The idea of a picnic always sounds like fun, but it takes a bit of planning for the reality to live up to the dream. Bottom Line Personal asked Ashley English, author of A Year of Picnics, for her best suggestions to plan a perfect picnic any time of year…
Scout out the location in advance. Note if there’s access to a bathroom and what the terrain is like, especially if you have guests joining you.
Check the weather right before heading out. It’s always good to know what you might be dealing with, and plan accordingly. Bringing along an umbrella or an extra sweater can go far toward ensuring picnic success.
Wear the right shoes. A sprained ankle or a stubbed toe can ruin your entire picnic.
Let go of your expectations, and appreciate the experience for what it is. Don’t let a few ants or raindrops make you lose sight of that. Some of the most memorable experiences occur when things go sideways. Roll with the punches, and the picnic will be more pleasant, both in the here and now and when it’s reflected upon later.
A few more ideas to make your picnic truly memorable…
Get in gear. The only “essential” gear needed on a picnic is something to transport the food. Whether you opt for a classic rattan picnic basket, an upcycled vintage suitcase, an insulated cooler, a backpack or even an apple crate is entirely up to you.
The same goes for the serveware— cups, plates, bowls and flatware can be purchased new or, my preference, sought out at thrift and estate sales or even online sites such as Etsy and eBay. I love using metal and wood utensils for picnicking, but I’m not averse to the occasional bit of ceramic ware or even glass if the destination isn’t particularly far from where you will park your car (the added weight and delicate nature of such materials can make them difficult to carry). Reminder: Bring along sunscreen and bug spray.
Set the stage for your picnic…
For a romantic picnic. What makes a picnic romantic isn’t necessarily the glasses or the flatware. It’s the overall atmosphere—bring along cozy blankets and a cushy pillow (or several). The foods should appeal to both picnickers. If one of you loathes sand, a beach picnic isn’t the best choice. Afraid of heights? No matter how lovely the setting, it is best to avoid a picnic on the edge of a cliff.
For a family/kid-friendly picnic. Bring utensils and dishes that can withstand wear and tear—enamelware is perfect. Include foods that you know kids will enjoy. That doesn’t mean chicken nuggets and apple slices…but this is not the time to make children try pâté or blue cheese.
Go with the season: Any time of year is ideal for picnicking, so long as you dress for the weather and serve foods that exemplify the season—consider chilled soup for warm weather (see my Gazpacho recipe below) and hearty stew in fall, for instance.
Safety always: Make sure that picnic foods are kept at safe temperatures, especially perishable items, regardless of the time of year.
When preparing foods that will be served cold: Let them reach room temperature before storing them in the refrigerator. Then, when you’re ready to head out for your picnic, pack ice or, even better, reusable ice packs into the bottom of the cooler,and place the food containers on top of the ice layer.
Pack any food to be served warm in thermos-type containers, and carry them separately in an insulated bag.
At the picnic: Keep the cooler lid closed whenever you are not getting anything out or putting something into it, and store it in a shady spot.
At home: When the picnic’s over, you will know that leftovers are safe to consume if there is any ice left in your cooler. If the ice has all melted, the food may have spoiled and should not be eaten.
Select the menu: A grazing board is easy to prepare and delicious any time of year. Pack up a medley of fruits, charcuterie, cheeses, nuts, veggies, chips, crackers, spreads and pickles, and perhaps a little something sweet such as cookies, and you’ve got all you need to create a memorable meal outdoors.
For a full summer menu, I love “Fruta Picada,” a Mexican street food of fresh melons topped with a salty/spicy seasoning blend, and a cold veggie and/or meat salad, such as Israeli Couscous Feta & Herb Salad or Chimichurri Chicken Salad. For a cool and refreshing beverage, try Jallab, a popular drink in the Middle East made with pomegranate juice concentrate and a honey simple syrup, and served with golden raisins and pine nuts.
For fall, consider warming, robust foods that fill you up. I love Dijon Mustard Pork Chop Sandwiches, Roasted Root Veggie Chips and Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with a Grape Juice Spritz or a mug of Smoky Chai.
- 3 cloves garlic
- Pinch of coarse sea salt
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, diced
- 1 pound yellow squash or zucchini, diced
- 1 quart organic vegetable juice
- 3 tablespoons white wine, red wine or balsamic vinegar
- Juice of 1 lime
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- A few dashes of hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- Several grinds of black pepper
- 3 pounds fresh tomatoes, diced
- 2 pounds cucumbers, seeded and diced
Optional toppings: Almond slivers…toast points…chopped fresh parsley, cilantro or lemon balm…hot sauce.
- Mince the garlic finely, and then chop a pinch of coarse salt into it. Leave to sit for a few minutes while you prepare the vegetables.
- Warm the olive oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots, bell peppers, squash and prepared garlic, and reduce heat to low. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until the onion is translucent and the vegetables are fragrant and limp.
- Add the vegetable juice, vinegar, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, cumin, salt and black pepper to the pot. Cook for two more minutes.
- Remove from the heat, and set aside for 20 to 30 minutes, until the soup mixture is not hot anymore (warm is OK).
- Working in batches, pour the cooled mixture into a food processor and pulse until there are no big pieces but it is still a bit textured. Transfer to a large bowl.
- Working in batches, pulse the diced tomatoes in the food processor until a similar consistency is achieved, then stir them into the vegetable mixture in the bowl. Stir in the diced cucumbers.
- Cover the bowl, and place in the refrigerator to chill. Gazpacho can be made the night before your picnic. In fact, doing so helps the flavors to “set up” and develop.
To transport the gazpacho, pour it into a sturdy, lidded container or portion out individual servings in advance using small jars, such as half- or full-pint Mason jars, and cover with lids and screw bands. Pack any garnishes separately. Makes eight to 10 servings.