Perfect picnics

Michele Guinness recommends a healthy and tasty meal to pack up and enjoy during the summer months

It always seems a terrible irony to me that living in the north west as we do, we have the glorious scenery on our doorstep, but not the weather, and most of my picnic memories involve finding shelter from freezing northern winds and penetrating drizzle.

To be fair, for the past two years, the sun has smiled on our annual church picnic, with around 2-300 of us spread out on the playing field of one of the local comprehensive schools like the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

This occasion has forced me to revise, not only my impression of picnics in general, but also my creativity with picnic food. My hamper used to be very dull, filled with the usual squidgy sandwiches that curl as soon as the sun smiles on them, mushed cake, and a few wilting bananas or lumpy apples as the only concession to healthy eating.

Imagine my admiration, and the envious looks of all the children present, when our wonderful, colourful Maori contingent set up a large barbecue, accompanied by huge tubs of every imaginable kind of salad. Everyone drifted in their direction, drawn by the mouth-watering smell, “just to have a look” of course, our tongues hanging out. The event ended up with a sort of ‘loaves and fishes’ feel to it, as they fed virtually the entire multitude.

I still haven’t got round to buying a portable barbecue for picnics, but I have become more imaginative, and a great deal healthier in my approach.

The meat loaf recipe is a bequest from my Canadian mother-in-law. My husband loved telling our children of his financially-stretched childhood in a clergy home in Ashton-Under-Lyme, and they always mock up sad violin music to accompany his tales of deprivation. His mother used to make meat loaf as an alternative to an expensive Sunday roast. Personally, I think its good enough for any occasion - hot, or cold with salads for a picnic treat.

The cous cous salad is an excellent accompaniment, and home-made bread, which is just a giant, easy-to-make cheese scone with attitude, turns the whole into a substantial meal.

Mother-in-Law’s Meat Loaf

Serves 6

500g/1lb 2oz good quality/low fat minced beef
2 onions minced
50g/2oz wholemeal or white breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons tomato puree
Half a red pepper - chopped
1 crumbled beef stock cube
1 beaten egg
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon chopped fresh or dried herbs
A sprinkle of garlic
salt, pepper.

Mix the ingredients for the meat loaf and press into a lightly oiled 450g/1lb loaf tin. Bake on gas mark 5/190C for around 60 minutes. Serve hot, or allow to cool and slice.

Cous-Cous and Roast Vegetable Salad

For the roasted vegetables:

I finely chopped red onion
2 medium-sized courgettes chopped into cubes
I finely chopped red pepper
I aubergine chopped into small pieces
20 cherry tomatoes - halved

Place all the ingredients in an oven-proof dish, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and toss. Bake on gas mark 5/190C for around 30 minutes, then remove from the oven when just tender.

Meanwhile make the cous cous:

125g/4oz cous cous
200ml/7 fl oz boiling water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
A sprinkle of garlic
Some chopped fresh mint if the cous cous salad is to be served cold.

Cover the cous cous with the boiling water and leave for 15 minutes until totally absorbed. Stir in the roasted vegetables, lemon juice, garlic and mint, and some extra salt and black pepper to taste.

Easy Cheesy No-Yeast Bread

This recipe, I have to confess, is based on one distributed by Booth’s, a Lancashire supermarket chain.

200g/7oz grated cheese
500g/1lb 2oz SR flour
40g packet French onion soup
1 teaspoon French mustard
200ml/7fl oz carton buttermilk
1 teaspoon chopped herbs- parsley and or chives
salt and black pepper

Mix all the ingredients together and put the dough into a 450g/1lb loaf tin, lined with baking parchment. Bake for 45 mins on gas mark 4/180C. Turn out when cold, slice and butter. ends