I’ve changed.

I have a confession to make. I used to hate picnics. Despise them. Not see the point. Why, in heaven’s name would you choose to go and eat somewhere without proper cutlery, when you end up with ants on your arms and sticks in sad crevices? When rubbish and mess seems to multiply at a rate of knots- and all of that has to be carted home with you?

In the venn diagram of life, picnics overlap too much with camping. And we all know how I feel about camping.

And then, three things happened about the same time, forming a slippery slope of persuasion.

1)  I returned to a city where lots of other people I know have small people (and I now have one myself). Suddenly, hanging at a restaurant for hours over a boozy lunch just isn’t so feasible. Every second sentence of conversation is now punctuated with ‘No- put that down’-‘Should that really go up your nose?’ or ‘Oh god, are you really hungry again? Excuse me while I pull one of my mammaries out’. Not the most relaxing of scenarios.

2) I returned to a city that is so gobsmackingly beautiful at times that it feels like you’ve been king-hit by a view. You’ll be walking casually and then- bam- you’re sucker punched. By the harbour. By a beach. By the way the sun glints across stirring water. By the noble arch of a bridge. Sydney, you slay me sometimes. Particularly when then sun is shining- which is often. So it’s nice to be eating near that- and if you can do it without spending $40 for a main course- then you’re winning.

3) I finally figured out what you need to take along.

I’m not just talking about the edible elements- we’ll get to that. I’m talking about the bare necessities to make such an event civilised. A few rugs that can be easily thrown in a washing machine when you get home (something will spill, you can bet on it). In a pinch, a few towels to perch on.  Plenty of napkins or paper towel for mopping up said spill, or wiping sticky hands. A few plastic or paper plates. Drinks in bottles. And plenty of plastic bags for gathering up the rubbish at the end. You can never have too many rubbish bags.

As for the food- well, here are some things I don’t endorse.

a) Cheeses. They seem like a good idea, but I swear, within five minutes there’s going to be grass and dirt streaked through your brie and the blue is going to be sweating and weeping like an English man in a wool suit who just lost big at Ascot.

b) Watermelon. Sure it always seems so festive, but really, the mess to pleasure ratio is all out for me. For one, there’s the hassle of carrying it- it’s remarkably heavy for the sustenance it offers and all you’ll really end up with is sticky pink juice tracing down your elbow and a baker’s dozen of rinds to ferry to a bin.

c) Dips and chips. Nothing tugs m3 back to a fierce and grim deja vu or ‘the end of a house party in 1999’ than the sight of half mottled pots of supermarket dip and the craggy remains of corn chips. If desperation had a taste, this might be it.

d) Sandwiches. Sandwiches are for lunches at your desk. They’re for school playgrounds and 3 am snacks while you’re studying. And besides- I think we all know that eating a little less bread now and then won’t do any of us any harm.

Instead, here’s what you want. You want one decent, sustaining salad that’s been pre mixed and won’t wilt or suffer under some tupperware or sun. You want it to hold together enough so you can chase it across a paper plate with a fork. It needs to have a mix of slow release carbs, vegetables (possibly grilled or marinated so they don’t pucker and flail) and some safely cooked flesh. Poached chicken is a good one. And then a dressing with a good kick of flavour- that can be ready mixed in with the rest. I promise, Murphy’s law says if you bring it separately, all you’re going to end up with is dressing puddling in the bottom of your bag.

What you want is this salad.

There’s an Italian antipasto lilt from the grilled eggplant, basil and fennel. There’s a good hit of protein in the poached chicken- though some shredded flesh from yesterday’s roast, or a chargrilled number that you picked up from the shops would also be fine. The quinoa acts as bulk- and unlike cous cous, it holds its form on a fork. And the basil brings the taste of sunshine.

You could use whole egg mayonnaise from a jar as part of the dressing- but the real hero to me is the toum; a Lebanese garlic sauce made like mayonnaise, but with eggwhites instead. It’s fluffier and more buoyant. It’s a delight that does some heavy lifting in transforming a rough muddle into a delightful meal.

Pack a few slices of loaf cake (perhaps this one, or this), plenty of napkins and be sure to scout out a good spot in the Botanic Gardens- overlooking the harbour, under the shade of old trees and the watchful eyes of an ibis or two. And if someone else wants to bring a sneaky bottle of pink- well, that’s more than alright by me.

(Some things may have changed- but I promise, there are plenty more which have stayed just the same).

Chicken, Quinoa, Eggplant, Kale, Basil and Fennel Picnic Salad, with Toum Dressing

Serves 3-4.

Shopping/foraging

Salad


2 chicken breasts, poached and shredded, poaching liquid reserved
1 cup of uncooked quinoa, well rinsed
1/2 cup of basil, shredded
4 large leaves of kale/cavolo nero, finely diced into ribbons, or half a small head of radicchio/treviso
1 eggplant, sliced into 1 cm rounds and grilled on a panini press until the outside are charred and the inside soft, then cut into slivers
1/2 fennel, finely diced
zest and juice of half a lemon

Toum dressing


1 egg whiten
1 clove of garlic
1 pinch of salt
1 cup of neutral tasting oil, or mild olive oil.

Here’s how we roll

1) Cook the quinoa in 1.5 cups of the liquid the chicken breasts poached in. Bring the quinoa and the liquid to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add a lid and simmer for 15 minutes until the grains have puffed and all the liquid has been absorbed. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2) To make the toum, grate the garlic into the egg white and add a pinch of salt. Whisk well until soft peaks form, then drizzle in the oil, drop by drop to start with, whisking constantly to create a smooth emulsion. In the end you should have a fluffy, pale mayonnaise style consistency. Nb, if the mixture splits, you can always take another egg white, whisk it and dribble in the split mixture bit by bit.

3) Fold the cooled chicken pieces and shredded basil into the toum.

4) Fold the kale, grilled eggplant, fennel and quinoa through the chicken. Season with the lemon juice and zest and some black pepper. Transfer into a tupperware and serve at room temperature.