Food for Thought with Suzanne Dunaway

Picnicking with panache

Let’s face it. There’s not a whole lot to do on most airplane flights. The air is thin, the sound is deafening, and short of being in First Class and having Clive Owen (or Sharon Stone, as the case may be) sit next to you, you’ll be lucky to read a little, wonder why a strange sound is coming from the left wing, or lug out your IPad and try catch up on business.

Ah, but there is the smell of something wafting out of the galley. A nice little pasta, perhaps, with basil and fresh tomato, or maybe the airline has really done it this time and figured out how to serve un-pressed chicken breast or simple olive oil and vinegar over the Romaine lettuce (which keeps as well as the indigestible iceberg variety, but which airlines NEVER use).

Uh oh, the familiar smell of institutional pot roast is getting stronger.  Time to make everyone around you suffer.

You have, in your carry-on, a not so large, throw-away box or set of plastic bags filled with a picnic.  There is no “Italian-style”, dried-herb, preservative-filled dressing here.  There is no mushy meat with fatty sinews and unpalatable, canned cheese sauce inappropriately called Bearnaise, and there is not that amazing concoction found on almost all airline trays which is always pink, sticky, artificially flavored and laced with Cool Whip and the misnomer, “dessert”. Oh, no, not here.

suzanne food picnic plane food

The flight attendant has generously provided a knife, fork and spoon, salt and pepper, and anything you wish to drink, which, if you had to eat airline food, might be less than moderate.  This time you have brought the simplest of fare:  two chunks of not too fragrant cheese, a perfect, polished Pink Lady apple, half a fresh baguette (or a little homemade focaccia, as the case may be), three or four slices of rare roast beef, or, if you prefer, one poached, broiled or sautéed chicken breast, a small bottle of Dijon mustard, a small bottle of olive oil and vinegar of correct ml and a deep red tomato to bite.

For dessert, you will produce a thin slice of chocolate moelleux or perhaps a tiny paper cup of frozen Valrhona chocolate mousse.  After two hours in the air, it is almost thawed and of a silken consistency.

Meanwhile, your companions on Flight 000 are eyeing your tray with unabashed envy.  Some are drooling onto their IPads.  Most are polite and only stare, but one of the three Italians sitting behind you is gazing longingly at the chunk of Parmesan, and a homesick resident of the UK is eyeing the Stilton.

“Would you like a tas…?”

“YES!” cries the Italian and holds out his hands in supplication.  He is attractive, really, in a hungry sort of way.

It is as simple as chilling a mousse to take a delectable picnic on your next flight.  There are shops all over the place that will pack a lunch or dinner for you, but you can put together a lovely little picnic at home without much trouble.

Plan a dinner the night before that will have leftovers:  sautéed chicken breasts or a small filet of beef or pork.  A little cold pasta is nice to have around, and a very good frittata can be made ahead with pasta, eggs, and vegetables, then sliced and taken along for the ride.

Choose firm fruits and vegetables to avoid a mess in the carry-on, and put everything in disposable containers.  If you don’t mind doing a bit of washing up on the plane, you can cut up an assortment of fruits or fresh tomatoes. Take them in a plastic container which you will then have for exotic picnics from your new destination for the ride home. You never know when you will need a safe haven for your pheasant paté from Prague or the perfect white truffle you picked up in Piemonte.

Another reason for taking a picnic on the plane is that airline food generally contains far more calories than taste, and far more preservatives than nutrition.  If you have to go through the rigors of long flights, why not at least have the pleasant interruption of a thick tuna, apple and onion sandwich on seven grain bread or thin slices of smoked salmon on dark rye spread with a fine layer of sweet butter.  You’ll eat the same calories in canned, dry-herbed cream sauce on leathery pork chops enthusiastically called “Financiere” or in the overcooked facsimile of halibut stuffed with Kiwi Mushroom Mousse.

Toss in a couple of green onions and a lemon  (unless you’re going to Hawaii) to garnish the salmon,  order a beer and drive the Swede across the aisle really crazy.  If you have to eat at 40,000 feet, you may as well enjoy a truly haute cuisine.

suzanne food picnic

Here are just a few of my favourites:

Recipe 1 : frittata


  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups pasta or rice, cooked
  • 1 small sweet onion, chopped fine
  • 1/2 cup zucchine, mushrooms, broccoli or whatever is in the fridge, sliced or chopped not too fine
  • 1 large tomato, chopped, or 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped fine
  • 4 eggs
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan


In a large skillet, sauté the onion and vegetables in oil until well browned. Add the pasta, chopped tomato or tomato sauce, stirring it into the vegetable mixture.

Beat 2 tablespoons of the grated Parmesan with the eggs and add the mixture to the pan, distributing it over the vegetables.

Heat the broiler of the oven. Cook on medium heat until just firm, then sprinkle grated Parmesan on top and put the frittata under the hot broiler for a few seconds until browned.  Let cool.

Cut and wrap in foil for the picnic, then put in plastic bag and pack just before leaving.

suzanne food picnic frittata

Recipe 2 : one mousse for the road


  • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  • 2 tablespoons strong espresso
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • a few drops of vanilla


In a heavy saucepan over very low heat, melt the chocolate in the bourbon and espresso, stirring constantly just until the chocolate melts and is smooth.

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until smooth, add the vanilla and warm chocolate mixture, and whisk well. Let cool for 10 minutes.

In another bowl, beat the egg whites until firm but not dry. Fold the egg whites gently into the chocolate mixture, and spoon the mousse into disposable cups with lids. Freeze.

These are edible for up to 4 hours. After that you might have to drink the mousse, it’ll be a lot better than lime green Maraschino Peanut Butter Surprise.

suzanne food picnic chocolate mousse

Other dishes to choose from

Check your local Intermarché or Carrefour carefully the next time you travel; there are all kinds of picnic foods to take along, and you’ll touch down feeling better than you would after the miserable fare on airplanes.  And, that dishy, bello hungry Italian has offered to show you where to get the best Parmigiano in Rome.

  • Smoked salmon with melon balls, smoked chicken, smoked trout, made into patés or sliced and wrapped in foil with cornichons
  • Poached chicken breast, cold fried chicken, chicken or turkey salad, sliced turkey, prosciutto, salame, pastrami
  • Sliced rare beef, sliced pork roast, sliced veal roast
  • Firm tomatoes, apples, pears, bananas, peaches, plums, apricots
  • Whole grain breads, French rolls, focaccia, pita bread stuffed with any of the above meats or salads
  • Individual cartons of yogurt, cottage cheese or ricotta
  • Little jars of pate or meat and chicken spreads, sold at many supermarkets or delicatessens. Check for nitrates.
  • Tozzetti, any French butter cookie, or your own ginger snaps, chocolate mousses, individual tarts, petits fours, single-serving pastries of all kinds
  • Tiny bottles of olive oil (any acceptable plastic traveling bottle will do), mustard, honey and jam (if you are thinking of a breakfast picnic) also found at supermarkets or traiteurs.

Meet the chef

P-O Life reader, Suzanne Dunaway, has cooked since she was 5 years old, when she made cinnamon pinwheels from her mother’s pastry dough.

She LOVES to cook. Some might say she LIVES to cook. The smells, the tastes, the textures…

She is a firm believer in simplicity and creates her recipes in the ethos of ‘anyone can cook’.

After years of experience in her own kitchen, cooking schools and private classes all over the world, in this weekly blog, Suzanne shares with us her PO-inspired creations.

With many strings to her bow, she is also an artist and columnist, with two published cookbooks.

Get a copy of her ‘No Need to Knead: Handmade Artisan Breads in 90 Minutes’ here  

Or her 5 star rated book ‘Rome, at Home: The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen’ here

All content and recipes are copyright of Suzanne Dunaway.


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