How to host the perfect plastic-free picnic
Wood and plastic do not belong in our mouths. Period. Metal utensils – whether spoon, fork, or chopstick – are the only objects I’m happy to eat with. For this reason, I was never the one bringing pasta salads to picnics. And let’s not get started on disposable plates. They too have no place in our world. Apart from the toll they take on the environment, they also simply make the world uglier. But despite these self-imposed restrictions, I still very much love picnics. And at the heart of any good picnic is the perfect picnic food: the sandwich. The sandwich is the most democratic food on earth; it is the universal equaliser.
I once read a recipe for “rose petal sandwiches” in a book titled The Gentle Art of Cookery by Mrs CF Leyel and Olga Hartley from 1921. The recipe is made using “bright-pink Damask or old-fashioned roses” layered in bread with unsalted butter. Although I’ve never made a rose sandwich, the idea of it sounds very romantic. What I have eaten a lot of are stewed bean sandwiches. Known as “ful” sandwiches in Egypt, where I come from, they are served in pitta bread with a thick, stewed broad-bean filling. Ful sandwiches are most common for breakfast, but also eaten throughout the day. The idea of carbs-on-carbs may sound odd to some, but I will always reach for a bean sandwich or a potato sandwich when presented with the luxury.
Possibly even more important than what goes in the sandwich is the bread. Which brings me to the first (and arguably) most important principle of sandwich making. Good bread makes a good sandwich. Bad bread… should be used for something other than sandwiches. The bread is a vehicle for the filling, and if your vehicle is old and unpleasant, the ride won’t be as good. And the simpler the sandwich, the more important the bread. Use any kind of bread that you see suitable, as long as it is good. The same is to be said about most cooking. Instead of being dead set on cooking a particular food before going to the market, make the trip, and then decide what actually looks good. The uncertainty may sound stressful to some, but the more you do this the more you’ll get comfortable, and ultimately the better cook you will become.
Five fresh sandwiches
Shave courgette into ribbons using a mandolin or a vegetable peeler. Salt the courgette. Slice open focaccia and layer the ribbons of courgette with a slice of mozzarella. Add olive oil and a little more salt.
Tuna and tomato were made for each other. Combine a tablespoon of mayo (preferably homemade, but store-bought will also do) with a few fillets of good-quality canned tuna in olive oil. Flake with a fork. Slice the tomato thin, add salt and layer tomato, then tuna, on top. Slice on the bias and you have a Venetian tramezzino.
A classic, and likely my favourite sandwich of all time. Good-quality butter, flaky salt, a few slices of jambon de Paris and that’s it.
I love mortadella flecked with little bits of pistachio. Slice the focaccia, add a few slices of mortadella, and finish with olive oil and salt.
Wild Card Sandwich: beans/pitta
Take yesterday’s leftover beans and cook further until soft and thick. Add cumin to the beans then spoon into a pitta and, you guessed it, add salt and olive oil.
Once you’ve decided on what bread to use, either butter or add olive oil and then add the filling. I often find sandwiches to be overstuffed. Too much filling jammed in between two pieces of bread that can hardly hold it together. Keep things light and don’t overfill. Rule number four of sandwich making is to salt the sandwich. A little coarse salt before closing up the sandwich goes a long way. To me, a sandwich that is not salted feels incomplete. Finally, avoid sogginess by adding any wet ingredients, and the salt, at the very last minute. I also like to bring boiled eggs as they’re the perfect portable snack. I wrap them in Gohar World egg lace dresses.
Once my picnic food is sorted, I spend time thinking about the setting and ambience. This may sound obvious, but pick a spot in your local park with a view. I live half a block from Central Park in New York and have a favourite area that overlooks a lake. As far as picnic blankets go, I use any piece of fabric large enough to accommodate the guests. This can be a tablecloth, a canvas drop cloth from the art supply shop, or even just a large piece of fabric from the fabric shop. I also like to pack linen napkins.
Yes, you’ll have to do a little washing at the end, but I think it adds a nice touch. In keeping with the plastic-free picnic theme, I pack drinks served in glass bottles. I also like to pick up a bunch of flowers. Why bring flowers when you’re sitting in a park, you ask? Well, because it feels a little fabulous to have flowers not only surrounding you, but also as a part of the picnic itself. Don’t call me over the top. At least I’m not suggesting that you pick Damask roses for a sandwich.