If you think about it, humans have been picnicking since the beginning of time. “A little light lunch next to the dead woolly mammoth? Picnic. Some scraps pinched from outside the neighbour’s cave? Picnic. Lunch on the train or at your desk? Picnic. Dinner in the car park of a motorway service station at 1am? PICNIC GODAMMIT!”
So writes Max Halley, the indisputable picnic king, in his new cookbook Max’s Picnic Book, the irreverent follow-up to the Sunday Times bestseller Max’s Sandwich Book.
Across 16 themed menus, featuring ingenious hacks (think flavoured salts for dippy eggs and soft serve with a shot of espresso) and twists on familiar favourites, this book is not only an entertaining reinvention of the picnic, but the bible on how and why we should we picnic.
As lockdown rules begin to relax, you might say there’s never been a better time for a picnic, but, Halley writes, the idea has been “ripped from its roots, chewed up, spat out and then stamped to death by art, literature, movies and cynical branding”.
So here’s three recipes to make sure you’re not one of those picnickers.
This is a sensational recipe, whether you’re making it at home or out and about. If you want to tartare at your picnic and haven’t successfully persuaded your butcher to chop the meat up for you, you’d better have a pen knife in that kitbag and have remembered a chopping board.
Makes enough for 8-10 lettuce cups
200g (7oz) beef (ideally something lean, such as fillet)
2 little gem (bibb) lettuces, leaves separated
1 shallot, finely diced
1tsp white wine vinegar or lemon juice
1tbsp capers, finely chopped
1tsp ground black pepper
½tsp Dijon mustard
Optional extras (not really, you’d be mad not to use these too): 1 egg yolk, a small handful of chopped parsley and a dash of Tabasco sauce
Chop your steak at home, add all the seasoning ingredients and mix well, then store in an airtight container until you are ready to eat. If you are heading out on a hot day, you might not want to carry a bag full of raw meat, gently sweating in its own juices. On such a day, it’s a good idea to mix all the seasoning ingredients at home and take them with you in a little tub. While out and about, purchase your chosen piece of steak from a butcher, ask them to finely chop (never mince) the meat for you, and then mix the seasonings into the meat just before you eat.
Either way, when the time cones, simply spoon the tartare into the lettuce cups and serve with the “optional” extras alongside. Why not explore the butcher’s counter a little further? Much of the cow works well in this way, be it as beef or veal. Heart is a world-beater when tartared, with some expert commentators (Ben Benton) suggesting it makes a steakier-tasting steak tartare than steak does. People are funny about heart,but it’s not a creepy secreting/filtering organ like liver or kidneys, it’s just a muscle like rump or fillet.
The skill here lies in the deboning of the chicken: you can ask your trusty butcher to do it for you (good luck!), or you can watch a YouTube video and practise at home. It isn’t impossible, but you do need a small, sharp knife and to be quite deft with it. You don’t need to cook this stuffed pumpkin over an open fire like Kusama did, but you do need to cook it. This is a portable sensation bar none.
1 x 1.5-2kg (3lb 7oz–4lb 7oz) whole organic chicken, deboned
1 large pumpkin (squash)
1tbsp freshly ground black pepper
75g (2½oz) butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 250C (500F/gas 9), or as hot as it will go. Start by cutting off the top of the pumpkin, keeping the little ‘hat’ to go on top again afterwards. Scoop out all the seeds and hollow out a little of the pumpkin flesh – just enough to make room for the chicken to fit inside. Lay out the deboned chicken on a board and season liberally with salt and pepper. Season the inside of the pumpkin, too.
Now fold the chicken so that the thigh and wing meat is enveloped around the breast meat, then push the folded chicken inside the pumpkin. Spread the butter on top of the chicken. Sit the ‘hat’ back on top of the pumpkin – you can tie it on with kitchen twine, or secure it with toothpicks (both wetted so they don’t catch light during the cooking), if you like – but just balancing it on top should be more than fine.
Put the pumpkin in a roasting tin and pour in 250ml (8½fl oz/1 cup) water. Place on the middle shelf of the oven, then immediately reduce the temperature to 170C (340F/gas 3). Cook the stuffed pumpkin for about 2 hours or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out cleanly and has enough heat in it to make you wince when it is pressed to your lip – or you can opt for the less alarming method of checking the chicken has reached an internal temperature of 75C/165F.
When it’s ready, take the pumpkin out of the oven and let it sit for half an hour before serving. This is delicious served in messy wedges with a sprinkle of salt, a squeeze of lemon and a green salad. It also makes quite a spectacular sight when cut into at a picnic.
Roast cauliflower with herbed couscous
Leave the cherries and peas off this and it’s actually rather nice.
Makes enough for 4
2 medium cauliflowers
2tbsp ras el hanout
2tbsp tomato purée (paste)
2tsp chilli powder
1tbsp red wine vinegar
4tbsp olive oil
200g (7oz) couscous
1 bunch of parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped
1 bunch of dill, leaves picked and finely chopped
1 bunch of mint, leaves picked and finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
2 glacé cherries
Preheat your oven to 200C (400F/gas 7) and find a roasting tray large enough to hold the two cauliflowers. Pop the whole cauliflowers into a large bowl and add the ras el hanout, tomato purée, chilli powder, vinegar, oil and two good pinches of salt and rub vigorously all over.
Place the two spiced orbs, flat side down, side by side in the tray and roast in the oven for 35–40 minutes, until nice and golden brown. Test if they’re done with a small knife or skewer, which should slide easily in and out of the thickest part of the cauliflower – any resistance encountered should be met head on with a further 10 minutes in the oven before checking again.
While the cauliflower is cooking, put the couscous into a large heatproof bowl and season with a pinch of salt. Put three tablespoons of the olive oil and the lemon juice into 200ml (7fl oz/scant 1 cup) of boiling water, mix it all about and pour over the couscous and cover the bowl with cling film (plastic wrap) and leave for 15 minutes. Fluff the couscous up with a fork and stir the herbs through it. Spoon the couscous onto a serving platter and place the cauliflowers side by side on top. Sit a cherry on top of each cauliflower and put a pea on top of those. Hold them in place with a cocktail stick.
Deliver to the picnic venue and wait to see how long it is until someone remarks on your witty little creation.
‘Max’s Picnic Book’ by Max Halley and Ben Benton (Hardie Grant, £16.99) Photography by Louise Hagger.