The trunk of the fallen eucalyptus tree makes a perfect picnic table and a couple of rocks nearby will do nicely as chairs. It's a cool, shady spot, halfway down the canyon, and sycamore branches arc high above, dappling the sunlight. On one side of the clearing, there's a ravine cut by a swift-moving stream.
It's a wonderful stopping spot for our party of four. None of us are serious backpackers, but all of us get out on the local trails for day hikes as often as we can. It's amazing how quickly and easily we can find a spot that's seemingly so far from our mad, bad, traffic-choked urban intersections.
There's no better ceremony for a hike's halfway point -- when you've gone as far as you're going to go before heading back -- than a stop for rest and refreshment.
A day hiker's lunch menu is in a category unto itself. It's not about freeze-dried food and it's not about lugging some fancy basket from the car trunk to a picnic table just steps away. It should be compact, easy to pack and carry -- and delicious, imaginative and fun.
On a trip a few years ago to Switzerland, where day-hiking is a religion, art form and commuting alternative, I was struck by how many traditional foods there seemed perfect for tucking into small packs or pockets: hard mountain cheeses, air-dried meats, dense pastries of dried fruit and nuts.
With those models in mind, our menu is a casual combination of great rustic dishes that ingeniously fit into a single small pack.
Slightly pickled crudites make an appetizing start. We help ourselves from a container of crisp green beans, tangy baby zucchini, slender carrot and fennel sticks, crunchy cauliflower florets and sweet-zippy red pearl onions.
The quick-pickling method that gives them a wee bit of bite is almost too easy: Just pour a hot vinegar-spice mixture over prepared vegetables and allow the combination to sit for a few hours or overnight.
A simple cheese focaccia unites the cheese and bread of a classic alfresco meal in one savory package. Each piece is wrapped separately in foil and tucked into the pack; as each is unwrapped, you get a nice whiff of Parmesan mingled with yeast and olive oil.
The dough is quickly made in a food processor and requires just one rising. The bread is soft, but not crumbly; scoring the rectangular loaf before baking allows you to break it neatly into individual servings.
It also goes well with a delicious fig pate -- a recipe from Jeremy Jackson that's a real find. Jackson, author of last year's "Desserts That Have Killed Better Men Than Me," has recently come out with a similarly lighthearted Gen-XY outdoor cookbook, "Good Day for a Picnic: Simple Food That Travels Well." The recipes are fresh, contemporary and easy to execute.
For the fig pate, grind up hazelnuts and Black Mission figs with spices in a food processor to make a paste. Oven-dry it slightly, then form it into a log that can be sliced like salami.
Pack the slices in a small plastic container to be passed with the bread. The pate can be made ahead, ready for whenever the hiking spirit moves you. It's as energy-packed as trail mix, but so much more sophisticated.
Hiking, of course, is thirsty work, so a special quencher is in order. Tarragon lemonade is a delicious surprise: A delicate herbal anise note makes the not-too-sweet lemonade sing. It's simple to make using a fresh tarragon infusion.
To keep the vegetables and the pate cool while you hike without adding unnecessary weight, freeze the drink in small plastic bottles. It will thaw to a delightfully cold and slushy consistency just in time for lunch. It's just the thing to refresh you for the trip back.
Total time: 25 minutes
Servings: Makes 1 (6-inch) log
Note: From "Good Day for a Picnic, Simple Food that Travels Well" by Jeremy Jackson (William Morrow, $23).
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup hazelnuts
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 1/4 cups stemmed, halved dried Black Mission figs
1 tablespoon brandy
1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. To remove the skins from the hazelnuts without toasting them, bring some water and one-half teaspoon baking soda to a boil in a small pot. Add the nuts and cook for a few minutes, then drain and rub off the skins with a kitchen towel.
2. Toast the fennel seeds in a small skillet over medium heat just until they start to change color. Grind them in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder.
3. Place the hazelnuts, figs, brandy, vinegar and 1 1/2 teaspoons water
in the bowl of a food processor.
Process until the mixture is a paste. Add the ground fennel and black pepper.
4. Place the fig paste on a sheet of aluminum foil and shape it into a rough 6-inch log, then wrap it tightly in the foil, rolling to shape it into a cylinder. Unwrap the foil and place the log -- still on the foil -- onto a baking sheet. Bake at 200 degrees until the surface of the log dries and hardens a bit, 20 to 25 minutes. Let it cool.
5. Wrap the log securely in foil and keep it in a zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator for up to 2 months. Serve, sliced into coins, cold or at room temperature.
Each tablespoon: 28 calories; 86 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 55 mg. sodium.
Total time: 30 minutes, plus cooling time
Note: From Donna Deane, Times Test Kitchen director
1/4 pound green beans, ends trimmed, cut in half crosswise
1/4 pound baby zucchini, ends trimmed (about 7 to 8)
1/4 pound cauliflower (about 2 large florets), broken into smaller florets
1/2 fennel bulb, cored and cut into julienne strips (about
2 carrots, peeled, cut crosswise into thirds then into julienne strips
12 red pearl onions, peeled
2 cups rice vinegar
2 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
4 dried red chile peppers
1. Place the prepared vegetables into a 2-quart glass jar with a lid or a medium glass bowl.
2. In a medium saucepan, heat the rice vinegar, water, sugar, salt, garlic, peppercorns and red chile peppers to boiling. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the vegetables to cover.
3. Let the vegetables cool to room temperature and cover the jar or bowl with a lid or plastic wrap. Let the mixture stand 2 to 3 hours or overnight.
4. Use a slotted spoon to remove the vegetables from the vinegar mixture to a plastic container with a lid. Seal tightly before packing. To serve on the trail, use the container as a serving bowl and hikers can help themselves.
Each serving: 76 calories; 3 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 1 gram fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 106 mg. sodium.
Cheese focaccia squares
Total time: 2 hours including rising time
Note: From Donna Deane
2 packages active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2 cup loosely packed coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1. Place the yeast and sugar in a small bowl and stir in the warm water. Stir until the yeast is dissolved. Let the mixture stand until it becomes bubbly, about 10 minutes.
2. Measure the flour and salt into a food processor. With the machine running, add the yeast mixture and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Process until the mixture forms a ball of dough.
3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board. Pat the dough out into a small rectangle and sprinkle the cheese over it. Fold the dough over the cheese and gently knead in the cheese. Shape into a ball.
4. Brush a medium-size glass bowl with oil. Put the dough into the bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover with a towel or with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray. Let stand in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
5. Place a baking stone on the lowest rack of the oven. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
6. Prepare a baking sheet by brushing with oil and sprinkling with the cornmeal. Punch the dough down and pat it into a 12-by-7-inch rectangle on the sheet. Let it stand about 10 minutes, until dough begins to rise slightly. Make indentations over the top of the dough with your fingertips.
7. Use a large sharp knife to score the dough through to the bottom into 12 squares. Do not separate them. Brush with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Put the baking sheet on the preheated baking stone and bake 30 minutes, until lightly browned.
8. Remove from the oven; allow the bread to cool slightly, then break apart the rolls. Let cool before wrapping them in aluminum foil and tucking them into the day pack.
Each square: 176 calories; 5 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 3 mg. cholesterol; 305 mg. sodium.
Total time: 10 minutes, plus cooling time
Note: From Donna Deane. Place the frozen bottle(s) of lemonade in your daypack to keep other foods cool. The lemonade will thaw as you hike and be slushy and chilled when you're ready to drink.
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon
2/3 cup lemon juice
1. For the tarragon syrup, combine the sugar, 1 cup water and the minced tarragon in a small saucepan. Heat to boiling, then reduce the heat and simmer 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain out the tarragon and discard. You will have about 1 cup syrup.
2. Combine the lemon juice, 6 cups water and the tarragon syrup in a large measuring cup or a pitcher. Makes about 8 cups.
3. If desired, pour the mixture, stopping 2 or 3 inches from the top for expansion, into plastic bottles that can be put in the freezer. Freeze overnight.