The happy children splashed in the lake water. Friends are chatting over a glass of wine. The sky is a glorious blue and the air clean and warm.
Al Fresco dining is defined as eating outside (from the Italian “al fresco” – dining outside at a fresh temperature), but to you and me, it’s a picnic. Eating outdoors with friends is especially popular during the summer months when the weather changes, and we become very aware of the beauty of nature’s bounty. These events are casual and offer a party-like atmosphere. Whether it’s a blanket thrown on the sand by a lake or an elegant table under the shade of a favorite tree in the park, a picnic is a celebration of the changing of the seasons. Having endured the long winter months, it is exhilarating to anticipate an outing that includes enjoying the warm sun with family and friends. The wistful breezes of summer seem to soothe our savage souls.
Planning the menu for such an event can be enjoyable and should include the summer’s freshest fruits and vegetables not readily available in the cooler months. For a healthy yet delicious meal, preparing a few dishes in advance increases the enjoyment. A visit to your local farmers’ market sparks many ideas that please everyone’s palate. A bottle of wine is always welcome, or you may wish to prepare a beverage that will be enjoyed by those of any age. Lemonade seems to just speak summer as well as picnic. And why not step it up a bit with a few leaves of muddled basil. Sounds yummy and adds an additional depth of flavor – and the adults might want to top it off with a splash of Proseco (Italian sparkling wine) or later in the afternoon a shot of vodka. Very refreshing.
Whether you have a vintage wicker basket given to you by your Granny or the popular stainless steel bento boxes, containers are a vital part of the planning. The convenience of throw away Chinese-type, take out boxes is tempting; these can be found in an wide variety of paper, plastic, prints, styles and colors. Check out these choices at: nashvillewraps.com/take-out-boxes. An individual serving in this type container eliminates packing additional plates and bowls. For the children, brown paper lunch bags or clear cellophane baggies can contain the freshest of cookies baked the night before. Tied with a ribbon, this “surprise bag” becomes an additional treat. Colorful cloth napkins always add punch to a festive occasion. Kitchen towels are also popular; they are larger and easily laundered.
Last minute preparation is often a hassle. A muffalata sandwich can be prepared the evening before and kept in the fridge. The lovely Italian olive salad mix adds a delightful punch of flavor and is a must for creating the authentic flavors (try Boscoli’s at: louisianagifts.net/Cajun-gifts-62.html). For ease in serving, choose a loaf of ciabatta bread or a long baguette instead of the traditional round boule loaf. This sandwich can be assembled the night before, packed tightly in plastic wrap in the fridge. Weighted with a plate, flavors have time to marry. To serve at the picnic, simply cut into preferred sizes for everyone to enjoy.
Of course these recipes are as changeable as the weather may be on the day of your picnic. Your preferences and those of your friends are an important part of any gathering. Choosing your menu based on the tastes of your guests is always the best idea because the true success of any picnic is the combination of good friends, good food, and good feelings.
A tradition for any outing, the dressing is a light vinaigrette and can take the summer heat.
12 oz. Penne Pasta, cooked, drained, cooled
1 bunch of asparagus tips, blanched
3 oz. (1 handful) arugula
3 scallions, chopped (both green and white parts)
10 grape tomatoes, halved
1 clove garlic, diced
Italian vinaigrette dressing, your choice
Salt and Pepper to taste
Combine pasta, asparagus, arugula, scallions, tomatoes and diced garlic. Add dressing and toss. Taste for salt and pepper as desired. When arriving at the picnic, toss in croutons for added flavor and crunch.
Lemonade with Basil
Juice of 6 large lemons
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 quarts water
1 small bunch fresh basil leaves
Muddle the fresh basil in a glass container. Add ice if you like. Combine lemon juice and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add water and adjust sweetness and strength of lemonade to taste. Pour over the muddled basil. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.
Cheese and herb Popovers
These little gems get put together so fast! Ingredients are placed in the blender and poured into mini-muffin pans. Great with soup or served as an hors d’ouevre. Taste great at room temperature.
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon herbs de Provence
4 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
1 cups whole milk
3/4 cup grated Parmesan (about 5 ounces)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
In a blender, combine eggs, flour, salt, pepper, and herbs, milk, and cheese. Blend on medium speed.
Spray a mini-muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the batter into the muffin cups, filling each cup 3/4 full. Bake until puffed and golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove popovers from muffin tin and cool on a wire rack. Save in an airtight storage container. Serve at room temperature.
These are crunchy and deeply flavored! Keep them on hand at home; they’re addictive!
2 cans chickpeas, drained, rinsed and dried in a towel
Place on sprayed cookie sheet and sprinkle with approximately 4 tablespoons olive oil. Add salt to taste.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Blot chickpeas with a paper towel to dry them. In a bowl, toss chickpeas with olive oil, and season to taste with salt and seasoning preference. Spread on a baking sheet, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until browned and crunchy. Watch carefully the last few minutes to avoid burning. Allow to cool and store in airtight container.
Suggested seasoning combinations:
Tarragon, fennel, roasted garlic, honey, and lemon juice.
Garlic, pepper and rosemary.
Fruit and Brie Cheese Bites
Wonderful flavor combinations and a great hit at a cocktail party or on a picnic! Consider replacing phyllo dough with puff pastry.
Makes about 1 dozen
1 large apple, peeled and diced
2 tbsp butter
1/4 tsp five spice powder
juice of half a lemon
Place the above ingredients in a pan over medium heat until the apples just begin to soften. Then add
1/2 cup chopped dried figs
Leave on heat for another minute until combined. Set mixture aside until cool.
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 pkg frozen phyllo pastry, thawed
6-8 ounces brie cheese
Cut the pastry sheets into about 4×6 rectangles. Use four of these per hors d’ouevre. Lay one sheet of phyllo flat, brush with a little butter and repeat until you have a stack of 4 layers. Place a tablespoon of the fig apple mixture along with a small square of cheese at the center of short side of the rectangle, near the edge. Fold the sides in toward the middle, meeting almost at the center, almost covering the filling, then roll up like a spring roll. Place the bundles seam side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until evenly golden brown.
Orange Chocolate Bars
This recipe is adapted from Giada De Laurentiis; it’s so easy and delicious, travels well, and goes with anything Italian. Who doesn’t like orange and chocolate. Right. For those allergic to nuts, crushed pretzels provides similar crunch. The kids will enjoy these as well.
Makes about 12 bars or 24 smaller squares
1 tube store bought sugar cookie dough
1 cup jarred orange marmalade
1 cups assorted nuts or pretzels, toasted and chopped
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Spread the cookie dough out on a cookie sheet to 1/4-inch thickness (about 9 inches by 12 inches) using fingertips. Bake for 25 minutes. Let cool. Spread marmalade over the cookie. Sprinkle with nuts and/or pretzels.
Melt chocolate chips and drizzle on top of the cookie. Let cool. Cut the cookie into bars or squares. Serve or store in an airtight container.
According to gumbopages.com, “the muffaletta sandwich was invented by Signor Lupo Salvadore, who opened the now-famous little Italian market called Central Grocery on Decatur Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans in 1906 and created the muffaletta sandwich, named for a favored customer…” This sandwich speaks the Big Easy! If you haven’t had one before, you are in for a delightful treat.
In Italian, ciabatta means “slipper,” leading some people to call the bread “slipper bread.” The name is a reference to the shape, which does sort of resemble a slipper. Ciabatta bread tends to be short, wide, and long, which makes it ideally suited to sandwiches. It is also offered with olive oils and other dips, since the crumb absorbs dips and liquids very well.
1 Italian baguette or ciabatta bread
Olive Salad Mix (try Boscoli’s), or olive tapenade
1/4 pound smoked ham and/or prosciutto
1/4 pound Genoa salami
1/4 pound soppressata
1/4 pound mortadella
1/4 pound cotto salami
1/2 pound mozzarella cheese
1/2 pound provolone cheese
8 basil leaves
Slice the bread in half horizontally, and remove enough of the doughy insides to make room for the fillings. Spread the olive salad mix on the bottom and top pieces of bread, spreading to saturate the bread with oil. Alternately layer the bottom bread with the meat, cheese, basil leaves and remaining olive salad to taste.
Wrap tightly in plastic wrap weighted with a plate. Let sit overnight in fridge for flavors to marry and oil to soak into bread.
Muffaletta Olive Salad Mix
1 1/2 Cups Green Olives, Pitted
1/2 Cup Kalamatta Olives (or Black) Pitted
1 Cup Gardiniera (Pickled Cauliflower, carrots, celery, Pepperoncini)
1 Tbsp. Capers
2 Garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/8 Cup Celery, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. Italian Parsley, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. Fresh oregano or 2 tsp. dried
1 tsp. Crushed red pepper flakes
3 Tbsp. Red Wine Vinegar
1/4 Cup Pimientos (Roasted red peppers)
1 Tbsp. Green Onions, thinly sliced
Black pepper and salt to taste
Crush each olive on a cutting board with your hand. Combine all ingredients. Cover with:
1 1/2 cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Place in bowl or jar, cover and refrigerate for several days to let flavors marry.
Chocolate Kahlua Dabs
An updated version of your Mom’s rum balls, these tiny delights are so delicious, especially with coffee and after dinner drinks. Bring these out when the sun is setting on your picnic, and everyone is feeling very relaxed. So easy, no baking required.
3 cups crushed graham crackers
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup dark cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups finely chopped semisweet chocolate
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 Tbsp corn syrup
1/3 cup Kahlua
3 Tbsp brewed coffee
1/2 cup granulated sugar, for rolling
In a large bowl, whisk together the crushed graham crackers, powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and chocolate. Stir in the vanilla, corn syrup, Kahlua, and coffee until the dough comes together. Shape the dough into 1″ balls. Roll them each in the granulated sugar. Store in an airtight container in fridge overnight to develop flavors. Makes 15-20 balls.
Creamy Cucumber Soup
3 plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded
4 medium cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1 small bunch green onions, tops and whites
2 garlic cloves
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp salt
4 basil leaves, chopped
Blend all until smooth. Chill for several hours or overnight. Can be served warm if preferred.
Baked Stone Fruits
A delicious finale to an afternoon of food and fun, this goes well with brunch or as a luncheon dessert.
1/2 cup butter, plus more for the baking dish
2 pounds mixed ripe stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots), halved and pitted
1/2 cup caster sugar
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup raspberries
3 T Amaretto
Butter a baking dish and lay in the fruit halves, skin-side down. Dot with the butter and sprinkle with the sugar and Amaretto. Add 2 tablespoons water to the bottom of the dish. Cover with foil and bake until the fruit is soft about 10 minutes. Uncover and finish baking for 5-10 minutes, until the fruit is slumping. Cool to room temperature. Sprinkle on raspberries and almonds. Serve with slightly sweetened sour cream.