The perfect picnic

By Margi Lenga Kahn

You don’t need a stunning mountain range or cool ocean breezes to enjoy the pleasures of picnicking. A warm, sunny day in St. Louis will do just fine. Whether driving to the Missouri wine country or one of our beautiful parks, or simply heading out to your backyard, a picnic before summer fades will turn an ordinary meal into a memorable occasion to share with good friends and family.

Your picnic fare can be as simple or as complicated as you like. A peanut butter sandwich can become a special treat if it’s prepared on fresh bread with quality peanut or almond butter, quartered or cut into fun shapes with cookie cutters, and wrapped in parchment paper that’s held together with a piece of twine or ribbon. You can place a tablespoon of veggie dip or hummus in old-fashioned cake ice cream cones and fill them with carrot and celery sticks. For dessert serve skewers of fresh cut fruit and everyone’s favorite cookies. Of course, there’s a whole range of other possibilities. You can focus on a more elaborate main course and offer side dishes that don’t require much preparation. For example, invite guests to dip pita chips and fresh cut vegetables into a bowl of white beans that have been pureed with a clove of garlic, olive oil and some vegetable broth to thin the mixture. Serve a poached side of salmon with a cucumber sauce along with fresh bread from your favorite bakery. This can be accompanied by a bowl of cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, strands of fresh basil, and chunks of feta cheese. Dessert can be fruit chunks threaded on liqueur-soaked skewers. Accompany the kabobs with rich chocolate truffles.

You can also replace the standard menu concept with tapas, an assortment of small dishes that, together, make a meal. Consider whole grain salads, cold pastas, bean and vegetable salads, grilled vegetables, and flatbreads with a trio of spreads: tapenade, hummus, and baba ghanoush. Add your favorite chilled chardonnay and you’ve created an elegant meal. Even better, all of these dishes can be prepared the night before.

Now that you’ve got your menu figured out, here are a few tips for packing your picnic basket. If your picnic is part of an all-day excursion, focus on foods that can be assembled entirely at home and packed in individual servings. This will make clean up easy, and you’ll have fewer leftovers to bring home. Sandwiches or wraps, fresh cut vegetables, whole fruits like apples, peaches, or grapes, and cookies for dessert work best for this type of picnic.

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Plan on bringing two separate coolers — one for the food and one for drinks. The fewer times you open your food cooler, the colder your food will stay. Consider freezing a few bottles of water to serve a dual purpose- keeping your foods cool and safe and providing hydration. Speaking of hydration always pack more drinks than you think you’ll need.

Take along a couple of blankets for the ground and a tablecloth to cover a less than perfect picnic table. Disposable plates and plastic utensils make clean up a breeze. If you’re concerned about waste, pack your dinnerware in jumbo zip-lock bags or wrap them in bath towels. Once used, the plates can go back to your house the same way they came. Ditto for eating utensils.

A roll of paper towels and a box of wet-wipes will take care of even the worst mess. As an alternative, cloth napkins and damp kitchen towels that have been packed in a Ziploc bag will do the same job. And, just in case there’s no garbage can in the picnic area be sure to bring along a garbage bag or two that can be securely fastened for the ride home.

Lastly, don’t forget the bug spray.

I’ve included some of my favorite do-ahead picnic recipes below. If you can’t find the time to prepare an entire meal, fill out the menu with your favorite take-out food. The experience of eating outdoors with friends and family is part of what makes picnicking so much fun.

Classic Pan Bagnat

2- 6 oz. cans tuna packed in olive oil

2 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. anchovy paste

1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely minced

1 tbsp. fresh herbs such as thyme, basil, oregano or a mixture

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. capers, drained

Salt and pepper to taste

1- 16 oz. sourdough bread, approximately 19 inches long

2 large romaine lettuce leaves

1- 7.25 oz. jar roasted red peppers, drained and sliced

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 large tomato, thinly sliced

1/2 cup fresh basil

Drain tuna and place it in a medium bowl. Set aside. Make the dressing: Whisk together lemon juice, anchovy paste, garlic clove, and fresh herbs in another small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil until mixture is emulsified. Stir in capers. Season dressing with salt and pepper to taste. Gently toss reserved tuna with 1/4 cup dressing and set aside.

Slice the sourdough bread horizontally. Tear out the soft inside of each section, leaving a 2-inch shell. Drizzle remaining dressing over each bread shell. Place two lettuce leaves on the bottom bread shell. Scatter reserved tuna fish on top of the romaine. Layer the sliced roasted pepper, the onion, and the tomato slices on top of the tuna fish. Scatter basil leaves over tomatoes. Top with remaining bread shell.

Tightly wrap sandwich in foil paper. Place in refrigerator, top with a heavy pan or cans to weigh it down, and keep refrigerated for at least four hours or overnight.

Unwrap sandwich, slice with a serrated knife, and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Rainbow Bean Salad

15 oz. can white kidney beans (also called cannellini beans) drained and rinsed in a colander

3 tbsp. chopped red onion

1 medium green pepper, chopped

1 large or 2 small plum tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 tsp. ground cumin

1/8 – 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Dash hot pepper sauce (optional)

Combine beans, onion, green pepper, tomatoes, and cilantro in a medium bowl. Set aside.In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, garlic, cumin, and cayenne pepper. Gradually whisk in olive oil until dressing is emulsified. Add salt, pepper, and a dash of hot pepper sauce, if using.

Add dressing to bean mixture and stir gently to combine. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and store overnight in the refrigerator. Taste again for seasoning before serving. Makes 4-6 servings.

Israeli Couscous Salad with Tomatoes and Feta Cheese

Dressing:

2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Couscous:

2 tbsp. olive oil, divided

1/2 pound Israeli couscous (available at whole foods in the bulk aisle)

2 cups vegetable stock or broth, heated

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

15 fresh basil leaves layered, rolled, and sliced

Combine vinegar, mustard, and garlic in a small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Season dressing with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add couscous and stir until toasted. Add hot vegetable broth, bring liquid to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered for four minutes. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let stand 10 minutes. Drain couscous in a colander and place in a large serving bowl. Immediately toss couscous with remaining 1 tbsp. olive oil. Mix in tomatoes, feta cheese, and basil. Pour dressing over mixture and fold in gently. Once cooled, cover salad with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Japanese Spinach Salad

1 pound fresh spinach leaves, rinsed

3 tbsp. sesame seeds

2 tbsp. superfine sugar

2 1/2 tbsp. soy sauce

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add spinach and let cook until just wilted, about 30 seconds. Turn spinach out into a colander and rinse with cold water. Once cool, squeeze as much liquid as possible from the spinach.

Chop spinach and place in a small bowl. Set aside. Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add sesame seeds. Stir sesame seeds until toasted. Place the seeds in a small bowl or in a mortar. Crush the seeds and finely ground them. Stir in the sugar and continue to crush the mixture. Add the soy sauce and stir to combine. Combine the sesame-soy mixture with the spinach and mix well. The spinach salad can be prepared one day in advance. Cover salad and refrigerate overnight. Makes four small servings.

Balsamic Marinated Strawberries

1/3 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3 pints fresh strawberries, washed, stemmed, and quartered

4 tbsp. sour cream, stirred

In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water, and balsamic vinegar. Sir with a wooden spoon and bring to a boil. Allow mixture to simmer for 10 minutes over medium heat until reduced and syrupy. Remove pan from heat and allow mixture to cool. Place the strawberries in a medium bowl. Toss with the balsamic mixture. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate strawberries overnight.

Divide mixture between four bowls. Top each serving with a tablespoon of sour cream. Makes 4 servings.

Margi Lenga Kahn, mother of five and grandmother of one, is the Community Relations Coordinator for the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in University City. She also teaches cooking at the Kitchen Conservatory and in private homes. Cooking is a labor of love for Margi, who enjoys creating culinary delights for family and friends.

Please send comments and suggestions to [email protected]