depends on how strongly flavored your vinegar is as well as how much acidity you prefer. I find that I use the all the lemon juice and usually 2–4 T of both olive oil and vinegar.
5. Carefully fold in the avocado, taking care not to smash it too much.
6. Cover and refrigerate overnight for maximum flavor—if you can wait that long.
NOTES: Chopped olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and other briny delights are excellent additions to the salad, although not necessary. Feel free to mix up the vegetables and herbs. Leftover grilled or roasted zucchini and corn are especially nice, as is a bit of extra peppery arugula. I also like to add a healthy dose of cilantro, but I know not everyone is a fan. To pack in some protein, consider adding slivers of almonds, feta, goat cheese, roasted chicken, cubed tofu, black beans, or subbing in quinoa for the couscous.
Featured Image: Sennot Napkins, caption: Jenny Sennott’s Easy Street Napkins and Runner.