Indoor picnic: a party at floor level
Picnics are fun … grass between your toes, crinkling under your chequered blanket. Quaint woven basket sitting with one half of the cover flipped open. Warm summer breeze rustling the leaves as the sun beats down. Kids are off in the distance, flying a kite or fighting over a stick … whatever it is that kids do at picnics.
Too bad it’s still freezing outside.
What if I were to tell you that you could bring the enjoyment — albeit not the grass, wind and sun — of a spring picnic right onto your living room carpet? You just need to set the ambiance and prepare the perfect picnic menu and you can spend the day at the “park.”
This indoor picnic won’t be copied after the North American tradition of potato salads and sandwiches; instead we’re going to pull some inspiration from French cuisine and culture. “When people say let’s have a picnic here (in North America), everything goes plastic,” states Laura Calder, host of the Food Network’s French Food at Home and author of four cookbooks including Paris Express. “When the French say picnic, they mean … impromptu, casual eating. At French picnics, everyone has to bring a dish, no plastic allowed. All the wine glasses are glass and everyone brings their own cutlery.”
In France, quality will always come before quantity, from the food to the utensils and dishes. “The most important element of a picnic, whether it is European or French-Canadian, is qualitative,” says Justin Keating, owner of Quebec’s l’Hôtel du Vieux-Québec and partner of Tournebroche restaurant. “You need to be in the moment, appreciating the experience and relaxing.”
Above all else, eating in France is a social event — regardless if it is at a picnic or a high-class restaurant. “They practice the art of conversation and we don’t. It’s totally different,” says Kasey Wilson, award-winning food and travel writer, broadcaster and author, whose culinary career started with French cuisine at the École de Cuisine La Varenne. “They’re having a good time. They really relate to one another.”
With this firmly in mind, it’s time to start planning our own indoor picnic — whether it’s for your immediate family or a whole dinner party.
Setting the Ambience
The first step is to move the furniture to the walls or, if you have the luxury of space, out of the room altogether. There will be no stuffy dining room tables during our French indoor picnic. Oddly enough, the empty room will put guests at ease when they walk in. “Friends had invited far more people than there was room at the table,” Calder recalls of one dinner party she’d attended in Paris. “So they moved the table and put cushions on the floor. It was instantly informal — any sense of stiffness is immediately eradicated.”
Next, use an area rug or a big fluffy blanket spread out on the floor to provide the illusion of a picnic blanket. “[Try] a Persian rug or a faux Persian rug … it’s kind of colourful and formal.” suggests Calder. “At an exhibit in Paris, they talked about how a carpet creates space … if you empty the room and put the carpet down, you’ve got an intimacy that wasn’t there.”
Picnics may be casual, but that doesn’t mean you need to go completely informal. You can still make the atmosphere feel fancy with some well-placed accessories. “I like the idea of not bringing it down,” Calder continues. “Imagine you’re all sitting on the floor, so you put cushions around. Put candles around and boards of food. A feeling of decadence.”
If you’d rather keep guests off the ground, an alternative to sitting on the floor is to make your coffee table the centrepiece (where you will have all of the food), then set footstools and ottomans around the table. “I can’t sit on the floor myself because I’m not 20 years old. I’d offer lower seating,” says Wilson. “I would drape the table … put chairs around that little table to make it picnic-ish.” Wilson also suggests that, if you have large windows, you move the coffee table under the window with the seating in an arc around it. This way everyone can enjoy the view of the great outdoors, just as they would for an outdoor picnic.
The final option for setting up your living room picnic is to lay out everything buffet style in the dining room and have everyone sitting on cushions or ottomans in the living room. “When the weather is less enjoyable [in the summer months], we will set up at one of our homes,” says Keating of his group of friends who usually meet for picnics. “We set everything up on a table and everyone eats at their leisure.”
Pack the Perfect Picnic Lunch
French cuisine isn’t stuffy and snobby — don’t let the haute cuisine stereotype fool you. In France, picnic foods are as casual and relaxed as the setting. “It can be as simple as buying a piece of cheese and sipping a glass of wine … with friends or co-workers on their civilized two-hour lunch break,” says Wilson. “When I think about what they do for picnics, it’s pretty darn simple. They get fresh fruit and saucisson (large sausage). And they just go for a stroll.”
Keating and his crew at l’Hôtel du Vieux-Québec use picnic baskets as a way to give guests a delicious continental French breakfast without forcing them to rush out the door in the morning. “We fill it … and hang it on guests’ doors in the morning,” says Keating. “We err on the side of excess so that many people save the basket to picnic in their room at lunch.” The contents will keep and don’t need to be eaten at a specific temperature.
“One of the main stresses when having a big dinner is having everything the right temperature,” says Calder. “But for picnics, food can be room temperature.” Planning for all of your dishes to be served this way means you won’t need to spend hours cooking; you can spread the prep work across a few days instead.
“Prepare the menu ahead of time and think room temperature,” says Wilson. “[The day of] fill up the coffee table with all the dishes and let friends pass them around and take whatever appeals to them in the order they want.”
In contrast, Calder suggests using platters and trays instead of a coffee table. “The other thing I like about the picnic is the wooden board and platters. If you put it on platters, [guests] can decide if [they] want one carrot or three,” she says. “You fill a giant platter with bitey things … you can just plunk it down and everyone sits around it. It’s very convivial and casual.”
Ultimately, the trick for your menu should be that it can all come out at once and be picked over by your friends and family. Calder discourages doing any courses, “so you’re not running back and forth clearing plates. It’s a very linger-y, kind of go-at-your-own-pace sort of meal.”
“Plan the evening so you do not have to go into the kitchen and you’re relaxed — guests will appreciate that more than anything else you do,” says Wilson. “I think when people come to your home, they’d rather you’re with them and sitting down, enjoying the dinner or lunch as they are.”
Now that we know how to present our menu, the question remains: what do we serve?
“It is hard to go wrong with the traditional elements of a French picnic: delicious fresh bread, a selection of cheeses, spreads, wine, fruit and dessert,” says Keating. “Usually you would assemble these elements at the site.” His continental French breakfast baskets include baked croissants, pastries, local cheeses, fruit, yoghurt and freshly squeezed orange juice.
Calder suggests “beer, bread and this picnicky platter thing,” quiches, beef or pork roast with celery rémoulade, radishes and olives, sliced sausages, roast chicken, “salads sort of like the ones you can carry around, carrot salad, anything that can stand up,” and of course, baguettes and pâtés.
Wilson suggests ratatouille — “cook vegetables separately so they retain flavour and texture” — pâté, onion tart, raspberry truffles and, “of course, cheeses” served with Château Miravel rosé, Grenache Blanc or a Beaujolais.
Spend the Day in the Park
Having an indoor picnic instead of a formal dinner is kind of like spending the day at the park — it’s easy, casual and very fun. “This is a great way to throw the first dinner party you’ve ever thrown,” says Calder. “When you say picnic, the pressure is off completely.”
“Lay out a nice tablecloth and choose some finer foods you would not normally have,” says Keating. “Make it an event so that you get a sense that you are doing something special.”
Remember to take the time to really linger over the food and engage with your fellow picnickers. In fact, if you can, have a separate wicket basket that you can leave by the front door where guests (or family members!) are ‘encouraged’ to leave their phones. This way everyone can be immersed in the spirit. Now, go enjoy the last throes of winter with a casual, relaxed and delicious indoor picnic.
Indoor Picnic Recipes
picnic on a platter
In her cookbook Paris Express, Laura Calder has loads of delicious recipes that would make great additions to an indoor picnic (or any dinner!). But it is her note about Picnic on a Platter that really gets my mouth watering.
“The French call it an assiette de crudités… you’ll need a nice big platter to start with, and upon it you artfully arrange things like julienned carrots, cooked green beans, halved boiled eggs, sliced cucumber and avocado, some curls of ham, possibly some marinated artichokes or boiled baby potatoes, a heap of tiny radishes … whatever you’ve got around, you simply arrange all together on the platter to look as jewel-boxy as possible. Serve pots of vinaigrette and mayonnaise on the side, and let people help themselves. All you need to round out the feast are a few baguettes, perhaps a doorstop of Roquefort, and a bottle or two of chilled rosé.”
grated carrot salad
Also found in Paris Express, this Grated Carrot Salad will really “stand up,” as she says.
4 cups grated carrots
2 to 3 generous handfuls fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
Squeeze or 2 of lemon juice
Squirt of soy sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
Toss carrots in a roomy bowl with the parsley and olive oil. Season with lemon juice, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Toss again and serve.
Kasey Wilson provided this delicious pâté recipe from her cookbook Spirit & Style: The New Home Cooking. A great spread for a baguette!
2 cups butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 Granny Smith apple, chopped
4 shallots, minced
2 lbs chicken livers, trimmed, rinsed, patted dry and cut in half
1/4 cup cognac or brandy
1/4 cup whipping cream
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp Spice Parisienne
In a large skillet over moderate heat, melt 1/4 cup butter, add onion and sauté about 5 minutes or until onion is wilted. Add apple and shallots and cook about 2 minutes. Put onion mixture in a food processor or blender.
In the same skillet, melt 1/4 cup butter and sauté chicken livers until brown on the outside, but still red and juicy on the inside. Add cognac or brandy and simmer about 3 minutes.
Add liver mixture to onion mixture in food processor and let cool to room temperature. Add whipping cream. Process until mixture is completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl.
Beat the remaining 1 1/2 cups butter in a large bowl until it is smooth and fluffy. Gradually add liver mixture to butter, beating well after each addition. Stir in lemon juice, salt, pepper and Spice Parisienne. Season to taste.
Pack pâté into a terrine or small ceramic crocks and smooth the top. Cover with a thin layer of melted butter. Chill at least 6 hours or overnight.
Fresh pâté keeps 4 days in the fridge.