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A lunch for a day hike has to travel well, fit into a small pack and still be delicious. Tall order? Try this one.

August 24, 2005|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

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.

*Fig pate

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.

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