Spring is here! The snow has melted, the crocuses are giving it the best that they’ve got, and our thoughts keep wandering away from our computers and our workstations and slipping out the back door. Finally, we’re ready to take it outside, outside, OUTSIDE! So, ready for a picnic? There are some commonly overlooked items that can make your picnic a crowd-pleasing success. With a little care and attention to detail, your picnic can be transformed from a couple of sandwiches and a thermos to an extravaganza al fresco!
First of all, set your attention to comfort. We’ve all seen the images of a happy couple lolling contentedly on a red and white checkered tablecloth, clinking their glasses that magically never tip over on the unsteady ground. Have you ever tried lounging on the checkered tablecloth yourself? Trust me, you quickly become intimately aware of the location of every root, every twig, and every leaf on the ground beneath your posterior. There is a simple solution for this unfortunate sensation. Simply throw a padded tablecloth liner in with your blanket or tablecloth, and add a couple of stadium pillows for good measure. The tablecloth liner will be enough to keep your legs and ankles from sustaining those deep, grooved, patterned imprints of the surrounding nature, and the stadium pillows will nicely cushion your more firmly planted parts.
As for the instability of dining on the ground, the solution is simple. Bring along a couple of short-legged tables and an assortment of potholders (that’s potholders, not oven mitts). Crate and Barrel sells a table designed specifically for picnics, and it is every bit as adorable as you’d expect an item by Crate and Barrel designed specifically for picnics to be, but a simple “breakfast in bed” table will do the trick nicely. When setting up the tables, hold them at an angle that renders them perfectly flat and stable, and then arrange the pot holders where ever they are needed to maintain the position of the table surface. Cloth napkins, paper napkins or other pliable materials can also be used for this. Potholders are particularly useful and they are padded and sturdy enough to handle being pressed into the ground, but large enough to be folded over where needed, and they offer just enough “stick” to stay nicely in place.
Some other commonly overlooked items that will make your picnic environment more comfortable and enhance your entire outdoor experience include citronella candles to ward off pests (be sure to purchase the type that hang from the tops of rods which are stuck into the ground- nothing kills a picnic like a 911 call to the local fire department), an MP3 player with a pair of attachable speakers (available at Best Buy or just about any stereo and electronics retailer for under $30.00), collapsible mesh food covers (about $5.00 a piece at any kitchen or garden store) and a sun umbrella. Even if you’re not sensitive to the sun and are looking forward to soaking in some vitamin D, it is very helpful to have something to place your food under to keep it from spoiling too quickly.
So, your environment is set up nicely. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. A picnic is just a seat on a piece of cloth without some good eats, and I have some pretty strong ideas about the best kinds of foot to bring along.
First of all, eschew the common picnic fare. Sandwiches and potato salad are all very well for a day at the beach, but for a truly memorable picnic experience, think outside the paper bag. You want to concentrate on items that can be easily carried, do not need to be heated, and are somewhat resistant to spoiling. Items involving mayonnaise should be avoided at all costs when planning to dine out in the sunshine. So how do you assemble a meal that fulfills these requirements, but still smacks of class that will impress your friends or your date without draining your bank account?
For starters, let’s start with the starters! Don’t be afraid of multiple courses, your companions will be impressed with your forethought and attention to detail. There are a number of things you can bring along to make your afternoon a roaring success that won’t take up too much precious space in the basket. You can start with some nice cheese, like a wedge of Brie or a simple goat cheese spread. It’s best to avoid hard cheeses, as the slicing can be less than graceful, now matter how well you’ve stabilized your little table. If you really want to bring along some cheddar, slice it before hand. A nice roasted red pepper tapenade, some French bread, and a selection of Italian olives from your local grocer’s deli section round out the cheese course beautifully, and all can be easily packed in small plastic containers and zip-lock bags.
Want to follow up the cheese course with a nice surprise? How about a bowl of gazpacho? This cold, fresh vegetable soup is delicious and light, and is just the thing for a sunny day. I assure you, it will not be anticipated, and will provide a delightful treat! An insulated thermos or an airtight container with an ice pack is all you need to keep it cool. If you’re not terribly savvy in the kitchen, don’t worry. Come spring, most independent grocers carry gazpacho. Trader Joe’s has a particularly nice and reasonably priced offering.
We can now explore some ideas for the main course. Again, for a successful picnic meal, remember that you want to avoid selections that need to be heated or transported in elaborate containers. My personal favorite picnic fare is chilled spaghetti or farfalle with pesto and some freshly grated Parmesan. Some cold breast of chicken with some vine ripened tomato, avocado, and basil all sliced together into a container and drizzled with a light balsamic vinaigrette is also fantastic and cool, either on a plate or over a slice of French bread. Try complementing the pesto with a nice tomato and mozzarella or chopped salad. With the chicken, try adding a nice spinach salad with some sliced hard boiled eggs and bacon crumbles.
Now, what to drink? Champagne or a nice bottle of chilled white wine is just the thing if you can pull it off in the environment you are planning to picnic. Otherwise, some mineral water, like San Pellegrino, is a nice touch. A nice sparkling juice blend is another nice option. Be sure to bring those plastic wine glasses (plastic, not glass- don’t try to be a hero). Which ever your choice, any sort of sparkling beverage is nicer in a glass with a stem.
So, how do you top this? Dessert should be simple and light, and respect the feel of the meal. I recommend a bowl of simple whole strawberries. They’re perfect and classy, and easy to transport, and they can handle a bump or two and still look and taste delicious.
With a little attention to detail and the addition of some commonly overlooked items to your picnic, you are guaranteed to impress your companions with a very classy, comfortable, successful picnic. After the long winter, spring should be welcomed and celebrated. Some good company, a pleasant environment, and some surprising fare are just the thing to shake off the doldrums and prepare you for the return of the sun.