IT WAS the bottom of the seventh inning. Score: 6-3. The Armadillo lead was threatened. One out, bases loaded. The Sloopers were at the plate and capable of knocking in more runs.
The barking in the outfield -- a show of support by his teammates -- grew loud as pitcher Mad Dog Smith eyeballed the batter. A quick flick of the wrist and the ball was airborne and headed for the plate. With a crack, the ball's flight path changed, zooming out to Romo Romansky who, with a two-foot jump, snatched the ball out of the air. Like a bullet, he threw it to third base, where Bob Irving waited.
Just as the ball glided into his mit, the runner dove back to third base. Irving, eight years with the Armadillos, knew exactly what to do. He sat on him.
The win was only the first of two successes for the day, however. The hard-fought game left the Armadillos with dusty throats and empty bellies. It was time for the Armadillo Auxilary to move into action.
Lids were lifted from the coolers stacked by the bleachers, exposing bottles of ice cold beer. Large bowls of leftover ribs, hard-shelled crabs and other sundry items that happened along as a result of refrigerator emptying and last-minute grocery shopping were spread out on blankets. A huge picnic followed as the victors watched daylight turn to darkness.
Softball games, as important to Washington summers as charcoal is to the grill, don't have to end in the seventh inning. The more festive teams turn the end of the game into the beginning of a picnic to celebrate the win or lift broken spirits and discuss next week's lineup.
That planning is left to the last minute doesn't mean simply potato chips and pretzels will suffice. Great sandwiches can be had just by stopping at the supermarket deli for cold sliced luncheon meats and cheeses, bakery-fresh bread and rolls or a canned ham (and do the slicing yourself with the knife and can opener you remembered to bring from home). Of course the hard salamis and pepperonis always make good munching, along with crackers, Goldfish or sesame bread sticks. And the fresh fish counters at Safeway and Giant have begun stocking cooked hard-shell crabs, fresh-picked crab meat and herring.
At the relish aisle pick up mustard, mayonnaise, pickles and olives. Then on the way out the door (before loading the cart with beer, soft drinks and ice) get a couple of tomatoes and a few pears, peaches and a cantaloupe. Plates, napkins and plastic forks are usually found near the checkout stand in the summer.
It's a different story, however, if there's time to plan the after-the-game picnic and you can cook the food the night before. Cold foods make great eating on hot summer nights and can be varied from the tasty old standby of fried chicken and potato salad.
The recipes that follow are excellent cold and can easily be made the evening before the game. The salsa, which takes about 15 minutes, is merely a matter of chopping the ingredients. It was put together for Armadillos who like it hot, and since it's the sideliners who usually gobble it up before the game ends, keep them in mind when deciding how many jalapenos to add. The tortilla chips also take about 15 minutes and sit well overnight. They are chewier than store-bought chips and hold up well to the salsa's liquid.
The marinade for the ribs takes just a couple of minutes to prepare but then they must marinate for at least one hour and bake for another. But, like the cheese bread which must rise for 1 1/2 hours, it's simply a matter of letting the food get itself ready. In the meantime make the rice salad (which is even better the second day) and Matt's Dugout Chews (so named because they are so gooey that it sometimes takes a spoon to dig them out of the pan).
Ten minutes before leaving pack everything in a big box with plates, cups, forks and plenty of napkins. If you're smart, you'll hide it behind a tree while the game is in play. Otherwise, you'll have a hard time concentrating on what's happening in the field.
SALSA DE LOS ARMADILLOS (Makes about 1 quart) 5 jalapeno peppers (more or less depending on desired heat), seeded and finely chopped 4 tomatoes, diced 1 small onion, chopped 1/3 cucumber, diced 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon dried oregano 2 teaspoons fresh cilantro leaves, chopped Juice 1/2 lime 1 tablespoon olive oil Salt
Mix all ingredients together in a medium bowl. Chill for at least 1 hour. Serve with homemade tortilla chips.
TORTILLA CHIPS (6 servings) Vegetable oil for frying 12 corn tortillas Salt
Heat 1/4-inch of oil in a frying pan. Cut tortillas in half, then cut each half in thirds to get 6 wedge-shaped chips from each one. Add 1 layer of chips to pan, cook until crisp (about 1 minute) and turn. Remove to large grocery bag. Repeat until all the chips are cooked. Sprinkle in desired amount of salt, shake and serve.
MARINATED HOME RUN RIBS (6 servings) 6 extra-large short ribs of beef or 6 pounds country-style pork spareribs 2 large scallions, including green stems 2 large garlic cloves 1/2 cup soy sauce 1/4 cup sesame oil 1 teaspoon sesame seeds 1/4 teaspoon white vinegar 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
If using short ribs, trim the excess fat. Score meat deeply every 1/2 inch almost to the bone. Mince the scallions and garlic. Combine them with the remaining ingredients to make the marinade. Pour over the ribs, making sure it penetrates to the bone. Turn ribs over, scored side down in the sauce. Cover, allow to stand for 1 to 2 hours or if possibile in the refrigerator overnight.
To cook, drain ribs, reserving marinade for basting. Bake ribs in a shallow pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour, being sure to turn them every 20 minutes, brushing with marinade each time. Adapted from "The Picnic Book," by Nika Hazelton
WINNING RICE SALAD (6 servings) 1/2 cup olive oil 1/4 cup white vinegar 1 clove garlic, crushed Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 tablespoon dijon-style mustard 3 cups cooked rice 2 tablespoons chopped scallions 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley 1 green pepper, chopped 1/2 cucumber, seeded and chopped 4 radishes, chopped Few dashes hot pepper sauce (optional)
Mix together oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper and mustard. In a large bowl mix together rice, scallions, parsley, green pepper, cucumber, radishes and hot pepper sauce. Pour over it 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette and mix well. Taste salad and add more dressing if necessary, and reserve remaining vinaigrette for another salad. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.
CHEESE BREAD (Makes 2 loaves) 1 package active dry yeast or 1/2 ounce cake yeast 1 tablespoon sugar 1 3/4 cups warm water (110 degrees) 5 to 6 cups flour 1 tablespoon salt 1/4 cup softened butter 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, or more to taste 3/4 cup white cheddar cheese (substitute gruye re or emmenthaler)
Dissolve the yeast with the sugar in 1/4 cup of the warm water and allow to proof. In a large bowl, mix 5 cups flour and the salt. Make a well in the center and add the remaining 1 1/2 cups warm water, the butter, hot pepper sauce and yeast mixture. Stir with wooden spoon or spatula or your floured hands until the dough is well amalgamated. Turn out on a heavily floured board (use about 1/2-cup flour) and knead for 10 to 12 minutes or until the dough is smooth, elastic and satiny in texture and all the flour on the board is absorbed; add more flour if you need it. Place the dough in a buttered or oiled bowl and turn to coat on all sides. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Punch down the dough, turn it out on a lightly floured board, and knead in the cheeses. When thoroughly blended, cut the dough in half and let rest for 10 minutes, then roll out each half into a rectangle about 11-by-6 inches and let rest for 2 or 3 minutes more. Roll each rectangle up so they measure about 4 1/2-by-7 1/2 inches. Place the dough in two well-buttered 8-by-4-by-2-inch tins, cover and let rise in a warm spot until the bread has reached the top of the tin or slightly higher, or has more or less doubled in size.
Bake on the center of the middle rack in 375-degree oven for approximately 30 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when removed from the tins and rapped with the knuckles on both top and bottom. Place directly on the oven rack, without the tins, for a few minutes to firm the crust. Cool bread on racks before slicing. From "Beard on Bread," by James Beard
MATT'S DUGOUT CHEWS (Makes 36 to 40) 5 squares semi-sweet chocolate 2 sticks butter 1 3/4 cups sugar 1/2 cup nuts 1 cup flour 4 eggs 1 teaspoon vanilla
Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. In a separate bowl stir together sugar, nuts, flour. Add eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Do not use an electric mixer for this recipe. Add chocolate and vanilla and mix well. Pour mixture into an 8-inch baking pan and bake at 300 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes or until firm to the touch.
An alternative cooking method is to place 1 tablespoon of mixture in tiny tart tins that have been lined with foil cups. Bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes. Be sure not to overbake. Adapted from "Two Dozen Delectable Desserts"