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A modernist's version of the elegant summer picnic on the lawn.
The supreme summer pastime of dining outdoors reached a pinnacle in the 17th century, when Louis XIV transformed the fête champêtre from a simple, if stylized, outdoor meal into a series of grand garden parties at Versailles. For the first one, in May 1664, the "picnic" was borne by 48 waiters. At the second, "one buffet table supported a mountain with grottoes filled with cold meats, and another had the facade of a palace made of marzipan and sugar paste," historian Roy Strong writes in Feast: A History of Grand Eating. Those were just the appetizers. The main meal was five courses—56 dishes each—carried in by the Swiss Guard.
But that was Louis. A splendid outdoor party today is likely to include a ravishing view, vividly seasonal flavors, and chilled glasses of Champagne. For our modern fête champêtre, we went to Douglas Keane, chef at Cyrus, the Michelin two-star restaurant in California’s Sonoma Valley. He created five light courses, all elegant dishes that can be enjoyed easily and, for the most part, be prepared ahead.
Keane has become deeply influenced by Japanese cuisine, and he begins his menu with tamago dofu, the traditional Japanese cold custard, sparked with a fresh ginger purée. "I love the texture, the incredible smoothness," he says. "It’s almost palate cleansing." He follows that with a rich, olive oil–poached salmon, tempered by a bright, cold tomato soup—because Keane cannot imagine a summer menu without tomatoes. And then he brings on the risotto—rich, luxurious, and sexy with sweet summer corn and earthy black Australian truffles.
He lightens the cheese course by avoiding triple creams or cow’s milk cheeses in favor of goat cheese, which he whips and accents with a toasty touch of buckwheat honey. For dessert—and in summer, dessert has to be stone fruit, Keane says—he makes the simplest crumble with peaches, blueberries, lime, and a touch of ginger, a surprising note that also acts as a bridge to the menu’s other Asian flavors.
It is a menu that nimbly skips from Asia to California, from rich to light. And best of all, it does not require an army, or even the Swiss Guard, to carry off.
The CHEF SAYS
“The best picnics are the simplest, really. Don’t overthink it. Don’t do something too complicated. Make it easy to eat and don’t fill up too much, especially when you’re eating outdoors. No one wants to feel stuffed.”
MENU & RECIPE
By Douglas Keane
Cyrus, Healdsburg, Calif.
Tamago dofu (Japanese cold custard with ginger purée & fermented black beans)
Chilled tomato soup with poached King salmon & lightly pickled cucumber
Sweet corn & black truffle risotto
Whipped goat cheese with buckwheat honey & grilled walnut bread
Blueberry, peach & ginger crumble
Blueberry, Peach, and Ginger Crumble
2 pints blueberries, rinsed and stemmed
4 peaches, pitted and cut into large dice
1 tbsp. butter
¾ c. sugar
2 tbsp. flour
¼ tsp. salt
2 limes, juiced
1-inch fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped fine
1 c. crumbled gingersnap cookies
Vanilla ice cream
Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients (except cookies and ice cream). Divide the fruit mixture among four to six 2- or 3-oz. ramekins. Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake 20 minutes, until thick and bubbling. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes. Top with crumbled cookies and serve with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Serves 4 to 6.