The Art of a Picnic

I love picnics.  When I was a kid it seemed like we couldn’t travel anywhere that took longer than a couple of hours without stopping to have a picnic.  My parents had a Coleman picnic set that included a red plaid thermos and a bright red plastic rectangular box that fit neatly into a red plaid carrying case.  This set went with us wherever we went.  As I look back on those times we spent sitting at a picnic table just off the highway I remember whining a lot (and not usually to myself), “When are we going to get on the road again?!?”  (And this was well before the Willie Nelson tune would play on in my head.)

Oftentimes our sole purpose for the trip was to go on a picnic.  Imagine that: Packing up food and driving somewhere to eat it.  Admittedly, there was likely to be an ulterior motive for these picnics and it revolved around meeting family or even more likely meeting family to go fishing.  We would meet Grandma and Grandpa Peterson somewhere about an hour away from each of our homes, splitting the difference so the coffee in each respective Thermos would stay equally hot.  Both my Grandpa and Dad loved to fish.  My Grandpa’s brothers and sister with their respective spouses would often meet us as well.  The Peterson side of my family loved to spend time together. Looking back, those were grand times and I wish I could have more of them.

My first date with my future wife was a picnic on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. When she came to Wisconsin for the first time to visit me I picked her up in Madison and we not only went on a picnic, our picnic was at Picnic Point.  We still picnic, we had one the other day as we relaxed at Jersey Valley in Vernon County.  Somehow the food just tastes good when you eat it outside.  I even like taking food outside at home for a picnic.  You don’t have to get in the car.

As I travel back and forth from DC I always pack a picnic to have along the way.  That way I am not stuck spending a bunch of money on food I would rather not eat.  I just have my cooler set up next to me and I can dine or just nibble on the turnpike as I zip across the country keeping my eyes on the road.  I think sandwiches make some of the best picnic food.  Once years ago when I was in college a buddy and I decided to drive to Daytona Beach for a long weekend in December.  It was the weekend before finals so I said sure.  Well I had assembled quite a picnic to have as we drove south but I will never forget the consternation in his voice as he was looking for the sandwiches when he realized I hadn’t made them, he was going to have to assemble them.

It is always fun and seems decadent to purchase cold cuts for picnic sandwiches.  Thin slices of Olive and Pimento Loaf, Salami, Jellied Beef Loaf, or Big Bologna to be sandwiched between nice soft loaf bread can be just the ticket.  We do still occasionally splurge and get cold cuts, but I tend to have delicious meats that I’ve prepared myself, along with sauces and condiments that I place in little containers to prepare sandwiches for our picnic.

The following recipe is great for picnics because it does not have to be served warm and is amazingly tasty.  Just keep the slaw on the side to prevent the sandwiches from getting soggy.  I also like to slice these sandwiches into 1½ inch thick portions for easy eating. Make sure you slice all the way through the bottom crust.

Grilled Duck Breast Bahn Mi Sandwiches

For the Pickle:
½ cup water
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup distilled vinegar
½ cup julienned or grated carrot
½ cup julienned or grated daikon radish
Sea salt or Kosher salt to taste

For the Duck:
2 duck breasts (about 10 ounces), trimmed of most of the skin
Salt and pepper to taste

For the Sandwiches:
Individual Baguettes if available, or one large baguette
1/3 cup mayonnaise
½ cup cilantro
½ cup mint
Thinly sliced cucumber

Method:  Bring the water, sugar and vinegar to a boil in a pot.  Let cool a couple of minutes and then pour over the carrot and radish.  Season with salt.  Let sit.  Heat a grill pan to hot.  Season the duck with salt and pepper.  When the pan looks smoking hot, add the duck breasts skin side down.  It should begin to smoke.  Cook 4-6 minutes a side. Let rest before slicing incredibly thin.  Slice the baguette in half lengthwise.  Slather with mayonnaise, then duck, cucumber and herbs.  Serve with the slaw.

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