The Art of the Picnic

There’s something about a picnic that can elevate even the lowly balogna and cheese sandwich to gourmet status, well, at least make it seem more special than it really is. Foods taste different outdoors too, not to mention the fact that when you’re off on a picnic, you are with people you choose to be with.

There are different types of picnics. Lounging on a good blanket on the lawn, or in a meadow, or on a riverbed, or at a concert doesn’t have a hold on the idea of picnicking. A picnic, by definition, is any meal eaten out of doors, generally on an excursion.

If you’re anything like me, you might prefer those lovely fall days on which to picnic. Indian summer is a great time for picnicking! The first frost has passed, coloring the leaves, and suppressing the ants to the underground, but the sun shines bright, warming the ground and the air for what could well be the nicest time of year for a picnic. But I’m not selling Indian summer picnics. I’m touting the picnic as a do-ahead-so-you-can-enjoy-yourself meal. For two or twenty, the picnic has its roots in the prepare and transport methodology. You can prepare your picnic the day before, instead of the morning of and thoroughly enjoy your day. Most picnic food is actually better if it’s leftover. Envision a picnic: a meal eaten outdoors on a blanket in the grass, under a shady tree perhaps, sans ants.

Eating on the picnic table in the backyard of your home (or somebody else’s home) is perhaps the most popular form of the picnic. The fare tends to be more traditional, with more of everything. Throw in whatever the neighbors bring and your heading towards a block party or a pot luck. Nevermind; if you’re eating all of those wonderful foods outside, it’s still a form of the picnic.

Food safety is of the utmost importance when picnicking. As much as it gets a bad rap, store-bought mayonnaise contains pasteurized eggs and enough salt and lemon juice or vinegar that it actually inhibits bacterial growth. Low-acid foods in picnic dishes such as potatoes, chicken, and ham are much more susceptible to bacterial growth than the mayonnaise itself. It’s the foods that breed bacteria, not the mayonnaise. It’s easy to deal with ants and other little picnic pests you can see; the tough ones to avoid are the invisible organisms that can make you sick. Here are some guidelines for packing and transporting picnic foods safely.

The bugs that cause food poisoning thrive at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. Don’t leave prepared foods in that danger zone more than two hours. When the outdoor temperature rises above 90 degrees, the time limit is one hour. Discard any leftovers or any questionable foods. Wait until just before leaving home to pack chilled foods in an insulated cooler, and make sure you have plenty of ice or ice packs to surround them. Containers of frozen juice or juice concentrate can help keep other foods cold.

Take two coolers, one for drinks, the other for perishable foods. That way, warm air won’t reach the perishables each time someone reaches for a beverage.

In hot weather, keep the cooler in the air-conditioned passenger compartment of the car, not in the trunk. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade.

Wash your hands before and after handling food. Soap and hot water are ideal, but bring along a jug of water and paper towels in case none are available at the picnic site. Disposable moist towelettes are an easy-to-carry option.

Wrap uncooked chicken and meats in separate tightly sealed bags or containers, and put them in the bottom of the cooler. Cook them within one hour of leaving home.

When grilling, use a meat thermometer to be sure meats and poultry reach a safe temperature. Cook chicken breasts to 170 degrees Fahrenheit; other poultry to 180 degrees Fahrenheit; beef, lamb, and veal steaks and roasts to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for medium-rare or 160 degrees Fahrenheit. for medium doneness.

Make your picnic/Memorial Day weekend/4th of July memorable for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

Serving pieces (pocket knife, spoons, corkscrew, etc.) utensils, napkins (preferably cloth for less litter), cups, cutting board (one without feet: saves space and you can use both sides), plates, and trash bags are de rigueur. Tow everything in a gorgeous fabric-lined picnic basket to add a level of sophistication to the event. Or use any large basket or bag. Just make sure it’s big enough to carry the food and enough cold packs or zipper bags filled with ice to keep food cold.

Keep your picnic simple or elaborate, but definitely safe, and FUN!

Turkey, Jarlsburg and olive salad sandwiches

Inspired by those expensive but addictive sandwiches from those ubiquitous boulangiers around the country

Plan ahead, these pressed sandwiches need to be weighted down for at least 8 hours

2/3  cup green olives
1/4 cup black olives
7 ounces canned or thawed frozen artichoke hearts (not bottled and marinated)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 crushed garlic clove
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
Pinch of kosher salt
Black peppercorns in a pepper mill
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 white sandwich rolls
8 ounces white turkey meat, sliced
8 ounces Jarlsburg or Aged-Swiss cheese, sliced
Extra Virgin olive oil or mayonnaise

Coarsely chop the olives and quarter the artichoke hearts, transferring to a bowl

Mix vinegar, garlic, basil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil. Pour the marinade over the vegetables and leave covered at room temperature for 30 minutes

Split the rolls. Brush the interior of the tops with Extra virgin olive oil (or mayonnaise). Divide the sliced turkey and cheese on bottom half. Top with olive salad and cover with top half of roll. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then in foil. Place the sandwiches on a half sheet pan or tray platter with some heavy cans on top to weight down on the sandwiches. Refrigerate under the weight 8 hours or up to 24

Unwrap the foil from the pressed sandwiches and distribute. Serve with kettle-cooked potato chips and cold beverages

5 for Cinco de Mayo: Quesadillas

Cinco de Mayo is Thursday and while it is typically a low-key event at home with family in Mexico, we like to turn the party whenever possible; to wit: A week of easy and delicious dishes and drinks to share with friends and family

Day 2: Quesadillas

Quesadillas are easy to prepare and can be customized from the very simple and sublime to the very rich and deluxe. Let your budget be your guide

Over the years I have found that a combination of melting cheeses is more flavorful than sticking with just one, typically jack

8 ounces of cheese will shred into 2 cups … i.e. these quesadillas bring the cheese!

4 10-inch or 8 6-inch flour tortillas
Canola oil, for the pan
1/3 cup sliced pickled jalapenos, minced
8 ounces Chihuahua cheese, shredded
8 ounces Provolone cheese, shredded
2 teaspoons paprika
Coarse grey sea salt
Cooked protein of your choice, pulled: chicken, steak, shrimp, duck

Set oven rack to center position and heat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush a half sheet pan generously with oil

Heat the tortillas briefly over a gas flame or in batches of 3 in the microwave, stacking them as they finish to keep them warm

Combine the minced jalapeno, cheeses and paprika together in a medium bowl. Divide the cheese mixture evenly among the tortillas, leaving a 1-inch border, and fold in half (add the cooked protein of your choice before folding if using)

Arrange the quesadillas on the oiled sheet pan and bake for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and flip the quesadillas over; return to the oven and bake another 5 to 7 minutes until hot and melty

Remove from the oven and press with a spatula before sprinkling lightly with salt

5 for Cinco de Mayo – Margaritas

5 for Cinco de Mayo
Cinco de Mayo is Thursday and even though most people in Mexico and Mexican-Americans will keep it low-key at home with their family, leave it to us Americans to turn any event into a party for the ages; to wit: A week of easy and delicious dishes and drinks to share with friends and family
Day 1 The Margarita
Originally created by Texas socialite Margarita Sames in 1948
1 ounce orange liqueur
2 ounces silver tequila
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
Fresh slices or wedges of lime
Coarse grey sea salt, for the glass, optional
Lime slices or wedges, for garnishing
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the orange liqueur, silver tequila and lime juice. Replace the lid of the shaker and set aside
To salt the rim of your glass (optional but highly recommended):
Fill a small plate with 1/3 cup kosher or sea salt. Fill a second small plate with 1/4 cup orange liqueur. Turn a margarita glass over and press into the orange liqueur and then press the moistened rim into the salt. Turn the glass upright and fill with ice
Shake the chilled cocktail shaker vigorously for 30 seconds or until the cocktail shaker is covered in a white frost
Strain the Margarita into the prepared glass and garnish with a slice or wedge of lime