Everything Tastes Better Outdoors

Picnic season is upon us, so pack up the cooler and blaze a trail to your nearest park, lake, beach or backyard!

By Maggie Oster

Going on a picnic is one of life’s most delectable pleasures, whether it’s a romantic tête-à-tête or a rollicking family affair.

Anytime you combine great food with fresh air and sunshine, you’re bound to have fun.

Have a picnic to celebrate a special occasion, to simply while away a few pleasant afternoon hours or to watch the glorious, changing colors of a setting sun.

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No matter the reason or the season, what’s important is to get into the picnic habit, with its inherent joyful approach to life. 

Oh, The Places We Can Go
Choosing where to have a picnic is part of the adventure. No doubt there are any number of parks, lakes, beaches, state or national forests and many other possibilities near you from which to choose.

Go hiking or skiing and eat by the side of the trail. Buy fresh vegetables at a U-pick farm or a bottle of wine at a local winery and utilize the picnic areas provided for guests. On our farm, impromptu and very informal picnics most often occur in the fields as a break from work. At more relaxed times, our picnics are the endgame for a hike to the creek that runs through the farm or to a wooded promontory overlooking the countryside.  

Of course, a picnic can certainly be in your own backyard, but part of the charm of a picnic is to be at least a bit removed from your most immediate, day-to-day surroundings. Try to think of a picnic as a mini vacation that takes you away from your usual routines. Perhaps you have a gazebo that seldom gets used or maybe there’s a part of the yard with a large, sheltering tree and an old-fashioned picnic table. 

On the Menu
Picnic food? A couple of deli sandwiches or some wine, cheese and bread readily make a picnic. Supermarkets have a huge range of ready-made and prepared foods that can be used for a quick picnic on short notice. 

From there, the edible options are endless, dependent only on your time, energy and pocketbook. Remember, this is supposed to be fun, so, for the most part, aim for simplicity. A few well-made dishes that travel easily should be the goal. Homemade dishes made from fresh  vegetables and fruits, from your own garden or a farmers’ market, bring great flavor, top-notch nutrition and the ultimate satisfaction. 

Spicy Oven-fried Chicken
Choose a high-quality chicken, such as organic or free-range, for this updated, healthy version of an old- fashioned, picnic favorite.  More picnic recipes >>

1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. hot sauce, such as Tabasco
2 cups cornflakes cereal
1/3 cup all-purpose or white whole-wheat flour
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 lbs. chicken parts, skin removed

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil. Set a wire rack on the baking sheet and coat it with nonstick cooking spray.

In a shallow dish, combine the buttermilk, mustard, garlic powder and hot sauce. With a sealable plastic bag and rolling pin or in a food processor, crush and  combine cornflakes cereal, flour, thyme, paprika, salt and pepper. Pour this mixture into another shallow dish. Dip the chicken pieces in the buttermilk mixture, then place one or two pieces at a time in the cornflakes  mixture, rolling to coat. Shake off excess and place on the prepared rack. When all the pieces are on the rack, spray with nonstick cooking spray. Bake the chicken until golden brown and the internal temperature is 165 degrees F, about 40 minutes. Serves 6.

Great Picnic Recipes
Marinated Cherry Tomatoes
This makes even grocery-store tomatoes taste great. 

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil  
3 T. white wine vinegar  
1 T. fresh parsley, minced  
1 tsp. sugar  
1 tsp. salt  
1 to 2 tsp. fresh thyme, oregano, marjoram, basil or rosemary, minced  
1/4 tsp. black pepper  
1 scallion, thinly sliced  
1 garlic clove, minced  
1 lb. cherry tomatoes, sliced in half  

In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients except tomatoes. Place tomatoes in a bowl and pour in the marinade. Stir, then cover. Marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Serves 6.

Pasta, Potatoes and Green Beans with Pesto
The combination of potatoes, pasta and green beans dressed with pesto is a popular one-pot in parts of Italy. At the height of summer, pesto is readily made from fresh basil, but store-bought can be substituted.

8 oz. small, red-skinned or fingerling potatoes, quartered (each potato should weigh about 1 oz.)  
2 tsp. salt  
8 oz. rotini or rigatoni pasta  
8 oz. green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces  
3/4 cup pesto 

Place potatoes in a large pot of water with salt. Cover, put on medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta. Leave uncovered and cook for 5 minutes. Add the green beans. Continue cooking until beans are crisp-tender and the pasta is al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain and put into a bowl; add pesto and toss. Taste and season with salt and pepper as desired. Serves 6. 

Pesto Ingredients  
3 cups fresh basil leaves   
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts, toasted  
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated   
1 to 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped  
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 

Combine nuts, basil, garlic and Parmesan in a food processor and purée until finely chopped. With the machine running, slowly pour the oil through the feed tube and process until smooth. 

Dill and Celery Seed Coleslaw
This German-inspired slaw keeps for two weeks in the refrigerator.  

1 lb. cabbage, shredded  
1 cup green, red and/or yellow bell pepper (whatever combination you prefer and is available), thinly sliced   
1 medium sweet onion, such as Vidalia, cut in half vertically, then thinly sliced  
1/3 cup canola oil  
1/3 cup granulated sugar  
1/4 cup white wine vinegar  
1 tsp. celery seed  
1 tsp. dill weed (fresh or dried, more or less to taste)  
1/2 tsp. salt 

In a large bowl, layer the cabbage, bell pepper and onion. In a saucepan, combine oil, sugar, vinegar, celery seed, dill and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil for 2 minutes. Pour the hot dressing over the vegetables. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. Serves 6.

Blueberry Upside-down Cake
Try substituting other fresh berries in this easy-to-make dessert. 

Topping Ingredients  
3 T. butter  
1/2 cup packed, light or dark brown sugar  
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon  
3 cup fresh blueberries  
1 T. lemon juice  batter ingredients 
2 cups white whole-wheat flour  
2 tsp. baking powder  
1/4 tsp. salt  
4 T. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature  
1/2 cup granulated sugar  
2 large eggs  
1 tsp. lemon peel, freshly grated   
1 tsp. vanilla extract  
1/2 cup milk 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  To make the topping, melt the 3 tablespoons of butter in a 9-inch, round cake pan, tilting to evenly coat the bottom. Stir in the brown sugar and cinnamon. Add the blueberries, spreading evenly. Sprinkle with the lemon juice. To make the batter, combine flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. In a large mixing bowl, cream the 4 tablespoons butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, lemon peel and vanilla, and beat until smooth. Add half the flour mixture and stir until combined, then add the milk, stirring until smooth. Add the remaining flour and stir just until the batter is evenly moist. Pour the batter over the fruit in the cake pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes in the pan. Invert onto a serving platter and let sit for 1 minute before removing the pan. Scrape any fruit that remains in the pan onto the cake. Serves 6.

Picnic Essentials
Meal-planning tips: 

  • Avoid foods that require last-minute preparation. The goal is to be relaxed, not frantic. 
  • Skip foods with drippy sauces or sauces that change consistency when they’re cold.
  • Finger foods are always a success at picnics. 
  • Except for the French sandwich pan bagnat, which means “wet bread,” don’t pre-assemble sandwiches. Place meats, cheese, vegetables and condiments in separate  plastic bags or containers to assemble when ready to eat.  
  • Avoid or minimize dairy- or mayonnaise-based  dishes as these are more difficult to keep properly chilled to prevent spoiling. Instead, go for vinegar-based dishes as they stay fresh longer and the flavor intensifies with time.
  • Experiment with different beverages. There are many different bottled juices, teas and waters available; or treat yourself to homemade lemonade. Wine or champagne is delightful, but not if it’s illegal to have at your picnic spot. 
  • Include fresh fruit in your picnic basket as a  nourishing, refreshing snack or dessert.

Transporting and Storage 

  • Choose a cooler with high-quality thermal insulation. Check out the newer, soft-sided coolers that have excellent insulating properties. 
  • Reusable, gel ice packs are preferable to loose ice as the packs eliminate the worry of food getting wet from melting ice. 
  • Pre-chill the cooler with a few gel ice packs. Place food on top of these, moving it directly from the refrigerator into the cooler just before leaving home. Don’t place warm food in the cooler; it should already be chilled if it’s to be eaten chilled.
  • Pack food and beverages in separate coolers if you’ll be getting drinks out throughout the day; the more often the cooler is opened, the more likely food will warm up. 
  • Place food in unbreakable, air-tight containers. 
  • Arrange food in the cooler so that the items you’ll be eating first are on top.
  • Pack the cooler as full as possible. Consider getting coolers in several different sizes. 
  • Transport the cooler on the floor in the backseat of the car rather than in the trunk and keep it in the shade during your picnic. 
  • Select a sturdy, easy-to-carry basket for transporting plates, glasses, utensils, napkins, bottle openers and other picnic paraphernalia. 

At Your Service
To be ready for a picnic at a moment’s notice, have at least a few of the following items in a picnic basket stored in a closet:  

  • Go Victorian-elaborate with fine linens, china and silver or take an uncomplicated tack with inexpensive pottery or plastic plates, glassware and stainless-steel utensils. Either way, you’ve chosen “green” alternatives to throw-aways. Scout yard sales or flea markets and mix and match. 
  • Cloth napkins are another green choice.
  • Spill-proof salt and pepper shakers eliminate waste and mess. 
  • Bottle opener and corkscrew. 
  • Cutting board and knife. 

For Your Comfort and Convenience
To help remember everything, make a list and check off items as they’re packed. Save the list and later add items that you wished you’d taken. 

  • Picnic blanket or tablecloth. If practicality is an issue, consider a vinyl-coated tablecloth. 
  • Cushions, pillows or folding stools or chairs, depending on the occasion and personal choice. 
  • A folding picnic table might be a luxury for some, but a necessity for others.
  • Insect repellent and sunscreen are indispensable to health, safety and a pleasurable picnic. Also consider including a poison-ivy treatment such as Technu (www.teclabsinc.com).  
  • Games, books, Frisbees, balls and a badminton or croquet set.

For Cleanup 

  • Wet washcloths in a zip-top, plastic bag for washing fingers and faces both before and after eating.
  • Cloth towels for drying hands and faces, mopping up any spills, and wrapping up dirty dishes. 
  • Trash bags for collecting trash so that it can be deposited in the proper receptacle. 

For Your Safety 

  • Do not leave food out of a cooler for longer than two hours and for only one hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees F.  
  • If taking raw fish, poultry or meats for cooking at your picnic destination, wrap securely to prevent juices from cross-contaminating prepared food and pack with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Also, take a food thermometer to be sure that the food reaches a safe internal temperature.  
  • Bring plenty of liquids, especially water, to keep everyone hydrated.
  • If kids are along on the picnic, be aware of any nearby hazards, such as busy roads, deep water or cliffs.  
  • Stay on the beaten path and check the rules and regulations for the area you’re visiting.
  • Keep a first-aid kit in the car. 

About the Author:  Maggie Oster writes about and photographs food and gardens from the family farm in southern Indiana, where she continues her family’s tradition of frequent, spontaneous picnics

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