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

Jun 15th, 2008

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.