Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.
One of the best lunches I ever had was also one of the simplest: fresh bread, the sharpest of sharp local cheddars, pistachio nuts from a trip to Greece, washed down with lukewarm water. It was almost too windy to eat, and my parents and I had hiked for miles, only to sit on the ground.
On a breezy afternoon on a California hillside, we were without complaint. We nibbled and talked of things large and small, the breeze ruffling the dry grass and the Pacific Ocean spread out before us like a shining flag.
Who needs a quiet table in the corner? No matter where you eat, memorable meals are always possible. If you dine outside, those possibilities are almost limitless.
I do love a picnic. I love thinking about where I'll be going and what would culinarily best fit the setting. For example, a beach ramble always calls for a cheese and avocado sandwich with just a smear of mustard, an apple tucked in my pocket for later. An afternoon under the redwoods, on the other hand, would probably be better suited to a more elaborate spread of pasta salad, homemade lemon cake and a bottle of champagne. I once put together a Mother's Day outdoor feast of from-scratch macaroons, crab salad sandwiches and a red plum and pear fruit salad.
While it's true you can make a meal out of nearly anything — a bit of bread and cheese, a handful of cherry tomatoes, sparkling juice, a peach cut into long, dripping slices — dining en plein air doesn't mean you have to stick with the standard soggy potato salads and deviled eggs so endemic to childhood picnics.
No, I think of picnic fare as the ultimate takeout food.
Some of the easiest foods to bring outside are also some of the most portable: bread or crackers, cheese, hummus, olives packed up in a little container, fruit. They can augment more substantial dishes. I always select recipes that will taste better the next day and are served cold or at room temperature so I won't have to bother with actually cooking anything on site.
If I'm incorporating a hike, I bring foods that don't have to be eaten at a table — lentils, in individual serving containers, are a delicious and nourishing choice — and that are hardy enough to survive a few hours in a backpack. If I'm really pressed for time, I pick through my cupboards for cookies or nuts that will survive the journey; I like variety, and sometimes a sandwich just doesn't do the trick.
Of course, it's essential to remember all the little things for your meal as well — napkins, plates (if necessary), utensils, cups, etc. — so you're not left passing around a bottle of lemonade among your companions and hoping no one has a cold.
I tried to come up with dishes here that are sturdy, packable and that can be made in advance. I've also tried to omit dairy so if they're left out of the fridge for a few hours they'll still taste just fine — the flavors, in fact, will probably have better settled when eaten at room temperature.
These are dishes that can be made as part of a larger feast, but each can stand on its own. The spring rolls in particular are a complete (if light) and compact meal. The desserts are small enough to be eaten in a few bites, which somehow feels just right when eating outside. Mostly, I like to keep things simple but not boring.
There are so many worthy options: a couscous salad with chickpeas and cucumber, quinoa and white beans, beets roasted and tossed with dill and lemon juice, sauteed portabello mushrooms marinated in garlic-infused olive oil, a corn and tomato salad, mini angel food cakes with fresh strawberries. It would be difficult to choose just a few. Fortunate, then, that summer stretches out long and languid before us, with lots of time for picnicking.
That windy afternoon picnic high above the ocean was one of my best in recent memory. After eating, we packed up the pistachio shells we'd piled alongside the trail and brushed off the crumbs, congratulating ourselves for lugging in such a good lunch.
Next time, I said, we should bring some roasted-pepper hummus for sandwiches, and maybe some chocolate cake, and an orange or two ...
You could substitute or add other vegetables of choice — for example, bean sprouts or shredded cabbage would be nice — and play around with the different flavor combinations.
Makes 1 dozen rolls
1 carrot, peeled, cut in half and sliced lengthwise
5 radishes, chopped
5 button mushrooms, chopped
1/2 pound firm tofu, sliced in 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 cup romaine lettuce
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
Rice paper wrappers (available at most health food stores)
1/4 cup tahini
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 clove crushed garlic
3 tablespoons warm water
Toss the mushrooms, carrot, cucumber, tofu and radishes in a bowl. Taking one piece of rice paper, soak in warm water for 45 to 60 seconds, until pliable. Lay flat on a plate and place a piece of lettuce and a few pieces of basil and mint near the edge closest to you. Sprinkle on about 4 tablespoons of the filling and roll up tightly, folding over the ends. Repeat until all the ingredients are used.
In a medium bowl, combine the tahini, lemon juice, soy sauce and garlic, and whisk to combine. Add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking, adding more if necessary to make a smooth sauce.
I've omitted the cheese in this pesto, and surprisingly you won't miss it at all (the thought being that if this salad is kept unrefrigerated for awhile, it will be OK), though of course you may swap for a more traditional pesto if you prefer.
Makes 4 servings
10 red or new potatoes, scrubbed and cut in half
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound green beans
2 cloves garlic, sliced
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 bunch basil leaves, stems removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Arrange the potatoes in a large baking dish and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bake the potatoes until they are tender when pierced with a fork and a bit crispy, shaking the pan once, about 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, wash and trim the green beans. Toss in a frying pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil and saute over medium heat until tender but still firm. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a food processor, blend the garlic and pine nuts. Add the basil and salt. Add the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil and process until it forms a smooth paste.
Combine the potatoes, green beans and pesto in a bowl, and stir well to combine. Serve at room temperature.
The feta adds a bright, salty punch of flavor here, but the lentils taste delicious even without it if you eschew dairy. Serve with bread and hummus, or with the potato salad.
Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
5 shallots, thinly sliced
1 cup French lentils
2 cups water or vegetable broth
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup crumbled feta
In a heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil and shallots over medium heat. Reduce to low, cover and cook for about 15 minutes (or longer), until the shallots are soft and caramelized.
In another pot, combine the lentils with 2 cups water or vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Add salt, pepper and basil.
Add the feta and shallots and stir well to combine.
Completely hand-held, these little cakes avoid having to deal with fork and plate, and are a satisfying finish.
Makes 12 small cakes
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
5 to 6 plums, sliced
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup finely ground almonds (grind 2/3 cup whole almonds in a food processor for 3 minutes, until smooth)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
For topping, melt butter and sugar in a saucepan, whisking to melt the sugar. In a muffin tin, spoon in about 2 tablespoons of butter per muffin. Arrange the plum slices on top of the butter-sugar mixture.
For cake, cream the butter and sugars until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and vanilla. Sift the dry ingredients together and add to wet, alternating with the milk. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until firm but not dry. Fold into the cake batter.
Spoon the batter gently on top of the plums in the prepared pan. Put in oven and bake about 25 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let rest in pan 30 minutes before removing.
Cinnamon Cookies With Balsamic-Marinated Strawberries
Make the strawberries in the morning and let them marinate until your picnic. Fresh mint isn't essential, but it's a flavorful addition to the dish.
Makes 2 dozen cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet.
Sift the dry ingredients (except sugar) into a bowl and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine wet ingredients, including sugar, and whisk until blended. Stir in the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. (The dough will be sticky.)
Using a teaspoon, scoop out cookies onto cookie sheet and press gently with a fork. Sprinkle sugar over the top and bake about 10 minutes.
1 pint strawberries
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
Fresh mint leaves
Cap and thinly slice the strawberries and place in a large bowl. Mix with the balsamic vinegar and sugar. Cover and refrigerate, 2 hours to overnight. Taste and add more sugar if desired. Garnish with the mint leaves.
Spoon a few teaspoons over a cinnamon cookie and serve.