Picnics! Three menu ideas from three of our food writers

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This time of year, most people just can't wait to get outdoors to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. That includes at mealtime.

Food never tastes as good as when it's served al fresco, whether it's something as simple as a sack of sandwiches and potato salad to be enjoyed at a turnpike rest stop during a summer road trip, or something fancier - say, a gourmet feast that takes days to plan for an outdoor gathering at a local park or picnic pavilion.

Today, the Fourth of July, is one of the most popular days of the year to gather with family and friends for an outdoor meal. (Can't you already smell the hot dogs sizzling on your neighbor's grill?) Yet here in Food & Flavor, we think any day is a great day for a picnic - even the rainy ones, provided you choose a spot with some shelter.

"A picnic has the ability to take all one's cares away and let the great outdoors, food in our bellies and excellent company fill us with warmth and happiness," notes British lifestyle writer Tori Finch in her latest cookbook "A Perfect Day for a Picnic." "They represent an escape from the daily grind and a chance to let down your hair."

What we also like about picnics is that invited guests usually are happy to contribute a dish or two, which not only makes it less work for the hosts but also makes for a more interesting menu. The word picnic, in fact, is thought to derive from the French word "pique-nique," a social gathering in which each guest would contribute something to a feast - similar to what we call potlucks today.

Even the simplest gatherings, though, require a bit of planning.

The best picnic dishes are ones that easily transport from kitchen to picnic table, and don't require a lot of assembly when it's time to eat. Picnics also inevitably involve carrying, notes Annie Bell in "The Picnic Cookbook" - another new British book - so think small and light.

"A plate of something to pass round might work if you are going to eat close to where you have parked, but if you have to negotiate a stile [fence] and lug it across several fields, it will feel like an egg-and-spoon race," she writes.

Both authors suggest making detailed lists of everything you'll need for your picnic, from utensils and eating and serving dishes to blankets to sit on, a corkscrew or bottle opening for beverages, bags for leftovers and trash, and sunscreen to keep your kids from turning into lobsters. Bug spray is another good idea.

When it comes time to pack, adds Ms. Finch, it's best to keep a "beady eye" on meat and dairy products. Food that needs to be kept cold should be added to the cooler only at the last minute.

Below, we offer menus for three very different picnics.

From dining critic Melissa McCart, who hangs with an urban crowd, we get a spicy picnic with a local focus. Bob Batz Jr. gives us an international menu. And I provide a build-your-own picnic for the discriminating (i.e. picky) eaters in your life.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


Some of my favorite picnic meals have happened on big trips, so I decided to pull together a picnic of recipes, using new cookbooks as much as possible, the would remind me of or pay homage to those.

Instead of a picnic basket, I packed them up in an Indian tiffin - a stainless-steel food carrier like I've used in India.

- Bob Batz Jr.


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Chicken Tikka Masala has been an addictive dish that's been in my regular rotation for a while, so I really wanted to try this version from "The Picnic Cookbook." It was great - and quickly gone.

A tasty vegetarian and vegan option would be her Roasted Red Bell Pepper and Lentil Salad.

Annie Bell suggests bringing along one of her speedy dips and some naan or other bread, and maybe a cucumber "to slice when you get there," to make tikka sandwiches.

- Bob Batz Jr.

For Tikka Marinade

  • Peanut or vegetable oil

  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste

  • 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or finely chopped

  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin or seeds

  • 1 teaspoon garam masala

  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon tomato paste

  • Sea salt

  • 2/3 cup coconut milk

6 skinless chicken breasts (approximately 11/2 to 13/4 pounds)

Coarsely chopped cilantro, to serve

Make the marinade: In a large skillet, heat a couple of tablespoons of oil over medium heat, add the onion and saute for a few minutes, until softened and starting to color, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute or so, stirring frequently. Now stir in the spices and cook briefly until fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste, season with salt and cook for another minute or so, then gradually stir in the coconut milk. Transfer the marinade to a large container and let cool. You can prepare this the night before your picnic.

Cut out the white tendon on the underside of each chicken breast if evident, and halve into 2 long strips. Coat the breasts with the marinade in the bowl, cover and chill or let stand in a cool place for a couple of hours or overnight.

Heat a ridged grill pan over high heat. The chicken breasts should be lightly coated in the marinade. Drizzle a bit of oil over either side and grill until striped with gold and cooked through, a few minutes on each side - you can press down with spatula for this bit, and they should feel firm. Scatter with cilantro before packaging to transport to your picnic.

Makes 12 mini tikkas.

- "The Picnic Cookbook" by Annie Bell (Kyle, 2013, $19.95)


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Whether you're traveling or not, if you're looking for the makings of a picnic, you need only to seek out the closest farmers market or market house. One of my favorites anywhere is the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, which I usually get to visit a couple of times a year, and from which this simple recipe hails. You could add a small can of tuna or 1?2 cup of cubed mozzarella.

  • 1 1/2 cups dried white navy beans or 2 14-ounce cans cooked white beans

  • 1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped

  • 1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped

  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, finely chopped

  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, coarsely chopped

  • For the dressing

  • 3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano or basil

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

If using dried beans, cover them with water and soak overnight. Drain and rinse. Place the beans in a medium saucepan of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 50 minutes or until the beans are tender. Drain the beans and rinse with cool water, then let cool.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the cooked or canned beans, onion, peppers and tomatoes. In a jar or small bowl, combine the dressing ingredients and mix well. Pour the dressing over the bean salad, mix well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

- "The New Granville Island Market Cookbook" by Judie Glick and Carol Jensson (Arsenal Pulp, 2012, $24.95)


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On a spectacular train and car trip across the Brittany region of France, my wife and I could put together a picnic by stopping at any market. But we always had to start at a bakery. These simple cookies from Clotilde Dusoulier's brand-new book seem perfect for traveling.

Ms. Dusoulier, who lives in and blogs (chocolateandzucchini.com) from Paris, includes many other picnic-appropriate recipes that I want to try, such as Crunchy Lentil and Watercress Salad (Salade Croquanted de Lentilles et Cresson) and Eggplant and Black Olive Caviar (Cavian d'Aubergine aux Olives Noires) to put on good bread.

This had to be the stickiest dough ever, but the cookies turned out great.

- Bob Batz Jr.

  • 1/3 cup unrefined blond cane sugar (also sold as evaporated cane juice)

  • 6 tablespoons high-quality, unsalted butter, softened

  • 1 small fresh vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

  • 1 large organic egg

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the sugar and butter. (Alternatively, do this by hand in a bowl with a wooden spoon.) Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the inside of the bean with the dull side of the blade, and add them to the sugar and butter. Beat the sugar and butter at low speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat for 2 minutes.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt, stirring with a whisk to remove any lumps. Add to the mixer and mix at low speed for a few seconds. The dough will be quite soft.

Transfer the dough to a container and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, and preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out between 2 sheets of parchment paper to a thickness of 1/3 inch. Peel off the top sheet gently and use a round cookie cutter, about 2 inches in diameter, to cut out circles of dough. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet, giving them a little room to expand.

Gather the scraps of dough and repeat to cut out more cookies. As the dough warms to room temperature, it may become too soft to work with; place it in the freezer for 10 minutes to firm up before cutting out circles again.

Bake the sables until golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. The sables will keep for a few days in an airtight container at room temperature.

- "The French Market Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from my Parisian Kitchen" by Clotilde Dusoulier (Clarkson Potter; July 2, 2013; $22.50)


When you have a big family or a large gathering, someone's always bound to be disappointed when it comes to picnics with only one entree, side dish and dessert. So I've decided to create a menu for a build-your-own meal. The centerpiece is made-to-order sandwiches.

Depending on appetites, allow 4 to 6 ounces of meat per person, and half as much cheese. Choose at least three of each for a nice variety, and go for at least one that's a little unusual.

- Gretchen McKay


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2 to 3 pounds various sliced deli or homemade meats - grilled chicken, roast turkey, honey-baked ham, roast beef

1 to 11/2 pounds thinly sliced cheese - Swiss, cheddar, pepper Jack, Gruyere

Assorted bread, baguettes or rolls

Honey-Mustard, Herbed and Dried Apricot Chipotle mayonnaises (recipes follow)

  • Celeriac and Apple Slaw (recipe follows)

  • Tomato and Chile Relish (recipe follows)

  • Homemade or jarred pickles

  • Bibb lettuce leaves

  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Arrange slices of meat and cheese on a large platter. Serve with flavored mayonnaises, slaw, relish, pickles and any other condiments your family and friends favor.

Serves 8.

Honey-mustard mayo

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A perfect sweet-tangy spread for ham or turkey, and also a great dipping sauce for chicken nuggets.

  • 2 tablespoons honey

  • 1 cup mayonnaise

  • 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard

  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

  • 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar

Place honey in small bowl. Slowly whisk in mayonnaise. Stir in all remaining ingredients and refrigerate. Store in the refrigerator

Makes 1 cup.

- Food.com

Dried Apricot Chipotle Mayonnaise

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Just a bit fiery, and perfect for roast pork or roast beef.

- Gretchen McKay

  • 1/2 cup dried apricots

  • 1/4 cup hot water

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise

  • 1 canned chipotle chile pepper in adobo sauce, chopped

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion

  • 1 tablespoon adobo sauce from can

Combine dried apricots, hot water and lime juice in a bowl. Let stand 15 minutes; drain. Pat apricots dry, and coarsely chop.

Combine mayonnaise, apricots and next 3 ingredients. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Makes 4 servings.

- "All Fired Up: Smokin' Hot BBQ Secrets from the South's Best Pitmasters" from the editors of Southern Living (Oxmoor House, April 2013, $24.95)

Celeriac and Apple Slaw

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This tastes as good on a sandwich as on a plate. I doubled the amount of apple and forgot to peel it, but no worries.

- Gretchen McKay

  • 8 ounces celeriac (celery root), grated

  • 1 dessert apple, peeled and grated

  • 5 tablespoons sunflower oil

  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

  • 1 heaped teaspoon grainy mustard

  • Pinch of sugar

  • Salt and pepper

Put celeriac and apple in a bowl. Make a vinaigrette by mixing together the oil, wine vinegar, mustard and sugar. Season with salt and pepper. Pour vinaigrette over the celeriac and apple and toss everything together. Taste for seasoning. Keep in fridge until it's time to take the slaw to the picnic.

Serves 2 to 3.

- "The Little Paris Kitchen: 120 Simple but Classic French Recipes" by Rachel Khoo (Chronicle, March 2013, $35)

Tomato and Chile Relish

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Instead of sliced tomatoes, try this spicy-sweet relish. I used tiny Thai chile peppers, which pack extra punch.

- Gretchen McKay

  • 2 1/4 pounds vine tomatoes

  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt

  • 1 cup granulated sugar mixed with a 1.75-ounce package powdered pectin

  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped medium-hot red chile

  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon white wine or cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring large pot of water to a boil, cut out a cone from the top of each tomato to remove the core and plunge them into the boiling water for about 20 seconds, then into cold water. Slip off skins and coarsely chop the tomato flesh.

Combine all ingredients in a large roasting pan and place in oven, uncovered, for 65 to 75 minutes, giving the relish a stir toward the end. It should reduce considerably, with the tomatoes sitting in a small amount of syrupy juices. Spoon into a hot sterilized jar or jars, and let cool. Store in the refrigerator.

Makes about 2 cups.

- Adapted from "The Picnic Cookbook" by Annie Bell (Kyle, July 2103, $19.95)


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Chips are so boring. Spoon this onto your paper plate instead. I used M'hamsa couscous, a hand-rolled sun-dried couscous from Tunisia that has an especially toasty flavor, but any variety will do.

- Gretchen McKay

For salad

  • 12/3 cups couscous

  • 1 cup boiling water

  • 2/3 cup very finely chopped dried apricots

  • Handful of raisins

  • 1/2 teaspoon each ground turmeric, coriander and cumin

  • Small handful cilantro, chopped finely

  • Small handful fresh mint, chopped finely

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil, or to taste

  • Freshly squeezed juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

  • Freshly squeezed juice and grated zest of 1 orange

  • 3/4 cup slivered almonds

For onion garnish

  • 3/4 cup sunflower oil for frying

  • 1 onion

  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

  • Sea salt and ground black pepper

First, make crispy onion garnish: Pour oil into a shallow frying pan set over high heat.

Slice onion in half, then slice each half into half moons as thinly as you can. Put flour on a plate and season with salt and pepper, then toss the onion slices in flour to coat generously.

In small batches, fry onions until golden brown and really crispy. Remove onion from hot pan with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Leave to cool.

Put couscous in a shallow bowl and pour over the boiling water. Cover bowl, and leave for 5 to 10 minutes, until couscous has absorbed all the liquid and puffed up. Mix well with fork to separate any grains, then stir in dried fruit, spices and herbs. Mix really well.

In a separate bowl, combine olive oil with the fruit juices and zest. Beat well. Taste; add more oil if it is too tart.

Gently pour dressing over couscous and mix well. Just before serving, scatter over the crispy onions and slivered almonds.

Serves 6.

- "A Perfect Day for a Picnic" by Tori Finch (Ryland Peters & Small, March 2013, $24.95)


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The easiest shortcakes I've ever made can be made 1 day ahead. Let cool completely and store airtight at room temperature. Wait until just before serving to split in half.

- Gretchen McKay

For shortcake

  • 1 cup cake flour

  • 4 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour plus more for work surface

  • 1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream

  • 1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk cake flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and 1 cup all-purpose flour in a medium bowl to combine. Add 11/2 cups cream; gently mix just until dough holds together.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and form into a 9 by 6-inch rectangle about 1-inch thick. Cut dough in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise 3 times to form 8 rectangular biscuits.

Arrange biscuits on parchment-paper lined baking sheet 1 inch apart. Brush tops and sides with melted butter. Bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool. Biscuits can be served warm or at room temperature.

Makes 8 shortcakes.

- Bon Appetit. April 2013


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This filling will please hungry picnickers who can't decide which fruit they like best. My peaches were mealy, so I substituted mangoes.

- Gretchen McKay

  • 5 medium plums, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

  • 2 large peaches, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

  • 1 1/2 pints raspberries

  • 1/3 cup sugar

  • 8-ounce container chilled mascarpone cheese, or 8-ounce package cream cheese at room temperature

  • 1 cup chilled whipping cream

  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • Additional powdered sugar

Toss plums, peaches, raspberries and 1/3 cup sugar in large bowl to blend. Let stand 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat mascarpone, whipping cream, 1/4 cup powdered sugar and vanilla in large bowl until firm peaks form. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To serve, spoon mascarpone cream into split shortcake. Top with mixed fruit, and top with shortcake top.

- Adapted from "The Picnic Cookbook" by Annie Bell (Kyle, July 2103, $19.95)


I crave spice on a summer picnic, which makes jerk a perfect protein. Though the recipe seems elaborate with its 1/2 cup of allspice, it's delicious. If you're wary of heat or you don't know your diners' tastes, go easy on the habanero. At the very least, discard the seeds.

Side recipes are absolutely simple, thanks to the participants of Food52.com and the Lee Brothers.

Served with local brews and gin rickeys, the feast was the start of an enchanting summer night. A doubled chicken recipe and these sides fed dozens at Bayardstown Social Club, the newish outdoor space in the Strip District from the folks at Deeplocal.

Don't let the corrugated walls and reclaimed wood deter you. There's an ugly beauty to this industrial space. Twinkling lanterns, green grass and good people help.

- Melissa McCart


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Do not be afraid of allspice as it is the key. Chicken is delicious hot or cold.

- Melissa McCart

For sauce

  • 2 bunches scallions (white and light-green parts), coarsely chopped

  • 2 habanero chili peppers (including seeds), stemmed

  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce, preferably made with habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers

  • Leaves from 10 sprigs thyme, chopped (2 tablespoons)

  • 2-inch piece peeled ginger root, grated (2 tablespoons)

  • 1/2 cup ground allspice

  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for brushing the grill grate

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

For the chicken

  • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken legs (thigh attached, about 5 pounds total)

  • Juice of 3 limes (about 6 tablespoons)

  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt

For the paste: Combine the scallions, chili peppers, vinegar, soy sauce, hot pepper sauce, thyme, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, oil, salt and black pepper in the bowl of a food processor; puree until smooth.

For the chicken: Place the chicken legs in a large bowl and rub them with the lime juice and salt. Pour the paste over the chicken and use your fingers to rub it into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours.

Prepare the grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-low (350 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the briquettes. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 6 inches above the coals for 6 to 8 seconds. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.

Place the chicken legs skin side down on the grill grate. Close the lid and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, turning them often to prevent burning, or until the meat is cooked through and its juices run clear. The skin should be nubbly and blackened. Transfer to a platter; serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Serves 8.

- The Washington Post


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  • 1 organic English cucumber

  • 1/2 Vidalia onion, peeled

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon organic cane sugar

  • 1/2 cup best-quality Greek yogurt

  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

  • Zest of 1 Meyer lemon

Slice the cucumber and onion as thinly as possible. Place slices in a colander, sprinkle with the salt, stir and seat the colander over a bowl to catch the released liquid. Refrigerate for one hour. Discard the extra liquid and now rinse the salt from the cucumber and onion. Drain well and pat the slices dry using kitchen towels. Turn the cucumber and onion into a medium-sized bowl and add the sugar and vinegar, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Fold in the yogurt, dill and lemon zest. Chill for an hour, stir again (juices will have settled) and serve.

Serves 4.

- Food52.com


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  • 1 tablespoon lard or unsalted butter

  • 1 1/2 cups stone-ground cornmeal

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1 large egg

  • 1 1/2 cups whole or low-fat buttermilk

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a 12-inch cast iron skillet with the lard or butter (or, if you cooked bacon in it and forgot to drain the grease, just leave that in there) and put it in the oven. Melt and cool the other butter.

Whisk together all the dry ingredients (cornmeal to sugar) in a large bowl. Whisk the egg in a smaller bowl until frothy, then beat in the buttermilk. Stir (or whisk, I just whisk it all since I've got it out anyway) the egg/milk into the dry ingredients. Then whisk in the melted butter.

The fat in the skillet should be all melted and sizzling, so hurry and pour the batter in. Return to the oven and cook for 15 minutes.

Serves 8.

- Lee Brothers


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  • Butter, for greasing the pan

  • 1/2 pound cherries, pitted

  • 3 eggs

  • 1/3 cup flour, plus extra for dusting the pan

  • 1/4 cup sugar

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1 cup whole milk

  • Powdered sugar, for dusting the pan

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a pie pan or other round baking dish that measures at least 2 inches high and 9 inches wide. Scatter the cherries evenly about the pan. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and flour, then add the sugar and baking powder and whisk again until combined.

Slowly pour in the milk and whisk until the batter is smooth. Pour over the cherries and bake until set and lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Before serving, dust with powdered sugar.

Serves 6.

- Food52.com

food - recipes - mobilehome

First Published July 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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