It seems fitting that, as March draws to a close, we start dreaming of warmer weather here in the Northeast. Heaven knows we’ve earned it, as have those lucky souls in just about every region of the world feeling the effects of the 2014 polar vortex and this season’s uncharacteristically cold and snowy winter.
There are a couple of things that come to mind when I think about spring. Our garden, for instance, which will soon be covered, as it is each year, in a tangle of unruly mint and whatever other veggies we threaten to introduce to that jungle. I’ll also be happy to banish our winter coats to the furthest most reaches of the hall closet. I’m just about done having battles about who is going to wear theirs, how “bunchy” coats are when sitting in a car seat, and whether whatever temperature we wake up to is “warm enough” for just a jacket.
But the one thing that just screams spring around our house is…The Picnic. The Stout Sprouts have had just about as many meals at the kitchen table as they can take. The promise of spring demands an outdoor meal of more opulence, with candles and finger foods and a picnic blanket spread out across the grass. The Picnic (and the way our kids talk about it, it is a proper noun) is being held out as remedy to the chill we’ve been enduring.
Picnics, I’ve learned from Wikipedia, became a particularly popular social meal around the time of the French Revolution. Certainly, meals were eaten outside long before that (hunting parties in Medieval times took full spreads out with them, and prehistoric people undoubtedly ate outdoors before there was much of an indoors), but when the French royal parks opened to the public in 1789, the public — and their picnic baskets — flocked to these regal outdoor settings. Picnicking became a way of passing the time with friends and family. Paintings from this general time period began to show picnickers enjoying their outdoor meals in the most romantic of settings, from forest clearings to lakefront meadows.
A likely derivation of the French word “pique-nique” of the mid 17th century, the date around which the word “picnic” entered the English vocabulary is arguably 1748, in a letter from the 4th Earl of Chesterfield to his son describing a social pot-luck style meal. Within about a decade the word took on a morphed connotation, referring primarily to a meal eaten out-of-doors.
So, while we’re waiting for spring to fully arrive, the Stout Sprouts, my husband and I resorted to a rather novel approach to the picnic: bringing the outdoors inside with a picnic set up on the living room floor. As our finger foods we chose a hot antipasti sandwich and carrot sticks. An easy weeknight meal, but memorable for the setting. And the sitting, propped up on pillows as we were.
I like this meal because it packs proteins and vegetables into a handy bread boule (aka big round loaf of bread!). When we made it for our indoor picnic we used a combination of meats, cheeses and veggies that were kid-endorsed, for the most part, and which melted together in the oven. We dressed our filling liberally with spinach-basil pesto which complemented and elevated all the ingredients. A meal like this can be made as one large sandwich and cut — picnic style — into wedges, or as several smaller individual sandwiches tucked into hollowed-out rolls.
There are lots of things you can do to get your kids involved in making this sandwich. Our Sprouts especially enjoyed helping to hollow out the bread. There is also a lot of simple chopping to be done, with supervision, and even the youngest chefs can help mix the ingredients with the pesto sauce. If you have a little one who isn’t comfortable in the kitchen, ask them to help you set the picnic table…be that indoors or out.
The things with which you can fill this sandwich also vary by preference. A short list of possible ingredients includes cooked and cubed chicken, salami, sausage, anchovies, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, hot peppers, roasted red peppers, olives, capers, onions, roasted eggplant or zucchini, shaved fennel, spinach, tomatoes, basil…it’s all fair game, though I’d limit your choices to five or six (or maybe seven…or eight) so as not to overwhelm anybody’s tastebuds. The exact quantities and proportions can vary too. What you absolutely need, though, is that spinach-basil pesto to bring it all together.
This is kind-of like a hot version of that New Orleans classic, the muffaletta, with a more diverse variety of tasty Italian and Mediterranean fillings. I learned this toasted sandwich trick in college from my first-generation Sicilian roommate and still trot it out every once in a while.
A quick Italian language lesson would also serve us well in this post: antipasti — the plural form of antipasto — translates in Italian as “before the meal.” That is typically when many of the ingredients with which we’ve filled our sandwich are eaten. Think of a spread of salami, cheeses, and olives…they get you ready for the meal to come. In this particular case the antipasto salad inside our bread boule IS the meal. We’ve adopted the Americanized definition of “antipasto” to refer to the type of filling vs. when, during the meal, it is served. If this doesn’t quite sit right with you, just call this the “hot, melty pesto perfection sandwich.” Doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way, but is, perhaps, more technically accurate.
My poor Italian aside, both the sandwich and the picnic were a huge hit. I can’t wait for warmer weather so we can recreate this again, but outside. Though, as long as the weather cooperates, we won’t be waiting long at all this time, having found a quick and easy meal that puts smiles on all the picnickers’ faces.
Toasted Antipasti Sandwich
1 large round loaf of crusty bread, or 10-12 individual round rolls (look for Tuscan bread or even sourdough…something with some taste and substance, but not too hard)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Several generous pinches of Kosher salt
1 chicken breast
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
Approximately 8 ounces of soppressata salami, cut into 1-inch cubes
8 ounces of fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
Approximately 8 ounces of marinated artichoke hearts, drained
3 – 4 tablespoons pesto sauce (for that homemade taste, try our spinach-basil pesto)
*Other mix-and-match ingredient suggestions include: cooked Italian sausage, anchovies, Parmesan cheese cubes, sun-dried tomatoes, hot peppers, roasted red peppers, olives, capers, roasted eggplant, roasted zucchini, shaved fennel, baby spinach, arugula, endive leaves, or fresh basil. Use your imagination!
Arrange oven rack in the lower-middle position of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Begin by lightly salting the chicken breast and sautéing it in 1 tablespoon olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat, cooking it on one side for approximately 3 to 4 minutes — or until lightly golden — and flipping it to cook on the second side for another 3 to 5 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the chicken from getting too dark. Remove the pan from the heat when the chicken is completely cooked through. Allow the chicken to rest at least 10 minutes and then cut it into 1-inch cubes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in the same pan in which the chicken sautéed, heat the remaining tablespoon olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onions with a generous pinch of salt until they are caramelized — about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir them frequently and reduce the heat as needed to keep them from burning. They should be golden brown and soft when finished.
Assemble the sandwich filling by combining the chicken breast cubes, caramelized onions, soppressata salami, mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts and enough pesto sauce to lightly coat (between 3 and 4 tablespoons). Mix well.
Cut the top off the bread boule and remove some of the bread from both the underside of the lid and the loaf to create a deep bowl (leave enough bread clinging to the sides of the boule so that, when filled and heated, the filling won’t leak through). If using individual rolls, prepare them the same way. Set aside any discarded bread to make into breadcrumbs, or use in a bread pudding, or just feed to the birds.
Spoon the filling into the hollowed out bread and top with the bread lid. Wrap the bread completely in aluminum foil and place into the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until the filling it hot and cheese melts. If using rolls, cooking time reduces to between 20 – 30 minutes.
Allow the sandwich to cool for 10 minutes so that it can be easily cut into wedges. If using rolls, cut each roll in half to serve.
Serves: 8 – 12, depending on appetites
Kid rating: four stars. Our Stout Sprouts really enjoyed this sandwich. It was warm, crunchy, cheesy and generally irresistible. The most difficult part of the meal was keeping them seated on their pillows on the living room floor. It made a return appearance, by request, at dinner the next night (leftovers work well…just reheat in the aluminum foil). Because we only had a limited number of veggies in our sandwich we supplemented with some fresh carrot sticks. If you can sneak in some additional veg — things like roasted red peppers, eggplant or baby spinach — go for it! This sandwich is very versatile.
Parent rating: four stars. As toasted sandwiches go this one is a winner. I love all the salty, umami goodness packed in here, though if you’re on a sodium-restricted diet you may want to watch ingredients and supplement with lower-salt swaps. The only ding this meal received — if you can even call it that — came from my husband, who wondered why we didn’t just have antipasto salad and bread, versus stuffing the antipasti into the bread and heating it up. Two sides of a coin, really (my side can’t resist all that melted cheese, though!). If hot sandwiches aren’t your thing, try making this filling and serving it with a roll, instead of in a roll. Personally, I’m looking forward to a playground playdate picnic later this spring when the air is still cool and we can load up a basket with hot, individual stuffed rolls. Just the thing when a little break in the action is needed, and wonderful way to warm up on a crisp afternoon.