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For Picnic's Sake

When country leisure with a dash of romance calls, it's obviously time for a picnic.
Monday Aug 14, 2006.     By Jennifer Wennig
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The perfect country picnic.
As the notches on my city girl-goes-country belt accumulate, I'm realizing that my naivety and zest for country life may have resulted in over-romanticizing a world unfamiliar to me. Can real urban or rural life ever play out like a scene from "Something's Gotta Give?"

When my scheduled adventure in learning how to handle a particularly heavy piece of farm equipment was postponed, I felt relieved. It's been hair-ruining hot, and the conditions just weren't right for a physically taxing outing in the country. Translation: I hate sweating.

Country leisure with a dash of romance was calling.

While tending to laundry, my eyes happened upon our picnic backpack. Filled with picnic-size everything from a cheese board to wine glasses to the cutest salt & pepper shakers, the poor thing hadn't seen much action.

I immediately started planning a relaxing country culinary feast in a rustic meadow. Graced with limited culinary flair, I turned to Midwest Living Food Editor Diana McMillen for an assist. She offered a picnic menu that, to my delight, didn't include fried chicken or potato salad but was influenced by that bastion of romance and savory food, Tuscany.

As the picnic weekend dawned, so did a wicked migraine. I'd yet to grocery shop and, buggah, as I was re-reading the recipes, realized a couple of the dishes were meant to chill up to 24 hours before serving. I hadn't even zested a lemon or drizzled olive oil and already my odds of success were dwindling.

My clenched jaw and edgy tone warned John of my increasing anguish. Looking all too happy to get out of the house, he took my shopping list and headed off to the market. I retreated to the sofa for the early matinee of "Something's Gotta Give" and drifted off.

With my headache subsiding, I decided to make my off-menu picnic dessert. Faithful to the tried-and-true cupcake recipe created by noted pastry chef and Tru co-owner Gale Gand, I can nearly prepare an entire batch of chocolate sour cream cupcakes with vanilla icing from memory. But that was the easy part, as baking is much more "my thing" than cooking.

I rose fairly early on Sunday and, without even brushing my teeth, tied on a favorite apron (a great Chicago Antique Market find).

I started with the Chilled Tomato Bean Soup. Still feeling the effects of my migraine, the collective smells from canned crushed and diced tomatoes, garbanzo beans and hot-style vegetable juice tempted a non-alcohol related upchuck, and the clock hadn't even ticked upon 10 a.m.

I boiled pasta for the Rigatoni Vegetable Salad (although I used penne), tossed in steamed cauliflower, broccoli and cubed provolone cheese, and coated the ingredients with Caesar vinaigrette. Lickety-split, done.

While John manned the chicken breasts on the grill, I prepared the toppings for the Chateau Chicken Sandwiches, a hot pepper jelly/chili sauce/mustard concoction, bacon, thinly sliced tomatoes and Monterey Jack cheese. I also added a few leaves of fresh basil.

The food was wrapped and packed along with the lemonade (call this eating outing what you will, but it couldn't be a picnic without lemonade), condiments, treats for the dogs, water, wine, a trash bag, camera, blanket, playing cards, a book, iced coffee and, my purse and sunglasses.

Fast forward to us spreading out our blanket below a lovely English-style garden...and forward again to us finding a second spot not on a hill and in deeper shade. The heat was getting to John. As beads of sweat streamed down his face, I knew an unpleasant mood had joined our little picnic. Hello. Did you miss the memo? It's romantic leisure.

For a spell, we ate in near silence. With tension alleviated by mildly disturbing tales from John's Southern youth (he requested I didn't divulge details), it was the perfect time for reading. To each other that is. Okay, that sounds sinfully lame, but cut me some slack. I was trying to achieve a certain "Room with a View" vibe. Failing, but trying.

I reached for that Jane Austen classic "Emma," though my preference was for "Sense & Sensibility," which I couldn't find in the morning's cooking extravaganza. Before I barely uttered, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich..." John was on his feet mumbling about taking pictures in the garden. Well, the dogs seemed hooked, so I read on.

My country picnic wasn't the script of romance and leisure I desired, but all wasn't lost. The dishes were delicious, and for the girl who tended toward easy with trips to Goddess and Grocer for looks-like-I-made-it dinners, that's nothing to belittle.

Life may be packed with imperfections (those salt and pepper shakers? We forgot to fill them), but there are unexpected slivers of joy. For me, it was the discovery that Sunday mornings alone in the kitchen can be splendid. Before long, cooking will be "my thing" too.

Traffic Jammed: A silver screen gem awaits in Grant Park this Tuesday, August 15. Even if you claim not to be an old movie fan (something I don't understand), "The Apartment," starring young'uns Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, is impossible not to adore. It's New York, it's suffering the toils of a corporate gig, it's cocktails and extra-material affairs. And, of course, there's love and folly. On your way, stop by Caffe Baci for The Baci Picnic Tote. It includes a sandwich, gourmet side salad, chips, cookie and bottled water for a paltry $9.99. Tell 'em to hold the cookie. I'm bringing extra homemade cupcakes.

 

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