After following social distancing guidelines for several months, many of us are ready to rekindle social ties and enjoy the fellowship of a shared meal with our friends and extended family in a safe manner. While we’re ready to give socializing a whirl, we may not yet be ready to have a lot of people in our homes, so what’s the solution? There is a particular style of meal that has been around since the very beginning of time, has stood the test of time, and whose time has come again — the picnic!
The word “picnic” conjures different mental images. The first picture that comes to mind might be a romantic version of the “perfect” picnic. I came across a 1980s photograph of England’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana with William and Harry when they were little boys, all impeccably dressed in equestrian gear with their glossy horses in the background and a proper wicker British picnic hamper in the foreground. I doubt anyone reading this is actually a British royal and has a staff to groom your horses, prepare your food, pack your hamper, scout the most gorgeous spot, or style your picnic photos. That being the case, thankfully quite a few different kinds of picnics don’t require a staff to make them happen.
The word picnic basically conveys a meal eaten outside. So many fun occasions meet picnicking criteria. A lux tailgate at the Carolina Cup with silver, china, flowers, and an elegant menu is a picnic just as much as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich eaten with potato chips beside your favorite secret waterfall in the mountains. Between those two extreme examples lies a whole world of fun and creative outings. The key factors that help determine what sort of menu to have at a picnic and what the picnic will look like are the distance away from refrigeration, how far the supplies need to be carried, and the time of year.
Certainly, the picnic that provides the greatest choice of menu and the greatest ease of setup is the picnic that happens in your own backyard. You may think of this as simply eating lunch or dinner outside but, hey, it’s a picnic. When you’re only steps from your kitchen, the world is wide open as to what to serve and on what to serve it. In addition to refrigeration, other kitchen appliances and maybe even an outdoor grill are available at home, so truly anything from the most elegant roast to a humble hamburger is a possibility. The basic rule of thumb is that the farther you go from refrigeration and the farther you have to carry your supplies, the simpler and the safer the menu becomes … which is why you end up eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the middle of a hike — it won’t hurt you if it has gotten a bit warm and it still tastes good even if it’s been smooshed around in a backpack for several hours.
The same can’t really be said for some other items that often come to mind when thinking of an outdoor menu, such as chicken salad, potato salad, pimento cheese, or any of the other yummy foods that involve mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is a notoriously problematic ingredient for warm weather unless a cooler is present.
Now that we know a picnic is as close as the other side of our backdoor, it’s time to start planning a small, fun occasion. Here are four late summer or early fall picnics; the menus can be mixed and matched, and reading through these will hopefully send you off on your own trail of great ideas.
Picnic 1: The Great Backyard Classic
Since the vast majority of us haven’t socialized for a while now and simply going to the grocery store has been almost as hair-raising as contemplating eating warm mayonnaise, let’s begin with a very simple occasion. The classic backyard cookout is a great place to start, even if you are only including your immediate family or a handful of close friends. What it lacks in exotic locale it makes up for in ease of preparation and proximity to the kitchen and the comforts of home.
Panzanella with Sweet Peppers
Corn on the Cob
Brownies and Ice Cream
One of the many nice aspects of this menu is the number of items that can be done ahead of time. Also, it’s not so much a menu as it is an outline. The burgers can be regular burgers or they can have some yummy ingredients like bacon and blue cheese mixed in; the corn can be boiled and buttered or it can be upgraded with a rub and cooked on the grill with the burgers. The panzanella ingredients can be added to or subtracted from, and different dressings can take it in numerous directions. Even the brownies and ice cream can be varied. There’s the classic brownie and vanilla ice cream combo, turtle brownie with caramel ice cream, or brownie with mint icing and peppermint ice cream. Or, how about the all brownie and ice cream menu — I think we’re on to something!
Panzanella with Sweet Peppers
One each yellow, orange, and red bell pepper, cut into large diced pieces
One half medium red onion, cut into very thin slices
One seedless cucumber, cut into large diced pieces
Two packages prepared croutons (Trader Joe’s) or 2 cups homemade
One container plain or marinated baby mozzarella balls (Trader Joe’s)
10 basil leaves
Combine all of the ingredients in a large bowl, salt to taste, and dress with Garlic Expressions dressing or 1/2 cup lemon vinaigrette. Garnish with extra basil leaves. Courtesy of Trenholm Hardison. Serves 8 to 10
Picnic 2: By the Seaside
Now that we are getting our entertaining sea legs back under us, let’s head towards the sea. A fun place for a picnic is beside water, whether it’s at the lake, the beach, or the pool. This is another simple menu that is fun on a boat, a dock, or a shoreline. The menu is based on the perennial favorite Beaufort Stew, or Lowcountry Boil. While an actual Lowcountry Boil makes a great party menu for a crowd, the following recipe takes those well-known ingredients and rearranges them into a menu that is more suited for a smaller gathering. Because of the shrimp, this picnic will require a cooler — just put the shrimp on top of the drinks.
German Potato Salad — potatoes, onions, sausage (bacon is the traditional ingredient but we’re sticking to deconstructed Beaufort Stew)
Shrimp Salad with corn, onions, and Old Bay Dressing
Modified German Potato Salad and Shrimp Salad
2 pounds potatoes
1 pound smoked sausage links
2 large onions, halved
4 ears of corn
2 pounds of shrimp
1/2 cup Old Bay seasoning
Start with Lowcountry Boil. Fill a large stockpot halfway with water, add the Old Bay and a dash of salt, and bring to a boil. Add the potatoes, bring back to a boil, and cook 5 minutes, or longer for large potatoes. Add the onions and sausage, bring back to a boil, and cook 15 minutes. Add the corn, bring back to a boil, and cook until the potatoes are done. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp float to the top — about 3 minutes. Drain and discard the liquid.
Slice the potatoes and sausage and dice one onion. Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and fry the sausage and onion until slightly brown. Add 1/4 cup white vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Add the sliced potatoes and 1 tablespoon chopped parsley and mix carefully so the potatoes do not completely break up. This should be refrigerated if stored but is great served at room temperature or warm if freshly made.
Stir 2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning and the juice of one lemon into 1/2 cup of mayonnaise in the bottom of a medium sized bowl. Peel and chop the shrimp, cut the corn off the cob, and dice the remaining onion. Place ingredients in the bowl and toss. This will need to stay in the refrigerator until you leave for the picnic, and then it should stay on ice until lunch is served. Serves 4 to 6
Picnic 3: In the Mountains
When Columbia gets hot, hot, hot, nothing is more refreshing than to head to the mountains where it’s nice and cool. Just the thought of some shady trees and a gurgling stream with diamonds of sunshine reflecting off the ripples in the water makes you feel cooler already. Since you might have to walk a little bit to find that gurgling stream, we’ll make this menu very portable and not so dependent on a lot of ice to keep things cold. Part of the fun of the “big” sandwich is its size. Any sandwich combination that your family enjoys will work.
Rice Salad with Turkey and
“Big” Sandwich with Ham, Salami, and Cheese
Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 pound turkey breast cut into strips
(this can go right into the bowl with the dressing)
3 1/2 to 4 cups cooked rice, cooled
2 medium red and/or yellow bell peppers, cut into strips and halved
1 cup drained water chestnuts
3/4 to 1 cup sliced green onions
Dressing ingredients — combine in a bowl:
Juice and zest of two limes
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup fresh chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
Combine the salad ingredients with the dressing and serve chilled or at room temperature. Serves 8 to 10
A big sandwich is any sandwich you choose to make on an entire baguette or other long bread. For one variation, slice the bread long ways; add oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Add ham slices, salami slices, and cheese slices all the length of the bread, and top with shredded lettuce. The sandwich can be wrapped up and transported whole. When you’re ready to serve, cut the sandwich into 2 to 3 inch pieces. Serves 6
Picnic 4: At the Field
Picture your favorite football tailgate but without the tricked-out trailers or the tents or the furniture — just blankets, food, and happy people. Think of past celebrations of Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or Labor Day, and you’ve got the idea. One of my fondest pre-pandemic picnic memories is the annual N.C. Symphony Fourth of July concert on the grounds of the Chetola Lodge in Blowing Rock. Hundreds of people bring a blanket and a picnic hamper, find a comfortable spot in the grass, and settle in for an evening of patriotic music culminating with a big fireworks display. A lot of visiting takes place between groups with lots of sharing of nibbles here and there.
Pound Cake with Berries
I’m totally in favor of making what you like to make and buying what you don’t. This entire menu could easily be bought, or just some parts of the menu, like the fried chicken, could be bought and the rest made at home.
The subject of drinks could be a whole conversation unto itself. We’re going to stop the conversation here, but I’ll just say that some people have become expert mixologists during quarantine — if that happens to be true of one of your friends, you should absolutely invite them to your picnic. If they can’t come then you will just have to go with the basics: tea, water, and soft drinks, or maybe a nice bottle of wine or quality beer. Whether choosing the beach, the mountains, or your own backyard, remember trash bags, bug spray, and sunscreen, and beware of the last, lonely deviled egg that has been out in the sun for who knows how long.
Eating outside is a special treat, even if the outside happens to be only steps from your house. That just adds an extra element of fun and makes any meal seem like an occasion, so pick a picnic theme, cook as much of it as makes you happy, and enjoy quality time with friends and family in the fresh air.