Keep picnic menus simple

Pair bread, cold cuts and wine with summertime entertainment

I am very passionate about both food and music and few things bring me more pleasure than dining al fresco at a musical performance. Al fresco in Italian translates to "in the cool," and has come to refer to dining in the fresh air. The combination of delicious food, live music and a beautiful outdoor setting can create an enjoyable experience. Summertime in the Land of Lincoln provides numerous opportunities to pack a picnic basket and catch a show. The Springfield Muni and Levitt AMP Springfield Music Series, and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington are perfect places to enjoy a moveable feast.

My first experiences picnicking at an outdoor performance venue go back to my college days when general admission lawn seats at Highland Park's Ravinia Festival were only $10. (This summer, lawn seats for James Taylor will set you back $77!) My early picnics usually consisted of submarine sandwiches purchased at an Italian deli. Sprawled out on a blanket, I was perfectly content. But as I looked around, I grew envious of the well-heeled folks who carted in tables, chairs, tablecloths, candelabras, champagne buckets and an elaborate spread of food.

In later years, my festival picnics also grew way too elaborate and I let my ego forgo sensibility. I planned complex menus which took me hours to assemble. I upgraded my set to a large wagon with a cooler, picnic basket, chairs and table all precariously secured with bungee cords. One day, as I huffed and puffed, pulling my overloaded wagon up a hill, I vowed to embrace simplicity in my future picnic planning.

The French have a long tradition of outdoor picnics, or as they would say: le pique-nique. In preparing a theme for this week's column, I reached out to Stephanie Rivin, an American winemaker living and making wines in Bordeaux, and asked her what a typical French countryside picnic would consist of. "Picnicking is a big part of my life and I think I have it down pretty good. I've done very extravagant picnics, and I realized that the simple ones are always the most enjoyable because you're just living in that moment of the picnic. You're enjoying being outside, having a nice, simple spread. So I try to focus on bringing bread and some cold cuts and either butter or mustard and just letting everyone make their sandwich. There's not a whole lot of containers you have to lug around. We sometimes do some veggies with a dip or cut-up fruits and cheeses. It makes packing and lugging it around easy and makes clean up a cinch. You don't need utensils or plates. Everyone just gets to nibble. But the one splurge that I always try to remember is to bring a small bouquet of flowers because that's a touch that makes it just a little more special, even just a jam jar with a few stems in it."

I must admit that the simplicity of Rivin's approach surprised me, given my perception that French cuisine epitomizes fine dining. But it should not have come as such a surprise, considering Rivin's background. She honed her winemaking skills while living on a farm in Anderson Valley in California's Mendocino County. When an opportunity presented itself for Stephanie to produce some French-style rosé wines for Whole Foods' annual spring rose promotion, she moved to Bordeaux.

Looking at the complexity of how French wine was marketed in the U.S., she felt that all the chateau names, ranking and classification systems could be cumbersome for consumers to understand. Focusing on simplicity, she reasoned that a wine made in a straightforward style, with an easy-to-pronounce name, would bridge the gap and appeal to the American ideal. This was the genesis of her label French Blue, affordably priced wines that Rivin feels are very picnic-friendly. "Our sauvignon blanc and rosé wines have screw caps, which make them the most picnic-friendly wines out there. What I like about those two wines is that they're really versatile, especially with cured meats like salami or pork paté. The saltiness of the meats can pair well with the freshness and acidity of the wines," Rivin said.

This summer I'm working in Champaign at the restaurant at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, which is renowned for its farmstead cheeses, especially it's chevre (fresh goat cheese). One of our most popular sandwiches, jambon beurre, is an iconic French picnic staple. It is simply ham on a buttered baguette, which sounds easy enough, but as the famous French chef Alain Ducasse noted, sometimes "the simpler things can be most difficult." Jamon beurre is all about the quality of the ingredients. You should seek out artisanal demi baguettes, the best ham you can find, and European-style unsalted butter with 85% butterfat (most American butters are 80%).

When I go to the Muni to see my son, Robb, perform in Music Man, I'll be packing jambon beurre sandwiches for a hand-held meal that doesn't require any plates or utensils. For appetizers, I'll be borrowing from the Spanish tapas tradition and bringing a tray of banderillas, little bites speared on wooden skewers, another utensil-free hand-held treat. To accompany my moveable feast, I'll be enjoying the French Blue wines that Stephanie Rivin kindly gifted me.

Jambon beurre

Makes 1 sandwich

1 fresh demi baguette
1 ½ tablespoons 85% butterfat unsalted European-style butter such as Plugra
1 ½ tablespoons goat cheese
4 ounces of thinly sliced cooked ham, at room temperature
2 radishes, thinly sliced into matchsticks
4 tiny cornichons, halved lengthwise

Heat oven to 275 degrees F. Place the baguette in the oven and bake until the outside crisps, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, split in half lengthwise and allow to cool.

When the baguette has cooled, spread butter on the bottom half and spread goat cheese on the top half.

Top the buttered side with the radishes and top the goat cheese side with the cornichons. Pile on the ham over the goat cheese and cornichons, then close the sandwich, and cut in half on the bias (at a 45-degree angle).