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Rooftop Picnics are a Nineties Thing

by Rosemary Furfaro

Imagine a bright, sunny day. The first beautiful day you've had off from your hectic schedule in weeks. Time to celebrate with a little R&R. As you reach for your picnic basket, you begin to wonder where to go for some real peace and quiet. Certainly the country sounds right but you don't have the time to make the long drive from the city. The neighborhood park will definitely be crowded on such a day and, consequently, won't afford the solitude you so dearly need. Don't despair, for there is an alternative.

Think of the words in Gerry Goffin and Carole King's song, "Up On The Roof," "...when I get home feeling tired and beat, I go up where the air is fresh and sweet...I climb right up to the top of the stairs, and all my cares drift right into space..."

Indeed, those words ring true for many urban dwellers. It's often difficult to find a quiet a place, undisturbed by others, where one can unwind and yet still be close to home. A rooftop, if you are fortunate to have access to yours, can be your hideaway. If you are blessed with a lovely garden setting above the cityscape, it can be your oasis away from the urban congestion, and only a minute from your doorstep!

Rooftop dining is convenient and almost effortless because of the proximity to home appliances which makes it perfect for that impromptu, serendipitous picnic if friends drop in.

My favorite rooftop picnic is a casual meal that is heavily influenced by Mexican and Southwestern cultures. Oh, I realize that these cuisines, particularly Mexican, have been accused of being heavy in saturated fats. Not this menu since I steam, bake, or roast most ingredients to keep the use of oil to a minimum. Where one recipe calls for the use of cheese and cream cheese, I use low-fat ingredients.

We start our meal with a layered chilequiles casserole of steamed kale, roasted corn and green chiles, then add a side dish of tender, pink beans that have been simmered with smoked turkey for added flavor. Spice up your meal with a chipotle chile-roasted tomato salsa and spicy guacamole. Blue and white corn chips are optional but certainly help if you make extra salsa and guacamole for your hungry guests. Naturally a pitcher or two of your favorite margarita recipe would keep the festive atmosphere flowing.

The casserole dish lends itself well for making ahead and doubling for large parties. The pink beans can also be made ahead and kept refrigerated for two days or frozen and thawed before reheating. As with all salsas and guacamole recipes, I think they are best made just before serving to provide the freshest flavors.

Maybe this picnic setting was not what Europeans from the past had in mind when they set out for an eating excursion. Picnic settings have changed through the centuries to reflect the times and the needs of the people. Rooftop picnics may not appeal to the majority of the population, but they do have their place for the right person. I guess, then, rooftop picnics can be considered a response to the increasingly urban lifestyles of the nineties: we seek the comfort and peace of a picnic, a hassle-free and very convenient location close to home - but not too far away from our phones and faxes. Yeah, rooftop picnics are definitely a nineties thing.

Kale and Roasted Corn Chilequiles
serves 6

Vegetable oil spray
1 package of thin corn tortillas
1 large head kale, washed and roughly chopped
4-5 ears fresh corn, kernels removed and reserved
1/2 yellow onion
1 clove garlic
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 fresh jalapeno or serrano chile
juice of 2 large limes
8 ounce low or no fat cream cheese
3/4 cup low or no fat sour cream
1/2 cup low fat jack cheese, shredded

Prepare a two quart casserole dish by spraying the inside lightly with vegetable spray.

Lightly toast both sides of each corn tortilla over a gas flame. If you do not have a gas stove, you can omit this step. Tear tortillas into quarters and reserve.

Steam the washed and chopped kale in a tightly covered deep pan over low heat until the kale is soft and the stems are tender. Remove and drain and allow to cool.

Heat a heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over high flame for about 30 seconds. Add the corn without adding any oil. Stir the corn constantly until it begins to brown and emits a toasty, nutty aroma. Remove from the pan and allow to cool.

Place the remaining ingredients (except the jack cheese) in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process until all ingredients are blend into a thin, creamy sauce. If the mixture is too thick, thin with a little milk. Remove and reserve.

Spoon a layer of sauce on the bottom of the prepared casserole. Place a layer of toasted tortillas on the sauce. Spoon another layer of sauce to cover and top with half the kale and a third of the corn. Sprinkle lightly with the jack cheese. Cover with another layer of tortillas and repeat with the sauce, kale and the corn and jack cheese. Top with the remaining tortillas, sauce, corn and jack cheese.

You can refrigerate the casserole at this point for one day and bring to room temperature for one hour before cooking. Preheat oven to 350 F. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling. Remove and let sit 5 minutes before cutting.

Pink Beans with Smoked Turkey
serves 6 with leftovers
You can continue to cook these beans until they lose most of their water. At this point, you can "refry" them by transferring to a hot cast iron pan, lightly sprayed with oil and cook until they begin to hold together, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently as this process takes place. Since the beans take a bit of time to prepare, it is best to make them ahead by one or two days.

1 pound pink beans, picked over and washed
1 smoked turkey wing or leg
salt to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, chopped

Place beans in a deep pot and cover with cool water by two inches. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to simmer. Add the smoked turkey and partially cover the pot and simmer, stirring occasionally, for two-three hours or until the beans are soft and tender when pressed between your fingers. You may need to add a small amount of water during this cooking.
Remove the turkey and allow to cool slightly. Remove the skin and discard. Shred the turkey meat and add to the beans. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer for an additional half hour. Remove some of the bean mixture and lightly mash with a potato masher then return to the pot.

Chipotle Chile-Roasted Tomato Salsa
serves 6 with extra for chips
Chipotle chiles are smoked jalapenos. They can be purchased dried or in a can packed in a tomato-based adobo sauce, as in this recipe. This is a spicy salsa so adjust the chipotle chile accordingly. If you do not have a cast iron pan, use your broiler but watch carefully so the ingredients don't burn.

6 large, ripe tomatoes (preferably vine ripened), quartered
1/2 yellow onion, cut into quarters
1 clove garlic
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1-2 chipotle chiles packed in adobo sauce
salt to taste

Heat a large cast iron skillet over high heat and add the tomatoes, onion and garlic, tossing frequently to blacken. As they color, remove them from the pan and place in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.

Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and process by hitting the pulse button 6-7 times or until the mixture turns into a chunky sauce. Serve immediately.

Spicy Guacamole
serves 6

4-5 Haas avocados, ripe and without bruises
1/2 yellow onion, quartered
3 ripe plum tomatoes, quartered
4-6 tomatillos, husked and washed (optional)
3 cloves garlic
juice one lime
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 serrano chiles

Peel and pit the avocados and place in a deep bowl. Mash with a potato masher or a fork until most but not all of the avocados are smashed. Reserve.

Place the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process until the ingredients are blended well but still remain slightly chunky. Stir into the mashed avocados. Serve immediately.

Rosemary Furfaro is a freelance food writer.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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