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If you’re anything like me, you love the idea of a picnic, but in practice, when someone throws the idea up in the air on a Friday night, in this beautifully spontaneous way people do, your Inner Grump awakens (“ugh, so much to organize, I have zero ideas, who’s going to do the shopping, we always end up eating the same thing, the kids will just stuff themselves with potato chips, and it is so uncomfortable sitting on the ground anyway”).
So for you, for me, for us, here are a few ideas I hold at the ready to alleviate my Inner Grump’s fears and turn the corners of his mouth upward: yes, we can have easy and colorful picnics this summer!
Of course, we all dream of lazing around in bed all Sunday morning, then get up to attend a picnic straight out of Pinterest. But the hard truth is this: without a minimum of forethought, it will just end up being soggy sandwiches, canned corn, a squashed roll of paper towels, and lukewarm soda.
No. What we want is ideas that feel fresh, cheerful, and a little bit unusual.
My Best Picnic Tips: Recipe Ideas
French picnics are all about the jambon-beurre sandwich — a split baguette spread with butter and filled with cooked ham — but for a nice change of pace, I like to make a banh mi of sorts, the Vietnamese sandwich I love so much. Get a slim baguette without too much crumb, fill it with meat or tofu (marinated and grilled), grated carrots and cucumber dressed in magic sauce, sliced chilli peppers, a little mayonnaise and a lot of coriander: it’s a close enough approximation and a delight.
And if we think that sandwiches are good, but still a lot of bread to eat, we can make rice or nori rolls by rolling up raw vegetables in rice paper wrappers or grilled nori sheets, maki-style, as for these cucumber and avocado nori rolls (which are one of my most popular recipes on Pinterest! See how nicely this gets tied back in).
Another option is to go for smørrebrød, the Danish sandwich. Instead of making sandwiches for everyone, provide sliced black bread and a variety of simple ingredients: butter, cucumber slices, sliced boiled eggs, thin slices of gouda cheese, pickled herring, thin slices of roast beef, sliced spring onions, fresh herbs… Arrange everything on the picnic table or in the middle of a tablecloth spread out in a pretty meadow, and have everyone compose their own open-face sandwich.
As for salads, which are always a bit awkward to eat on your lap, with the vinaigrette dripping from the side when the discussion becomes animated, I like to assemble them in jars (I use the glass containers from my yogurt maker as I have an extra set), in good-looking alternating layers. Cooked grains and/or legumes at the bottom, cooked vegetables, raw vegetables, something soft (tofu, cheese), something crunchy (toasted nuts, sprouted seeds), and dressing simply poured on top. Shake before eating.
If this is a last-minute picnic, I am fully okay with bringing a few well-chosen pantry staples — a nice tapenade, sardines in olive oil, a jarred terrine with pistachios… I also keep in mind my local shops: my favorite rotisserie will cut up a roast chicken for me (best to call ahead), the Greek deli can make a nice assortment of dips for raw vegetables sticks, and from the bakery I can pick up a flight of chouquettes to go with a green tea peach salad.
You will find a dozen more ideas for picnic recipes in this post: My Best Picnic Recipes.
And to drink with all that, it doesn’t get more effortlessly classy than to bring bottles of water (better yet, homemade sparkling water) in which you’ll slip some mint leaves, slices from an organic lemon, and/or a cucumber stick.
My Best Picnic Tips: The Equipment
When it comes to picnics, the devil is in the gear: pretty plates and sharp knives can make all the difference between a chic picnic and a cheap picnic.
I’m pretty uncompromising on the matter of sharp knives: there’s nothing more depressing than ruining a sublime saucisson or a juicy tomato with a plastic knife. Also, if you’re the one who thought to bring your Laguiole pocket knife, the real deal you bought in the actual village of Laguiole and had engraved with your name on the blade, it’s safe to say you’ll be the de facto boss of the picnic. If you do not have a folding knife, just pack your best paring knife — wrap it up tightly in a dishcloth and fasten with a thick elastic band.
And while we’re at it, don’t forget that small cutting board, to slice stuff on a surface other than the palm of your hand.
As for the plates and cutlery, I like to opt for real and reusable as much as possible: it is so much more pleasant and so much more sustainable. Glass tumblers (the Duralex ones are virtually unbreakable, and infinitely more stable than plastic cups on the grass). Reusable plates (melamine for lightness if you prefer; from my research, the material is safe for occasional use), forks and spoons plucked from your cutlery drawer. Depending on what you’re serving, you may be okay with just forks and spoons, or even just chopsticks.
Rather than bringing a large tablecloth or picnic blanket, I find it more convenient to take several smaller ones: it allows the sun-shy to sit in the shade while the sun-happy can soak in its rays, and it avoids the awkwardness of being stuck in the periphery with everyone’s feet in the middle.
Unless you are having picnic at a highway rest stop or near a rolling brook, it may be difficult to wash your hands before and after the meal. I don’t recommend disposable wipes and antibacterial gel (for their environmental impact and controversial composition). Instead, a few small towels or washcloths dampened with slightly soapy water will do the trick. It is also very refreshing, à la oshibori.
My Best Picnic Tips: My Ideal Check-List
❑ Several small blankets or tablecloths made of thick, durable fabric
❑ Several dish cloths, which will be used to wrap around food and plates, and wipe what needs wiping
❑ One or two sharp knives
❑ A small cutting board
❑ Real plates, glasses, forks, spoons, chopsticks, knives
❑ Cloth napkins (see my cloth napkin tutorial)
❑ Large spoons or better yet, locking tongs, for serving
❑ Ice packs and a large cooler bag to keep the food cool and safe
❑ Small wash cloths dampened with soapy water
❑ A corkscrew or bottle opener, if you bring wine or beer
❑ Two trash bags to pick up what’s recyclable and non-recyclable
❑ A few condiments (a small jar of mustard, a container of gray salt or spicy gomasio)
Join the conversation!
What are your best recipes and tips for a successful picnic?
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