There’s nothing wrong with a tuna fish sandwich eaten in an air-conditioned kitchen on a summer afternoon. But there’s something special about that same sandwich nibbled on a picnic blanket in the park.
Indoors, a tuna sandwich is merely lunch. Outdoors, it’s a vacation that you can take in an hour or two. It’s a mayo-slicked escape from the quotidian, a way to revel in summer as the butterflies flit and the ants cavort around your crumbs.
Although we are a nation of committed picnic lovers, we do not, on the whole, give our picnic foods their due. I’m not suggesting we adopt the alfresco feasts of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and E.M. Forster novels, with their buffets of cold pigeon pie and gooseberry jelly.
But with a small amount of effort, we can do a lot better than a bunch of grapes, some sausage and a couple of shrink-wrapped cheeses. After all, a picnic can be elegant while still being easy enough to put together in an afternoon or an hour. It just takes a willingness to add a few refinements into the mix.
Be sure to pack a nice, thick picnic blanket; real flatware (though paper plates are fine); a few battery-powered candles (if dining at dusk); and at least one amazingly delicious, sturdy, and picnic-friendly dish made from scratch. As long as you have that great homemade dish, all the other food can be store-bought.
The reason sandwiches are so popular for picnics is that they are easy to make, easy to pack and, above all, easy to eat. When I was a kid, tuna fish was my sandwich of choice, the soggy kind eaten on faded sheets at the beach. Those picnics began with potato chips and warm lemonade, and ended with exhortations not to go swimming for at least 30 minutes after eating lest I get a cramp. Neither of which ever happened.
I never lost the taste for tuna, though my grown-up iteration is a lot fancier. These days, I go for a French sandwich called pan bagnat made from tuna, anchovies, olives, capers, ripe summer tomatoes, and a variety of other seasonal vegetables. Pan bagnats are also on the moist side of the sandwich spectrum, but purposefully so because they are bathed in good, fruity olive oil (rather than drowned in mayonnaise and pickle relish, as was my grandmother’s predilection).
The beauty of a pan bagnat: not only is it impressive and something different to share with fellow picnickers, it also wants to be made in advance. The longer it sits (up to 24 hours), the better it gets. The flavors marry, the oil and tomato juices mingle, the anchovies dissolve into the bread, and all of it coalesces into a sophisticated whole that stays intact when you bite in.
Pan bagnats can be a catchall for whatever vegetables are on hand. I like to use crunchy vegetables for texture — crisp hot and sweet peppers, fennel, cucumber, and scallions. Even string beans, peas, and fava beans can all work. The tuna itself is optional; some versions I’ve eaten are ringed with just anchovies and sliced hard-cooked eggs. And this time of year, when wild salmon is in season, you could use some of the leftover cooked fish in place of tuna, which makes the sandwich even classier.
After you’ve assembled the pan bagnat, you have to flatten it. It’s the only way to fit the Dagwood-esque sandwich into your mouth, and it brings all the ingredients together. You could squash the thing under a cutting board or cast-iron skillet topped with cans or heavy books (wrap the sandwich up tightly, first in plastic wrap and then in foil). Or you could do what my parents always did when they made the sandwich on summer vacations in France: get a small child to sit on it. My sister and I took turns. Nowadays my 4½-year-old happily does her sitting duty, even though she won’t try the sandwich.
Another sturdy, appealing picnic recipe is a salad made from haricots verts, corn, and carrots. Haricots verts are skinny green beans, but you can use regular ones instead. Like the sandwich, this salad gets even better the longer it sits and is relatively indestructible. With all the contrasting colors, it’s pretty, too.
Finally, for dessert, I love to bring poundcake, which holds up well and is hard to resist. A lemon poppy seed poundcake is summery and quick to make. One tip: cut up the poundcake before the picnic but leave it in the baking pan. It makes it easier to transport, and the pan protects it, too. Then serve it on its own, with ripe berries, and let the ants enjoy the crumbs.
1 (14-inch) long ciabatta loaf, split in half lengthwise
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper, as needed
2 (6- or 7-ounce) cans of tuna (preferably packed in oil), drained
¼ cup sliced pitted olives
8 anchovies, chopped
1 tablespoon drained capers
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
½ red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
White wine vinegar, as needed
1 large ripe tomato, thinly sliced
7 basil leaves
Drizzle bread with oil and season with salt and pepper.
Break tuna into chunks and spread over bottom of bread. Scatter olives, anchovies, and capers over tuna; top with onion and bell pepper. Drizzle with more oil and sprinkle with vinegar to taste. Lay tomato slices over sandwich. Drizzle lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Tear basil leaves over sandwich and cover with other bread half.
Wrap sandwich tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap and cover with a dish towel. Weigh sandwich down with something heavy (books or heavy pots work well) for 2 to 4 hours at room temperature, flipping the sandwich halfway through. Unwrap, slice crosswise. and serve.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Haricots Verts, Corn, and Carrot Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette
¼ teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup minced fresh chives
Black pepper, as needed
1 pound haricots verts or green beans, trimmed
2-2/3 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from about 4 corn cobs)
½ pound carrots, peeled and coarsely grated (2 cups)
In a small bowl, whisk together salt, vinegar, garlic, and mustard. Whisking constantly, slowly whisk in oil until incorporated. Whisk in chives and pepper.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in haricots verts and cook until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain, cool and chop into bite-size pieces.
In a large bowl, toss together haricots verts, corn, and carrost. Toss in dressing and season with salt and pepper.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Lemon Poppy Seed Poundcake
Butter, for greasing pan
1¾ cups all-purpose flour, more for pan
Zest of 2 lemons
1 cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons plus 4 teaspoons lemon juice
3 large eggs
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
Heat oven to 350°. Butter and flour an 8-inch loaf pan.
In a bowl, combine lemon zest and sugar and rub with your fingers until it looks like wet sand. Whisk in buttermilk, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, and the eggs. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk dry ingredients into the batter, then whisk in oil and poppy seeds.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean, about 1 hour. Let cool in pan until warm to the touch, then turn out onto a baking rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Turn cake right side up.
Whisk together remaining 4 teaspoons lemon and the confectioners’ sugar. Use a pastry brush to spread glaze evenly over top and sides of cake. Cool completely before slicing.
Yield: 8 servings