I know a bank where the wild thyme blows
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows;
Quite over-canopied with lush woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Act II, Scene 1.
That's what we had in mind when a group of us decided to celebrate Midsummer night with an elegant, ravishing picnic honoring the longest day of the year and Shakespeare's chronicle of trickery and love. We had to settle instead for the shade of a leafy maple tree in a secluded area of our local city park.
But the park was big, and our chosen spot a good 10-minutes walk into its heart so as we walked the noise and the traffic faded away. We let our imaginations fill in the more romantic details of Titania's sleeping place and left our city identities in our cars, determined to enter the dream-like world of Shakespeare's most fantastical play.
Of course we'd dressed to suit the occasion -- flowing skirts, billowing shirts, wreaths of ivy in our hair. No wonder we drew strange glances from the sweaty joggers and T-shirted Frisbee players we passed en route, hoping no one from our 9-to-5 existences would recognize us looking like cast-outs from an Oscar Wilde soiree.
Alone, finally, in our personal glade, we set out a crisp-white tablecloth on the grass, arranged the silver candelabra (this was an elegant picnic, remember), and centered the tableau with a bunch of orange blossoms.
The first order of business was to chose the character in the play whose part we wanted to read. There were so many volunteers for Puck we finally assigned the part to the most un-Puck-like character in the group. It's not called Midsummer madness for nothing ...
But the theatrics were really just an excuse for the food we'd chosen for its portability and summer taste: First, an easy but delicious chilled tomato-yogurt soup, lemon fresh and tart, to be sipped from glasses. Then a breast of turkey, boned, stuffed, rolled and braised in chicken broth appeared from the depths of a cooler. It was easily sliced on site and arranged on a platter, the colorful stuffing contrasting with the white turkey breast.
From another basket came a wild and white rice salad with coarsely broken pecans and a suitably woodsy walnut oil dressing. A big wooden bowl of ratatouille was next, its marvelous garlic and basil richness wafting up as soon as it was uncovered.
To complete the menu, a good supply of homemade French bread and sweet butter, and some Gewu rztraminer to wash it all down.
Quite apart from our get-ups, there was something quite magical and off-beat about sitting around the borders of the tablecloth, big linen napkins on our laps, real silverware and china plates at hand, the air balmy and soft, the sky changing from blue to pale gold, to orange and back to lavender and turquoise. No wonder food tastes better outdoors ...
As the light faded we lit the candles (luckily it was a still night; it would have been smarter to bring hurricane lamps), passed the wine yet again and thought about dessert.
In my book there is simply no summer dessert superior to a profligate amount of raspberries and fresh, sweet cream -- the kind of cream from my childhood I still dream about: skimmed from huge churns of Jersey milk and cooled in a stone-floored creamery. Compared to this, the supermarket pasteurized, homogenized and pulverized version is a poor cousin. So we substituted a sparking Spanish wine, some of which we poured over the fruit and the rest we used to toast long summer days and warm nights, love and, of course, a little madness.
A flask of good strong coffee (espresso carries remarkably well) got us started on the play. A little self-conscious at first, we gradually warmed up to our parts until we were quite sure we were rivaling Stratford's best. Not even Puck's famous line "Lord, what fools these mortals be" diminished our enthusiasm.
We had just come to the part where Titania settles down to sleep and No. 2 Fairy is warning off "long-legg'd spinners" and crying "Beetle black, approach not near; Worm nor snail, do no offence," when the dusk was broken by the beam of a powerful flashlight and two of the city's finest police officers came out of the trees.
I don't know who was more surprised. We, to be suddenly yanked back from our make-believe world, or they to find a hippy-looking middle-aged group chanting away what they probably thought was the middle of some satanic rite.
After explanations all round, they sat and joined us for a while, sampled a few raspberries and brownies (but not wine), and then offered to come back when they'd finished their rounds and carry our gear out of the park on their cart.
Midsummer night can bring out more than just madness, we discovered.
CHILLED TOMATO-YOGURT SOUP (8 servings)
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt
2 tablespoons tomato paste
48 ounces V-8 juice
Juice and rind of one lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
Put yogurt in large bowl with tomato paste and gradually whisk in enough V-8 juice to thin it out smoothly. Add lemon juice and grated rind, black pepper and cilantro. Add remaining V-8 juice and combine well. Chill. Carry to picnic in thermos flasks or in glass jars with screw tops in a cooler.
Per serving: 51 calories, 3 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, .2 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, .5 mg cholesterol, 640 mg sodium.
TURKEY BALLOTINE (10 servings)
This recipe takes a little time to put together but is well worth the effort as it looks very pretty on the plate. If it's still cold when you arrive at the picnic sight, let it come to "room" temperature -- the flavors will be better. You can bring a cranberry relish if you like, but if you do, make it a little more interesting by adding some raspberry vinegar or a little port.
5-to-6 pound breast of turkey, boned
2 tablespoons dry sherry
3 tablespoons butter
6 scallions, minced finely
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed of excess moisture
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
Salt and pepper, to taste
16 to 20 slices of prosciutto, depending on size
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups chicken stock, or 3 10-ounce cans chicken broth
1 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
Rinse turkey breast and pat dry and lay it on a double thickness of cheesecloth. Trim the turkey breast to neaten it into a rectangle. Remove the two fillets (the topmost cylinders of meat that lie closest to the ribs) and lay them aside. Sprinkle the breast with the sherry and put it aside while you prepare the filling.
Melt the butter, add scallions and the garlic and saute' without browning. Add the spinach, marjoram, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste and mix thoroughly. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Lay half of the prosciutto slices on the turkey breast, overlapping just slightly and spread the spinach filling evenly over the turkey to within an inch of the edge of the meat. Lay the rest of the prosciutto over the spinach. Then lay the fillets, lengthwise down the center of the breast. With the long side of the turkey facing you and using the cheesecloth, roll the turkey breast into a cylinder, twisting the cheesecloth at each end and securing it with string at each end and at intervals down the middle if necessary.
Heat the oil in a large roasting pan and brown the cheesecloth-covered breast all over. Add the chicken broth, white wine and bay leaf and cover tightly. Braise in a 350-degree oven for about 90 minutes. (A fish poacher is good for this -- it fits the cylindrical shape of the turkey perfectly and keeps the liquid higher around the meat.)
Cool the turkey in the braising liquid. Remove cheesecloth and wrap tightly in tinfoil for carrying to the picnic. (The liquid can be strained and frozen and used for further braising or the basis for soups.)
At the picnic site slice the ballotine in 1/3-inch thick slices and arrange decoratively on a platter, overlapping just enough to let the filling show.
Per serving: 381 calories, 72 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 199 mg cholesterol, 462 mg sodium.
WILD RICE SALAD WITH PECANS (8 servings)
Of course you also can use walnuts in this salad, and probably should if the pecans aren't absolutely tip-top.
2 cups cooked wild rice
2 cups cooked long-grain white rice
1/3 cup walnut oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
Salt and cracked pepper, to taste
1 cup broken pecan pieces
Combine wild and white rice. Put walnut oil, lemon juice and mustard in small jar and shake well. Pour over rice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cool.
Before leaving for the picnic add the pecans and stir well. Serve at room temperature.
Per serving: 508 calories, 7 gm protein, 78 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 28 mg sodium.
RATATOUILLE (8 servings)
Everyone has a favorite version of ratatouille, it seems. I like this one because the eggplant cooks down to almost a sauce and the squash is added right before the end so it remains crisp yet tender and doesn't get mushy.
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced in strips
1 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced in strips
1 medium eggplant
3 tablespoons flour
4 large, ripe tomatoes, chopped, or a 16-ounce can of Italian stewed tomatoes, chopped
2 slender zucchini squash
2 yellow squash
4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, or to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or frying pan. Add the onions, garlic and peppers. Cover and allow to soften for about 5 minutes while you prepare the eggplant.
Peel the eggplant and cut into small cubes. Dredge the eggplant in the flour, gently shaking off excess, add to the pan and stir well. Cover and simmer very slowly, 30 to 40 minutes, checking several times to stir and make sure the eggplant is not sticking to the pan.
When the eggplant has almost lost its shape and the mixture resembles a thick sauce, add the tomatoes. Raise the heat slightly and simmer the mixture uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes until it has thickened again.
Add the squash sliced in 1/4-inch thicknesses and the basil; stir and cover. Simmer only until the squash is barely done and still bright green and yellow (about 5 minutes). Add salt and pepper to taste and leave to cool.
For the picnic, pack in a tightly sealed container and bring along some fresh basil for garnish. Allow the ratatouille to warm up a little before serving if it has travelled in a cooler.
Per serving: 119 calories, 2 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 9 mg sodium.
CHOCOLATE BROWNIES (Makes 16 brownies)
For dessert, bring as many raspberries as your budget allows, (add fresh peaches if you like but slice them at the site), and serve them with these indulgent brownies which travel better than cookies as they're less subject to humidity.
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup dark cocoa
Grease an 8-inch square tin.
Beat sugar and eggs until light and add vanilla. Melt butter and stir into egg mixture. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa and add to egg mixture, stirring well. Place in tin and bake for 30 minutes in preheated 350-degree oven.
Let the brownies cool slightly in pan, then cut and serve.
Per brownie: 123 calories, 1 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 108 mg sodium.
Anne Mullin Burnham is the Special Projects Director for the International Poetry Forum and a freelance writer.