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Fabulous foods that survive the “pack-and-go” of a summer picnic

This is a busy time for us so my days off are few and short in the summer. Whenever possible, we like to be outdoors since we are inside so much. And when I am not fishing, I enjoy cooking outdoors and eating al fresco. Over the years when I wanted to impress my wife with a surprise for her birthday or even a no-occasion date, Lenore loves a picnic!

Picnics are great because the taste of food just seems better when eaten outdoors, and I am especially craving these outings after this long winter and chilly spring. Even if it is on our backyard patio, dining and cooking al fresco is very satisfying.

So how to pack foods that withstand some smashing and squishing in a backpack and that can also be out of refrigeration for a time? Today I am sharing a few of my favorite picnic foods along with some ideas for maintaining quality and freshness.

I borrow some of the old tricks that Moms use to keep lunches cold when kids go to day camp or need to leave them in lockers until lunchtime at school. For example placing a frozen juice container in the lunch bag keeps the things around it cold while melting in time for lunch. So that is a great backpack trick. I will a ginger tea recipe that can be frozen in water bottles and packed with a simple version of the muffaletta style (pre-smashed) sandwiches that backpacks well too.

Then there is the controversial issue of taking mayonnaise to a picnic. I am going on a limb and taking a position. It usually isn’t the mayo at all—in fact is more likely something else, because commercially made mayonnaise has a low pH and therefore acts as a deterrent to microbial growth. As long as all the ingredients including the mayo, starts at least at 40 degrees before mixing together, the finished product is safe to take to a picnic in a cooler. But for the non-believers I have included a French potato salad using vinaigrette, no mayo that we enjoy at a picnic.

Entree salads are also good to take on a picnic. We pack ingredients separately and then mix when we get there. That way the ingredients stay fresh and dressing can be put on the side or blended just before serving whatever seems best at the time. If you have a vegetarian sharing your picnic, when adding meat to a salad, add it after some salad is removed for your guest. I like a cold version of Pasta Primavera. It can be made with or without animal protein, either way between the pasta, the veggies and the cheese we love this hearty salad on a picnic.

Melons are popular picnic foods. Start with them plenty chilled and don’t cut them until you get to the picnic. Watermelon makes for a satisfying sweet dessert and a great thirst quencher after a rigorous valley ball game on the beach. If you want to be more sophisticated with your melons try my watermelon salsa that contains a touch of vinegar, also a retardant to microbial growth. Just remember to wash the rind of melons very well, especially cantaloupe, and chill them before packing them whole in your cooler. Then carve them only when ready to serve, and on really hot days, put leftover cut up melon—if any, back into a cold holding cooler. For other parts of the country where the temperature reaches 90 º and plus, the less time out the better.

Now some people like to take along hot foods, like baked beans. Baked beans are good but for me, if I am cooking out, I prefer starting with the raw product. If it is meat, we take beef, pork or chicken, over fish and seafood. Unless of course you are fishing and get lucky—then there is nothing better than cooking up a fresh catch. Otherwise fish is hard to keep at 32°F, which is the way it should be held. When you plan to cook at the picnic site, use a cooler to pack raw meats separately from the cooler holding RTE foods, that is, “ready to eat” foods. This ensures that meat juices won’t drip into the potato salad. Now hot dogs are already cooked so keep them away from the meat juices also, but definitely keep them cold just like raw meats.

Lastly, remember the food safety basics—good applied when indoors or out. Handwashing, for instance, is the greatest preventative measure we take for food safety. Hiking into the picnic spot or beaching can put you far away from running water let alone hot water. So enters the antibacterial hand gels and even the food handler gloves. Better to use a couple barriers (gel & gloves) when handwashing isn’t available. Watch out for cross-contamination, too. Change the tongs to remove the cooked meats, use fresh cutting board after cutting meats, and checking temperatures of hamburgers with a thermometer are all good. If no thermometer is available, cook till there is no pink and meat juices are clear, not pink.

Applying some simple rules of food safety ensures a great outdoor picnic experience that will last a long time.

SWEET GINGER “T” (HOT OR COLD)
Large knuckle of ginger, cut into thick slices lengthwise
2 TBS to 1/4 cup light brown sugar
Boiling water, about 6-8 cups
Method: Place first amount of sugar and all ginger into 2½ quart pot. Pour over 6-8 cups hot water, depending on the strength you like. Taste and adjust for sugar. Steep at least 5 minutes. Strain out ginger. Enjoy hot or cold. If freezing for backpacking, when cooled completely, using funnel pour into bottles with 1 full inch to spare at the top. Cap and freeze completely. Shake before drinking

FRENCH-STYLE POTATO SALAD WITH TARRAGON VINAIGRETTE
2# Yukon, red bliss, or white potatoes, cooked, and still warm
4 TBS white wine vinegar
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp ground pepper
1 tsp freshly ground coriander
1 TBS Dijon mustard
2 TBS shallots, minced
6 TBS EVOO
2 TBS parsley, minced
1 TBS tarragon leaves, minced
balsamic onions (see recipe)
Method: slice potatoes and layer them in a large bowl, sprinkling them with ½ the vinegar and salt, pepper and coriander as you layer; let stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk remaining vinegar, mustard, and shallots together in a small bowl; whisk in oil until you reach a slight emulsification; pour over potatoes and toss lightly to coat; refrigerate for service.
At service, stir in parsley and tarragon; adjust seasonings; top with balsamic onions and serve.

SALAD PASTA PRIMAVERA (In the style of Spring)
1 bunch asparagus tips, blanch, chill
2 small quarter size zucchini, sliced into coins
1 small summer squash, sliced or cubed
1 cup cut green beans, cooked, al dente, but cooked-color set bright green
1 cup fresh peas, pea pods or pea shoots (blanched Frozen peas work if you really like peas in this)
1# vermicelli, cooked, drained, rinsed, chilled (also shells, bow ties, even fettuccini works too) 2 TBS EVOO
2 TBS heavy cream
1 TBS wine vinegar
¼ cup chopped It parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced to paste
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch Scallions, chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup toasted pinenuts
Parmesan cheese, shaved over all for garnish
Protein add-ins: Julienne sliced ham, genoa salami, even turkey breast.
Method: Prepare vegetables and set aside separately to chill thoroughly.
Cook pasta slightly more al dente and chill.

Watermelon Salsa
1 watermelon, seeded, or other melon, diced
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1 red onion, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
1 lime juiced
Method: combine ingredients and adjust seasonings with sea salt, coriander and pepper; chill for service.
Serve as a condiment with grilled steak.


At the farm, a chefs perspective—

Undoubtedly by now people who know me, have heard me say that purchasing from the local farms whenever possible is the best start to a good meal. From my roots in Cleveland’s Friday market and throughout my career I gravitated to the citys farmers markets, docks, dairies and culinary artisans for my ingredients. So it stands to reason that when CB decided to create its own farmers market I wanted to be involved. My roles have been to source out a variety of products from vendors in our own food shed of Oregon and Washington, and invite them to participate. In the process, I became increasingly in touch how these personal connections with food producers of my ingredients are central to my cooking.

I am pretty sure most chefs feel the same and yet with the distance from the valley to the coast, there is little opportunity here to buy directly from the source. Instead efforts often dead-end with the reality that little volumes don’t warrant the farmers cost to drive it here. That is why the market committee approached the farmers with what we hoped would make their participation more attractive to them. After lots of phone calls to the farms and considerable dialog with our local restaurants and businesses we were encouraged that our model could work. Chefs were very interested in the opportunity to buy directly from a weekly source for the summer. And the farmers and producers were definitely intrigued with the prospect of increasing their sales. The market committee held an initial “meet and greet” event where chefs and producers got together and the collaboration started. The market vendors are set to deliver business owner’s orders before the market starts every Tuesday, with plenty of product for the general sales to the public from 2-6. During the process, we learned that farmers sometimes shy away from new markets altogether, until the market is a year or two old. We think the collaborative helped us put together a nice diverse group for the first market.

You might think that is all there is to it, but we are following the Oregon state advisory on putting together a successful farmers market that suggests some type of quality assurance be in place. A farm or site visit is recommended to ensure that what is brought to market is actually produced at the source by the applicant. Aside from getting business licenses and vendor certifications, we set out to meet our vendors where they work.

A site visit to a farm, ranch or artisan producer not only tells me allot about the products and producers, but it also helps me unite and connect the circle with what I do. I am not sure if people actually think much about where food comes from. In fact as a city dweller all my life, I have been guilty of not giving it a second thought myself. This opportunity makes me hope I never forget the “who, when, and where” of my ingredients.

In every case, the story behind the food product and its cycle of growth to harvest brought out in me some of the passion I saw in the producers. In some way I imagine it must have been the way my grandmother purchased ingredients in her Italian village. To know the actual person(s), who grew the potatoes or whatever, makes my task to prepare them a bit more real. At the risk of romanticizing something that is truly hard work, I must say that Lenore and I came away from farm visits wishing we had just a little more land to raise a chicken, pig, cow or two. The farmers and producers welcomed us with open hospitality. We saw and felt their heart-warming pride in their contributions to this life.

One rancher that I have to mention is Lance Waldron and his wife Tammi Lesh of Lance Farm Vittles. Theirs is a third-generation family farm on the north coast of Oregon not far from here. Lance’s grandfather bought the farm in the 40’s with milking and beef cows only. Lance grew up there and by the time he was in high school they had added pigs and started selling to neighbors. Four years ago they added a small flock of Icelandic sheep to the mix, and about then they decided to sell frozen beef, lamb and pork at local farmers markets. Lance told me they had such great community support that pretty soon they added whole fryers to their product list.

I was most impressed with the quality of the pasture-raised beef and sheep because they are raised on a diet of grass and hay, and never any grain. After three weeks in a homemade brooder, the chicks on this farm move to a “predator proof” and moveable pen out in a grassy field behind the farmhouse. The pen is moved at least once a day so chicks have fresh grass, bugs, worms, etc. all the while they give back good quality nitrogen into the grass. They are also fed a natural vegetable protein based poultry food from the local feed store that augments the grass. Water is available like drip irrigation from a big bucket on top of the pen.

The pigs there also receive a natural vegetable protein based diet of barley vegetable compost along with fresh grass during summer. When we were there, they were fed the leftover milk from the dairy cows, called colostrum’s, which is the first milk after a cow has a calf. Apparently after a cow births, her milk has a strong flavor and fat molecules so large it mucks up the equipment at the dairy. Since this first milk, five to ten milkings worth, isn’t popular with humans either, after the calves get their share, the rest goes to the pigs! We watched in amazement while they poured several gallons of this sweet creamy liquid into the pig troughs. The pigs rejoiced and the smell for me was intoxicatingly rich, creamy and sweet, the way fresh milk should smell.
What a treat for us to see this well-run family ranch-farm and get to know the working-owners. For me, the phrase that kept going through my mind is one that I picked up at that software company I used to work with, you know, “garbage in, garbage out.” The feed on this ranch was anything but garbage, and for sure the resulting food products promise to be top of the line. I kept imagining working with the pinkish white fine-grained pork meat from those cream fed pigs.
These are just a few of the valuable outcomes for me after these visits. The farm and my stove are connected in a way that my appreciation for food ingredients I use takes me to a higher level of conscience. I no longer clean my walk-in refrigerator and dump spoiled food without truly feeling it. I know spoiled food happens, but now that I genuinely appreciate my ingredients. You might say I cook with more conscience now. It literally hurts when a bag of parsley or a piece of cheese goes bad due to my neglect or oversight. I have watched Lenore pat the noses of the Jersey cows in the pasture, and yet I do not imagine them a cute pet, but rather the proud example of their breed that are being raised sustainably for market. So for me, a food source with such conscience is just a required segment of the circle that continues in my kitchen.
My recipe today is one that utilizes our very first crop from our little backyard pea patch. We call it our ode to the New Radish Slaw, made with the radishes you either just picked yourself or ones you purchase from CB Tuesday market. Enjoy.

ODE TO THE NEW RADISH SLAW
2 bunches fresh radish, julienne or cut into matchstick pieces
1 handful micro radish greens* (optional)
1 bunch baby carrots with tops, julienne 1 handful new cilantro leaves only, chopped
1 skinny bunch chives, minced
2 TBS sherry vinegar
4 TBS EVOO
TT sea salt, ground coriander, ground pepper
1-2 tsp sugar, to taste, optional Method: Clean garden fresh radishes under cool running water to remove all the dirt; cut off the green tops. (Note we don’t even bother to take off the root once they are well cleaned as these roots are still so tender and sweet).
Do the same with the baby carrots, removing tops; clean well so no need to peel. Add radish micro greens (if available), cilantro, and chive; toss with sherry vinegar, followed by EVOO and seasonings. Taste and adjust with a tiny bit of sugar if it needs it. Serve immediately or chill for service.

*If you plant radishes from seed a couple weeks apart you will also have plenty of micro radish greens to add to the salad That would be just the sprouts of the when they are about 2 inches high.