Packing the Perfect Picnic
By Karen Schulz
We live in the land of picnic nirvana. The backdrops are endless — beaches, boats, and parks. My friend Augustina is my picnic hero. I have been begging her for years to write a picnic cookbook. She makes it look so easy and has a way of making the simplest meal look and feel worthy of the Queen. Her eye for details and joyful colors all contribute to the overall feeling of togetherness and relaxation that picnics should yield. Therefore, I consulted with her and asked her for her top three tips on how to pack the perfect picnic.
First, determine the location, which will dictate how you set your table, choose your menu, and execute the set up and break down. If you are at the beach, you may want to steer clear of recipes that contain mayonnaise or eggs. If you are packing for a hike, you will probably want to leave the pretty picnic basket at home and opt for lightweight, easily packed food like high-protein sandwiches and homemade granola trail mix. If you are picnicking on a boat, you will do as much prep at home as you can so all you need to do is assemble and set the table once you’re seaside.
Second, design a menu that is appropriate and easily executed. Pack one cooler with beverages and another cooler with food. Will you be serving sandwiches, salads, or a combo of both? Or, perhaps grill a pork tenderloin in advance and prep a beautiful salad to assemble with the already cooked tenderloin? Basically, do as much prep as is possible before it is time to picnic so you are guaranteed the maximum amount of time with your dining companions. If you are picnicking where there is a grill, marinate your meats and vegetable in large zip-lock baggies, which are easily transported and make for easy cleanup.
Thirdly, it’s all about presentation. Augustina imagines exactly how she wants her picnic to look and builds the scaffolding around it. Tabletop touches make all the difference in a beautiful picnic. She prefers to use a picnic basket and packs it with real cutlery and plates (not plastic), colorful tablecloths, votives, and cloth napkins pre-wrapped around cutlery. It all adds ambiance. One of my favorite things about an Augustina picnic is that you will never see a store-bought container on the table. No milk cartons or ketchup bottles. Not only are they unsightly, but premeasuring condiments and some liquids in small glass jars saves tons of space when packing the basket.
I’m a big fan of al fresco dining and one of my favorite picnic salads is this hearty Udon Noodle Salad with Chicken and Chile Scallion Oil. It works as a great main course for lunch or dinner and can all be prepped in advance. You can make the oil four days ahead and keep it chilled in the fridge. You can roast your own chicken or use rotisserie, and the noodles can be made the night before, just toss with one teaspoon of oil, cover and chill. All that’s left to do is assemble either before you go or when you get to the picnic.
So pick your location, grab your fun salad servers, dust off those tablecloths, and pack up your beautiful delicious perfectly prepped picnic and enjoy these last weeks of summer with friends.
<<Udon Noodle Salad with Chicken>>
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 star anise pods
2 T. crushed red pepper flakes
1 T. chopped fresh ginger (or 3-4 frozen Dorot ginger cubes)
1 t. Sichuan peppercorns
½ cup vegetable oil
6 oz. Japanese wheat noodles (somen, udon, ramen)
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. unseasoned rice vinegar
2 t. sugar
1 t. toasted sesame oil
2 cups shredded cooked chicken
2 scallions thinly sliced
½ large English hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced
4 radishes, trimmed, thinly sliced
1 cup cilantro leaves
Cook all ingredients for the chili-scallion oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, swirling pan occasionally until scallions and garlic are just golden brown, about 3 minutes. Let cool before transferring to a jar.
Cook noodles in large pot of boiling water according to package directions; drain. Rinse under cold water, shake off as much water as possible.
Whisk soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and oil in a medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Add noodles, chicken, and scallions and toss to coat. Just before serving, mix with cucumber, radishes, and cilantro and drizzle with chili oil.
For the shredded chicken, you can use a rotisserie chicken or roast a few bone-in, skin on chicken breasts or thighs at 350° for 1¼ hours. This can be done in advance.
Oil can be made four days ahead. Keep chilled.
Noodles can be cooked the night before, toss with 1 t. oil, cover and chill.