Summer says weekend getaways and vacations, but most of us can only dream of taking off as much as we want. That’s where picnics come in. Heat, humidity, and mosquitoes notwithstanding, we’re more likely to eat outdoors in June and July. And kids love picnics. Sitting on a big quilt, with food laid out on paper plates and their best table manners suspended, can make us all feel as if we’re far from home, if only for a couple of hours.
I’ve observed a few basic picnic genres. There’s the casual, improvised grab-and-go, like our family’s hummus with veggies and chips and brownies for concerts at the Levitt Shell, or bread, cheese, and fruit for snacking on the bluff at the Metal Museum. The fancy, grownup picnics my grandmother always brought to outdoor symphonies involved cold chicken with Grey Poupon, brie, grapes, and white wine. Then there’s the classic Fourth of July picnic: fried chicken, potato salad, and watermelon.
Alas, as much as I love fried chicken and brie, my doctor has laid down the law. If I want to enjoy picnics in the future with my grandchildren I’ll need to change the menu. Of course kids benefit, too, from food that goes easy on the simple carbs and saturated fats. Can we keep the thrill of the picnic while serving healthy fare?
My first thought was a substantial salad that would offer a cool counterpoint to stifling midsummer afternoons. Outdoor eating demands fresh, robust flavors, but my favorite Mediterranean-style salad, studded with chickpeas and olives, won’t please every kid. For example, my older son eats anchovies and capers on or in almost anything. However, my 3-year-old is still deep into the phase that shuns the mingling (or even touching) of different foods.
Then I thought of antipasto, a spread of savory cured meats and crisp pickled vegetables, each on its own distinct part of the platter. Here was my idea: most of us keep reusable food containers around. They’d work great for transporting the elements of a mix-and-match salad. Kids and grownups alike can choose from an array of well-seasoned fixin’s. Some diners might make a caprese salad of mozzarella balls and tomatoes. Others can create an on-the-spot panzanella by tossing pita chips and cucumbers into the mix. Bold eaters will grab tuna, anchovies, potatoes, and green beans, heading towards a Niçoise salad. And someone will take it to the Greek.
How much food you prepare depends on the range of your storage ware, the size of your picnic hamper, and the expanse of your family’s palates. For me and my family, the olives and capers are musts, but even the presence of slithery roasted red peppers would cause my older son to start fake-gagging and my younger one to wail inconsolably.
Your picnic will be like a portable salad bar, but with a unified flavor profile. Don’t think Cracker Barrel, but rather an accommodating cafe in Sicily. Your kids might not know where that is, but sometimes we parents need to take a mental vacation even when we’re close to home. And after all, isn’t that what a picnic is for?
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes
- 1 cucumber, seeded and cubed
- 1 tablespoon each minced fresh parsley and basil
- 1 teaspoon chopped oregano, or scant ½ teaspoon dried
- ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons red wine or sherry vinegar
- 1 clove garlic and/or 1 small to medium shallot, minced
- Salt and pepper
- ½ cup cubed ham or salami
- 1 lb. fresh mozzarella, halved if small balls, otherwise cut into ½”-cubes
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Optional: Chopped romaine, radicchio or endive; chopped fresh green peppers; coarsely chopped sweet onion; boiled, cooled, and halved new potatoes; hard-boiled eggs; blanched and cooled green beans; chopped roast red peppers; pepperoncini; capers; pitted Nicoise or kalamata olives, halved; anchovies minced in dressing or coarsely chopped in salad; olive oil-packed tuna, broken up with a fork; drained sardines; feta, manchego, or provolone instead of mozzarella.
Toss cubed cucumber and halved tomatoes with ¼ teaspoon salt each, cover, and let sit 15 minutes to an hour. (Keep tomatoes at room temperature, though you can refrigerate the cukes.)
Drain the cucumbers and put them in a container. Remove tomatoes from bowl, leaving liquid behind. (Put the tomatoes into a portable container.) Add vinegar to make 2 tablespoons. Don’t add salt yet. If you want to use Dijon mustard, add it now. Whisk in olive oil, then herbs and garlic and/or shallots. Now season to taste with salt and pepper. Put it in a small jar or a used squirt mustard bottle.
While the dressing rests in the fridge, prepare and pack the rest of the elements. Don’t forget serving forks and spoons. Bring at least one medium-sized empty container. You’ll use that to mix and toss individual servings.
Enjoy with sliced crusty bread or pita chips.