Burning Down the House: The Picnic cookbook review

By Judy Sobeloff,  Co-op Newsletter Volunteer

Hanel, Marie, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson. The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket. New York: Artisan, 2015.

Dear Reader, welcome to the first installment of the Co-op newsletter’s newest food column, “Burning Down the House.” When I started writing about food for the newsletter 12-plus years ago, my daughter contributed her opinions through baby signs (“More!” “All done!”). With this new column, she’s taking the lead—choosing the topics and menu, doing the cooking, spouting most of the opinions—though I’m still doing the writing. For now.

Our team: Call her “J.K.” She’s 13 and likes to cook, and I’m more than happy to let her. For my birthday dinner one year she set the table with a cloth tablecloth and made three main dishes and maybe 14 desserts. She recalls that when she was little she would spend hours staring at pictures of food (okay, maybe she was a bit sweets-deprived). She has a wicked sense of humor though is by no means wicked, per se. I wrote about produce and a column called “Meals Kids Might Eat” for the newsletter for seven years—consider this new column a kind of “Meals Kids Might Cook”—and have been an issue editor for the newsletter for the last five years. I like food that’s fast and healthy and easy to make. I’m willing to cut corners/substitute wildly and to choose humor over logic and occasionally truth.

The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella.

The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella.

Inspired by cookbooks mentioned by Moscow librarian Sally Perrine in her “New at the Library” column, this month J.K. chose to review The Picnic. Flipping through its beautifully illustrated pages, she said, “It’s adorable.” It is. It even has a little bookmarky ribbon that looks like a red and white-checked gingham tablecloth.

Nonetheless, we felt a little afraid. Despite whimsical section headings such as “Pop-Up Picnic” and “The Ultimate Basket: A Picnic Bike,” despite being written with appealing humor and charm, the book seemed a wee bit upscale for us. Even though the cookbook writers sound fun, and we would totally attend their picnic if invited.

Sample dialogue as J.K. chose what to make:
Me: Sounds really good.
J.K.: Sounds really complicated.
Me: Sounds really good if somebody else makes it.

In hopes we might grow to resemble fun picnic-planning people, she added, “We should get a picnic basket. I volunteer to carry it (in the car) on my lap.” I noncommittally mm-hmmed, which she took as a yes. “Are we envisioning a picnic basket where you open it and there are compartments on the side for dishes and stuff?” she asked.

She continued studying the recipes before I could answer that actually, my concept was more like a tote bag. “Ripe figs with feta and honey—yeah, we’re not doing that,” she muttered. “Jarred salad—we could do this. Salads on a stick—that’s cool. If we ever had a really fancy party.”

Me: This is more elegant than what we eat at home.
J.K.: We should start eating more elegantly.

Determining that the desserts looked good and were more do-able than other menu sections, J.K. finally settled on two recipes that didn’t require dry ice or ingredients we didn’t recognize: blueberry cardamom crisps and mango-cucumber lassi. To sum up, let’s just say she made these without supervision or help. Corners were definitely cut.

J.K.’s comments: “The blueberry crisp in mason jars—so cute! We didn’t have enough blueberries, so I added blackberries. It was sort of fun making them in the separate little jars.” While I really appreciated her selfless substitution of gluten-free flour on my behalf and liked eating out of the mason jar, both she and her younger brother thought the crisp would have been better with regular flour.

Also, we forgot the cardamom.

While J.K. chopped mango for the lassi (mangoes, cucumber, yogurt, milk, ice, and mint leaves in the blender), Ollie, our bearded dragon, looked balefully on. She delivered the following commentary (with J.K. interpreting): “I am not impressed by the mess you made in my kitchen. And I find it really inconsiderate for you to bake something for everybody else and not for me. P.S. Why when you cook something can I never have any? I think this points to an underlying issue of child favoritism.”

Sorry, Ollie. Back to the mango lassi.

Here, J.K. had some comments about the instructions. “It’s very easy to get these recipes messed up—they say three mangoes, but don’t say how much you need when it’s chopped up. What I like about Bittman (How to Cook Everything) is it’s no frills with the recipes and just tells you exactly what to do.” The Picnic, on the other hand, has frills. So does Ollie, for that matter.

Despite J.K.’s initial skepticism (“It says ‘makes six’ but only needs half a cup of milk?”) the recipe made a reasonable amount and looked beautiful. J.K. declared the lassi to be “posh, like the rest of the book.” Though her dad and I really liked it, she determined that was because we’re adults. She did like it minus the cucumber. By the time both desserts were ready a thunderstorm was in full swing, so we abandoned plans to head to the park and ate our picnic desserts in our own kitchen.

Excerpted from The Picnic by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker, and Jen Stevenson (Artisan Books). Copyright (c) 2015. Illustrations by Emily Isabella.

Blueberry Cardamom Crisps (Serves 8)

Filling:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed

Topping:
4 cups fresh blueberries
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

In the basket: Spoons, vanilla bean ice cream on dry ice (if serving ice cream), ice cream scoop (if serving ice cream).

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  2. To make the topping: In a bowl, stir together the flour, oats, brown sugar, cardamom, and salt. Add the butter and rub the mixture together with your fingertips until the butter is broken into pea-size bits. Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes while you make the filling.
  3. To make the filling: In a bowl, stir together the blueberries, brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, and lemon zest and juice.
  4. ivide the blueberry filling evenly among eight 4-ounce heatproof glass jars, pressing on the berries with the back of a spoon so that they are snug in the jar, and leaving about 1/4-inch headspace for the topping. Spoon the topping evenly into each jar, dividing it evenly. Place the jars on the prepared baking sheet and bake until the topping is crisp and the filling is bubbling slightly, 18 to 20 minutes.