It’s 5 Star Makeover time again, and this month’s subject was Gourmet Picnic food. This subject is near and dear to my heart, as I love nothing more than dining al fresco. My inspiration? The movie Anne of Avonlea (renamed Anne of Green Gables, the Sequel)- a sweet, albeit somewhat cheesy and not very accurate adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars….but my favorite scene involves a picnic that is simply inspiring. Not only do the blankets and picnic baskets come out, but so does the porcelain, the silver, and of course, delicious food. I have enjoyed some pretty epic picnics in my time, and had high hopes that this evening would be another one for the annals of picnic lore……… of course the weather had other ideas.
Today was a day that I hope not to repeat for years to come, if ever. Tornadoes and Spring go hand in hand in this part of the country. If you’ve been following the news at all over the past few days, you know what I mean. In some ways, the frequency of the sirens creates an attitude of nonchalance. Of course, as we have witnessed in the tragedy of Joplin, Missouri- a few hours to my south- some who chose to ignore the sirens and go about their business did not survive. This has weighed heavily on my mind this week, as the other night I had to wake my children up at 11:30 pm and get them down to the basement. As usual, at least until today, the area of concern- while still in our county- was miles away. Nothing to worry about. And so we let the girls fall asleep in the basement in front of our favorite weatherman, and went about our business.
Today was supposed to be a day for celebration- and indeed, it turned out to be- but not in the way we intended. The big girl lost another tooth today- her last that the tooth fairy will visit for- and we were to have a beautiful picnic outside to celebrate a dear friend who is moving across the country this week (complete with pictures of a resplendent table for this post!). While we were out and about this morning, we heard the radio mention more tornado warnings for the area. But, as we didn’t hear any sirens in the vicinity, we decided to make a last stop at our local Lowe’s to grab rabbit repellent for the veggie garden. The bunnies and squirrels have been having entirely too much fun with my beets and strawberries, and need to be redirected to the other plants in my garden set aside for them. Not long after we arrived- about 45 seconds actually- the sirens blew. My first reaction was to get home as we were less than 5 minutes away, but the big girl was very anxious due to all the tornado activities over the past few days, and so we decided to stay. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it because every time the sirens have blown in the last 8 years the storms have been in a far corner of our county.
As the training room began to fill up with customers and shortly after, employees, it became clear to everyone present that this was the real deal. The sirens really were for us this time. Tables were broken down and moved to the far wall, chairs were pushed to the corner, head counts were taken, and we sat down on the floor against a wall to wait and hope we’d be missed. I thought about the Home Depot in Joplin that had been flattened, and tried to reach Mr. Kitchen Diva to let him know where I was and that we were safe. But apparently everyone in the metro area had the same idea and the phone lines were completely jammed. There would be no contact with my husband until this event was over. The radar showed circulation over my neighborhood and I realized that if I was at home, the girls would be in the bathtub in the basement wearing their bicycle helmets. This was a day we had practiced for. This is why, even in our homeschool, we go over our tornado protocols once a month. Thirty minutes slowly ticked by as the sirens cycled off and on. We could hear the rain pick up, then the wind, and then calm. The girls were scared, and I was scared for them. The last thing you want to see as a parent is your children terrified, knowing you’ve done everything you can to protect them, and realizing that against the forces of nature, it’s not very much.
We were lucky today. I am grateful for my 85 year old house, and the 100+ year old houses a block away. They stand as a reminder to me that the chances of my house getting flattened by a tornado are astronomically small- even in an area like Kansas City. I’m grateful for Spring- even with the threat of tornadoes lurking in the back of my mind- for fresh strawberries, mint, and arugula, and for picnics with porcelain, delicious food, and dear friends- today the indoor kind because of the ongoing rain. You can’t tell from the pictures, but it’s actually raining quite steadily in them!
This month’s inspiration came from one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. I honeymooned on Prince Edward Island, and enjoyed a stellar meal at the Inn at Bay Fortune, a beautiful estate once owned by Colleen Dewhurst who played Marilla in the aforementioned Anne of Green Gable Movies. The inn specializes in producing incredible meals using as much locally sourced food as possible, and a different version of this strawberry gazpacho (in one of my favorite cookbooks), using balsamic vinegar and strawberry salsa, was one of the most memorable components of our meal there. I changed the recipe and used champagne instead of vinegar, and paired it with an arugula salad and a champagne-mint vinaigrette. I love the contrast of the slightly bitter arugula against the sweet acid of the strawberry. The mint brings a freshness and brightness to both. For transportation purposes, place the gazpacho in a mason jar, and pour into bowls, or even glasses. I often picnic with glass and porcelain- unless I have to hike a distance- then I use acrylic. Good food deserves good dishes. These recipes are simple and easy to prepare, and their flavor will leave you asking for seconds. You can use the salad as a garnish to the soup, or serve it on its own. If you are uncomfortable using alcohol that’s not going to be cooked out, you are welcome to substitute champagne vinegar. You will get a similar brightness and delicacy from the vinegar. Enjoy, and may your picnics be sunny and warm!
2 lb strawberries, cleaned with the stems removed
1/2 cup champagne, or champagne vinegar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
Puree ingredients in a food processor for 3-4 minutes; until soup is glossy and smooth. Remove to a pitcher or jar and refrigerate until serving.
Arugula Salad with Champagne-Mint Vinaigrette
3 cups arugula, washed and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup mint leaves, finely chopped
2 tbs grapeseed oil
1/4 cup champagne, or champagne vinaigrette
juice from 1 lemon
2 tsp sugar
Place arugula in a bowl. Place remaining ingredients in a small jar. Cover and shake vigorously. Just prior to serving coat arugula with dressing and toss. Serve as a garnish to the gazpacho, or on its own.