Picnicking the easy way

Picnic tablecloth

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

As I sat down to write my annual summer picnic column, the sky was threatening yet another bout of torrential rain. But by the next morning, lo and behold, the sun was shining. Ah, St. Louis weather. Still, with at least some of those rainy days behind us, we can finally start planning for one of my favorite summer pastimes: a picnic in the park.

First, the supporting cast: bug spray, a blanket or tablecloth, wet paper towels, a cold beverage, plastic or paper ware, napkins and, at least for me, a vase or mug of fresh flowers.

And now for the food. Because no one wants to spend a beautiful day over a hot stove in the kitchen, here’s my favorite way to create a picnic menu of easy-to-prepare foods that can be made in advance and enjoyed at any temperature. 

My approach involves your guests in the final meal preparation. You prepare all of the components the day before. At the picnic, each guest chooses from among your selections and layers them into a bowl to create their very own meal.  


Here’s how it works:

Start by selecting a base for your feast. Grains such as wheat berries, brown rice, farro, barley, quinoa and bulgur work well. Or you can choose whole grain pasta, soba noodles or Israeli couscous.  You can pick one or two or even three. Prepare the base(s) in advance and store it/them in a portable bowl in your refrigerator for up to two days. When you’re ready to pack your picnic, simply transfer the bowl(s) from your refrigerator to your picnic basket.

For the second layer, offer a vegetable or combination of vegetables that can be served raw, steamed or roasted. Make your decision based on all of the fabulous market-fresh vegetables available this summer. Consider chopped spinach, kale, chard, turnips, radishes, red onions or scallions, grated or sliced beets and fennel, halved green beans or sugar snap peas, chunks of zucchini or summer squash, and whole or halved cherry tomatoes. 

If you steam or roast some or all of the vegetables, toss them with olive oil and coarse kosher salt and be sure to spread them onto a baking sheet to cool before packing them into a container. Like your base, that container goes directly from your refrigerator into your picnic basket. 

If you include raw vegetable sticks for noshing, such as carrot, celery or jicama, pack each variety in a separate container or pint jar.

The third layer of your masterpiece is the protein. Vegetarians might enjoy canned beans (rinse and drain well before using), cubed marinated tofu or tempeh, or some combination of the three.  

For the rest of your group, pick any grilled or broiled meat, poultry or fish, seasoned as you like. If you are bringing knives for your guests, you can offer these proteins in thin slices. If not, just cut them into bite-size pieces. If you happen to have leftovers from last night’s dinner, that will further simplify your preparation.  

And if this feels like too much patchkying for you, other options 

include canned tuna fish or sardines packed in olive oil. Simply open the cans, turn the contents out into a portable container and refrigerate. We tend to forget how delicious these simple foods can be.

You can also offer a cheese option to your guests in lieu of any of the above proteins or as an added garnish. Good options include cubes of cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Swiss. Alternatively, set out small bowls of crumbled feta, Gorgonzola, blue cheese or goat cheese, or a shaker of fresh grated Parmesan cheese. 

The final component of this meal is probably the most important one. It is, to use a fashion metaphor, the accessory that pulls the outfit together. In this case, the accessory is a flavor-packed vinaigrette or a freshly made pesto sauce. Plan to include one or the other, or prepare both and give your guests their choice. Each person drizzles a couple of tablespoons over his or her masterpiece and then tosses everything together.  

For a finishing touch, pass around fresh lemon and lime wedges, a pepper mill and a bottle of good extra virgin olive oil.

There you have it: a fabulous picnic meal!

As an accompaniment, you can bake or pick up a loaf of bread, rolls or a baguette. And if you would like to offer dessert as well, stay with the layering theme and fill pint jars or plastic glasses with assorted fresh-cut fruit or berries. If you want to get more elaborate, layer the fruit with whipped cream or yogurt, dairy or nondairy, and top it off with granola. Or if that seems too complicated, remember that everyone loves a cookie or brownie.

If this picnic fare sounds too easy to be true, it isn’t. So what are you waiting for? Plan a picnic for this weekend!

Directions for preparing the base:

Sauté some aromatics in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. Aromatics can be any combination of chopped onions, garlic, shallots, carrots or bell peppers. Stir in the grain (one cup will be enough for four people) until it glistens with oil. Stir in twice as much warm water, chicken or vegetable broth as you have grain (wheat berries and farro require a 1-to-3 ratio of grain to water).

Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat and let simmer for as little as 15 minutes and as long as 45 minutes. You want the grains to be tender though just a tad chewy. Don’t be afraid to peak under the lid. You won’t ruin anything. If most of the water has been absorbed and your grain is still not tender, add some more warm liquid and continue to simmer. (Note: After sautéing the aromatics, you can also follow the directions printed on the package.)

When just tender, turn your cooked grain into a strainer over your sink to drain any excess liquid. Then turn the grain onto a baking sheet, spreading it out across the pan to cool. Once cool, transfer the grain to a large plastic bowl, drizzle it with olive oil and season it with your favorite spices. Options can include anything from salt and pepper to more assertive spices such as ground cumin, curry powder or cayenne pepper. Stir everything together well and taste for seasoning. 

When it tastes just right, cover the bowl and place it in your refrigerator. 

If you are using pasta, cook it according to package directions. Rinse pasta to remove excess starch. Drain, and then follow the directions given above for cooling and seasoning. Be sure to use enough olive oil to keep the strands of pasta from sticking together. Also, it is a good idea to taste both the grain and pasta for seasoning once it is cold. You may find that it needs additional salt and pepper.

Vinaigrettes and pesto sauces:

All of the recipes below can be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated in plastic containers or small jars. Jars or cubes of pesto sauces may be stored in the freezer. All recipes will make more than enough for four people.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].

Lemony Cumin Vinaigrette

(Pairs best with vegetables, beans, chicken and fish.)


1½ tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. finely minced shallot (optional)

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice

Zest of ½ lemon

½ c. extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add cumin seeds to dry pan and shake occasionally, just until they become aromatic and are lightly toasted. Transfer seeds to a cutting board or a mortar with pestle. Pulverize the seeds. (If using a cutting board, pound the seeds with a meat mallet or the side of a knife, or grind in a spice grinder.)

Transfer seeds to a jar or small bowl. Add shallot (if using), vinegar, lemon juice  and zest. Whisk in olive oil until emulsified, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover bowl, or transfer to a lidded jar. Whisk or shake jar well before serving.

Parsley-Mint Dressing

(Pairs well with everything.)

Makes 1¼ cups


2 bunches flat-leaf parsley

1 cup mint leaves

1 clove garlic

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Place the parsley, mint, garlic, lemon juice, 1-teaspoon salt, some black pepper, and ¼ cup of oil in a blender. Turn blender on low speed, and then quickly turn up to high, pouring in remaining oil. Taste, adding more lemon juice, salt or pepper as needed.

Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette

(Pairs well with everything.)


¼ c. balsamic vinegar

 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard

¼ tsp. Herbs de Provence or dried thyme, or 1 tsp. finely minced fresh thyme leaves

½ c. vegetable oil

2 tbsp. olive oil

Coarse kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Stir together balsamic vinegar, mustard and herbs in a small bowl. 

Whisk in vegetable oil, then whisk in olive oil until emulsified. 

Cover bowl or transfer to a lidded jar. Refrigerate until needed.


Pistachio Pesto Sauce

(Pairs best with chicken, fish, beans and vegetables.)


2/3 c. shelled pistachio nuts

2 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

¼ c. packed fresh basil leaves

¼ c. packed fresh parsley leaves

2½ tbsp. balsamic vinegar

½ c. extra virgin olive oil

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Place nuts and garlic in bowl of food processor with metal blade. Pulse until minced. 

Add basil, parsley, and vinegar; process until almost smooth. Transfer to a small bowl or lidded jar.  Whisk in olive oil and add salt and pepper, to taste. Cover bowl or place lid on jar. Refrigerate until needed. Whisk or  shake before serving.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Sauce

(Pairs well with everything.)


1 (8.5-ounce) jar sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil, drained and oil reserved

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

½ cup fresh basil leaves

½ cup fresh parsley leaves

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

¼ – ½ c. olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.


Place drained sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, black pepper, basil, parsley and 1 tbsp. reserved oil in the food processor or blender. Process until the tomatoes are finely chopped. 

Transfer mixture to a small bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese and enough olive oil to create a pourable consistency (you can also add some tap water, as needed).  Season the pesto with salt and pepper, to taste, and refrigerate.