In my last post, I told the sad tale of how I failed to resist temptation. The flowers were budding, the birds were building nests, and my husband and I slipped into our usual habit of stopping at a fast food joint and taking the food to the park. Well, I learned from my mistake - not going to do that again - but I'm not willing to give up on taking food to the park, so I need to expand my picnic food repertoire.
(Incidentally, we got four inches of snow the day after we went to the park. Crazy Memphis weather! I feel sorry for the flowers.)
The ideal picnic I'm looking for is spontaneous - it can be made on the spot or thrown together quickly from food cooked ahead of time. Doesn't require a lot of dishes, either to carry or to eat, and can ideally be eaten with fingers. Won't blow away. Doesn't cost a fortune. Since we live only ten minutes from the park, on the other hand, it doesn't have to be something that will stay good without refrigeration. And in a perfect world it would be better for you than grabbing Wendy's or KFC. But if your ideal picnic food doesn't meet these requirements, post it anyway. It's springtime, time to get outside and see daylight again!
Here's one of my favorite springtime meals, slightly adapted for portability. I'm not sure it counts as diet-friendly with all that cream cheese, but it sure is delicious. Perfect for either a late breakfast or early lunch.
Strawberry Sandwiches and Fresh Asparagus
Fresh strawberries, thinly sliced. The best sandwich strawberries are slightly underripe.
Dark Pumpernickel bread.
Spread both sides of the bread with cream cheese and add a thick layer of strawberries. The dark pump keeps everything else from being too sweet. Trust me, this is divine.
Did you know you can cook asparagus in the microwave? Just wash it, snap the ends off, and put it on a plate. We like it very crisp, which takes less than two minutes in our microwave - just enough that it's not raw. Spritz it with olive oil, toss it in the picnic basket with a shaker of lemon pepper.
At home we eat this with poached eggs, but poached eggs emphatically are not picnic food - they don't travel well. So I'm planning to add a couple of cans of herring, or:
1 large eggplant
as many walnuts as will cover a large plate
1 diced medium yellow onion
minced garlic, to taste (I use a lot)
salt and pepper, to taste
1 small jalapeno, diced (optional, or if you are caught without a jalapeno as I was, a couple of shakes of hot pepper sauce)
Another quick and easy microwave dish - that is, if you grind the walnuts ahead of time.
Make sure your eggplant is ripe because if you use an unripe one, the bitterness will take the fur off the inside of your mouth. Thoroughly poke your eggplant with a fork so it doesn't explode. Put it on a plate and microwave it until it collapses. On our old microwave this took 12 minutes. The new higher-powered one takes only 8. The time will vary according to how big your eggplant is, so check it. Better overdone than under, when it comes to eggplant.
Let it cool, then scrape the innards out with a fork. Taste the skin - if it's not too bitter, chop it and use it, otherwise throw it away.
Prepare your garlic - if you were doing this the slow way, you would put it in a saucepan with about a teaspoonful of olive oil and brown it. Here we're going to spread it on a plate, squirt it with olive oil, and microwave it about thirty seconds.
Spread your walnuts evenly on a plate and nuke them about a minute and a half, until toasted. Taste to be sure they're cooked but not burnt. Then grind them. The walnuts should be ground until they're about half powder and half small chunks. This is easier if you own a mortar and pestle, but if you don't, use a bowl and the bottom of a mixing cup. You can do this ahead of time and store them in a plastic baggie.
Add the walnuts, diced onion, garlic, jalapeno, and salt and pepper to the eggplant and mash everything with a fork. You want the walnut powder thoroughly mixed in and the onion crushed so it releases all its juices. Go easy on the jalapeno the first time unless you're sure you love hot stuff.
Taste it. If there's any bitterness (from possibly underdone walnuts or eggplant) or if the onions are too sharp, put the whole plate back in the microwave for a couple of minutes.
You can eat right away or do it a few hours ahead and let it mellow - it only gets better.
If you're being swanky, serve on toast points, like caviar. My husband usually eats it with bean tortilla chips, and I usually eat it with celery.
So there's my picnic - what's yours like?
Now for the weekly installment of Stuff that works. These are products that I've found useful in my ongoing quest to eat better and improve my health on a tight budget.
Stuff that works:
Nature's Pride whole wheat bread.
This is Nature's Pride, not Nature's Own. Nature's Own is some extremely nasty shit which we threw away instead of eating. It put my husband off whole wheat bread so badly that he almost rebelled and refused to try another brand. But Nature's Pride was a different kettle of fish. This is just plain old sandwich bread, not that much more expensive than the store brand cheapo sandwich bread, but whole grain. And it tastes like normal wheat bread, whereas Nature's Own tasted pretty much exactly like recycled packing material.
Stuff that doesn't work:
Nature's Own bread (see above)
Fat-free cream cheese.
Now, I love cream cheese. Looove it. I can sit down with a sack of Fritos and a package of cream cheese and in about ten minutes the cream cheese will be gone. That's not even broaching the subject of pickle sandwiches, cheesecakes, and the strawberry sandwiches above. So I was willing to try something that would let me pig out on cream cheese without consuming quite as many calories.
Don't bother. Neufchatel cheese tastes like chalk, but fat-free cream cheese is even worse. It tastes like gum you've had in your mouth all afternoon because there wasn't a place to get rid of it. I came very near to just throwing it out completely, but in the end I creamed a bunch of herbs and garlic into it and pretended it was food. It's not food. It shouldn't even qualify as "food product."
If you like cream cheese, eat cream cheese. Just eat LESS of it.