Nothing seems so inescapably American as the picnic. I've always slotted it right there beside Fourth-fo-July parades and bleacher seats and cotton candy as an archetypically American Experience.
Not so. The picnic -- pique-nique, if you will -- was invented by the French and perfected by the British, a people who manage to maintain a sense of elegance under the mot adverse of circumstances.
The starting point of a British picnic is the proper basket -- a wicker valise, somewhat larger than an overnight bag, with room for the viands, not to mention the flatware, the monogrammed linen napkins, the silver salt and pepper shakers, the other essentials. I'm telling you, no one worries about ants on a British picnic -- they worry about chipping the crystal.
While the British may tene to go a trifle overboard on a picnic, we Americans often go underboard, settling as often as not for sandwiches and six-packs. Today we're going to hit a happy medium -- our athome picnic is not exactly caviar; nor is it a bunch of baloney.
The Staples: Marke sure these items are all on hand: peanut oil, dry white wine, garlic, salt, pepper, cider vinegar, sugar, mustard, butter.
The Shopping Lists: One rolled fillet of beef (k to 7 pounds); imported soy sauce; pumpernickel bread (2 loaves); 3 pounds new potatoes; 1 pound bacon; 1 large Bermuda onion; 1 bunch parsley; 1 small jar pimientos; 1 small jar sour cream; 1 medium cucumber; 1 head lettuce; 5 green peppers; ripe peaches and pears; 1 bottle of vin rose.
Prepare the Day Before: Almost everything.
Begin with the fillet of beef. Trim any excess fat. Put the fillet in a baking dish with a marinade that consists of 1 cup of soy suace; 1/2 cup of peanut oil; 1/2 cup of white wine; 5 chopped garlic cloves; a handful of chopped parsley. Every now and then during the next 24 hours, turn the meat over.
Now on to the potato salad. Begin by putting the unpeeled potatoes into a pot full of water and placing the pot over a high heat. Boil the potatoes until a fork passes through them easily, generally about 20 minutes, and then pour away the water and allow the potatoes to cool.
Fry the bacon in a large pan over medium heat, turning the bacon over so that it is cooked on both sides. When bacon is done, allow it to drain on paper towels. Then chop the bacon into postage-stamp-sized pieces and put them in a large salad bowl.
Add the Bermuda onion, chopped into small pieces. Peel the cucumber, cut it into small cubes and add that. Cut the pimientos into small pieces and add them. And then, when the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them, cut them into chunks and mix them with all the other ingredients. Also add: a small handful of chopped parsley and a generous amount of salt and pepper.
Then, the dressing. Potato salad goes well with a variety of dressings. Some prefer plain mayonnaise or mayonnaise diluted with a small amount of milk. Others opt for a basic oil-and-vingar dressing. I prefer tossing it with a small container of sour cream mixed with a few spoons of vinegar.
And on the picnic, you'll have something just a little different -- instantly pickled green peppers. You'll need a jar with a cap. Then cut the green peppers in halves and remove the seeds. Put the peppers under the broiler -- cut side down -- for just a few minutes, not to cook them through but just to heat them up. Take the peppers from the broiler and slice them into strips and put them in the jar.
In a saucepan over medium-high heat place 3/4 of a cup of cider vinegar, the same amount of water and 1/4 cup of sugar. Add 2 peeled garlic cloves, a dollop of oil and a dash of a salt and pepper. When mixture reaches boiling-point, lower heat and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, then pour over the green peper slices. Cap the jar and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare on the Day of the Picnic: The fillet. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Put the fillet of beef in a roasting pan and cook for about 30 minutes for rare, longer if you want it well done. Every 5 or 10 minutes while beef is baking, baste it with the marinade. Wrap the roast in metal foil and allow it to cool completely before beginning your at-home picnic.
However, if you plan to do the roadshow version of this picnic, don't forget any of the essential ingredients. Remember to bring; a sharp knife for cutting thin slices off the fillet of beef; a butter knife for buttering and mustarding the pumpernickel bread; a cooler for the bottle of wine, not to mention a glass or two (and the often forgotten but absolutely indispensable corkscrew); forks and plates for the potato salad and the pickled peppers. On second thought, you might want to look into one of those wicker picnic baskets; they're available anywhere in the British Isles.