Picnics That Can Make It To The Top Of The Mountain

Picnic foods that were made to move: (clockwise from left) peanuty noodles, rice with pigeon peas, chocolate cookies and kale with peaches and feta. i i

Picnic foods that were made to move: (clockwise from left) peanuty noodles, rice with pigeon peas, chocolate cookies and kale with peaches and feta. Deena Prichep for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Deena Prichep for NPR
Picnic foods that were made to move: (clockwise from left) peanuty noodles, rice with pigeon peas, chocolate cookies and kale with peaches and feta.

Picnic foods that were made to move: (clockwise from left) peanuty noodles, rice with pigeon peas, chocolate cookies and kale with peaches and feta.

Deena Prichep for NPR

What is it about eating a meal outside that just makes everything seem wonderful in the world? I'm smitten with alfresco dining, hungering for the open-air charms of rooftop restaurants (less common than you'd think here in Portland, Ore.) and practically camping out at the table on my back porch (or, as it's become known, "the satellite office") for the bulk of the summer. But my favorite summertime dining experience of all is the humble picnic.

I love setting out a blanket on a summer lawn, unpacking surprising treats from fetching little thrift-store baskets that make me feel much fancier than I am. There's the contrast between rustic surroundings and carefully prepared fare, the calming effect of an endless warm summer evening, and the basic lovely surprise when a still-warm pie is presented in the middle of a municipal park. Sometimes, though, you need to pack a picnic with a bit more practicality — no wicker baskets or checkered tablecloths, no stemware (plastic or otherwise) that you can use to dress up an occasion. Sometimes you want to pack a picnic for a hike.

About The Author

Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories on topics ranging from urban agriculture to gefilte fish have appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Voice of America, The World and Northwest News Network, and in The Oregonian, Vegetarian Times and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.

I am a huge, huge fan of the post-hike picnic. As someone who feels like she should be given a medal just for bicycling the (mostly flat) mile and a half to the office, I am of the opinion that actual physical exertion should be rewarded with actual delicious food. There's also the basic reality that if you're climbing a mountain, you're going to work up an appetite.

Sometimes I go basic, tossing a granola bar or a few apples in a backpack — if I've hiked far enough, even a squashed 5-hour-old veggie burger can seem amazing. But sometimes I like to pack a proper picnic meal. Food you can sit and linger over, savoring the meal along with the summit view. Yes, preparing hike-friendly food is a bit more difficult than the usual summertime picnic spread. But with a bit of thought and planning, it can be easily done.

First, there's the basic food safety precautions. If you're going to be outside for several hours, it's best to leave your favorite egg and seafood combinations for another day (I'm sure my more laissez-faire European colleagues would take issue, but I've got a cautious view toward food poisoning). Dishes also need to lean more toward sturdiness than delicacy, so that you don't end up with a container of crumbs. And it's a good rule of thumb when it comes to flavor as well. Even if you usually appreciate the subtle charms of barely seasoned food, a sweaty few hours on the trail tends to bring out cravings for big flavors (as well as a few shots of protein and sugar).

As anyone who has backpacked through Europe can tell you, it's hard to go wrong with a crusty loaf of bread and wedge of good cheese. But why stop there? While lettuces may go limp, grain-based salads hold up beautifully, especially when studded with a handful of nuts, cheese or beans to add some welcome protein. Given food safety concerns, you probably want to leave mayo-dressed pasta salads at home (though perhaps you might have wanted to anyway), but salty-savory peanut sauces or punchy citrus or vinaigrette dressings work nicely. Simple slices of fresh fruits or vegetables can be surprisingly welcome, given their juicy crunch. And, of course, don't forget about a sturdy stack of cookies to bring along for a sweet reward. After all, you did just take a hike.

Kale, Peach, Corn And Feta Salad

While lettuce-based salads turn sadder and soggier the longer they sit in dressing, the sturdier leaves of kale just get nicer. This particular combination, inspired by a salad served at Brooklyn's Diner, matches kale with juicy peaches, briny feta and corn shaved right off the cob.

Kale, Peach, Corn And Feta Salad i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Kale, Peach, Corn And Feta Salad
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes 6 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Dollop honey

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 small red onion, sliced into thin half-moons

1 bunch kale (red Russian is especially nice), washed and torn into small pieces

1/2 bunch cilantro, washed and coarsely chopped

2 ears corn, cut off the cob

3 peaches, cut into slim wedges

1/4 cup feta (preferably a moist, mild feta, like French or Israeli), crumbled

In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, sherry vinegar and honey. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the onion, and let sit for a few minutes to mellow.

Add the kale and cilantro, and mix well to coat with the dressing. I like to sandwich two aluminum bowls together and shake, shake, shake until it's coated. Let sit for an hour, refrigerated or at room temperature, for the kale to absorb the dressing and soften. Scatter the corn, peaches and feta over the top and serve (or pack in containers for your picnic).

Summer Sesame Noodles

These savory, nutty noodles are delicious at any temperature, with a slick of sesame oil that keeps them nice and slurpy. I went with bright, juicy cherry tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and a handful of fresh herbs, but you can toss in whatever additions sound good. Fish sauce adds a nice savory note but may be omitted. If you'd like more protein, toss in some cubes of baked tofu.

Summer Sesame Noodles i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Summer Sesame Noodles
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes 6 servings

12 ounces noodles (you can use an Asian noodle, such as udon or bean threads, or regular or whole wheat linguini)

3 tablespoons sesame oil, plus more for noodles

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons minced ginger

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional)

1 tablespoon chili paste or chili oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar or lime juice

1/4 cup water

1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced into half moons

4 scallions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced

1 large handful basil leaves, chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

3/4 cup sun gold or other cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

Cook the noodles according to the package directions, then drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Place in a large bowl, toss with a splash of sesame oil to keep from sticking, and set aside.

Add the remaining sesame oil to the skillet, and when it's hot but not smoking, add the garlic and ginger. Saute, stirring, until they soften and begin to brown. Add the peanut butter, soy sauce, fish sauce (if using), chili paste, sugar, vinegar or lime juice and water. Stir or whisk for a minute until the peanut butter melts into the sauce and it is somewhat thickened and shiny. Taste to adjust seasonings so that it's as spicy/salty/sour/nutty as you like (keep in mind that this will be diluted over noodles, so you want a well-seasoned sauce). Pour over the noodles, and toss well to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste.

Allow the mixture to cool slightly (just enough so that it won't cook the remaining ingredients), and add the cucumber, scallions, basil, cilantro and cherry tomatoes. Toss gently to combine, and enjoy warm, cold or room temperature.

Caribbean Pigeon Pea Salad

This recipe, adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites (Clarkson Potter, 1996), turns a traditional Caribbean combination into a tangy salad. Pigeon peas, also known as gandulas, can be found canned or dried at Latin American markets or well-stocked grocery stores. Make sure you get the mature brown pigeon peas, not the green ones. If you can't find pigeon peas, substitute an equal amount of beans of your choosing.

Caribbean Pigeon Pea Salad i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Caribbean Pigeon Pea Salad
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Rice

1 teaspoon annatto (achiote seed)*

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/4 cups brown rice

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

3 garlic cloves, pressed or minced

2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dressing

2 medium tomatoes, chopped and cored

3 garlic cloves, peeled

Juice of 1 lime

1 to 2 tablespoons cider vinegar (depending how much sourness you like)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Salt and pepper to taste

Vegetables

1/2 cup finely chopped red onions

3/4 cup finely chopped celery

1 1/2 cups cooked pigeon peas

In a small saucepan, heat the annatto in the olive oil over low heat for about a minute, until the oil takes on a dark yellow-orange color. Drain through a strainer into a large pot. Add the rice, thyme and garlic to the oil in the large pot, and raise to medium-high heat. Stir for a few minutes to toast, then add the water and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat until it's just high enough to remain at a simmer. Cover and simmer until rice is tender, about 40 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, make the dressing. Place all of the dressing items in a blender and puree until smooth. Taste to adjust seasonings and set aside.

When the rice is ready, turn out into a large bowl, and toss with the dressing. Let cool slightly, then fold in the vegetables. Chill before serving.

* Annatto/achiote is a seed that, when heated, gives oil an orange color and subtle flavor. You can find it at Latin American or Asian markets (labelled "curry korn"), and it's sometimes available in a paste that you don't have to worry about straining. If not available, omit and proceed with the recipe.

Korova Cookies

While many of us favor soft and gooey cookies, for a long hike you want something sturdier. This version of Pierre Herme's chocolate sable cookies is adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets: Great Desserts from the City's Best Pastry Shops (Clarkson Potter, 2002). They are sturdy enough to stand up to a hike (especially if well-packed), while still having a bit of crumbly delicacy. A good dose of salt deepens the chocolate flavor (and replenishes you after a sweaty climb).

Korova Cookies i i
Deena Prichep for NPR
Korova Cookies
Deena Prichep for NPR

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

2/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus additional for sprinkling (optional)

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chip-size bits

Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together in a bowl. Set aside.

Put the butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and beat on medium speed until the butter is soft and creamy. Add the sugars, the salt and the vanilla extract, and beat for another minute or two until light and fluffy.

The refrigerated logs of dough are sliced into half-inch rounds. The cookies can be sprinkled with salt before baking.

The refrigerated logs of dough are sliced into half-inch rounds. The cookies can be sprinkled with salt before baking. Deena Prichep for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Deena Prichep for NPR

Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients. Mix until the dry ingredients are just barely incorporated (the dough should still be somewhat crumbly). Add the chopped chocolate and stir until combined.

Turn the dough out onto a smooth work surface, divide it in half, and shape each half into a log that is 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll to smooth, and wrap tightly in plastic or parchment paper. Chill until very firm, at least an hour and up to a few days.

When the dough is chilled and you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment or grease well.

Working with a sharp thin-bladed knife, slice rounds that are 1/2-inch thick (if they crumble during cutting, just smoosh back together). Place the cookies on the parchment-lined sheets, leaving about 1 inch between the cookies, and sprinkle with a tiny bit of additional salt if desired. Bake for 12 minutes. The cookies will still seem soft and not set, but that's fine. Let cool on the baking sheets until they come to room temperature, then remove and enjoy (or pack for your hike).

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