When Drew and I lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, we made a point of doing a picnic in Central Park several times each summer. I loved those nights. I always brought crackers and a baguette, cut up cheese and salami, made my favorite blueberry-chicken salad that wasn’t quite right for any occasion other than a picnic — and, of course, packed plenty of wine. At some point, at our neighborhood wine shop, we had stumbled upon Bandit, wine packaged in sustainable Tetra Pak cartons (a.k.a. juice boxes for adults); it became our picnic staple.
We had our routine: Pack up the cooler, utensils and blanket, walk three Avenue blocks east and a few Street blocks north, and settle into our spot: Turtle Pond, with its perfect view of the Great Lawn, Belvidere Castle, and plenty of ducks swooping through the water, which made Drew really happy. One night, when we lingered a bit too long into dusk, we also got views of rats running through the tall grass near the pond, scavenging for picnic scraps — a reminder that we were indeed in New York, and that it was our cue to head home. But that’s another story, and I try not to let it taint my otherwise idyllic memories.
When we moved back to Chicago, we were busy with new jobs, wedding plans, and other life changes, and it seemed like the lake was just far enough away to discourage impromptu outings. But we’ve since realized how easy it is to hop on the #72 bus and head a few miles east, and, happily, the picnics have resumed.
We made it to the lake for a picnic only once last summer, but we’re already on track for a stronger showing this year; since Saturday was such an unseasonably warm spring day, and Drew admitted he wasn’t going to get much homework done, he suggested a picnic on the grassy area near North Avenue Beach — a straight shot from WP. I brought all of my usual fare, but I also wanted to try something new. After combining several different recipes I found online and making some adjustments, I came up with this colorful salad.
Here’s the recipe:
Mediterranean Harvest-Grain Salad
1 cup Trader Joe’s Harvest Grains Blend (Israeli couscous, orzo, baby garbanzo beans and red quinoa), or your grain or choice, cooked according to package instructions
1/2 hothouse cucumber, chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped and soaked in cold water to take out the bite
1/2 pint multi-colored cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 red or yellow pepper, chopped
Handful of Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1/4 cup feta, cubed
1/4 cup fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 Tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
Squirt of honey
Salt and pepper, to taste
*I like tangy dressings and usually use less oil than is recommended in order to cut down on fat, but go with the ratio that works for you.
Combine all salad ingredients and toss with vinaigrette. Serve warm, or refrigerate and serve later (like, at a picnic) at room temperature.
Drew and I devoured this quicker than the blueberry-chicken salad, a sure sign that it needs to go in the regular rotation. The best thing about it is its versatility; I tried to go for a Mediterranean theme here, but you can throw in whatever vegetables, herbs and cheese you have on hand.
Hey, we may not have a castle or ducks in Turtle Pond, but we have a beautiful lake, and French bread, and cheese and salami, and our delicious new salad. And Bandit.
Sweet home, Chicago.