I enjoy our family car trips, the sense of freedom and escaping routine. Pit-stops are a big part of the fun – a bite for lunch keeps the driver sustained and the cherubs quiet. Leaving the main road in search of peace and quiet is the cue for a restful pause and a restorative picnic.
But this picnic isn't a lazy summer affair, the afternoon drifting by in a soporific blur. Rather, it needs to be practical and quick to eat, fuel for the travellers before they get back on the road. The food must be easy to make, straightforward to pack, simple to transport and not too messy to devour. Nothing should be overly rich or heavy, since there is no post-lunch snooze. Put simply, it needs to be a meal to go, yet delicious, satisfying and even nourishing.
For once, sandwiches are acceptable. Ordinarily, I see them as the automatic resort of the last-minute picnic box but, done properly, they meet every need.
Special bread is the key – perhaps rye, ciabatta or focaccia, or bread flavoured with dried tomato, olive or walnut. Fillings must be plentiful and personalised to be special, so stack your favourites.
Mayonnaise and mustard are lubricating and enriching; layers of tomatoes and cucumber add moistness and texture; and cured hams and aged blue cheeses make sandwiches truly fantastic.
Focaccia with parma ham, tomato, gorgonzola and red onion marmalade
For the marmalade:
3 red onions, peeled and sliced very thinly
A dash of good wine or sherry vinegar of your choice
For the rest:
Good quality or homemade mayonnaise
Four generous pieces of focaccia or bread of your choice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
150g gorgonzola, chilled so it is easy to slice
8-12 slices of parma ham, depending on size
7 ripe plum tomatoes, blanched for 10 seconds in boiling water and peeled
1. Place the onion slices in a pan which can hold them comfortably. Although they will shrink as they cook, you must be able to stir them without them spilling over the top or up the sides of the pan. Add the grenadine and set over a gentle heat to sweat, seasoning lightly with salt. Cook slowly so the onions soften and caramelise, stirring them every 5 minutes or so as you go about other tasks. In between stirring, cover the pan with a lid – this will collect condensation which will drip back into the pot, preventing sticking. Once the onions are soft, remove the lid to allow gentle but controlled browning. Once the onions are browned and soft, add and adjust the wine or vinegar and more salt, if you wish. This will give a sweet-and-sour edge to the marmalade, which can be made well in advance and stored in a jar in the fridge until needed.
2. Spread mayonnaise over the inside faces of the bread then slice the tomatoes into wedges and cut out the pulp in the middle, leaving you with petals of tomato flesh. Arrange these over the mayo and season with sea salt and pepper. Crumble or slice the cheese then scatter it over the tomatoes before adding a good dollop of the onion marmalade, then layer the ham in waves. Pickled gherkins are often a good addition, as is the cool crunch of cucumber. Top with the final piece of bread and wrap carefully in greaseproof paper. Serve in a pleasant countryside gateway or a leafy layby en route to your destination of choice.
Saffron couscous to accompany your favourite sandwich
400ml water or chicken or vegetable stock
A generous pinch of saffron strands
6tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely sliced
1 red pepper, peeled with a swivel-head peeler and diced
Zest of half a lemon
3tbsp each of chopped parsley, mint and tarragon
A pinch of ground cinnamon
60g dried apricots, chopped
4 plum tomatoes, seeds removed and flesh diced
A cup of sultanas soaked in warm water (drain before adding if all the liquid is not absorbed)
1. Boil the stock or water then measure the correct amount. Place the couscous in a bowl large enough to allow it to fluff up and for you to stir without spraying it everywhere, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the saffron and most of the olive oil (leave enough to fry the onion and courgette in the next step) then the stock. Stir briefly with a rubber spatula and make sure the sides are wiped down then cover with clingfilm and leave to stand for 5-7 minutes
2. Meanwhile, heat a wide frying pan, add the rest of the olive oil and begin to sweat the sliced onion. Chop the courgette into 1cm cubes and add these to the pan once the onion is soft and continue frying to soften the courgette. You can cook the diced red pepper at this stage or leave it raw for extra crunch.
3. Return to the couscous and, using a fork, stir the mix thoroughly then cover again in clingfilm and leave to stand for a further 5 minutes. Check it's soft and fluffy. If it still seems a touch grainy add a little more of the hot liquid and repeat the steaming process until you are happy with it.
4. Now fold in the onion and courgette, red pepper, lemon zest, olive oil and herbs, then season lightly with freshly ground pepper and cinnamon. Stir well then gently fold in the apricots, tomatoes and sultanas, taste for seasoning and refrigerate until needed. Although this is great from a tub on a picnic or on a car journey, it is of course just as good at home with barbecued lamb chops, grilled fish or thickly sliced and grilled aubergines.