A Recipe for a Perfect Picnic

Public Domain. Unsplash (Toa Heftiba)

Picnics are supposed to be all about the setting, but really, the food matters a lot! Here's my basic formula for nailing it every time.

One of summer's greatest pleasures is a picnic. When there's good food to be enjoyed, a beautiful setting, and pleasant company, I'll take dining al fresco any day over a fine restaurant. Throughout the summer months, I make it a goal to organize picnics as often as possible, usually with other families. We go to the beach, eat our meal, and let the kids run free while we surreptitiously sip our beers and play volleyball. It's pretty much the perfect way to end the work week.

But let's talk about the most important part of any picnic, or at least the part that matters most to me -- the food! There are so many approaches to handling picnic food that I could write a dozen posts on it -- the potluck, the communal grill, the art of handheld foods, the salads, the impromptu pizza party -- but a good picnic, distilled down to its most basic form, is really quite simple to assemble. I think of it as a formula that includes:

1. Great bread

A Russian proverb says, "With a piece of bread in your hand you’ll find paradise under a pine tree," and these words ring truer than ever on a picnic. Choose some bread -- some really good fresh bread -- to use as a base for sandwiches.

2. A few fillings

If you're a meat-eater, stock up on good salami, prosciutto, and other charcuteries. If you don't eat meat -- or if you want to take your sandwich to the next level -- try this fabulous recipe from Ottolenghi for 'grilled and marinated sandwich vegetables.' It consists of eggplant, fennel, peppers, and onions that are cooked into a glorious oily, garlicky mess that's perfect for sandwiching between that great bread you got. Throw in some arugula, some fresh basil leaves, some sliced tomatoes, and you've got a treasure-trove of toppings.

3. Cheeses

One can never go wrong with a cheese board. Bring 2 or 3 cheeses for spreading on sandwiches, something like Boursin or my can't-live-without favorite Cambozola. There are some really impressive nut-based vegan cheeses now on the market that would make nice additions.

4. Fruit

Fruit is a must-have on a picnic. It doubles as a post-sandwich palate cleanser and dessert. I prefer 'wet' fruits, like watermelon, strawberries, and juicy peaches, depending on the time of year. (Bananas just don't quite cut it on a picnic.)

Then, if you're feeling more ambitious, you can embellish the basic formula with additional gourmet touches:

5. Dips & Salads

Throw in some hummus, baba ghanouj, tapenade, or white bean dip. Use it to spread on sandwiches or dip cut-up veggies. A potato salad is a classic picnic favorite, and ever since I started tossing my just-boiled potatoes in a rice vinegar-kosher salt mix, prior to adding other veggies or dressing, I can't get enough of it. (Thanks, Fine Cooking, for the tip.) Grain salads and chopped veggie salads are other good options, but avoid leafy lettuces, as they'll wilt.

6. Nut, olives & more

Now we're really talking! Get classy with an array of spiced nuts, marinated olives, roasted chickpeas, hard boiled eggs, bread sticks, and whatever else you feel like nibbling.

7. Tasty beverages

Nothing says 'picnic' quite like a jug of cold lemonade; for a change, you could try refreshing rhubarb iced tea. Even just some chilled bottles of flavored Perrier water will elevate a meal to new heights. For special adult drinks, check out this list of 8 portable picnic cocktails.

8. Dessert

When fruit isn't enough to satisfy your sweet tooth, finish the picnic with a real dessert. Cookies are my go-to choice, easy for kids to grab and eat while playing, but sometimes I stash ice cream bars in a freezer bag, which is always a hit. Avoid messy desserts like cheesecake or pie that require additional dishes; hand-held is probably your best bet.

Do you have any favorite picnic foods? If so, please share in the comments below. Happy outdoor feasting!