Food isn't always about fancy technique and pushing the culinary boundaries in new directions. Sometimes it's just about simple food made right. It's often as much about who you sit down at the table with and why as it is about the food itself. When that company is your family, the local veterans group, and their supporters, having good food to share while helping to support a good cause just makes the day that much better.
This event draws notable VFW members from all over the area. You may end up sharing a table with people who are, or once were officers in the VFW at the state level, and the friendly guy waiting behind you in line for a burger may very well have been the organization's national commander a few years ago. Most of them put their lives on the line for their country in one war or another. When people like that get together for a picnic, it's as much about celebrating being alive and thriving, as it is about anything else.
The crew at Avenel put up a wide variety of foods for their picnic- they have the usual hamburgers and hot dogs that you would expect to see. On top of that you have an array of other meats, salads, and sides served all-you-can-eat - so no one leaves hungry.
One of the main attractions is the grilled chicken. They keep it simple here- they just lightly season their chicken and grill it over the coals until it has those attractive grill marks. It's simple, and basic, but when you get it right, the meat speaks for itself. It's a simple, unassuming preparation- this is as basic as it gets, but it's exactly what the occasion and the company calls for.
The sausage and peppers followed in the same vein- cooked simply, but done very well. Unlike the way I usually make Sausage and Peppers - this version had the sausage and the pepper/onion topping cooked separately, and used a little tomato sauce as well. The peppers and onions did their job here, but the star was clearly the perfectly grilled piece of sausage. Mine had great looking grill marks, and the right amount of char on the surface to get that smoky, grilled flavor that I crave on a warm sunny day. The sausage went down well with a few slugs of beer, which always makes me happy.
As much as I tend to favor meats- especially in this type of setting, I have to say that the real star of my first plate of food was the three bean salad. This salad was simply a bunch of red beans, pinto beans, and chickpeas, with bits of red onions and chunks of pickled beets. The dressing was minimal- it may have just been some excess liquid from the beets, but it was exactly the right amount to tie it all together. The brighter tang of the beets and the sharpness from the onions balanced the more silky, creamy, heavy texture of the beans. Don't tell anyone, but this was my favorite selection of the day.
I felt the need to get a hot dog, if only as an excuse to try a few more sides- that was when they brought out the roast pig. Since pork and I are old friends, I grabbed a few hunks and gave it a dose of barbecue sauce. It was, of course, everything you would expect from pork that was slow-roasted for a long period of time. Unfortunately, the rest of the carcass vanished quickly, and I'm not in good enough with the cooks there to feel comfortable asking for an ear, or a piece of something more exotic like cheek or tongue- and I think my family is grateful that I didn't have the opportunity to scarf down some of the more scary looking (but delicious) parts of the pig. The bits I got were, of course, juicy and good. It's pork, of course it's good!
Another good salad was the pasta and vegetable salad- which featured nice sized chunks of raw carrot, green pepper, and celery. Some of the carrot pieces were a little chunky- but they were fresh, tasty, and had a nice crunch (as did all the vegetables). I also sampled a little of the potato salad- which was rich with nice chunks of hard boiled egg, and a macaroni salad that had a good balance of the usual flavors you'd expect. Store bought macaroni salad tends to be either taste too much of vinegar, or are just bland- this was not the case here- I could taste everything I was supposed to taste, and it too, was good.
As if this all wasn't enough, a few of the veterans usually set up stand that serves up clams, both raw and steamed, so, of course I grabbed a plate of raw, still living clams, as a snack. I usually like mine with a little tabasco, or some grated horseradish- but these were no where to be seen- or at least I didn't notice them, so instead, I opted for a little squeeze of lemon and a dab of tangy cocktail sauce. Even though I didn't get that little burst of heat that I like with my clams, this was a nice, refreshing treat that also went well with a nice cold beer.
All in all, it was a good day, with a lot of different foods to try and enjoy. Everything was simple and straightforward, but was exactly the right thing to hit the spot. Simple, good, food, done well, an eaten in good company on a nice, late-summer day. There really isn't much more you could ask for- but the most important part of the day was the fact that the picnic raised funds to help support the VFW - funds that help keep the post running, and help them continue to provide programs for the veterans who fought to protect our way of life. Many thanks are due to the folks at the VFW Avenel Memorial Post #7164 - both for a great day out with the family, and for just being who they are- veterans deserving of our respect and admiration.