Mill City Picnic Fest: Fill Your Baskets with Local Food

During the lazy, hazy days of summer, it’s easy to find relief from the scorching sun and stifling humidity in air-conditioned shopping malls, movie theaters and restaurants. But after having coped with the real chill of winter just a few months ago, why go into an artificial deep freeze? Instead, embrace the season and enjoy a sunny picnic with a little help from the Mill City Farmers’ Market.

To celebrate summer al fresco dining, the market is holding a Picnic Fest, Saturday, July 24, featuring Mill City’s regular growers and vendors, as well as Gale Woods’ urban mini-farm and live music from jazz ensemble Gypsy Mania. The highlight of the day, however, is a special preview of Mixed Precipitation’s Tales of Hoffman: a Picnic Operetta. Combining music, outdoor theater and local food, the production is described on the group’s website as “our hybrid opera dining experience designed for performance in community garden spaces.” During performances, the audience is served a five-course sampling menu featuring fresh ingredients sourced directly from the show’s "stages’"– community gardens throughout the Twin Cities. Although the full-course Picnic Operetta won’t be served until late August, you can enjoy a tasting this weekend.

In charge of Mixed Precipitation’s dramatic edibles is Nick Schneider, former chef at local-foods pioneer Café Brenda and current Picnic Operetta collaborator, who will be at Saturday’s market cooking up some picnic-worthy salads, such as classic German potato and a beet, chèvre, raspberry and pecan combination. But since one cannot dine on salad alone, I also asked some of Mill City’s growers and food artisans to share their favorites for the picnic basket.

The Basket List

At Aunt Else’s Æbleskiver, Chad Gillard noted that their stuffed Danish pancake balls are not just for breakfast. “I know some people take these camping,” he said. “I might try to do a ham and creamcheese one that tastes good even if it’s not fresh hot.” He even suggested that æbleskivers may be all that’s needed for a casual outdoor meal: “Add a couple filled with fresh raspberries or blueberries from the market and you’ve got a little bit for your lunch and a little bit for dessert.” Chad and the crew of Aunt Else’s are at the market every Saturday, making piping hot æbleskivers with their own organic, locally-produced mix, so for those who don’t have one of their specially-designed pans, these savory and sweet pancake balls are available to go.

Tastes great but not filling enough? Then visit Steven Read and Shepherd’s Way Farms’ table, with its handcrafted cheeses made by his artisan cheesemaker wife, Jodi Ohlsen Read. Though best known for their small-batch sheep’s milk cheeses, Steven explained that they are now expanding into specialty meats, like the intriguing merguez, a spicy North African lamb sausage. “I fresh-grind the organic fennel and peppercorn, and it has organic garlic, Italian pepper, harissa paste and, of course, lamb,” he said, describing the all-local ingredients he uses, especially the meat which comes directly from the family’s flock. For a picnic, Steven recommended simply grilling the sausages with peppers and serving with a side of couscous.

And how about those wonderful cheeses? “You can never go wrong with brie, fruit and a baguette,” he added, offering up Shepherd’s Way Hidden Falls brie for the basket. “It’s not a traditional brie – the combination of cultures used in robiolas and Greek characteristics kind of create a new cheese.” A wedge of this creamy product would be at home on a sourdough baguette, as suggested by Kelsey of Bread, Coffee and Cake, but for a more bold and unique pairing, try the robustly-flavored Shepherd’s Way Big Woods Blue on top of organic graham crackers made by Susan Dietrich of Very Prairie.

In addition to her delicately sweetened graham crackers, Susan’s flaxseed and black sesame flatbread crackers make perfectly crisp bases for soft cheeses and other toppings. “The flax crackers and smoked trout from Star Prairie go great with either the rhubarb ketchup or the mustard,” she said, referring to her specialty condiments. Rhubarb ketchup’s sweet-tart flavor combines deliciously with more savory tastes such as the smoked trout or grilled sausages, while her two new mustards -- Smoked Maple and Surly Bender (“malty, beery, surly”) -- would add a creamy piquancy. To finish your meal on a sweet note, bring along one of Very Prairie’s very popular seasonal fruit pies, freshly baked by Susan’s partner Gary Robertson.

Blue Skies, Red Cloth, Green Plate

Pancake balls, sausages, cheese and dessert all sound quite appetizing but a red-checkered picnic blanket is not complete without a little bit of green. Laura Frerichs, co-owner of Loon Organics, was enthusiastic about the produce possibilities for an outdoor meal. “Around mid- to end of July, we really start getting some fun produce. The summer squash and zucchini will be in full force,” she said. “We pick them pretty small so they’re wonderful for cutting in half and grilling.” Noting that Loon Organics will soon have Sun Gold cherry tomatoes (“They’re like candy!”), Laura described a favorite salad,  which combines these tomatoes with cucumber and fennel. But her top picnic pick is an Asian-inspired alternative to coleslaw: chilled kale with toasted sesame oil and soy sauce. “It’s so good for you,” she said, explaining how the dressing softens the kale’s strong flavor. “It’s one way to eat kale that gets people interested in it.”

Any appetite would be well sated by these choices, but a hot summer day also calls for a thirst quencher. While wine and beer pairings were suggested, Brenna Kelly of Mrs. Kelly’s Tea recommended a suitable refreshment for the whole family. Iced tea is a classic summer drink and Mrs. Kelly’s offers a variety of flavored teas, including Vanilla Orange Rooibos and Herbal High-C Punch, a popular summer choice. “It’s hibiscus-based so it’s sweet-tangy and then we add some stevia,” Brenna described. “There’s a cinnamon aftertaste which is really nice.” A one-ounce bag can yield a gallon of cool iced tea, enough for a full party of picnickers. Mrs. Kelly’s Tea table at the market carries several different varieties, along with samples to help you choose just the right one.

Now that the picnic basket is full of al fresco fare, pick a perfect spot in the park, by the lake, or even your own backyard, and settle down to enjoy the best that summer has to offer.



(Recipe courtesy of Laura Frerich)

Serves 2-4

 2-3 Tablespoons of raw sesame seeds

1 bunch kale, any variety

2 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 teaspoons of tamari or soy sauce (or to taste)

Splash of rice-wine vinegar (optional)


Toast raw sesame seeds in a hot oven for 5 minutes, turning occasionally until brown and lightly toasted. Separate kale leaves from rib, grasping kale leaf on each side next to the center rib and pulling away from the thick stem. Wash leaves and chop into small pieces or cut into strips. Steam* for 5 to 8 minutes until wilted and tender (you should be able to easily tear the steamed kale leaf). Toss steamed leaves in a bowl with toasted sesame oil, garlic, tamari, toasted sesame seeds and optional rice wine vinegar. Serve hot or chilled as an accompaniment to grilled meat (such as merguez sausages, above).

*If you do not have a metal or bamboo steamer basket, heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat, then add freshly washed kale leaves (still wet) directly to pan. Cover and steam for 3 to 5 minutes or until leaves turn bright green and soften.



Tracey Paska, is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty, who also writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. Her last post for SGT was Cooking the Market: A Class That Encourages Culinary Creativity.