The Italians call it dining “al fresco.” For the French, it’s “en plein air.” To us, it’s “swat the flies away from the salad.” Our words don’t sound as pretty as those from Europe, but they are Colorado’s sound of music when we dine outdoors.
But keep in mind that food prep and presentation are different when they’re meant for picnic eats as distinct from dining room eats. Here are some strong suggestions on how best to prepare food inside for eating outside:
- If food is going to be served a day after it’s prepared, start with the freshest of the fresh.
- If you’re using greens to cup or hold finger food, opt for the sturdy (yet still comely) leaves from Belgian endive, radicchio, some strains of kale, over leaf or romaine lettuces. The former do not pass out after a few hours having been laid on with nibbles such as mousse, cream cheese or fish salad.
- Same goes for lining a display or serving tray to hold, say, crudités, sliced meats or cold cuts, or other finger foods: Lay down stiff, water-holding greens such as kale instead of showy, but flimsy, lettuces such as Bibb, Boston or butter.
- Lightly toast larger slices of bread before slicing away their crusts or cutting them into smaller rounds or triangles. A light toast helps prevent moist toppings from making the bread soggy. Place cheese or meat slices–not lettuce leaves—closest to the bread when assembling take-with sandwiches (make the lettuce an inside layer). That helps prevent sogginess, too.
- If serving a sauce or condiment, place it on top of, not under, the other elements.
- Pasta is difficult to keep al dente after it has been soaked in a dressing. A cool risotto works, though. Also pilaf.
- Nearly every ethnic restaurant offers take-out. Vietnamese goi cuon and spring rolls make good picnic appetizers; so do some Chinese dim sum. In Italy, people fancy room-temperature pizza as walking-around food. It makes great picnic fare; go for a thin crust pizza, low on the sauce and cheese. Have it sliced at the pizza place. A sprinkling of fresh herbs (oregano, thyme, or marjoram) that you add just before serving out of the picnic hamper can boost flavor that seems to get lost when a pizza cools.
- Keep in mind that any red wine served at the ambient outdoor temperature (say, 80-90 degrees) really tastes awful. Its fruit is dulled. Its tannins are harsh. It’s just too much in the mouth. That’s why it’s OK to cool down a bottle of many a summer red to about 55-60 degrees, the temperature of well or spring water. Your food and your palate will thank you for it. Here’s how:
- Bring your bottles of reds down in temperature (and also retain the chill on those white wines): Soak a cotton towel in cool water—kitchen jersey or terrycloth, it doesn’t matter—wring it out and drape it over or around the wine bottle. Evaporation (even on a humid day) will help keep the bottle cool or bring down the temperature of a warmish red wine.
- Finally, no picnic is possible without baby wipes.
Every country that grows vegetables offers up a recipe for the meat-free, stew-like dish called ratatouille (RAT-uh-TOO-ee). Given a few more years of rising temperatures, I fancy Greenland will add its version to the library.
The ratatouille that we know originated in Provence. Its list of ingredients is a painter’s palette of southern France: eggplant, tomato, summer squash, red bell pepper, and the herbs oregano, thyme, and basil.
To these, for their part, the Italians add potatoes and carrots; Sicilians, celery and capers. Catalans carefully layer the ingredients; Northern Africans add garbanzo beans. As I say, every country has its turn.
The dish, always made well ahead of service, is perfect picnic fare, served out of doors at ambient temperature just as it is inside at dining room tables year round. It’s sometimes even delicious cool or cold, depending on how emphatic are the original flavors of its raw ingredients.
The recipe here is for a decidedly straightforward ratatouille because the vegetables are roasted before the final flourish of fresh basil or parsley. Roasting caramelizes vegetables, in addition to evaporating much of their (flavor diluting) moisture. The vegetables are also chunked into larger pieces so that the ratatouille better holds its shapes than the stirred, stewed, stovetop version made for indoors dining.
You might be able to eat most of it merely with your fingers. Not much more picnic-y than that, eh?
Roasted vegetable ratatouille
Serves 8, easily multiplied to serve more.
- 2 medium white, yellow, or red onions, peeled and quartered
- 2 small to medium, or 1 large, European eggplant, cut into 1 and ½-inch cubes, peel on
- 2 red bell peppers, stemmed and seeded, cut into 1-inch strips
- 4 medium summer squashes such as zucchini or yellow Italian, or any mix of same, cut into 1 and ½-inch chunks, most of peel left on
- 1/3 cup good quality but not overly “green” extra-virgin olive oil
- Hefty amounts of kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- 10-15 cloves garlic, peeled, whole
- 1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, oregano, or thyme, or (better) a mix of all three
- 1 and ½ pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into large chunks or wedges, lightly squeezed of seeds, peel on (or equivalent in canned whole, drained, uncrushed)
- 15 small or 10 medium basil leaves, casually torn, or the equivalent in flat-leaf parsley, or a mix of both.
- Heat the oven to 450 degrees. In a very large bowl, toss the onions, eggplant, peppers, and squashes in the olive oil and salt and pepper. On 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper (or slicked with more olive oil), scatter the vegetables, being sure that they do not touch much (or else they will steam instead of brown). Keep aside and handy the bowl in which they have been tossed. Roast the vegetables for 30 minutes or until they are beginning to brown.
- Lower the oven temperature to 400. Add the garlic cloves and the herbs to the large bowl and slick with the remaining oil and salt and pepper. Remove the sheets from the oven, shake them or stir up the vegetable pieces, and then scatter in the garlic cloves and herbs. Roast for another 20 minutes.
- Remove the sheets from the oven and scatter in the tomatoes. Roast for another 20 minutes.
- Remove everything and allow to cool down to warm; put into carrying containers, well mixed, along with the basil, and serve.
Reach Bill St. John at firstname.lastname@example.org