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A Mediterranean Picnic in an Urban Park

by Rosemary Furfaro

Most people envision a tree-shaded meadow or a stretch of windswept deserted beach when the word picnic comes to mind. Rightfully so since many of these very serene and rural scenes have been captured by some of our greatest artists for the world to enjoy. The most recognizable that comes to mind is Manet's "Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe," but there certainly are many others.

History has picnics taking place as an excursion into the great outdoors to enjoy a basket brimming with foods and beverages. This is a wonderful idea if you live close to an idyllic pastoral setting or if you have access to a car and are willing to battle traffic to get to your perfect location. For those of us who live in urban areas without a car, the idea of a picnic can not only be challenging but often times a frustrating, daunting experience that never comes to fruition. And what about the weather? Should we allow the change of seasons to dictate our choice of activities? When it concerns a picnic, I say a hearty no!

For me, picnics are more a state of mind than the unnecessary requisite of a picture-perfect bucolic setting. They can come in all forms and locations. But to guarantee a memorable event, they must incorporate two fundamental ingredients: great food and wonderful company, then all else will fall into place.

Certainly the traditional idea of a picnic out in the fresh country air sounds very inviting, especially to an urban dweller like myself. But I've learned to adapt and expand my thinking to the possibilities of what constitutes a picnic and so, through the years, I've thought of original themes and found uncommon settings for hosting a gathering.

If you could take a break from the frenetic pace of your lifestyle just once a month and transport yourself into the scene and mood of a relaxing picnic setting, you would be benefitting mind, body and spirit. A picnic is a perfect opportunity to slow down and treat yourself to a mini-vacation once a month. And it will only cost you about four hours of pleasure with your loved ones and friends -- and four hours less that you'll be spending on the phone or in your car sitting on the freeway. It's time well spent. But to truly benefit from a picnic's restorative powers, you must be diligent about leaving your concerns (and portable phones) behind and commit to enjoying yourself.

The recipes below will create a feast for four people from the fresh produce that can be purchased this time of year. For me, living in California certainly has many advantages, among them are the varieties of fruits and vegetables that are available. I'm sure most readers can secure the items we use at their farmer's market or their larger grocery store. If not I offer suitable substitutions.

First we will start our meal with a wild mushroom and toasted walnut spread for crostini, followed by pre-grilled eggplant slices stuffed with smoked mozzarella, sauteed spinach, golden raisins, and imported black olives, served with a fresh tomato-mint sauce. The advance grilling of the eggplant and the smoked cheese join together to create a delicious, earthy, early fall entree. Complementing this dish is a bowl of small red skinned potato and roasted bell pepper salad tossed, while still warm, with a mustard-caper vinaigrette. We'll finish our meal with a plate of fresh mission figs and lightly sweetened mascarpone cheese.

A deliciously crisp, chilled fume blanc will complement the smokey flavors of the grilled eggplant dish as well as the earthy flavors of the wild mushrooms and the roasted peppers. Just remember to place the bottle in the refrigerator a few hours before your outing.

For my first picnic of the fall season, I made it easy on myself and my friends by choosing a beautiful, peaceful spot in one of this city's parks. Our setting was perfect in that it offered both sun and shade on a grassy spot beside a small lake. Your picnic basket can take many forms: from a stylish wicker hamper fitted with all the plates and utensils to a plain brown paper bag filled with your necessities. Here is a list of essentials that you should not be without if you are considering a picnic:

* Plates, glassware, utensils, appropriate number of serving spoons/forks

* A blanket or quilt for placing on the ground to act as table cloth and sitting area

* Napkins (I like to use colorful dishtowels that provide adequate cover for your lap - bring extra for messy eaters and wiping up spills)

* Corkscrew and a knife [sheathed] or a Swiss army knife and a small cutting board

* Garbage bag to cart away your debris

* Insulated containers to carry hot or cold items safelySince all of these foods will be served room temperature, we only need to concern ourselves with using an insulated cooler or ice chest to transport them and the wine to the site. Do not pack the food or wine until a few moments before leaving. By doing so, you will be assuring yourself and your guests of a fresh, unspoiled meal. Also remember to try to find a shady spot for your cooler and remove the crostini mixture, the eggplant and sauce and the potato salad and let them sit out for half an hour to allow the flavors to develop. Remove the figs and mascarpone cheese about a halfway through your meal so they will be ready to eat when you have finished.
Now that you have everything in place, open your chilled wine, kick back your feet and relax and appreciate the moment. You may not have another opportunity like this until next fall.

Wild Mushroom & Toasted Walnut Crostini
makes about 4 cups
This recipe lends itself well to a picnic because it can be made a couple days ahead and can be packed easily. If you can not find any type of wild mushroom, then use chopped portabellas or the white button mushrooms.

3-4 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 cups mixed, fresh wild mushrooms
(chanterelles, shitaki, crimini), cleaned and coarsely chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1-8 oz. package low-fat cream cheese
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. non-fat sour cream
2 T. sherry
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Heat a heavy bottomed saute pan over medium for approximately 20-30 seconds. (The objective is to heat the pan enough before adding oil so the vegetables won't stick)
Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and tip pan to coat the bottom. Quickly add garlic and green onions and saute for 1-2 minutes then remove and reserve. Add remaining oil and mushrooms, shaking pan regularly. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until mushrooms release their juices. Remove from heat and cool. Meanwhile, place green onions, garlic and remaining ingredients except walnuts and parsley in the bowl of a food processor. Mix until smooth and creamy. Stir into the cooled mushrooms, adding the walnuts and parsley as you mix the ingredients together.

Crostini
These easy toasts can be made several days ahead if stored in an airtight container. They are also wonderful to keep on hand to serve with marinated goat cheese for unexpected guests.

1 small baguette
small amount of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375�F. Slice bread into 1/4 inch thickness. Lightly brush with olive oil on one side and place oiled side up on a cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes then turn over to lightly brown the other side. Remove and cool completely before storing. Will make enough for this picnic plus leftovers.

Eggplant Rollatini with Tomato-Mint Sauce
This can be done the day before with the exception of the final step of filling and rolling the eggplant slices. I'd leave that for completing about an hour before the picnic is packed in your cooler. If you do not have access to a grill, feel free to broil the eggplant slices. They will not impart a rich, smokey flavor as if grilled but will still taste fresh and delicious.

2 European eggplants
approx. 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup golden raisins
2 T. Balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 pounds fresh, tender spinach leaves
1/2 t. salt
1/4 cup pitted imported dry-cured black olives, roughly chopped
1/2 cup smoked mozzarella, shredded
6 ripe plum tomatoes
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/2 t. salt
3-4 T. extra virgin olive oil

Preheat your grill or broiler. Trim both ends of the eggplant. Slice lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices. You should have about sixteen slices total. Rub both sides with oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Lay on grill, cooking for approximately 6 minutes. Turn over to finish the other side, an additional 3-4 minutes. The eggplant should be soft and pliable but not falling apart. If you are using your broiler, place eggplant on foil lined cookie sheet and set under broiler, watching carefully to prevent burning. Turn when the tops soften and begin to brown. Cook other side in the same method. Cool eggplant strips.

Meanwhile, rehydrate raisins by soaking in Balsamic vinegar and 2 T. hot water. Rinse spinach, leaving water on the leaves and place in a deep pot with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, covered over medium heat. Cook until spinach wilts, approximately 10 minutes, then drain. Heat heavy bottomed saute pan over medium heat for 20-30 seconds before adding remaining 1/3 cup oil. When oil begins to ripple, add the wilted spinach and quickly shake the pan for about 2 minutes tossing the spinach to mix. Add raisins and their liquid to saute pan and stir well to mix with the spinach.

Remove from heat, adding olives and mozzarella after mixture cools. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. This mixture may exude water so it is best to place in a colander overnight in the refrigerator with a bowl underneath to catch any liquid. An hour before packing, fill the eggplant by placing a small amount of spinach mixture in the center of each strip and bringing both ends of the eggplant over the stuffing, place seam side down. Place in a container, drizzle with a little of your favorite fruity olive oil and secure with a tight fitting lid.

To make sauce, chop tomatoes into 1/4 inch pieces. Add remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. This is best made overnight to allow flavors to blend.

Red Potato and Roasted Pepper Salad with Mustard-Caper Vinaigrette

8 small red creamer potatoes, quartered
1/4 small red onion, diced
3 T. capers, drained
1 red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and chopped
4 T. chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 T. chopped fresh basil leaves
2 T. coarse grained dijon mustard
1 t. sugar
1 T. champagne vinegar
2 T. lemon juice
zest of one lemon
3/4 t. salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup plus 2 T.extra virgin olive oil

Place potatoes in a pan to boil. Meanwhile place red onion, capers, bell pepper and parsley into a medium size bowl. Place all remaining ingredients except olive oil and capers in the bowl of a food processor. Turn machine on to blend ingredients. While machine is running, slowly add the oil until all is incorporated. Stop machine. When potatoes are tender, drain, then place in the bowl with the onion mixture. Pour the dressing over the potatoes and toss gently until completely mixed. Refrigerate.

Figs and Sweet Mascarpone Cheese

6 fresh black mission figs
2 cups mascarpone cheese
3 T. confectioner's sugar
zest of 1/2 an orange
fresh mint

Place mascarpone cheese, confectioner's sugar and orange zest in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to just combine ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use. To serve, halve figs, placing three pieces on each plate with a dollop of sweetened mascarpone cheese. Garnish each plate with fresh mint sprig.

Rosemary Furfaro is a freelance food writer.



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