September is the harshest month. Bombarded by back-to-school frenzy, bereft at neighborhood pool closings, we're forced to say farewell to vacation mentality and get serious again about work.
And so it is easy to overlook September's finest attribute: the break in the heat it heralds. With October dawning cool and clear, now is prime picnic season. Whether your excuse for dining al fresco is an anniversary, first date, family outing, marriage proposal or just a lazy Saturday, the Triangle offers a wealth of resources.
Since all the best picnics have three crucial dimensions—location, food and wine—the Indy consulted three local experts to help you plan your next outdoor adventure. Here's what they would do, if they were you.
This one's easy. As anyone who's ever flown into RDU knows, we're covered in green. Granted, much of it is unromantic kudzu, but you still don't have to search too hard for a spot to spread your picnic blanket.
Christopher Gould, the chief concierge at the luxurious Umstead Hotel in Cary, has made a career of recommending perfect spots, picnic and otherwise, to hotel guests.
"We get unusual requests all the time," says Gould. "We are The Department That Handles Unusual Requests. If it's legal and ethical we're going to try to make it happen.
"Once we had a gentleman who called and wanted to propose to his girlfriend, and he was a busy man who knew that he wanted it to be very nice but he didn't feel that he had the creativity within himself to do something that was memorable. ...We put together a custom setting for him to pop the question, and brought together elements from the story of their relationship. They [went] to Reedy Creek Lake [in William B. Umstead State Park]. We arranged to have it staged and set up when they got there, and our people were able to invisibly fade into the background. She thought they were going on a walk and came upon this [elaborate picnic], and the stage was set."
Gould seems to revel in the constant whirl of it all.
"Every weekend we have anniversaries, wedding nights, proposals, birthdays, all types of celebrations. From time to time we do plan off-site proposals and dinners in the form of a picnic."
If you can splurge for a night at the Umstead Hotel, and the weather allows, let the concierge desk plan a meal in the butterfly garden on the thoughtfully landscaped 12-acre lot.
"You have a beautiful view with the lake and the fountains, the gardens and the hotel in the distance, and it's very quiet and private since it's only open to our guests, which makes it nice and romantic," says Gould.
Remember, picnics don't have to occur in a garden setting. Thinking out of the box, Gould suggests an "urban" picnic, something he arranged once for a guest (for the right price, certainly): "Rent out the mezzanine at 18 Seaboard in Raleigh—they have, I think, the most spectacular view of what Raleigh has to offer as an urban setting. And you can be up there privately and Chef Jason Smith will put together a special tasting menu. You can be on a blanket all by yourselves as the sun goes down and the lights go up."
With so many gourmet markets around, you can easily fill a picnic basket with lovely prepared foods, but you can also put together a magnificent homemade spread in the time it takes to drive to Whole Foods and back.
John Toler, chef proprietor of Raleigh's beloved Bloomsbury Bistro, is an avid picnicker, often with his kids in tow, and he shares with the Indy his favorite portable foods.
"My wife's family and mine, too, we grew up country," says Toler. "A lot of down-home country food roots, a lot of cold dishes. My family was big on this thing called 'dilly beans.' It's green beans, you blanche them, and then they're packed in a pickling sort of mixture with a ton of dill in it. We tend to take that sort of thing on picnics—pickled beets, the deviled egg thing. We put wasabi in the yolk and put that back in." ("My kids will eat anything!" he says with a grin.)
"We sort of gravitate towards a lot of Middle Eastern stuff, the dips and cold salads. You want to have a piece of [pita] bread or some vehicle when you're out there without silverware, and just reach out there and get it."
From his French repertoire, Toler recommends the tartine, "sort of an open-faced sandwich which in France can consist of just about anything. They eat them at breakfast, lunch and for light dinner. Bread is the main attraction, so you need a good one that can stand up to various toppings. Baguettes cut from end-to-end work well. The bottom side, being flat, works better than the arched top half. A rustic country loaf is great; a cross-section of a big boule is nice too. What's nice is that you can take a few different breads with you, pack up some good mustard, sweet butter, cheeses, patés and cured meats or fish and have a feast."
One of Toler's favorite tartines requires only minimal assembly: "Just spread a nice thick slather of butter on the bread, then top that with some thinly sliced radishes. If you can find them, watermelon radishes are nice because you get a really large diameter slice from them. Top the radish with shaved prosciutto or other salty cured meat like speck." (See recipe, previous page, for another savory tartine.)
Despite Toler's naturally worldly gourmet palate, his Southern roots don't escape him entirely.
"It's kind of hard to beat fried chicken. Cook it the night before and have some for dinner, and then pack it up." Toler worked briefly at Mitchell's Catering 15 years ago, and remembers one particular chicken preparation.
"They had this thing that stuck with me. They'd make it just like a standard fried chicken, but then afterwards they'd sprinkle a little bit of brown sugar on the chicken and real thinly, thinly, thinly sliced lemons. (It sounds very weird!) Then layer those on the chicken and then bake that. It would almost caramelize and build a little crust on there, and it's excellent cold."
Seth Gross, co-owner of Durham's popular new Wine Authorities, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has trained as a sommelier and seems to have a pretty good sense of humor. That means he's always exploring how wines pair with food... all kinds of food.
"We did a tasting recently where we were trying to find the best wines to go with barbecue, fried chicken, hot dogs, pimento cheese spread, that sort of thing," Gross says.
"It was a fascinating experience for us because a lot of the things we thought would work with Southern, country picnic-type foods didn't work the way we thought, and others came to the forefront. One of the things we noticed was a lot of the foods we tend to have on picnics are cold, and when the food is cold you actually need more flavor to stand up to those cold foods. You need more intensely flavored wines, which usually correlates with ones that have more acidity."
Layperson's explanation, please?
"Acid is to wine as salt is to food," explains Gross. "The more you have, the more bright, fresh, and long lasting the flavors are in the wine. Grapes like [Argentinian] torrontes absolutely shone so beautifully, every bite of food you could taste the wine."
The other white wine that works well with cold food is sauvignon blanc (see Gross' suggestions, below).
"[It's] one of the more food-friendly white wines, you could argue more food-friendly than many chardonnays. Sauvignon blanc typically has high acidity, it has a little herbal and citrus component, and those are things that we like to put in our foods—a little basil or thyme. If you're going to do a little lemon squeeze on top of your tuna salad [or on Toler's fried chicken], a sauvignon blanc is a perfect companion."
Champagne, sparkling wine, and rosé also make for a crisp, clean start to an outdoor meal.
"What we love about sparkling wine is that bubbles excite the tongue, like acid and salt.... Very high-acid, underripe grapes is what makes Champagne so beautifully dry. That's a great flavor to have with all kinds of picnic-type foods because you have lots of character to stand up to it.
"Dry rosé is unfortunately terribly misunderstood in this country. When Europeans see the color pink they assume dry, and when Americans see the color pink they assume sweet. They're simply white wines made using red grapes, and some of that skin color actually bleeds into the wine, so it takes on a pinkish hue. I picked out a couple of rosés that are dynamite, full-flavored, very rich, completely dry, high-acid that will complement lots of picnic foods."
Gross heartily approves of pairing rosé with Middle Eastern and French foods: "Rosé is synonymous with Provence and that whole Mediterranean coast where you're eating hummus and pita and olives and things like that. It's really, really great to have some rosé there."
When considering red wines, "we typically think of picnic foods as having for the most part a little lighter protein.... You generally don't have a New York strip steak for your picnic. So, we like to think of those proteins as being more like chicken salad or tuna salad. . . . Reds like Pinot Noir or the lighter Portuguese wines have a lot of flavor, but the tannins aren't so heavy that they overpower these lighter meats."
Gross signs off with a useful reminder: "I like the idea, on a picnic, to have wines with a screw-cap. You're going to forget the corkscrew at some point. Screw-caps are great because the wine is usually fresher.... It really is the best way to seal a bottle. We call [the cork] the horse and buggy of the wine industry today."
(Obviously, before opening a bottle of wine, check first to see if your picnic destination allows consumption of alcohol.)
While picnicking can seem relegated to special occasions, that's only because we don't do it often enough. An everyday meal spent reclining on the grass can improve your outlook fast, and you won't have to do dishes.
At the end of a rough workday, just throw together a quick tray of goodies and plop down in your front yard—and yes, we mean front yard. Sure, you can slouch on your back patio with a PBR and a Bubba burger, but there's nothing like a quilted blanket and an uncorked bottle of sauvignon blanc to summon the neighbors for a friendly chat. If you get lucky, they'll bring a bottle of their own.