Clambakes, campfire cuisine, grilling and barbecuing belong to one category of outdoor dining: The kind that requires strenuous culinary calisthenics before the meal is ready to eat. That's fine if you've got the time and skill, but honestly, it's no picnic!
On-site meal prep gets in the way of all the things a picnic should be: leisurely, relaxing, fun and, with luck, romantic. So the first order of business is to plan an al fresco feast you can pack and forget until it's almost time to eat.
Sometimes you don't even have to do that much. One of my favorite picnics happened on an Umbrian hillside with a dead-on view of the sunset. My future husband and I devoured a spit-roasted chicken and drank a bottle of local wine, for which Orvieto is renowned. The chicken was pretty darned good, too.
Planning a pique-nique
Our word for this variety of outdoor meal comes from the French "pique-nique," meaning to "pick at a trifle," and, unsurprisingly, the French have the right idea. Whether the meal is set out on a blanket or a table laid with real china and flatware, the menu typically consists of a labor-free assortment of cold delicacies such as pâté and cured ham, voluptuous cheeses and whatever fresh fruit happens to be in season. Good bread, wine and voilà! The preparations are complete.
On the French Riviera, it's customary to pick up a pan bagnat for the beach—a gloriously messy sandwich stuffed with the same good things found in salade niçoise. "Originally there was a practical reason, to find a use for stale bread. It absorbs the olive oil, vinegar, tomatoes and suddenly becomes edible," explains Josyane Colwell, who grew up near Nice and now owns Le Moulin, a gourmet takeout and catering shop in Irvington, New York. Hence, the name "pan bagnat," which translates rather awkwardly as "bathed bread."
A good deli might be able to construct a satisfactory version but, if not, don't worry. It's really just a fancy tuna sandwich, so there's no reason to feel intimidated. A crusty, round loaf is traditional, as Colwell points out, but a baguette or ciabatta also works well.
Well-traveled menu ideas
In Vietnam, with its semi-tropical climate, picnicking isn't a seasonal phenomenon. "You don't run outside as soon as it gets warm, like [in California]," says Mai Pham, cookbook author and chef of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, California. When on the move, people are likely to buy food from a street vendor. "If you go to a park, there will be five or six" to choose from, says Pham.
Savory meat and fresh herbs, wrapped in lettuce leaves or rice paper and dunked in a dipping sauce, are a portable treat described in Pham's Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table (HarperCollins, 2003). A spicy soy-lime dressing similar to one of her dipping sauces adds a delightful touch to a picnic-bound steak salad.
Dessert could be fresh fruit, with or without cheese. Or, for a bigger finish, macerate the season's berries in a light blend of maraschino liqueur and lemon juice. More? Pass around big sugar cookies or fudgy brownies.
Whether you pick up on a global cuisine cue or go with homegrown favorites like barbecued chicken and potato salad, keep it easy and fun. Foods that taste good at room temperature are often the most successful. As for wines, they shouldn't be too heavy or serious. Think young, think chilled and you're on the right track.
Rules and regulations for carefree dining
Use your picnic basket, if you have one, for picnic gear and easy-going foods like cookies and chips. Everything else should go in a Styrofoam or thermal ice chest.
Take special care when packing foods containing meat, seafood, eggs and dairy; the goal is to keep their temperatures at 40°F or lower. It helps to cool cooked foods thoroughly—or, even better, chill them in the refrigerator—before packing. Alternate layers of food with crushed ice or ice packs. Or, make your own ice packs by freezing filled water bottles (once thawed, they do double duty as chilled drinks). Everything will stay cold longer if the cooler is fully packed and, when you reach the picnic spot, stashed in a shady place. When it's time to serve, follow the "two-hour rule" with perishable foods, eating or tossing them within that length of time.
Forgetting something is a venerable picnic tradition. Often it's not food or drink but one of those mundane things that can make life difficult if left behind: paper towels, trash bags, sunscreen, insect spray, antibacterial wipes, a corkscrew.
With the preparations complete, the picnic officially begins. There's nothing like spending time in the open air to encourage a ravenous appetite; it's comforting to know the provisions will be ready when the picnickers are. One thing you can count on: Whether the fare is ham sandwiches and beer or cold lobster and Champagne, everything tastes better outdoors.
2 cans (6 ounces each) oil-packed tuna, drained
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
2/3 cup diced tomato or quartered grape tomatoes
2/3 cup peeled, diced cucumber
1/2 cup chopped red onion
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette (24 inches), split lengthwise*
1/2 cup prepared or homemade tapenade**
Mixed salad greens
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the tuna, eggs, tomato, cucumber, onion, olive oil and vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Hollow out the cut sides of the baguette by removing some of the bread with your fingers; discard. Spread the tapenade on the cut sides. Spoon the tuna mixture onto the bottom half, pressing to make it adhere. Top with the salad greens. Place the other half of the baguette on top and cut in four to six pieces; reassemble the filled loaf and wrap securely, first in plastic wrap and then in foil.
To pack: Place in an ice chest, protected from direct contact with melting ice.
To serve: About one hour before eating, remove from the cooler. Unwrap just before eating. Serves 4-6.
*Substitute a ciabatta of equivalent size; no need to remove inside of bread.
**To make tapenade: In a food processor bowl, combine 1 cup pitted Kalamata or Niçoise olives, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 anchovy fillets, 1 teaspoon drained capers and 1 small garlic clove. Process until smooth. (Refrigerate unused tapenade in a covered container; it will keep for several weeks.) Makes 3/4 cup.
Wine recommendations: The traditional accompaniment to this perfect picnic sandwich is also the perfect hot-weather sipper—a chilled rosé. Not the mass-produced kind, but a bone-dry Tavel from the Rhône or, stateside, a Saintsbury 2004 Carneros Vin Gris ($14) from the Napa Valley, which brings bright berry flavor, refreshing acidity and that Pinot Noir je ne sais quoi to complement the oily assertiveness of olives, anchovies and tuna. An appealing nonalcoholic option is black currant juice (look for CurrantC, available in Whole Foods and other stores), mixed with an equal portion of cold seltzer or iced tea.
VIETNAMESE-STYLE STEAK SALAD
Stir-fried beef and cooked noodles marinate en route to the picnic. Packed separately, the greens and veggies stay cool and crisp, awaiting their mealtime toss with the soy-lime dressing.
4 ounces rice noodles (vermicelli)
1/3 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound sirloin steak, well trimmed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small head Boston lettuce, shredded (about 5 cups)
1 cucumber, seeded, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced
1/2 cup peeled, grated carrot
1/2 cup mint leaves
In a small saucepan, cook the noodles in boiling water until soft, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse and cool in a medium-sized bowl. In a small jar, combine the soy sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and red pepper flakes to form the dressing; shake well.
Slice the steak against the grain in thin strips. Cooking in batches as needed, stir-fry in the oil over medium-high heat until just cooked through. Remove to the bowl with the noodles; add half of the dressing and mix until well coated. Cool and transfer to a reclosable plastic bag. In a plastic container, combine the lettuce, cucumber, carrot and mint.
To pack: Place the beef-noodle mixture, greens and dressing in a cooler.
To serve: Remove about 30 minutes before serving. Just before serving, toss the greens with the remaining dressing and divide among four plates. Top each with beef and noodles.
Wine recommendations: A Gewürztraminer or Riesling pairs well with the dish's spicy-herbal profile. Trimbach 2004 Gewürztraminer ($16), from Alsace, is medium-bodied, with lush tropical fruit and spice notes; McWilliam's 2005 Riesling ($9), from Australia, is lighter and steelier, with aromas of passion fruit and lime. On a hot day, a cold lager would also go down well.
FRESH BERRIES IN MARASCHINO
Maraschino liqueur is a clear, not-too-sweet elixir made from sour cherries; well-known producers include Luxardo and Stock. Delicate hints of pepper, nuts and, of course, cherries have earned maraschino a welcome role in the Italian fruit salad called "Macedonia." Here, just enough is added to subtly sweeten and enhance the summer's best berries.
3 cups strawberries, stemmed
1 cup blueberries
2 tablespoons maraschino liqueur
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons lightly toasted, slivered almonds
Wash the strawberries and blueberries and blot dry with paper towels. Slice the strawberries, and combine the fruit in a medium-sized, nonreactive container. Gently stir in the maraschino liqueur and lemon juice, and seal the container; place the nuts in a reclosable plastic bag.
To pack: Store the fruit and nuts in an ice chest, protected from direct contact with ice. Remove one to two hours before serving.
To serve: Divide half of the fruit between 4 glass or plastic wine glasses; sprinkle half of the nuts on top. Repeat layers once more, drizzling any liquid in the container over the fruit.