BWW Cooks: The Store-Bought Picnic Conquers the Grill
Say the word "picnic" to a dozen people, and you'll get a dozen descriptions, most of which will contain similar menus: burgers, fried chicken, or hot dogs; cole slaw, potato salad or macaroni salad; watermelon, iced tea, and assorted chips. Perhaps you're tired of the same old barbecue menu, or you feel like doing something original, or you don't want to go to all that effort. Or perhaps you want to be fancier but you just don't know how, or DOWNTON ABBEY has inspired you with images of formal English picnics with full courses and china. How do you get the American picnic out of its rut?
My first direct experience with a really different picnic menu came shortly after graduate school; a friend who had lived in Germany wanted to go for a picnic, and wanted to go right then. He pulled a tub of chilled leftover meatballs in barbecue sauce from the refrigerator, grabbed plates and silverware, a sharp knife and a tablecloth, and told me we were getting the rest of the food at a store. The rest of the food turned out to be a loaf of pumpernickel, a piece of Brie and a piece of muenster, a large bunch of grapes, and a bottle of Riesling. It turned out to be one of the best picnics I'd ever had, and the lack of mayonnaise-based salads was only part of its charm. Ditto the lack of having to light charcoal or a grill.
Whether you live near a park or you drive long distances and like to stop regularly, the best thing you can keep in your vehicle if you're a picnic lover is a picnic kit. Use a basket or a tote bag, disposable or reusable plates and silverware, whatever fits your needs and your budget. Keep handy plates, glasses, napkins, silverware or plasticware, and a sharp knife you won't miss - the dollar store can supply this need rather than a cutlery store. My kit also stashes sea salt and peppercorn grinders and mustard - vinegar-based condiments like mustard and hot sauce can be stored in it; just check them regularly. With these at hand any time, your chances for an impromptu picnic increase greatly.
The basics of a store-based impromptu picnic are many. Start with bread, preferably artisanal. Pumpernickel, sourdough, or Tuscan bread with rosemary? Loaves or rolls? Add cheese as you wish - Brie? Jarlsberg? Stilton? Perhaps a pre-sliced Swiss to accompany freshly cut cold cuts from the deli, should you wish sandwiches. Cold meats if sandwiches are your goal, or a fresh, juicy rotisserie chicken, which is as good cooled down during a drive to your destination as it is hot. Deli sections now include more than mayo-based traditional salads; check for broccoli salads, Greek pasta salads, chopped salads, or a kale salad. Mediterranean quinoa salads are available at many deli sections. The options have become endless, so pick whatever looks best and freshest. Look for fruit as well: ripe strawberries, juicy peaches and nectarines, bright red cherries, or sturdy apples. Perhaps cantaloupe chunks, or mixed pre-cut fruits, look best today. Watermelon? Only if you really want watermelon. Get pre-cut watermelon in a realistically sized tub; a whole watermelon feeds an army. Get what you think you'll really eat.
Your kit should already have mustard, hot sauce, and the like. A small, or even tiny, jar of mayonnaise will suffice for the day, as will the smallest quantity of butter available for your breads. What you don't finish, if the mayo jar or butter tub is larger than needed, will always be eaten at home. If you're on the road, a small refrigerator bag with some ice will keep whatever needs keeping until you reach your post-picnic destination.
Make your beverages before you leave, if you like, unless there's something at the store you'd prefer. Unfortunately, parks and highway rest areas usually won't permit wines or beers, good as those would be with your meal. Iced tea, lemonade, or ginger or raspberry shrub, or a bottled water, are probably your best choices; you've assembled a meal for which soda is an unworthy companion, unless it's an excellent organic root beer or ginger ale or beer.
If you're looking for a DOWNTON ABBEY picnic, think cold roast (or rotisserie) chicken. Store-cooked chicken, a French baguette and butter, bagged salad mix and your favorite bottled dressing will fill the bill. Check at the deli section for a cold vegetable salad - cole slaw and mayonnaise potato salad are not options for a traditional English picnic. Strawberries lend the right touch, as does a small cake or pie for dessert. The English used to pack small stoves to brew hot tea, but in America, iced tea may serve as well, and you'll probably find it more refreshing, or buy lemonade, which is in fact a traditional English choice. For a vegetarian entrée, see if your store sells pre-baked quiches.
Your picnic options are limited only by your imagination and what your store offers - if you want sushi for an entrée or an appetizer, suit yourself. There is no rule prohibiting sushi on a picnic, or ordering everything from the deli's Chinese food bar. A picnic is a meal eaten outdoors, not a set menu.
Allowing yourself the freedom of impromptu picnics, and of picking up your picnic at the store rather than slaving in the kitchen or over a grill with the same old menu, gives you the option of limitless menus and endless creativity without effort. Whether you're heading to the park with roast chicken, or the beach with deli tuna salad and a loaf of rye bread and some cheese, or you'll stop along your drive to have sushi and fresh fruit salad, ditch your rote picnic menu and think fifteen minute shopping session along the edges of your grocery. The produce section, the deli, the bakery, and the dairy section can provide the best parts of any picnic with no fuss and a menu that looks as if you'd planned it a week ahead. Your friends will want to be invited to your picnics just to see what you've done, and the kids won't moan "hot dogs again?" And you won't be lugging charcoal or a portable propane grill in the car.
Throw out your picnic menus, and think convenience, and you'll be able to refurbish your picnics fashionably and deliciously. Go for what's fresh and colorful at the store, and think cool and refreshing rather than hot, and you may never go back to packing the grill or making macaroni salad one more time.
Photo credits: Scott Paterson, Marilyn Barbone, Dreamstime.com