When the great outdoors comes calling in food-obsessed Western North Carolina, why not bring along a portable meal? Amid WNC’s splendid scenery and urban hot spots, just about any fare can be better savored alfresco, some local food aficionados maintain. Ashley English, for example, literally wrote the book on outside eating in the region. Her recently released publication, A Year of Picnics: Recipes for Dining Well in the Great Outdoors, proffers four seasons’ worth of ideas for creating lush and memorable open-air food experiences.
A Year of Picnics provides a visual tour of Asheville through images that many local readers will find familiar. Staged at such locations as Fairview’s Flying Cloud Farm, the Botanical Gardens, Pritchard Park and even the roof of the French Broad Food Co-op, the photos redefine the traditional idea of a perfect picnic venue.
English, who enlisted both family members and friends (such as French Broad Chocolates owners Jael and Dan Rattigan) to model for the photo shoots, says, “Every single picnic in there is in this area. That was kind of fun. This is, for locals, sort of an ode to Asheville.”
Although the book features classic wicker baskets and blankets aplenty, English, who says she’s enjoyed planning parties since she was a small child, expands on the traditional outdoor dining concept by suggesting clever and whimsical themes. “It’s a thing I’ve always loved to do: have a cohesive theme and satellite out from there,” she explains. “I wanted people to think of doing, say, solo picnics by themselves, couples picnics, family picnics, breakfast picnics, nocturnal picnics, rooftop picnics.”
English and husband Glenn developed such globe-spanning recipes as Middle Eastern jallab, Finnish Karelian hot pot and Romanian meatball soup. There’s also more down-home fare: grilled PB&J and twice-baked potatoes. But all the dishes rally around a specific motif or locale. “I was thinking about all the places in the area where we like to picnic with family or with friends, and I thought, ‘Let’s start with these gorgeous locations,’” she says. “The locations completely determined where the recipes went.”
The book’s High-Altitude Picnic, which was staged at Black Balsam Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway, features easily carried beef jerky, roasted carrot-and-fennel dip and trail mix blondies. The Sacred Tree Picnic concept, shot at Beaver Lake, urges the reader to “find a tree that speaks to you” and then offers recipes related in some way to trees. “There’s a spiced shortbread cookie, and a lot of people don’t think about how spices around the world grow on trees,” says English. “And then there’s a pomegranate drink, and pomegranates grow on trees. So we were really cheeky in that way.”
The book includes detailed instructions on the best way to transport various types of food: how to keep the lamb stew steaming hot and the mango lassi ice pops freezing cold. Each outing idea also offers recommendations for crafts and activities. Those suggestions, though, are “not like glitter and glue guns,” stresses English, citing examples such as mushroom spore prints and nature tic-tac-toe.
But she has no illusions that all of her readers will be ready to embrace the whole program. “I just want people to feel inspired, get outside and eat outside. Of course, if they want to make the recipes, that’s great. But that’s kind of the cherry on top.”
Short Street Cakes owner Olga Perez says getting outside for a meal was a focal point of family gatherings when she was growing up in Hidalgo, Mexico. These days, she and her husband, Tomas Aguilar, and daughters Amy, Brenda and Valerie still host big family potlucks with Olga’s brothers and sisters at Carrier Park and other places around town.
“On our Independence Day, which is kind of similar to the Fourth of July, we used to have a whole family reunion and do different kinds of foods, whatever people wanted to bring — chilis rellenos, enchiladas, different kinds of stuff,” she says. Her mother’s traditional enchilada recipe (see sidebar), which is made like a casserole, is tasty and easy to transport.
“For dessert,” she continues, “we’d usually make flan or pies or tres leches cake made as cupcakes, so it’s easier to carry.” And these days, since her profession often makes her the de facto provider of sweets at family get-togethers, Perez frequently prepares flan in small Mason jars with lids. “It’s very easy to carry and really easy to make,” she explains.
Fruit salads are another favorite dish. And for drinks, she often prepares horchata or other aguas frescas using hibiscus flowers or fruit such as lemons or watermelon (see sidebar).
Chef Ramona Young of The Kente Kitchen, a local catering company specializing in West African cuisine, says meat tends to be the focus of her outdoor gatherings. “I like heavy meals, so I do a lot of meat on a stick, kebabs and stuff like that — those are nice and easy to work with. I also love bacon-wrapped shrimp or bacon-wrapped jalapeños. Anything with bacon is awesome.”
She’s a fan of fruit dishes and salads made in jars, “so you can just put everything in the jar and shake it up.” One recipe Young likes that can be served hot or cold is sesame noodles made with a sauce of peanut butter, brown sugar, teriyaki sauce, soy sauce and sesame oil. “You can also cut up fresh jalapeños to add, if you like it spicy, or you can use green bell peppers and red bell peppers to top it with,” she says.
Young, who’s originally from the Charlotte area but moved to Asheville as a child, says that when she plans outdoor meals with family and friends, they often head for scenic spots like Lake Lure or Lake Junaluska. But a fun dining expedition, she emphasizes, doesn’t have to involve a major trek.
“Sometimes just a nice little luncheon in the office can be good, too.” Instead of going to a restaurant or bringing a bag lunch, “You can just get together with your co-workers and find a nice little spot. Because it’s not just about eating outside: It’s more about communicating.”
A tisket, a tasket
Assembling an alfresco meal doesn’t necessarily require a lot of planning. English, who picnics year-round with her husband and son Huxley — and soon hopes to include newborn son Alistair as well — keeps a basket in the family’s vehicle that’s stocked with cloth napkins, enamelware plates, forks, knives, spoons, a wine key/bottle opener. Besides enhancing the ambiance, using real dishes cuts down on trash. She also recommends keeping things like rain gear, bug spray and sunscreen in the car so you’ll be ready when inspiration strikes.
It needn’t be expensive, either, notes English: An old suitcase can double as a basket, and napkins, flatware and other items can easily be scored at thrift stores for next to nothing.
And while eating definitely heightens the pleasure of an outing, “Sometimes it can really elevate your experience to not make the food at home but maybe get takeout or something,” she points out.
The Rhu is one of several local businesses that cater to diners seeking a ready-made outdoor feast. The downtown café, bakery and pantry shop offers a separate picnic menu featuring themed, customizable basket meals, sandwiches, salads, baked goods and beverages. Guests call ahead with their order, then pick up the basket en route to their destination.
Marketing Director Jasper Adams says this service has grown in popularity since The Rhu opened a year and a half ago. “We now have several people who come in each week to pick up a basket to go on hikes or downtown or what have you,” he says.
Adams, who grew up in Asheville, agrees with English that the Botanical Gardens is an excellent spot for a feast. He also favors City/County Plaza, trails in and around the N.C. Arboretum and Biltmore Estate, and scenic overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Even such seemingly unlikely locales as A-B Tech can provide a pleasant backdrop for dining, says Adams. “There are fields on the west side of the campus where you’re kind of away from everything. It’s quiet, there are stands of trees, and you can take a walk to the Smith-McDowell House.”
In the end, though, says English, what matters is not the location or the menu but the fact that you’re heading outdoors. “The underlying ethos of what Glenn and I do is about environmental stewardship,” she explains. “I really do believe that the more time you spend out in nature, the more inclined you are to want to take care of it. So it’s a book about picnics, but it’s also a book about getting people outside so they end up developing a symbiotic relationship with the planet.”