My friend watched with interest as I opened my green cooler bag. We were seated in front of the Prospect Park Band Shell waiting for the Celebrate Brooklyn performance of the Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal Jazz Ballet’s, "Dance Me," a homage to Leonard Cohen. I felt like Mary Poppins when I took a large aluminum bowl, several Tupperware containers and two long silver forks out of the bag. My friend looked on, agog as I balanced the bowl precariously on my lap and juggled plastic, containers, forks, goat cheese log, and assorted baggies to concoct a perfectly balanced, summery watermelon, goat cheese and red onion salad. Take that Mary Poppins! And take that, Chef!
While the Chef effortlessly turns out three course meals, he's flummoxed by picnic fair. In contrast, I’m a dab hand at picnics, though I have to confess my all purpose picnic main (and potluck contribution) is the Marcella Hazan’s spaghetti frittata he taught me to make and which we both can now make in our sleep. But I was inspired to make the watermelon salad by using what was at hand—there’s nothing like the limits of leftovers to inspire creativity in the kitchen. The key, though, to having a successful picnic salad is in the packing. Never hurriedly toss ingredients together and pack into one container or you’ll open said container to see a soggy wilted mess. Instead, take the time to pack most items separately. Throw in a large melamine or aluminum bowl, and toss at its peak of fresh perfection, right before serving.
Another picnic prepping tip. Don't go crazy making everything yourself but include some store-bought goodies. For a starter I included slices of Great Northern's dense, seedy ruggebrod and $6.78 worth of Trois Petits Cochon Organic pâté de Campagne. Dessert? Why bother to bring when any NYC summer concert venue sells excellent summer sweets, such as The Good Batch ice cream sandwiches?
After we ate, we watched the incredibly athletic dancers of the Montreal Jazz Ballet troupe perform to Leonard Cohen’s gravel-voiced anthems. Sometimes the dancing and music seemed misaligned, as when figure skaters try to cram compulsory balletic moves into a thumping pop song rendition, but most of the time I was awed at the sexy male dancers, topless in stretchy tuxedo pants or the tensile, strong women in nude leotards, throbbing to Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” or “Boogie Street.” When it was time for the last number, I looked up at the artificially lit trees waving behind the seats, the sky blue pink clouds, and the good-natured Brooklyn crowd. I was sated, sitting with good friends, and the week long heat wave had broken “Hallelulah. Halle-loo-ooo-yah.”
½ pound dried spaghetti
3 tbs. butter + 1 for cooking the frittata
Salt and pepper to taste
3 large eggs
Cook the pasta until al dente, about ten minutes. Mix with the 3 tbs. butter, salt, pepper and parsley. (Take a few forkfuls now. Yummers!) When the mixture has cooled enough, mix in the three eggs. Put the remaining tbs. of butter on a skillet, preferably an iron one but definitely one on which your frittata will not stick. When the butter bubbles, pour the pasta/egg mixture on and swirl until even. Cook on medium high heat, moving the pan around so each quadrant of the frittata gets evenly cooked. When it seems that the bottom has solidified enough to flip, put a large plate on top of the frittata, put one pot-holdered hand on top of the plate and flip the frittata over onto the plate with the other pot-holdered hand. Voilà! You can slide the frittata onto the iron pot to cook the other side, tucking stray pasta noodles under as you do this. Cook a little more, until solidified, and repeat, onto a clean plate. Slice into sixths when cool. Pack what you need in foil and transport by wedging the foil packet between two taped together picnic plates.
Watermelon and Goat Cheese salad
This is a salad that is appearing all over with feta, but I find feta cheese too chalky, and we had goat cheese at home. So go with what you like. You can also throw in black olives and cherry tomatoes or substitute basil leaves for arugula. See what's in your fridge and be inspired!
-One quarter red onion sliced thin and soaked in cold water 1/2 hour to get bitterness out
-About a third of a watermelon segment cut into rough one inch cubes (pack with onions)
-About two inches of a goat cheese log wrapped in plastic
-Two handfulls of already washed/dried baby arugula, packed separately in baggie
-Vinaigrette: 1/4 olive oil, salt and lots of pepper and 1 tsp of red wine vinegar, packed in locking small plastic container with another plastic bag around it, sealed tight. The last thing you want is for the contents of your picnic to be awash in vinaigrette when you open your cooler bag!