Picnicking is a lost art. It is so arcane that even the word looks strange to me; where did that extra k come from, anyway? With a little practice, however, we can revive a forgotten ritual. With a modern touch we can stave off the salmonella as well. Being smarter than the average picnicker does not depend on gourmet food. A great picnic sits on a sturdy blanket accompanied by the right set of accoutrement.
Once you have the parts: insulated picnic “basket”, reusable dishes, flatware, cups, and a small cutting board, the rest is easy. I use the word basket loosely: the best picnic baskets are zippered, insulated duffels with handy compartments for holding dishes and food. My basket stays stocked and ready in the hall closet, right alongside a hand-woven Mexican blanket – thick enough to keep out a little dew or pointy grass.
Taking the family on picnics is an economical way to spend quality time with everyone. For the cost of whatever food I would be making at home anyway, we can trot the whole crew out on an adventure, making memories instead of purchases. The preschooler learns about nature and the teenager is forced to hang out and talk in a distraction-free situation (bonus for picnicking out of cell-range if you have a teen). With the picnic stuff ready all the time, packing up the car for an al fresco eat-out is easier than gearing up for a trip to the local swimming pool.
The proper picnic inventory is comprised of all washable and reusable items- no Chinet or paper towels here. My set for four consists of hard plastic plates, sturdy flatware with sharp butter knives, and unbreakable cups. Tucked into each cup is a cloth napkin. A small cutting board and a corkscrew complete the collection of hardware.
All of these items can be acquired for very little cash from your local thrift store. And if you cannot find an insulated duffel there, one can be found with the coolers at most variety stores. Mine is picnic-specific from World Market and set me back twenty dollars, but it came with a setting for two so I just had to add a few more things to complete it.
Besides dishes and utensils, a few more permanent items flavor my picnic basket. These include a tiny bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar- both can be refilled and have reliable caps. Closable salt and pepper shakers from the grocery store and a teeny tiny bottle of Tabasco season nicely. Because everything is small there is plenty of room left on the insulated side for the food.
As previously mentioned, a good picnic does not require gourmet food. That said, I strongly advise against sandwiches. Not for the mayonnaise issues but because they sap luster from the meal. If you have a well stocked basket the Earl of Sandwich need not be on the guest list; the best picnics arise organically from your kitchen. You can cook specifically for your picnic, as I did in the menu described below, but leftovers are great as well. If you can eat it cold, go for it: slices of cold ham or meat loaf, green beans, garlicky pasta (there is that crazy k again). Just stack your Tupperware into the basket with a reusable freezer block and you’ve got the main course. No worries about amazing flavors, meals automatically taste better outdoors.
Since this theoretical picnic tastes so good, it needs to be washed down with a suitable something. If you like wine in the middle of the park and the local authorities agree, a red zinfandel or pinot grigio are delicious. I like to think Limoncello would make a very Italian picnic but have never tried it. In the regular beverage category some Perrier would be nice, but Nalgene bottles full of ice water are really all you need. Include a lime or lemon in your basket if you have one.
In addition to your main course, snack and dessert items are a must. I like strawberries, nice cheese, a chunk of salami, and a crusty baguette or crackers. The crumbs from the baguette can just be swept off into the meadow and the strawberry tops thrown over your shoulder. But if entire strawberries will be thrown at you if that is all you brought for dessert, then hands down the best picnic dessert is cupcakes. Granted, you may not have these in your fridge (if you do- where do you live? I’m coming over) but it would be well worth a stop at the bakery. The bakery will have the best baguette, too.
For my picnic, I am barbequing some items then chilling them overnight. Tomorrow the food will be loaded into the basket and off we will go. In my photo, you’ll notice the garnish: feel free to toss in fancy stuff like fresh parsley, cilantro, or chives. If it is already in the fridge, why not have lovely garnish on your picnic? If no one eats it, I am sure some hungry rabbit will.
Grilled Marinated Chicken:
5 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 3 medium lemons
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 teaspoon salt
Puree the mixture with a blender (immersion or otherwise) and marinate a pound of chicken drumsticks in the resulting liquid for a couple hours. Grill chicken, lightly basting with barbeque sauce towards the end.
Grilled Potatoes and Veggies
Slice potatoes and vegetables into ½ inch thick pieces and toss with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and sear on the grill. Roast over lower heat until cooked through (potatoes will take the longest). For added flavor you can toss the cooked stuff in a dressing, fresh minced garlic, or chopped herbs before putting into the fridge.
Also consider bringing binoculars for birdwatching, a camera for documenting, and don’t forget to watch out for Yogi Bear... Boo-Boo wants those cupcakes.
Images and Text © 2010 Cyndi Baker