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The Picnic Table

If you know me, you know that ritual figures prominently in my life, second only to family and good health.

As a writer, photographer, and designer of natural spaces, I am destined to see, feel and experience the world as an illustrated series of emotional moments, milestones and occasions - mostly joyous but sometimes tortuous - all stitched together to create one long full-sensory memory.

Admittedly, as a consequence, I habitually over-think and over-do things big and small. I frequently cook for eight even when there are only two of us at home, because someone may just drop by, and the grandmas can always use some home-cooked goodness. I worry about and love my children too hard, or so I am told. Most of all, I over-celebrate family birthdays, bridal and baby showers, first and last everythings, and special one-on-one time with my children.

Rituals and celebrations are necessary non-negotiables. They have a way of softening the final blow, of loosening the letting go, of memorializing life in a way that makes my heart hurt less when things change — for the better perhaps, but still forever.

So it was with the small white painted maple picnic table and chair set that has somehow come to symbolize our three grown children leaving our home officially to pursue their awesome and exciting dreams.

Our eldest daughter Gabrielle just moved to California with her business partner to accelerate their start-up; our youngest daughter Madelaine just moved into her first real apartment on Vancouver Island where she is attending university, studying business, and our son Christian is leaving home next month. He isn’t moving far, just across town to attend medical school with his girlfriend, but none-the-less the move represents a last, a first, and a forever change.

I am beyond proud and grateful for the relative proximity, health and happiness of our children, but somehow my heart still hurts. Mums (and dads) are wired to love hard and extremely, I think. It’s nature’s way.

I have figured it out though, how to manage transition. I ruminate about it, plan an occasion, document the occasion literally and figuratively, then ruminate some more — typically while marathon gardening, cooking or canning — until I have exhausted the worry from my system more-or-less. The event then happens, and all is well, more-or-less.

The white picnic table set is leaving home too, to live with Christian and his lovely girlfriend Lauren, on their balcony. The small set was part of a larger set made for my husband and I when we were newly married.

I am unreasonably attached to these three inanimate pieces of furniture that started life on the third-story bedroom balcony of our very old but much-loved first home. The deck looked out over and into an ancient cherry tree and a beautiful big black walnut tree. I nursed all three children sitting in those chairs, listening to the birds and the bees, and watching squirrels and raccoons make short work of the cherries.

After ruminating these past few months about our pending empty nest, gardening hard from dawn until dark, I was moving closer to peace but still needed an occasion of some sort to memorialize and loosen the letting go. How fortuitous then was the Million Gardens Movement theme for the week - Garden Party for Two? Thank you universe!!

My quiet, outdoorsy, low-key son doesn’t like being in front of the camera, but knowing that he and Lauren would be well fed and well watered, and that I would potentially stop tearing up over the picnic table set and all that it represented, he was agreeable to help me meet my editorial goals.

Our front yard food garden and farmers’ market have been bursting with lovely produce, the back rain garden is coolish and lush, and the evening air is beautifully warm. Perfect conditions for a candlelit garden party for two.

The small picnic table and chairs were set up on the moss-carpeted edge of the patio, under the magnolia tree in the rain garden. The old wooden swing set that is becoming overgrown with native honeysuckle was retrofitted with assorted hanging lanterns, and the vintage linen-covered fire pit pulled double-duty as a low-profile side board.

No purchases necessary, just precious old threadbare and slightly rusted attachments, used occasion upon occasion to celebrate family, friends and community.

While Christian and Lauren played bocci in the front garden, skillfully outwitting the slopey bee turf, I was out back grilling (too many) seasonal vegetables and fruits, plus a half-dozen double-thick Salt Spring Island lamb chops. Dessert would come later, in the form of grilled buttermilk pound cake under fresh strawberries swimming in the last of last summer’s strawberry and vanilla bean syrup.

The pair prefer craft beer over wine or cocktails, so I used the occasion to choose too many specialty brew bombers from which to choose pairings. I knew instinctively that they would go for the blond and amber ales, but who could resist trying exotic blends like bourbon blood wheat ale; saison with orange peel, fennel seed and star anise; Belgian abby style dubbed with mission figs; and authentic small-batch ginger beer?

Pairing craft beer with food is a relatively inexpensive way to add a touch of foodie fun and sophistication to a simple dinner party or picnic. The 22-ounce/650ml bombers are large enough to fill four five-ounce glasses each, and three $3-$6 bottles — one light, one medium, one dark or seasonal — can form the backbone of a three-course, beer-paired themed menu.

I served a paired menu more-or-less, but with larger tulip-style lager glasses. For sure, the craft beer was a hit, providing huge culinary cred for a relatively small investment. Non-alcoholic craft beer is becoming increasingly popular also, which makes inclusive meal and party planning much easier. Our garden party menu was simple and delicious.

Garden Party For Two Menu

Grilled Vegetables

Fingerling potatoes, green beans, baby bok choy, golden oyster mushrooms,

broccolini, radicchio, romaine hearts, rainbow carrots, shishito peppers,

watermelon radish, golden beets, red beets, fennel, corn, Roma tomatoes

in olive oil, white balsamic, sea salt

Grilled Fruit

Pears, apricots, peaches, watermelon

in olive oil, white balsamic, sea salt

Salt Spring Island Organic Lamp Chops

Grilled over wilted arugula and confit garlic

Moroccan spices caraway, coriander, cumin, black pepper, allspice, zahtar,

onion, cinnamon, sumac, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, fennel, garlic

Craft Beer Pairings

Tofino Brewing Blond Ale | Dageraad Amber Pale Ale


Grilled Buttermilk Pound Cake with Strawberries

Fresh strawberries macerated in vanilla bean infused strawberry syrup

Craft Beer Pairing

Phillips Ginger Beer

If you are interested in adding grilled vegetables and fruit to your repertoire, consider a few simple tips and tricks to ensure success. First, dense vegetables, unless sliced very thin before grilling, generally require steaming, boiling or blanching in advance. Unlike animal protein, produce has no fat to keep it from drying out on or under heat, so I cook potatoes, beets, large radishes, thick slices of cauliflower and fennel, large carrots, etc., until just shy of al dente, before drying, slicing (or halving), basting and grilling.

Adding a thin coating of healthy olive oil or avocado oil helps distribute heat evenly, shortens cooking time, and helps retain moisture. I also add acid in the form of lemon juice or white balsamic vinegar to the oil, plus a pinch of sea salt. In a jam or in a campsite, I’ve used bottled salad vinaigrette to excellent affect. One can toss the whole works in a bowl of basting vinaigrette, or brush it on each piece of produce as it goes on the grill. Either way, save the surplus to drizzle overtop of everything when you are done.

I prefer a lovely extra char on most things, so I am not fanatical about cleaning all black from the grills in advance. If you prefer no char, then for sure clean the grill really well before getting started. Also, use a heatproof silicone brush to add a skim coat of oil to the grill, so help prevent sticking. I use re-usable pierced foil grilling trays and stainless steel grilling baskets for small items like shishito peppers, shiitake mushrooms, beans and snap peas.

Grilling citrus is both elegant and practical, as the heat-swollen sections happily shed their sweet and/or sour goodness over vegetables, proteins, grains or soups, in an effortless burst of juicy acidity. Two cross-wise slices per lime, lemon or small orange seems to do the trick. My Top Chef Canada friend Dale MacKay first dips the cut edges of citrus in powdered (icing) sugar before grilling on a flat top or in a saute pan. The melted sugar and citrus juice create a lovely bit of caramelized tart and sweet syrup that adds depth to any number of dishes.

To cut stone fruits and pears, I sometimes add honey, pomegranate or date molasses to the vinaigrette. My family has two grilled fruit favourites: pears with olive oil, honey, lemon, black pepper; peaches with olive oil, pomegranate or brown sugar, and balsamic. Adding any type of sugar to the mix will create flare-ups and the fruit can burn, so turn the heat down to low. Otherwise, medium heat works just fine for most items.

This year, for research purposes, I planted several varieties of paste tomatoes. My advance plan is to halve and grill them, and then hot-water-can them as I normally do with San Marzanoes. During winter then, when the raised beds are covered in snow, I can re-visit my garden over fire-roasted tomato pappardelle. More later on canning tomatoes.

So ends the beautiful, memorable occasion and ritual of my mid-summer garden party for two. So ends for now, the soul-searching marathon gardening, cooking, grilling, and rumination. I may just be ready to let go finally, of my adult children and the small white painted maple picnic table and chairs.

I may be, more-or-less.

Thank you Gabrielle, Christian and Madelaine for your infinite patience and understanding. LYMTAITWPPOF

If you are interested in seriously delicious, top-shelf vegetable grilling, find a copy of NY Times best-selling author Steven Raichlen’s fabulous book “How to Grill Vegetables - The New Bible for Barbecuing Vegetables Over Live Fire”. In the easy to read, understand and implement spirit of Samin Nosrat’s fantastic “Salt Fat Acid Heat”, Steven explains the basics simply so that you can succeed through understanding simple veg-grilling science and techniques.

Until next week, happy gardening and happy grilling!

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