Imagine a painting of a pastoral scene on a fine summer’s day, a beautifully laid out banquet, fine rugs for lounging and guests nibbling on carefully transported bits – a proverbial picnic in the grass, with dogs and children at the edges.
That’s one kind of picnic, but there are so many ways to have a picnic. Even the simple gesture of moving dinner outside on a balmy evening can feel picnic-like, that is, fun.
That picnics are portable parties adds to the experience. Collecting and packing the food, carrying the meal to a particular place and the expectation of serving it make picnics a kind of special event, be it a leisurely trip to the beach, an hour-long tailgate or a buffet lunch in a lush garden. (The frugal city lunch you eat on a bench by a tree is also a picnic of sorts — enjoy it.)
When I have to lug the basket, I want it filled with things I like.
Sandwiches are my favorite picnic food, so I offer a few of them here. I’ve had a thing for canned sardines since I was a kid, but now I want them served on thinly sliced dense, dark rye bread, generously spread with good butter, sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper, a few arugula sprigs and a small splash lemon, nothing more. Some would add a little Dijon mustard, but not me. Take all the ingredients to the picnic area and build the sandwiches there, or pack them up to go. They look nice, but of course they can also be made in two parts.
An extremely simple and refreshing combination of a tangy, herbed cucumber salad and creamy ricotta, served on halved ciabatta buns, is another option. Aside from good cucumbers, there are only two requirements: freshly baked bread, with a crispy crust and tender crumb, and the best ricotta you can find, preferably mand ricotta. (You can also use natural cream cheese or queso fresco.)
Next, I want some hearty salads that are always nice to have on hand, picnic or not. For that, I packed white beans, tossed with oven-charred cauliflower and a spicy vinaigrette, drizzled with celery hearts and ground fennel, and cherry tomatoes and olives dressed with olive oil, a little oregano, vinegar, garlic, and chili flakes, and spooned over slices of fresh mozzarella. . Just before serving, I toss in a handful of basil leaves and toss them in the dressing. Serve them straight from the container if desired. It’s all meant as finger food.
Dessert at a picnic is always wanted, expected and deserved. Anything that looks like cookies is definitely a gamble, especially if you’re going over rough terrain, and pecan shortbread is currently my favorite – crumbly, salty and buttery, with a hint of cardamom. Top up with a bowl of cherries, nectarines and peaches, if desired. And ice, if you’re smart enough to keep it frozen during your travels.
Wash it all down afterwards with a summery red hibiscus punch. Known in Mexico as agua de Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean as sorrel, the drink is made by simmering dried hibiscus blossoms and soaking them with spices. The resulting ruby-red liquid, slightly sweetened, has a pleasant tannic quality and is wonderfully thirst-quenching on ice. If you want your punch to live up to its name, add your favorite beverage. Read: rum. It’s a picnic after all.
Recipes: Hibiscus Punch † Marinated Mozzarella, Olives and Cherry Tomatoes † Sardines on buttered brown bread † Cucumber-Ricotta sandwiches † White Bean Salad With Roasted Cauliflower † pecan shortbread