The Winter Picnic

by Mary Bailey

The dazzling cerulean sky, the razor-sharp crispness in the air, the brilliant sunlight sparkling on snow — we have that. A whole season of it, and yes, it’s gorgeous to look at from the comfort of the couch. But live in it? We do it reluctantly.

This year, rather than grousing about the cold, let’s embrace it — let’s layer up and get outside for a picnic. Park benches don’t disappear in the winter and what better way to refuel after a ski or snowshoe.

How about a picnic in the backyard? Light the firepit, crank up the barbecue, scoot under some blankets to stay cozy. We’ll feel invigorated and winter won’t seem half as long.

What to eat at a winter picnic. You want to be able to stay bundled, hats and gloves on. Anything that requires dexterity is out. Oysters we won’t be shucking, but a sandwich and a thermos? The heaviest mittens can handle that. The food doesn’t need to be complicated, as everything tastes better when enjoyed in the open. Hot soup on cold days is an obvious choice, but make it smooth-textured, not chunky, all the better to sip from a thermos cup.

A grilled cheese sandwich can survive being wrapped in foil and kept warm via body heat. Think of pairings that contrast with the mellow richness of cheese — cheddar with mustard, nutty Gruyere with dried cranberries, or a young Sylvan Star Gouda with a tangy beet horseradish relish.

Make hand pies. Empanadas, Cornish pasties, Jamaican beef. A sturdy pastry crust (filo is too flaky) and the half moon shape makes them easy to eat wearing mittens. Sweet or savoury, a pie you can eat with one hand is ideal for a winter picnic.

What to drink at a winter picnic. Hot chocolate, tea or coffee, with or without alcohol. Use spirit sparingly, as a flavouring for your hot drink, as too much has a chilling rather than a warming effect. Paradoxically, icy Champagne is a terrific winter beverage — something about the bubbles, perhaps?

Gin Tomato Soup

Adapted from the original Le Crocodile recipe; we use canned tomatoes instead of fresh. The alcohol in the gin cooks out, leaving a subtle hint of wintery juniper flavour.

1 medium onion, chopped
2 T butter
2 large cans tomato (we recommend La Pavoncella brand, at the Italian
Centre Shops)
1 potato, cut into chunks
4 c chicken broth
2 T tomato paste
2 bay leaves
kosher salt and fresh-ground black
1 c cream or milk
1/2 c gin (a gin with an overt juniper character such as Tanqueray is best)
dash nutmeg

In a large saucepan, sauteÅL the onion in butter until soft and translucent. Add tomatoes, potato, chicken broth, tomato paste, bay leaves, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaves, pureÅLe the mixture in a food processor or blender and put through a strainer. Return the strained mixture to the saucepan and stir in the cream and gin. Add the nutmeg and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Pour into a thermos. Makes 6 servings.

Cibo Bistro’s White Bean With Rosemary Soup

Cibo’s chef/owner Rosario Caputo serves this soup with a drizzle of house-made rosemary oil.

4 sticks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 T olive oil
1 branch fresh rosemary, leaves taken off the woody stem and rough chopped
2 whole cloves
750 g dried white cannellini beans, soaked and cooked
2 litres vegetable stock
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

Sweat the onions, celery, rosemary and cloves in oil until the onions are soft. Add beans and stock. Simmer for an hour. Blitz the soup with an immersion blender (or put in a blender or food processor) then strain. Return to the pot to reheat and taste for seasoning. Pour into a thermos. Serves 6-8

Cranberry, Kale and Sausage Hand Pie

2½ c flour plus more for rolling
1 c (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
t salt
½ c ice water
1 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 c (about 2-4 sausages depending on size) broken-up sweet or hot Italian, turkey or pork sausage
1 med onion, diced
1 bunch kale (or Swiss chard) chopped fine, tough ribs removed.
1/4 c dried cranberries
kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper
egg wash for brushing

In a food processor, pulse flour, butter, and salt until mixture resembles coarse meal, with a few pea-size pieces of butter remaining. With machine running, sprinkle with about half of the ice water; pulse until dough holds together when squeezed (add a bit more water if necessary). Do not overmix. Form dough into a ball, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or overnight).

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high. Add sausage and cook, until browned, about 5 minutes. Drain if it looks very oily, leaving some moisture and oil in the pan. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add kale/chard and cranberries and cook until kale/chard is almost tender, about 5 minutes. The mixture should be fairly dry, not soupy. Remove from heat and season.

Preheat oven to 400.F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to ?-inch thickness. With a large round cookie cutter or a glass, cut out eight 6- to 7-inch rounds, rerolling scraps where necessary. Place 1/2 cup sausage mixture off-centre and fold over filling to form half-moons. Crimp edges firmly to seal using a fork, or with your thumbs. Place pies on baking sheets and brush with egg wash. Make little meatballs with any leftover filling and cook at the same time.

Cut a small vent in each pie and bake until golden and crisp, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Let cool slightly on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 hand pies.

Classic Hot Chocolate

You could use more sugar if desired but don’t leave out the vanilla. Due to some trick of the taste buds, the addition of vanilla makes it more chocolatey. Feel free to melt in a few squares of high quality chocolate near the end, or to add natural mint extract for minty hot choc.

6-8 T unsweetened cocoa powder, divided
2 T sugar
pinch salt
6 c milk or a mixture milk and cream
1 t vanilla extract

Place 1 T cocoa powder in a pot over medium heat and whisk in 1 T milk to make a slurry. Whisk in the rest of the cocoa powder, the sugar and milk, whisking constantly until the mixture starts to give off steam. Take off the heat and add vanilla. Pour into a thermos while piping hot.

Makes 6 portions.

Boozy Hot Chocolate

Follow the method above, then whisk in your choice of alcohol (Bailey’s, rum, cognac, Canadian whisky, Sambuca, cherry Luxardo, a combo of Grand Marnier and brandy) near the end. Whisk for about a minute or so to lose the overt alcohol taste, leaving behind a warm glow to pour into the thermos.

Bourbon Manhattan Tea

4 c steeped cherry tea
4 T sugar, simple syrup or honey
4 measures bourbon

Mix together over heat and pour into a thermos while hot. Makes 4 servings.

The Birkie Break

Edmonton’s 2014 Signature Winter Drink by Josh Hockin.

3 oz double strength brewed coffee (35 grams to 8oz of water)
1 oz Zacapa 23 or other sweet dark rum
1 oz spiced syrup, recipe follows
twist orange rind

Mix all ingredients together and garnish with orange rind. Drink while hot.

Spiced syrup

Add 10 grams of cinnamon bark, 5 grams of green cardamon seeds and 5 grams of allspice to 2 c water. Allow mixture to steep at room temperature for 2 hours, then pour through fine mesh strain into a pot. Add 2 T of freshly grated ginger root and 10 T dark molasses sugar and simmer on low heat for 1 hour.

Cool, then strain through fine mesh strainer. Makes 1 Birkie Break.

More Good Things

The Cavern’s Tricia Bell on Grilled Cheese

“Selecting a cheese with appropriate melting characteristics will generate the most predictable results. However, playing around with non-classic melters (like fresh chèvre) can be a super fun adventure. Cook on a low-medium temperature for even melting and cooking. Use butter, preferably salted. My favourite recipe for grilled cheese is with Appenzeller, a classic Swiss melting cheese. Its pleasantly sweet taste is in contrast to the savoury jam, leaving a wonderfully balanced and rich sensation on the palate.”

Appenzeller with Roasted Onion Garlic Jam

56 g (approx 4 T) Appenzeller butter to spread evenly
4 T roasted onion garlic jam sourdough or French bread

Spread butter evenly on the outside of each bread slice. Spread half of the onion garlic jam on inside of one sourdough slice, layer Appenzeller, then spread the remaining jam on the inside of the other. Grill in a 100 per cent stainless steel pan or cast iron skillet. Cook until golden brown on each side and the cheese has completely melted, 3 to 4 minutes per side, turning once. Before removing from the pan, flip sandwiches to reheat first side, about 15 seconds. Serves 2.

Takeaway Winter Picnic

A winter picnic might be a spontaneous idea; now we’re talking takeout coffee and a pick-up order. Sushi could work, especially the small, one-bite size, or a sandwich. The key to a good sandwich experience when wearing mittens is to make sure the sandwich is not too saucy or drippy — this is not the occasion for a runny egg in your sammie. Or, for something completely different, try savoury arancini (deliciously cheesy rice balls) from Cibo Bistro.

Cibo Bistro
11244 104 Avenue, 780-757-2426
closed Sunday Monday

A four-pack of arancini from Cibo for $8, divine.The Italian Centre Shop
10879 95 Street
open daily, pick up only

The Italian Centre sandwich is an (almost) foot-long layered beauty, chock-full of salumi and cheese with just enough sauce for flavour.

Farrow Sandwich
8422 109 Street, 780- 757-4160
Wednesday thru Monday

Vegans, vegetarians and carnivores are equally happy with the offerings at Farrow.

Kim Thuyet
10645 97 Street, hours vary
This tiny Vietnamese sandwich spot in the heart of Chinatown is our bet for the tastiest bahn mie.

Café Blackbird
9640 142 Street, 780-451-8890, open daily
Café Blackbird’s Blackbird Pie (old-school pastry with a toothsome mushroom filling) could qualify as a hand pie, even though it’s round.