- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

A little more than an hour from our house in western Massachusetts, the area known as the Berkshires offers an irresistible bounty of musical and theatrical entertainment every summer.

Tanglewood becomes home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the Williamstown Theater hosts celebrated screen and stage actors in summer stock; Shakespeare is performed at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s former residence; and Jacob’s Pillow offers contemporary dance.

We love to drive the short distance to these performances, and we often pack a picnic to enjoy before. This year, friends who live in the Berkshires suggested getting together for an evening of music and alfresco dining. We were delighted to find that, because one of them volunteers as an usher at Tanglewood, they could get four hard-to-get tickets for a concert.

In return, I offered to plan a picnic supper. I decided that an icy-cold cucumber soup and pita pockets filled with a colorful melange of roasted vegetables would make a tempting main course to serve with minted iced tea. Butter-pecan cookies and fresh berries seemed ideal for dessert.

The vegetables — red and yellow peppers, zucchini, eggplant, red onion and fennel — can be roasted several hours ahead of time, tossed in a refreshing dressing of red wine vinegar, orange juice and olive oil, then packed in a container and covered.

At the picnic site, I stir in bits of creamy goat cheese, slivered black olives and torn basil leaves before mounding the delicious filling into the pita pockets.

If you are traveling only a few minutes to your chosen picnic spot — a park, a beach or a favorite wooded landscape — and plan to eat soon after arrival, you can assemble the sandwiches completely, slip them into individual plastic bags and arrange them in a cooler before setting off.

Picnic pitas with roasted vegetables

FOR THE VEGETABLES:

1 medium red bell pepper

1 medium yellow bell pepper

1 medium zucchini

1 medium (6 to 8 ounces) red onion

1 medium fennel bulb

1 small (8 ounces) eggplant or half of a medium (1 pound) eggplant

6 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

FOR THE DRESSING AND GARNISH:

1 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoons orange juice

1 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more if needed

1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

5 to 6 ounces creamy goat cheese broken in small pieces

1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, slivered

cup fresh basil leaves torn into small pieces (12 to 14 large basil leaves)

4 6-inch pitas, cut in half

Line two baking sheets with foil and set aside.

Halve peppers lengthwise, then cut out and discard stems and seeds. Cut each half into -inch-wide strips. Place in a large mixing bowl.

Trim and discard ends from zucchini and cut into -inch-thick rounds. Cut onion in half, lengthwise through the root ends, then slice each half into -inch-wide wedges. Add peppers, zucchini and onion to bowl.

Trim and discard long lacy stems from fennel, then halve bulb lengthwise. Cut out and discard tough center core. Cut fennel into -inch-wide slices and add to bowl.

Halve eggplant lengthwise, then cut each half, crosswise, into -inch-thick slices. (If using a medium eggplant, halve lengthwise and use only one half, and cut it into 1-inch cubes.) Toss vegetables with 6 tablespoons olive oil and 2 teaspoons each salt and black pepper.

Spread vegetables evenly in a single layer on foil-lined baking sheets. Roast in preheated 400-degree oven, stirring every 10 minutes, until vegetables are tender and browned around the edges, about 40 minutes.

While roasting, if vegetables seem to be drying out, drizzle with an additional 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature. Vegetables can be roasted 6 hours ahead. Cover loosely with foil and leave at room temperature.

To make dressing, whisk together vinegar, orange juice, olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt and pepper flakes in a small nonreactive bowl. Dressing can be prepared 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature, and whisk before using.

To serve, toss vegetables with dressing. Add goat cheese, olives and basil, and toss again. Season with more salt, if needed. Fill each pita half generously with vegetables. Serve immediately. Makes 8 pita halves, 4 servings.

Note: If you want to toss the roasted vegetables in the dressing and transport the mixture to a picnic site and then assemble the pitas, make certain you use a nonreactive container.

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