Picnic Perfect: Chef-Approved Dishes for Dining Alfresco

By

When the warm weather hits, it’s time to start packing … a picnic, that is. Creating a spread that goes beyond the standard picnic fare may require a bit of thinking outside the basket, however. For some inspiration, we consulted chefs across the country on their favorite picnic dishes for wowing the crowds.

Creative Charcuterie

With little prep work involved, charcuterie is a chef-approved picnic dish that makes a great addition to any basket. For Chef Ericka Burke of Seattle’s homey Volunteer Park Cafe (which features a menu that would be perfect for picnicking), a charcuterie plate is always a crowd-pleaser. Burke likes to compose her version with a mix of sliced cured meats and pickled vegetables. “I love making simple pickles with whatever is in season,” says Burke. “Green beans, beets and shallots are all great.”

Chef Adam Greenberg of Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant in Washington, D.C., packs his basket with jamon, cheese and ciabatta to assemble on-site. “It’s a really basic sandwich, but the key is to use high-quality ingredients,” Greenberg explains. 

He suggests packing the ingredients in your picnic basket rather than preparing the sandwich beforehand. You’ll need a sandwich roll or ciabatta roll, freshly sliced Serrano ham, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced Manchego cheese and extra virgin olive oil. 

To start, cut the roll in half lengthwise, then cut the tomato in half and rub on the inside of the bread, making sure to press the tomato so the pulp rubs on the bread. Sprinkle olive oil evenly over the bread, then place the Serrano ham slices and lastly the Manchego. “Cut in half or into small slices, and enjoy!” Greenberg says. He also suggests adding arugula and piquillo peppers (which he loves because they are jarred and thus easy to transport).

New Spin on Chopped Salad

For Chef Matt Sigler of the creative Italian neighborhood restaurant Renata in Portland, Ore., a good Italian pasta salad is a must. His go-to is a take on a chopped salad, subbing out the lettuce for fusilli pasta. As Sigler notes, “Who doesn’t like a little salumi, cheese, olives, pickles and pasta?” He is also partial to this picnic dish because it pairs well with a nice glass of rosé or a Lambrusco.

Renata’s “Chopped” Pasta Salad

Ingredients:

1 pound dried fusilli pasta

1 1/2 cups giardiniera, chopped (see below)

1 1/2 cups green olives, chopped (reserve brine for next batch of giardiniera)

1 1/2 cups soppressata, chopped

1 1/2 cups provolone picante, diced

1/2 cup red onion, finely diced

1/8 cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1/4 cup chopped mint

Salt and pepper to taste

For the giardiniera:

1 cup baby carrot

1 cup baby turnip

1 cup fennel

1 cup celery

1 cup radish

1 cup cauliflower

1/4 cup peeled garlic

2 habanero chiles (optional)

3 cups reserved olive brine

3 cups distilled vinegar

Directions:

Cut vegetables for giardiniera to desired size and store in a 6-quart Cambro or container. Bring olive brine and distilled vinegar up to a boil with chiles split inside. Pour hot liquid over vegetables and leave out to cool. Store container with vegetables in liquid until ready to use.

To make the salad, cook pasta in salted boiling water until cooked through. Toss with a little oil to prevent from sticking, and cool. In the meantime, combine the chopped vegetables, meat and cheese.

Add all ingredients together and taste for salt and acid, adding more if desired. Adjust heat to personal preference.

Taco Flavors to Go

Chef Michael Armstrong of the tequila bar and restaurant Bodega Negra and its more casual counterpart, Bodega Negra Cafe, says that his portable creation came about because he wanted to bring the flavor of tacos to a picnic in an easy-to-carry way. “As much as I would love to bring tacos to a picnic, they aren’t as travel-friendly as you would think. So I came up with these Taco Salad Summer Rolls,” Armstrong explains.

Each roll is stuffed with chicken breast, iceberg lettuce, radishes, queso fresco, black beans, pico de gallo and avocados, as well as crispy tortilla strips to add that classic taco crunch. Armstrong serves the rolls with a jalapeno ranch dipping sauce. “They’re everything you love about tacos, but wrapped up in a convenient little package,” he says.

Bodega Negra Taco Salad Summer Rolls

Ingredients:

8-ounce organic chicken breast, pounded thin

1/2 cup canned black beans, rinsed clean

1/2 cup pico de gallo

Eight 8-inch Vietnamese rice paper spring roll wraps

4 ounces iceberg lettuce, shredded

4 ounces fried tortilla strips or chips

2 avocados, pitted and sliced

2 limes, halved

1/2 cup queso fresco, crumbled

4 ounces red radishes, sliced in thin rounds

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup jalapeno ranch dipping sauce (recipe follows)

Directions:

Season chicken breast with salt and pepper, and cook on a hot grill or grill pan until fully cooked. Allow to cool, then slice into eight thin strips and set aside.

Mix black beans with pico de gallo and stir together; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

To begin the wraps, place all ingredients in small dishes on a large counter space. Take a wide, shallow tray and fill with room-temperature water.

Working one at a time, place the rice paper wraps in the water and gently soak until softened. It is important that the wraps are soft and pliable but not too soaked, as they can rip easily.

Remove wrap from water and place on a clean and dry cutting board.

Build the wraps in the same order of ingredients for each one, placing them toward the center-bottom half of the wrap. Start with the lettuce, then top with tortilla strips, chicken, black bean pico de gallo, avocado and squeeze of lime. Season with salt and pepper, queso fresco and slices of red radish across the top.

Fold up the roll, bringing the bottom part over the ingredients and folding it tightly together, then folding in the sides and rolling tight upward toward the top (similar to rolling a burrito). Be careful not to rip the wrapping, but try to keep the wrap as tight as possible.

Set the wraps aside and continue one by one until all wraps are made. Slice in half on a slight bias and serve 2 wraps (4 pieces) per portion. Serve the jalapeno ranch dipping sauce on the side and eat immediately.

For the jalapeno ranch sauce:

1 quart buttermilk

1/2 bunch cilantro, bottom stems trimmed

1 jalapeno pepper, roasted, peeled, deseeded

1-ounce packet of ranch dressing seasoning

1 quart mayonnaise

1 lime, juiced

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine buttermilk, cilantro and jalapenos in blender and blend until smooth. Put ranch seasoning in a large bowl, then whisk in buttermilk mixture.

Stir in mayonnaise and season with fresh lime and pepper. Set aside to cool.

Photos courtesy of Geoffrey Smith, Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant, Renata and Bodega Negra