No matter how hot it is, Independence Day is a holiday best celebrated outside. But a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a picnic doesn’t exactly feel special, does it?
Eating outside is a ritual of summer, but it’s easy to fall into a rut with the same old sandwiches, chips and fruit salads that belong in everyday school lunch boxes, not on a blanket on the Long Center for the Performing Arts lawn overlooking our vibrant city or on a shaded lounge chair next to the massive water slides at Schlitterbahn.
“Picnics are about place,” writes British author Annie Bell in her new book, “The Picnic Cookbook” (Kyle, $19.99), a cookbook and guide to picnicking that is a little posh for my family’s eating habits but spot-on in its assessment of why eating in unexpected places is worth the effort.
Bell writes: “It is the magic seasoning and surprise and unpredictability that leads to having fun that makes them potentially some of the most memorable dining experiences.”
However, getting out of the dining room to eat means we leave our kitchens behind, which is where we start to get outside our comfort zones. No stove to reheat the main dish, no refrigerator to keep the drinks cold, no dishwasher to clean the plates and utensils, no pantry to grab more plastic zip-top bags for leftovers.
It’s no wonder most of us just stick to ham-and-cheese sandwiches, apples and peanut butter crackers.
I’ve been inspired to think a little more creatively by two recent picnics, one a contest at Schlitterbahn that featured three area chefs competing for the best ice chest picnic dishes, and another a weekly get-together at the Austin Symphony’s free concerts in the park orchestrated by an Austinite who simply loves food and good company.
Professional chefs — Josh Watkins of the Carillon, David Gilbert of San Antonio’s soon-to-open Tuk Tuk Taproom and Matthew Boutte of the Huisache Grill in New Braunfels — showed off their skills at the May event at the famed New Braunfels waterpark (park officials named a three-way tie in the contest, which was sponsored by H-E-B). The weekly picnics at the Long Center, hosted by local food enthusiast and tech worker Darla Alvarez, is likely the most extravagant picnic that you’ll find in Austin, especially considering that she gathers her friends on Sunday evenings — no matter the temperature — for every concert during the summer series.
Unlike most of us who eat al fresco just a few times a year, Alvarez has become a picnicking pro, building up an inventory of blankets, 17-inch-high portable tables, insulated wraps for bottles of champagne and plastic wine glasses and metal holders so guests don’t spill their sparkling rosé.
She keeps a stash of napkins, plastic utensils and small paper plates in a bag, which makes pre-picnic prep a little easier, but Alvarez says she enjoys the process of spending several hours working on a handful of dishes, including salads and appetizers, as well as cheese plates and desserts.
Her guests, a combination of friends from Yelp and her Meetup.com wine tasting group, also bring dishes to share, so every Sunday night from June through August, when the band starts to play, there’s an enviable spread of food that keeps people lingering until almost sunset and draws onlookers, some of whom are brave enough to spark up a conversation and get an invitation to the table.
“We always take on strays,” Alvarez says.
Here are some tips from these picnicking experts on how to improve your own outdoor feast this summer.
Beyond the PB&J
Sandwiches are so ubiquitous because they are easy to customize for personal preferences and even easier to pack, carry and eat.
Splurging on good bread will make even the most basic sandwich feel a little more special, and ciabatta is a good choice because it holds up to moisture slightly better than traditional slices of loaf bread.
Tortillas or wraps will hold out-of-the-ordinary sandwich ingredients, such as a Greek salad with hummus or tabbouleh, better than bread, and if you’re looking for an easy gluten-free option, consider spring rolls made with thin sheets of rice paper.
Dried rice paper has to be soaked in warm water to soften, but once you roll up a mixture of greens, vegetables and even a grilled or poached protein like shrimp or chicken, the spring roll will stay moist in a closed container until lunchtime.
Salads gone wild
Even though mayonnaise-based salads aren’t as dangerous as we’ve been brought up to think they are (see Mayo Myth sidebar), they are often a little on the heavy side on these hot summer afternoons.
Vinaigrette-based salads made with pasta, couscous, quinoa, legumes or lettuce are a filling distraction from sandwiches and salty snacks, but you’ll need to remember to bring forks and small plates in order to serve them.
Fruit salads are a tried-and-true picnic staple, and the key to keeping them interesting is one unexpected ingredient, such as watermelon with feta or mint, or pineapple and papaya salad with pieces of pickled ginger, like the one San Antonio chef David Gilbert made for the Schlitterbahn event.
Picnic on the run
I might dream about the kind of glamorous (and equally laborious) picnics that Bell writes about in her book, but more often than not, our family takes the opposite approach: The no-prep picnic made with whatever we can grab at the grocery store en route to the beach, river or park.
Carillon chef Josh Watkins took this deconstructed picnic approach for his contribution to the chef contest, serving a cheese and meat plate with more than half a dozen kinds of nibble-worthy ingredients: olives, mozzarella, charcuterie meats, cornichons and pickled shallots, hummus, breads, crisps and crackers.
“When you’re traveling with family, you want to do as little as possible when you finally get there,” Watkins says. Chefs rely on mise en place in the kitchen, and picnickers can do the same by packing all the components of a meal separately and then putting them in their place, as the French culinary term implies.
Even everyday grocery stores have olive bars, high-end cheeses, cured meats and fancy crackers and nuts, and you’d be surprised how filling this kind of lunch set-up can be.
Keeping things cool
It would be hard to create a gourmet spread entirely of foods that did not need any kind of cooling, so make sure you have reliable, leak-resistant ice chests or coolers that will both carry your food, keep it cool and maybe act as a last-minute table if all the picnic tables at the park are taken.
You can freeze juice boxes (or Capri Suns), which will help keep the cooler cold and turn into slushies as they melt. Freezing also works for some kinds of fruit (grapes, mangoes, pineapples, berries, strawberries) but not so great for others (apples).
Don’t skimp on the amount of ice you buy. It will likely melt faster than you expect, especially if you drain the cooler water as it collects through the day. (The cold water keeps the remaining ice cubes from melting as quickly as they would if surrounded by air.)
It’s tricky to keep chocolate from melting or getting rock hard when packed on ice, so consider bringing brownies, cookies or other baked goods that won’t melt and that don’t have to be refrigerated.
For a healthy sweet treat on the run that won’t melt by the time you finish lunch, pick up a few granola bars at the store that you can crumble into cups of Greek yogurt.
The Mayo Myth
Contrary to food safety lore, store-bought mayonnaise at room temperature will not make you sick.
For decades, the mayonnaise industry has been fighting the myth that the popular salad dressing and sandwich spread will spoil your picnic because it contains eggs, and eggs sometimes contain salmonella.
Homemade mayonnaise does, in fact, contain eggs and can be considered a hazard at potlucks, picnics and other outdoor meals, but mayonnaise manufacturers use pasteurized eggs, as well as vinegar, lemon juice and salt, to prevent the growth of bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that any sickness from mayo-based salads is likely from cross-contamination with the other ingredients in the dish, particularly proteins like chicken or tuna, and how they are handled during preparation, not from the mayonnaise. Some studies have even shown that the acidic nature of store-bought mayonnaise will slow the rate of spoilage.
You’re more likely to get sick from mishandled meats, improperly washed utensils or cutting boards or even fruits that can carry bacteria on their skin or rind, such as melons.
A note about melons: Cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon rinds are harbingers of bacteria, and even though we only eat the inside of the melons, it’s imperative that you wash the outside of the fruit before cutting it up. If you don’t, you risk transferring the bacteria, which can include salmonella, to the cutting board and then on to your fruit.
The best advice for maintaining safe picnic foods is this: Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and if all else fails, bring foods that do not need refrigeration.
— Addie Broyles
Asian Fruit Salad
Texas native David Gilbert’s travels around the world have heavily influenced his cooking style. After working for several years in Europe and then at a number of Ritz-Carlton restaurants in the U.S. and abroad, Gilbert took a yearlong sabbatical to travel and research other culinary techniques and ingredients.
Gilbert, a James Beard best chef southwest semifinalist, wrote about the experience at beyondthekitchen.com and in a book called “Kitchen Vagabond,” and this year he is opening a restaurant in San Antonio called Tuk Tuk Taproom.
1 papaya, cut into large cubes
1 pineapple, diced
1/4 of a seedless watermelon, diced
1 can of lychee (available at Asian markets or specialty stores)
1 Tbsp. chopped pickled ginger
2 oz. pickled ginger juice from jar
20 torn mint leaves (optional)
Mix all ingredients together, refrigerate and allow to rest for at least 1 hour before eating.
— Chef David Gilbert, Tuk Tuk Taproom
Asian Cole Slaw with Caramelized Almonds
For caramelized almonds:
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
2 tsp. chili oil
3/4 cup slivered almonds
2 Tbsp. raw sugar
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tsp. chili oil
2 Tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. vegan mayo
2 tsp. wasabi paste
For the slaw:
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 small green onions, chopped (including greens)
1 heaping Tbsp. grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 to 1 1/2 lb. coleslaw mix or thinly shredded cabbage
To caramelize the almonds, heat the first quantities of sesame oil and chile oil in a small saute pan. Place the almonds and sugar in the pan and cook, stirring frequently until the nuts begin to darken and put off an even nuttier smell. Remove from heat and reserve.
To make the dressing, whisk together dressing ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, toss together cilantro, green onions, ginger, salt, pepper and coleslaw mix, and slowly add dressing, tossing with tongs to coat. Chill for 1 hour in covered container.
Just before serving toss in almonds, holding some back to sprinkle on top of each serving.
— Darla Alvarez
Healthy Garden Spinach Wrap
Flavored wraps are a great alternative to bread, especially if you’re looking for a way to pack more vegetables into your picnic or ice chest lunch. In this recipe, Huisache Grill chef Matthew Boutte wrapped up a mixture of feta, tomatoes and cucumber in a spinach wrap, but you could wrap up an salad of your liking, including one with spinach or spring greens.
Juice of one lemon
10 thin slices of red onion
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
10 kalamata olives, thinly sliced
3 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. feta cheese
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. fresh black pepper
2 grilled chicken breasts, cubed
3/4 cup roasted red pepper hummus
4 to 6 spinach wraps
In a bowl, toss the lemon juice, red onion, cucumber, olives, tomatoes, feta, oil, salt and pepper.
Place one spinach wrap flat on the counter and spread a tablespoon of hummus in the middle of wrap.
Place about 3/4 of a cup of vegetable mixture on top of the hummus then a small amount of grilled chicken. Roll the wrap like a burrito. Wrap tightly in plastic and then place in a sandwich bag. (This will keep the burrito from getting wet and hold its form in the ice chest.) Makes 4 to 6 wraps.
— Chef Matthew Boutte, Huisache Grill
Summer Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce
Fresh herbs are key to spring (or summer or fall) rolls, so no matter how much you adapt the filling to suit your tastes, make sure you include a few leaves of mint or basil.
For the dipping sauce:
3/4 cup smooth unsalted natural peanut butter
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
2 to 3 Tbsp. lime or lemon juice, or to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce
2 tsp. sesame oil
Hot sauce, to taste
2 Tbsp. water
For the rolls:
1 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 cup coarsely shredded carrots
1 cup shredded Napa cabbage
Sixteen 8-inch rice paper wrappers
1/2 medium jicama, cut into julienne strips (about 1 cup)
1 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper strips
1 cup blanched and thinly sliced snow peas
32 large fresh mint leaves
To make the dipping sauce, in a food processor or blender combine the peanut butter, hoisin, 2 tablespoons lime juice, the scallions, soy sauce, sesame oil, hot sauce and water. Puree until smooth. Taste and add more lime juice or hot sauce if desired, and additional water if necessary to thin the sauce to a good dipping consistency. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
To prepare the rolls, in a small bowl combine the rice vinegar, sugar and a hefty pinch of salt. Whisk until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Add the carrots and cabbage and toss well. Set aside.
Fill a large bowl with hot water. Add 1 rice paper wrapper to the water and let soak for 10 to 15 seconds, or until just barely soft and pliable. Lay the wrapper flat on the counter. In the center of the wrapper, place a small, oblong mound of the carrot-cabbage mixture, then top with a bit each of jicama, bell pepper and snow peas. Top with 2 mint leaves.
To fold the roll, start by folding the right and left sides of the wrapper over the fillings. Next, fold the end closest to you up over the fillings and sides. Holding the roll firmly, roll it away from you until the remaining wrapper is completely rolled up. Transfer the roll, seam side down, to a plate and cover with a damp paper towel. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and fillings.
The vegetable rolls can be made up to 4 hours ahead, covered with a damp paper towel and plastic wrap and chilled. Serve with the dipping sauce. Makes 16 rolls.
— Sara Moulton, for the Associated Press
Couscous Salad with Pistachios and Pomegranate
1 cup vegetable stock
Sea salt, to taste
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. dry couscous
Seeds of 1 medium pomegranate
2/3 cup shelled pistachios (roasted or unroasted)
6 Tbsp. coarsely chopped cilantro
6 Tbsp. coarsely chopped mint
Zest of 1 lemon, removed with a zester
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Pomegranate syrup, to serve (optional)
In a small saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, season with salt. Pour this over the couscous in a large bowl, cover and set aside for 30 minutes, stirring and breaking it up halfway through. Let the couscous cool completely.
Mix the pomegranate seeds, pistachios, herbs and lemon zest into the couscous. You can prepare the salad to this point in advance and transport it in a sealed container. In a small sealable container to transport, whisk the lemon juice with the olive oil and some salt. At the picnic, pour the dressing over the salad, toss and drizzle with pomegranate syrup. Serves 6.
— From “The Picnic Cookbook” by Annie Bell (Kyle Books, $19.99)