What are your picnic essentials?
Tamagoyaki and the Berkshires
We picked up some blueberries and sour cherries - amazing
I really love the Berkshires — New England’s quiet greenery and its slow pace. I’m never there long enough to fully relax and I inevitably fume at how the queue at Tanglewood’s check out doesn’t seem to move, but I love it all the same. The drive from New York City through upstate New York to get there is also beautiful. Throughout the years, my family and I have visited what feels like every town, festival, and museum. There is of course the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Clark, but have you been to Hancock Shaker Village? For every scoop at SoCo in Great Barrington, there is another to be had at the High Lawn Farm in Lee. We also always stop for the apple cider donuts at Hilltop Orchards, with which Kaz is obsessed and which are the only apple cider donuts I ever eat. We didn’t stop off this year, but the candlelit dinner at the Old Inn on the Green (and the breakfast! before they relocated it to their cafe because of Covid) is usually one of my favorite things about our trips. I haven’t yet found a restaurant to replace it. If anyone reading is also a Berkshires obsessive, I would love to hear your recommendations!
Hilltop Orchards in New Richmond, MA
While we don’t always make it to Jacob’s Pillow or the Shakespeare Festival, my family has annually been attending concerts at Tanglewood for decades. That adds up to a lot of summer picnics as a prelude to Beethoven. The contents have ranged from cheese plates to onigiri to this year’s homemade-by-Michiko bentos packed with natto, pickles, and grilled fish. What a person assembles for a picnic says as much about them as their choice in shoes and gym. Michiko, with her homemade (and ever healthful) creations was making one statement. When my friends and I assembled a more eclectic mash-up of sour cherries, pie(s) (couple me) cheeses, crackers, wine (couple Lisa) roast chicken, and homemade artichoke and potato salads (couple Saki - tysm for actually bringing actual food), we were saying something else. Given the range of personalities out there, picnics can be comprised of anything, but they often include (at least in Tanglewood) lots of cheese and wine.
When six people assemble a picnic - randomness!
While a picnic can feature any food that you are willing to eat outside, that doesn’t mean that cultures don’t have certain traditions about what to eat outdoors. During the summers that I spent in Japan as a child, my aunt would pack bento boxes with onigiri wrapped in nori, mini Vienna sausages, and tamagoyaki (a rolled omelette) for our trips to the waterpark. Japanese people also often pack elaborate bentos for hanami - or picnicking under cherry blossoms.I can’t speak to a similar tradition in the U.S., but Central Park in the summers is full of groups toting bags from Trader Joe’s. Not at all a dig. I love the casualness of Central Park picnics.
Michiko’s bentos packed with kimchi, natto, and nukazuke
Having finally ordered a new tamagoyaki pan after leaving behind my nonstick stalwart when moving back to New York, it’s the picnic food that’s most on my brain. I love tamagoyaki so much that I wrote a piece on them for Bon Appetit. My technique has not changed at all, except that I sometimes use a silicon spatula to help roll the eggs along. Chopsticks are traditional, but a spatula really helps to keep the layers cohesive.
Tamagoyaki (like all things) can vary greatly in their flavoring (you can add sugar/mirin for sweetness or omit them for one that is entirely savory) and their coloring (as in whether you cook them to a browner hue on the outside). I like them sweeter, just set, and pale, but this is entirely a matter of preference.
On the tamagoyaki pan
For years, I (and my family) used nonstick pans, as eggs can be famously stubborn on pan surfaces. Having left behind my tamagoyaki pan in Jersey City, I decided that this was a good opportunity to upgrade. I spent some time musing over copper pans and was planning an excursion to Korin, but but was told by a Friend who Really Cooks that they actually take a lot of maintenance. I ended up ordering an iron pan by Summit from from MTC Kitchen. I tried it out a couple of days ago using four eggs. The pan is likely meant for larger quantities so my inaugural tamagoyaki was a bit petite, but the pan worked beautifully. I hope it continues to hold!
On my recipe
I like my tamagoyaki to be a little sweet, and so I add sugar. As with any eggs however, the important thing is to season them the way you like it. It is just as common for tamagoyaki to exclude eggs and to include shoyu.
2 teaspoons (a dash) of sake
1 teaspoon (abouts) of sugar
a hefty pinch of salt
Whisk your eggs with seasonings of your choice in a Pyrex measuring cup (it doesn’t have to be of course, but the spout makes for such easy pouring into the pan). Break up the eggs so that the whites are mostly broken, but try not to incorporate too much air.
Preheat your pan over medium high heat and oil it generously. Pour enough of the egg mixture to lightly coat. Start rolling your eggs from one end of the pan to another. A silicone spatula is most useful here. I used to only use chopsticks, but the spatula makes it easy to keep your roll in one piece. It’s difficult to describe, so I recommend watching a video.
If your tamagoyaki does not come out as cohesive as you’d like, know that you can tip it into a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a more shapely log.
Some sources for Japanese ingredients
New York City makes it so easy to find the Japanese ingredients. Whenever there is a feeling of overwhelm by New York (the cost, the exhaustion, the crime, the taxes, you name it) and moves to other cities are mentioned (the ever popular Miami for example), I wonder how cumbersome it would be to live in a city without so much Japanese grocery access. Growing up in Northern New Jersey, we always had Mitsuwa and Daido. In New York, I frequent (depending on where I am):
Yamadaya - in the West Village is the largest and my favorite in NYC as it also stocks more esoteric things like mizuame (rice syrup for sweets) and household goods like tamagoyaki pans and socks.
Tenichi Mart when I’m in Brooklyn and need basics, it feels a bit smaller but is very useful in a pinch
I also order frequently from MTC Kitchen, especially heavier items like rice and frozen udon. I haven’t yet ordered from weeee and umami cart and the other websites that are so conveniently offering Asian groceries across the country (wait, do they deliver to Miami?)
On my first trip this year, Lisa’s boyfriend with a most artistic bent suggested we stop off in Tarrytown to see the Chagall stained glass at Union Church. It was a most appreciated recommendation that I pass on to you! On the second trip with my family, we stopped off in Poughkeepsie to pick up Kaz and bought too many Earl gray tea buns at the wonderful Kelly’s.
Tanglewood should consider some sort of prize for its most elaborate picnickers, as some of the setups include candelabras, bouquets in vases, and real glassware.
Allegedly, Japanese companies will plan outings for hanami (or hanabi - fireworks). The most junior employees will be sent early in the day to stake out space by laying out tarp. Junior employees at traditional companies are also allegedly responsible for pushing elevator buttons, opening taxi doors, and pouring the drinks at work events.
MTC Kitchen is an excellent source for Japanese grocery delivery in the NYC-area. Their website is admittedly all sorts of terrible and they are out of stock of items all of the time, but they stock nori sheets from Japan (high quality nori makes all of the difference) and a variety of Japanese rice (most of them appear to be sold out).
Wikipedia is saying that tamagoyaki in Kansai (western Japan) are savory and do not include sugar! I grew up with a slightly sweetened version, although I realize that the tamagoyaki that my dad (and paternal grandmother - from Osaka) serve does not contain any sugar.
I am still mourning the East Village’s loss of Sunrise Mart, which was always well stocked and has moved to a new location in Japan Village in Industry City. Japan Village is a great addition to the neighborhood, but I’m not a regular in that neighborhood and have only been once.