Plating the picnic

Picnics are easy to dress up or down, particularly with today's assortment of beautiful plastic. Of course, there is always paper, such as paper plates and cups, but a little bit of shopping can add a lot of dash.

Some years ago I purchased colorful tin plates to use for the grandchildren at formal occasions when they were too small to be entrusted with my best china. Now that same tinware serves as very lightweight but convenient picnic plates. And while I have a collection of cheap second-hand silver, thankfully there are wonderful sturdy plastic forks and cutlery available as well. Wipe-off tablecloths also come in handy.

If I cart something that has to be washed, I pack it in plastic bags to go, then return it to the plastic bags to go home to the dishwasher. If really gilding the lily, I might take a little china dessert plate. There are zipper-type quilted plastic storage bags available for china, and I carry the china, separated by a paper towel between each plate, in the storage bags. After eating, I wipe with the paper towel and put back in the storage bag for washing at home.

Nathalie Dupree

At one of the most famous picnics in America, King George VI of England was served a hot dog by then-president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. The king loved it. The picnic in June 1939 made front-page news.

Of course, FDR was known for other picnics beside this one, many of them in Georgia at the Little White House at Warm Springs. There, he served country captain chicken.

But I have no kings or presidents to entertain at a picnic. On a riff of the dinner party question, "Who would you most want to have dinner with?" I asked myself, who would I want to make a picnic meal for?

Immediately Julia Child came to mind. We ate many meals together, and the one she enjoyed the most was a hamburger. The other meals were ones where the chef wanted to impress her, and knocked himself or herself out with pretentious food. I am sure she became very bored and tired. So what would be a Southern picnic for Julia, full of tasty food?

First, my recipe for Dale Murphy Bread has been circulated on Facebook recently by the former Atlanta Braves star himself. In the days when you could take food to a baseball game, I had developed this bread. It wasn't for Dale, it was to woo the man I was with. I was unlucky with love, but it turned out to be a lucky bread for Dale, as he had two home runs in one inning, bringing in six runs. After I published the recipe, he had his wife make it for him before an important game.

It's a stuffed bread, tidily tucked into a picnic basket, good at room temperature, and nearly a meal to itself. It is the kind of bread that can be made doing a little now, a little later, worked into a busy schedule. But of course that wouldn't be enough for a full picnic.

When I served Julia lunch at my cooking school in Atlanta, I had prepared butter beans among other things. She had so many interviews and other things going on that lunch was delayed. Everyone that passed by the pot was nervous and the butter beans presented a natural way to relieve stress, so they all stirred the pot and made a mush of the beans.

Perhaps then, a butter bean and shrimp salad. Better than Boston baked beans by a long shot, as the butter beans add a lovely freshness. The addition of seafood is a very satisfying twist to the salad, adding a bit of protein that is lighter than barbecued pork, or the king's hot dog.

I would include pimiento cheese, of course. It would be served either in a sandwich on white bread or maybe as a filling for tostado scoops or little tarts. Nothing wrong with store-bought pimiento cheese, which is eminently portable.

Cheese straws, definitely. Coleslaw? Potato salad? How about potato salad with vinaigrette for a change? A green salad? Green bean salad? Thinly cut country ham wrapped around melon, peach or mango slices? Which brought to mind wrapping pickled okra with country ham. That would make my husband particularly happy.

I had almost forgotten tomatoes. Could there be anything more Southern than tomatoes tossed with watermelon?

Cake is traditional for big barbecues and picnics, covered with strawberries, peaches, whipped cream and perhaps ice cream if manageable. So I asked Damon Fowler of Savannah, who has just written "Essentials of Southern Cooking," to give me a recipe for a good-to-travel cake.

And what would Julia think of all this? She would be in her element, engaging, telling stories of picnics with the literati and her other friends in Europe, and thoroughly enjoying the casual but dressed-up food.

Picnic with a Southern touch

This may look hard but it isn't. If making bread is not your thing, use two pizza doughs from the grocery store and make two smaller loaves, or cut back on the ingredients.

Dale Murphy Bread

Makes 1 large loaf (or 2 or 3 small loaves)

For the dough:

21/2 to 3 cups bread flour

1 package rapid-rise yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup water, heated to 125 degrees

3 tablespoons butter

1 egg

For the filling:

11/2 tablespoons Italian pesto sauce

1/4 cup black olives, preferably Italian or Nicoise, drained

3/4 cup grated mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup crumbled Boursin or other garlic and herb cheese

6 ounces smoked ham, cut into strips

1/2 cup pimiento or roasted red peppers, peeled and seeded

1 tablespoon sun-dried tomatoes, drained of any oil, and chopped (optional)

For the glaze:

1 egg, beaten to mix

1 tablespoon water

Directions

In a food processor or mixing bowl, combine 11/2 cups of the bread flour, the yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the water, butter and egg to the yeast mixture. Process or knead, adding enough flour in 1/2-cup increments, to make a soft dough. Knead until elastic and smooth, 1 minute in a food processor, 10 minutes in a mixer or by hand. Place in a plastic bag or turn in greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest 15 minutes or if you have time, let it double.

On a slightly floured board, roll the dough to a 14-by-10-inch rectangle. Place on a greased baking sheet. Spread pesto sauce down the center third of dough, lengthwise. Dot with olives, mozzarella, and Boursin (garlic and herb) cheese. Top with ham strips and sprinkle with peppers and optional sun-dried tomatoes. To encase the filling, cut the unfilled dough diagonally on each side into 1-inch strips down the length of each side of the dough. Criss-cross the strips, bringing one strip over the center, then a strip from the other, until the length of the filling is encased with the overlapping strips. Let double, uncovered, in a warm place for 1/2 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine the egg and water and brush the glaze on the loaf. Bake until done, about 25 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on wire rack before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Variations

Divide dough and ingredients in two and make 2 tiny loaves, half as long but the same width. Reduce baking time 5 minutes.

Substitute smoked salmon for the ham.

Fruit Wrapped With Country Ham

Ingredients

1 peach, or half a ripe cantaloupe, or 1 mango

3 to 4 thin slices of country ham such as biscuit slices (cured, but not cooked)

Directions

Peel and slice the peach, melon or mango into wedges. Tear the country ham into strips. Wrap fruit with ham. May be secured with a toothpick, but not crucial. Will keep several hours, unrefrigerated, but if possible keep on ice until ready to serve that will be even better.

Pickled Okra Wrapped With Country Ham or Prosciutto

Ingredients

6 pickled okra

2 to 3 slices of thin country ham such as biscuit slices (cured but not cooked)

Directions

Wrap the okra with the thin slices of ham. Secure with toothpick if desired, but not crucial.

Butterbean and Shrimp Salad

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

3 cups cooked butter beans or other pea, fresh or frozen

1/3 cup vinegar and oil, Italian dressing or olive oil and lemon juice

1/3 cup chopped fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, rosemary (optional)

1/2 to 1 cup peeled and cooked shrimp

Salt and freshly ground peppers

Directions

Toss the cooked butter beans with the dressing, or with the olive oil, then the lemon juice. Add the chopped fresh herbs.

Keep the shrimp cold, separately. Add to the salad at the picnic area. For serving at home, the shrimp can be added with the herbs and the entire salad kept in the refrigerator until serving. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Damon Fowler is a cake maker par excellence. His choice of a cake for a picnic is a sturdy but delectable, buttery pound cake with a hint of bourbon.

Bourbon Pound Cake

Makes 1 round tube cake or two 9-inch loaf cakes

Ingredients

1 pound (about 31/2 cups) Southern soft-wheat flour or pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 pound (4 sticks or 2 cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 pound (2 cups) sugar

8 large fresh eggs, weighing just over a pound in shell, at room temperature, whites and yolks separated

1/2 cup bourbon

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions

Position a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly grease a tube cake pan or two 9-inch loaf pans and dust them very lightly with flour (put in about 2 tablespoons of flour and gently shake and turn the pan until it is lightly coated), then shake out the excess flour.

Whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.

With a wooden spoon or electric mixer, cream the butter and then beat in the sugar until the butter is light and fluffy. Alternating, gradually beat in the egg yolks and flour, adding one yolk and a small amount of flour at one time, and beating well after each addition. When all the eggs and flour are incorporated, stir in the bourbon and vanilla and beat well.

In a separate metal bowl, beat the egg whites with a wire whisk or clean mixer until they form soft peaks. Fold a little of them into the batter and then gradually fold the remaining whites into the batter. Pour the batter evenly into the tube or loaf pans, run a knife through the batter in an "S" pattern to release any large air bubbles, then firmly tap each pan on the counter several times to force the bubbles to the surface. This will help ensure an even texture.

Place the cake in the center of the oven. If there is more than one pan, make sure they do not touch one another. Turn on to 325 degrees and bake for about 11/2 to 2 hours, without opening the oven door for the first 1 hour. The tube cake may take the entire 2 hours, loaf cakes may take little more than an hour. The cake is done when a straw or bamboo skewer stuck into the center comes out clean.

Turn off the oven and let the cake cool in the oven for 30 minutes, then open the oven door and let it cool completely before you remove it from the pan and slice it. This will help ensure that there is no "sad streak" where slightly underdone cake collapses in the center.

This can happen even if the cake is essentially done if it cools too rapidly or if you take it out of the pan and cut it while it is still warm.

Optional serving: Serve with sugared strawberries or peaches and whipped cream or serve plain. And don't forget leftover pound cake toasts beautifully for breakfast.

From "Essentials of Southern Cooking: Techniques & Flavors of a Classic American Cuisine" by Damon Lee Fowler (Lyons Press, $35)