Eating out usually means restaurants but I think eating outside is an even better choice, especially due to COVID-19 and social distancing. The picnic season has begun and it is my favorite eating style. The dictionary definition—an outing with food, eaten in the open—doesn’t include that special state of mind: the carefree, spontaneous mood. I would elaborate on the dictionary definition and say a good picnic is a respite from the ordinary, an escape from routine, a time for adventurous feasting.
My mother loved picnics—she would use any excuse for us to pack up some food and go outdoors; preferably to a wild and woodsy spot. But barring the opportunity to do that, we ate on our backyard picnic table or on the screen porch. After we moved to Southern California when I was thirteen, we had poolside meals cooked in our outdoor Aztec oven. It didn’t matter too much what time of day. She would take us to a mountain location (in California) and cook breakfast in the clear mountain air. We did a fair amount of camping for longer stretches of time, but I really loved the spontaneous outings that Mom dreamed up for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
She was a great cook, too and the food was extraordinary. Yes, food DOES taste better outdoors, but only if it is good to begin with. There was nothing fancy about her menus—traditional fare like deviled eggs, potato salad, grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, sometimes steaks—but the sides were really special and she always packed that old-fashioned stuff like homemade pickles, relishes, crudités (which we called carrot, celery and radishes) cucumbers in vinegar, extras that were standard then but are rarely seen today.
Sandwiches were always on homemade bread—Mom was an expert bread baker. They always tasted so much better than the ones I fixed myself at home. She had the knack for spreading the right amount of butter or mayo or salad dressing, some horseradish, perhaps, or homemade chili sauce. She filled them full, so there was plenty of middle and not too much bread.
And dessert! Cookies, cake, coffee cakes or muffins for breakfasts as well as pies, lemon bars and brownies. There was always a piece de resistance to end the feast.
I love picnics, too and we indulge in them now more than ever since eating outside is such a better choice. Our area sports a great many perfect picnic sites, depending on whether it is a spontaneous lunch for two or a more planned group affair. A very special delight, except that somebody has to prepare everything, right? Well, maybe not if you’ve prepared ahead.
Picnics can be divided into different categories: picnics to take on the road, picnics for the backyard or porch, cook-outs, boat picnics, party picnics, picnics for two.
As soon as the weather starts being reliable, I pack my picnic basket and keep it at the ready. Now, you can stage a very elaborate feast which would entail a lot more than this basket holds, but that takes planning, cooking, inviting, etc. That’s a great way to entertain, but for our purposes here this basket is packed for two people to have a regular meal at the drop of a hat (of course, yours could be for any number).
I have an old-fashioned picnic hamper that has a top that lifts on each side of center and no insulation. In addition, I have several insulated bags that will fit into that rather large hamper. Thermoses are nice. A cooler would work; paper bags work; you don’t have to have fancy equipment. But whatever you use, keep staples inside it.
Paper plates or plastic plates
Plastic or regular flatware
Cups–Styrofoam or plastic
A tablecloth and clips to clip it onto a picnic table
Salt and pepper
A roll of aluminum foil
A few paper towels
A few zip-lock plastic bags
You may think of other “must-have” items, but this list is a good beginning.
The food for this type of picnic should be easily assembled and prepared from foods in the freezer, refrigerator, and on the kitchen shelves. Keeping your freezer stocked with prepared sandwiches, fried chicken and other goodies is the key to convenient but tasty dishes. Of course, you can stop at local delis, sandwich shops, or even the deli section of the supermarket to supply the meal, but you can have a real feast by doing a bit of footwork ahead of time. This is a favorite menu:
Marinated Vegetable Salad
My favorite fried chicken recipe is delicious either hot or cold. I got it from a Creole woman friend I met in married student housing on an Oklahoma campus in the late ‘60’s. She was from New Orleans and taught me to cook Creole style. The actual directions for this chicken start with “Put the chicken in the batter before church and it will be ready to fry when you get home.”
Janice Howard’s Real Southern Fried Chicken:
1 Frying Chicken, cut up
1-2 cups flour
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
One-half tsp. paprika
One-half tsp. garlic powder (or use garlic salt and reduce salt by one quarter tsp.)
2 cups half-and-half
Canola oil for frying (about 2 cups)
Two to three hours before frying: Put chicken parts in a mixture of half-and-half and beaten eggs in shallow glass baking pan large enough to hold chicken in one layer. Refrigerate two or three hours.
Prepare Chicken to fry: Put flour and seasonings into zip-lock bag. Add 2 pieces of chicken at a time to bag and shake well. Put on cooling rack to dry. When all pieces of chicken are coated, leave on rack for 10 minutes. Shake pieces of chicken in flour mixture again, adding more flour if necessary.
To fry: Preheat oil on medium heat in 10 or 12-inch cast-iron skillet (can use any very heavy skillet) until bread cube turns brown in 1 minute. Put pieces of chicken into skillet, largest pieces first. Make sure oil is at medium heat. Oil should come half way up chicken pieces; if not, add more oil. Fry 5 minutes (without covering), turn, fry 5 minutes more. Add small pieces to skillet, being careful not to crowd chicken. Fry 10 minutes; turn all pieces, fry 10 minutes more. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately or cool, wrap and freeze. Bring to room temperature before eating if frozen.
Marinated Vegetable Salad
Dressing (mix first)
1 cup vinegar
1 cup sugar
½ cup salad oil
1 Tbsp. salt
2 tsp., pepper
1 sp. celery seed
Add to dressing:
1 14-oz can peas drained
1 14-oz can French style green beans, drained
1 jar pimientos
1 green pepper, diced
1 small onion, chopped
3 stalks celery, diced
Chill overnight; use slotted spoon to serve; refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days/
Mom was an ad libber when it came to coleslaw; she just made up a recipe on the spot and it was always a little different, but always good. I have followed suit to some degree, although I like a little more consistency. The following recipe is flexible enough for you to ad lib, too, depending on what you have on hand.
½ head of cabbage
2 large carrots
½ green pepper
Other vegetables, as desired, i.e. zucchini, celery, sweet red peppers, cucumbers
½ cup mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
¼ cup sour cream (can use full-fat yogurt)
2 Tbsp. vinegar
2 Tbsp. sugar (or to taste)
½ tsp. celery seed
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
Shred vegetables and put in large bowl. Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, sugar, celery seed, salt and pepper in a blender or a jar with a tight-fitting cover. Blend or shake until well blended. Taste for balance; add more vinegar or sugar to taste. Pour over shredded vegetables and let sit in refrigerator, covered, for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
Biscuits (these are the tenderest, lightest biscuits ever)
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cream of tartar and sugar; cut in shortening til mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk all at once; stir only till dough follows fork around bowl. Turn out on lightly floured surface. Knead gently ½ minute. Pat or roll ½ ” thick. Cut with biscuit cutter—do not twist cutter. Bake on ungreased cookie sheet in very hot oven (450) for 10-12 minutes. Makes approximately 16 biscuits.
James Beard’s Cream Biscuits (A never-fail recipe)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
2 tsp. sugar
1 to 1 ½ cups heavy cream
1/3 cup butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 425. Use an ungreased baking sheet. Combine flour, salt, baking powder and sugar in a mixing bowl. Stir the dry ingredients with a fork to blend and lighten. Slowly add 1 cup of the cream to the mixture, stirring constantly. Gather the dough together; when it holds together and feels tender, it is ready to knead. If the dough seems shaggy and pieces are dry and falling away, then slowly add enough additional cream to make the dough hold together. Place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead for 1 minute. Put the dough into a square that is about ½ inch thick. Cut into 12 squares and dip each into the melted butter so all sides are coated. Place the biscuits 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the biscuits are lightly browned. Serve hot.
Pecan Sandy Cookies
This recipe makes a lot of cookies—they are even better than the ones that the elves make. They freeze well and are a perfect cookie to take on a picnic.
1 cup sugar
1cup powdered sugar
1 cup butter
1 cup oil
1 tsp. vanilla
4 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Beat first five ingredients very well. Add vanilla, flour, salt, soda and cream of tartar. Add pecans last. Chill dough. Roll dough into balls and dip into sugar. Bake at 375 until lightly brown.
If you want to stay young-at-heart and enjoy everyday life like my mother did right up until she died at 95, I suggest picnicking—even if it just taking your fast food to a park to eat. Of course, it’s a lot more fun and healthier to pack something homemade—but the idea is to try some new places, get out in the fresh air and do something good for yourself. Happy picnicking!!