Capture the true spirit of America on her 240th birthday with a festive picnic spread that is open to reinterpretations.
For a star-spangled picnic that will draw plenty of oohs and aahs, you could go the quintessential route and build a classic American basket with Southern-style fried chicken, potato salad that has vinegar instead of mayonnaise, Texas sheet cake with a chocolate ganache topping and fresh homemade lemonade.
Or fix a basket with chipped chopped ham sandwiches and homemade bread-and-butter pickles, baked beans, strawberry salad with pretzels and cold beer.
For picnickers with cross-cultural palates, treat them to a melting pot basket that has chicken kebabs on pita bread drizzled with a garlicky yogurt sauce, pesto orzo salad studded with sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cubes, light and refreshing horchata, and almond-loaded biscotti.
Rania Harris of Rania’s Catering in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., said when packing for a picnic, place ice packs at the bottom and hard plastic food containers over them. Soft items such as fruits should be on top.
Harris said the rule of thumb when deciding how much to pack depends on the menu. Generally an adult eats 4 ounces of salads (pack at least three salads for a good variety), two pieces of fried chicken and one hamburger or hot dog.
Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is a no-brainer but something worth repeating, so invest in big coolers or insulated backpacks.
Foods can be kept warm by insulating them in several layers of newspaper or towels and packing them closely as warm food will keep other warm food, well, warm.
Pack foods that are outdoor friendly and that can be conveniently picked up and popped into the mouth.
To keep beverages cold, take a cooler that can be opened and closed with ease and retain the coldness for a while. Place the cooler in the shade so that the temperature will be preserved longer. Event planner Theresa Kaufman suggests placing frozen water bottles in the cooler. This way food items can be kept cold, and as the water thaws, ice-cold beverages would be available. Also, you would not have to fill the cooler with cold packs.
Portability is key when planning a picnic menu, so think of items that can be carried easily. Also, pack foods that are outdoor friendly and that can be conveniently picked up and popped into the mouth.
And, finally, don’t forget to pack a picnic attitude — blend patriotic and generous spirits, layer it with a sense of adventure and top it with a large dollop of good cheer.
Do’s and don’ts when packing for a picnic
Rania Harris of Rania’s Catering in Mt. Lebanon offers these tips when packing a picnic basket.
▪ Hard rolls or baguettes as they will remain intact.
▪ Easy-to-pick-up fruits such as cherries, strawberries and grapes.
▪ Crunchy vegetables such as carrots and celery.
▪ Chill beverages such as water, lemonade, iced tea and beer.
▪ Use “resposables” (good quality, hard plastic that can be washed and reused time after time) to stay eco friendly.
▪ Soft bread as it can get crushed in the basket.
▪ Foods with mayonnaise, sour cream, milk and raw eggs.
Real Southern Buttermilk-Fried Chicken
Soaking chicken pieces in buttermilk before frying makes for one juicy, tender, finger-licking dish. Don’t forget to throw a couple of cold packs in the freezer before cooking: Cooked fried chicken needs to be kept below 40 degrees until it is served.
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into pieces (I used 8 thighs and legs)
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups cake flour
Lard, for frying (I used Crisco shortening)
Make marinade: In medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place chicken pieces in large zip-top bag and pour in marinade. Seal bag and refrigerate for 12 hours.
Shake together flour and remaining 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in large paper grocery bag.
In large heavy skillet, heat lard over medium heat to 350 degrees. It should be 1 1/2 inches deep when melted. Prepare 2 rimmed baking sheets with wire rack over each pan (1 for floured chicken and 1 for fried chicken).
Remove chicken pieces from marinade and drop them in bag with flour. Gather open end of bag to close and shake vigorously to coat all the pieces with flour. Transfer chicken from bag to prepared baking sheet. Discard marinade.
Carefully place half of the chicken in hot lard. Fry, turning often, for 14 to 15 minutes, or until brown and juices run clear. Maintain frying temperature of 325 to 340 degrees. Drain chicken on clean wire rack. Repeat with remaining pieces.
—“Fried Chicken” by Rebecca Lang (Ten Speed, May 2015, $16.99)
Pesto Orzo with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
2 cups basil leaves, firmly packed
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
6 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 packet orzo (16 ounces)
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, diced in small cubes
Blend basil with half the olive oil, walnuts, garlic and red pepper flakes. Then add remaining oil slowly to form a smooth paste.
In a large pot, cook orzo according to directions.
Gently mix pesto with orzo. Add sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cubes.
— Arthi Subramaniam
Texas Sheet Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
1 cup water
2 cups self-rising flour
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
For ganache icing:
1 cup (8 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake pan and set aside.
Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat, stir in cocoa powder. Add 1 cup water, then increase heat to high and bring mixture to boil. Remove pan from heat and whisk in flour and sugar, mixing well. Stir in eggs, vanilla and yogurt.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden on top. Remove cake from oven and allow it to cool in pan, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, to make ganache, place chocolate chips in large heat proof bowl. In medium saucepan set over medium-high heat, bring cream and corn syrup just barely to a boil. Stir to combine. Pour cream mixture over chocolate and allow to stand for 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Pour ganache over cooled cake and using an offset spatula, cover cake completely.
— Adapted from “Trisha’s Table: My Feel-Good Favorites for a Balanced Life” by Trisha Yearwood (Clarkson Potter, March 2015, $29.99)
8 medium red bliss or new potatoes, scrubbed and halved or quartered
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds, toasted over low heat
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put potatoes in pot and cover with water. Add salt, bring to boil and simmer over medium heat until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain potatoes. When cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized pieces.
Place potatoes in bowl and add dill. Dress salad with olive oil and vinegars to taste. Add mustard seeds and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently, checking the seasoning and adjusting as necessary. Serve at room temperature
— “The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook” by Chris Fischer (Little, Brown and Company, June 2015, $35)
Servings: 30 cookies.
1 1/4 cups whole almonds, lightly toasted
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, plus 1 large white beaten with pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil spray
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Draw 2 8-by-3-inch rectangles, 4 inches apart on parchment paper. Grease baking sheet and place parchment on it, ink side down.
Pulse 1 cup almonds in food processor until coarsely chopped. Set aside. Process remaining 1/4 cup almonds until finely ground. Add flour, baking powder and salt; process to combine. Transfer to bowl.
Process 2 eggs until volume doubles. Add sugar, butter, almond extract, vanilla extract and process until well combined. Transfer to medium bowl. Sprinkle half of flour mixture over it and gently fold. Add remaining flour mixture and chopped almonds.
Divide batter in half. Using floured hands, form each half into 8-by-3-inch rectangles. With spatula coated with oil spray, smooth tops and sides. Gently brush tops of loaves with egg white wash.
Bake until golden brown, or just as begins to crack on top, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool loaves on baking sheet for 30 minutes.
Slice each loaf into 1/2-inch thick slices. Lay slices, cut side down, about 1/4-inch apart on wire rack. Bake until crisp and golden brown on both sides, about 35 minutes, flipping slices halfway through baking.
Let cool completely before serving.
— Cook’s Illustrated magazine
Servings: 8. For a light and refreshing drink on a hot summer day, serve this Mexican beverage that has pleasant hint of cinnamon.
1 cup white long-grain rice
5 cups water, divided
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Wash the rice and place in a bowl. Add enough water to cover the rice and let it sit overnight.
Rinse the rice a couple of times.
Blend half the rice and 1 cup of water until rice is a smooth paste. Add 1 cup of water, milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon; blend well.
Transfer to pitcher and add remaining water. Chill and stir before serving over ice.
— Adapted from allrecipes.com
Front Porch Sippin’ Lemonade
Servings: 2 quarts.
2 pounds lemons, washed
2 cups boiling water
1 1/2 cups sugar
Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from lemons. Add zest to boiling water. Cover and let steep 30 minutes.
Remove and discard lemon zest. Add sugar to warm lemon water, and stir to dissolve. Let lemon syrup cool to room temperature. Transfer syrup to a 2-quart pitcher.
Cut lemons in half, and squeeze out juice. (You should get 1 1/2 cups juice.) Stir lemon juice into lemon syrup.
Add enough cold water to equal 8 cups lemonade. Stir well. Refrigerate until serving time. Serve in tall glasses with lots of ice.
— “The Sweet Magnolias Cookbook” by Sherryl Woods (Harlequin, $21.95)
Chicken Kebabs On Pita
3/4 cup plain yogurt
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
5 small pita rounds
In a bowl, stir together yogurt, garlic, jalapeno, cumin and coriander powders, salt and pepper. Add chicken thighs and let marinate overnight or at least for 3 to 4 hours. Transfer to baking dish.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake chicken for 25-30 minutes, turning pieces once or twice.
For yogurt sauce
1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
1 medium garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon mint, finely cut
Salt and pepper to taste
In a bowl, mix all ingredients. Keep refrigerated until it is drizzled on the chicken kebabs.
1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut lengthwise in half
1 1/2 cups Romaine lettuce, shredded
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a medium bowl, toss all ingredients together. Set aside.
To assemble chicken on pita, layer bread with salad and top it with the chicken kebab. Finally, drizzle the yogurt sauce on top and serve.
— Arthi Subramaniam
Servings: 7 pints.
16 cups sliced small to medium pickling cucumbers
8 medium white onions, sliced
1/3 cup pickling salt
3 cloves garlic, halved
4 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
In 8-quart stainless steel, enamel or nonstick pot, combine cucumbers, onions, pickling salt and garlic. Add 2 inches crushed ice. Cover and chill for 3 to 12 hours.
Remove any unmelted ice from pan. Transfer cucumber mixture to large colander and drain. Remove and discard garlic pieces.
In same pot combine sugar, vinegar, mustard seeds, celery seeds and turmeric. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Stir in cucumber mixture and return to boil. Remove from heat.
Pack hot cucumber mixture and liquid into hot sterilized jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Wipe jar rims; adjust lids and screw bands.
Process filled jars in boiling water canner for 10 minutes (start timing when water returns to boil). Remove jars from canner; cool on wire racks.
— “Better Homes and Gardens Complete Canning Guide” (April 2015, $29.99)
Tangy Baked Beans
16-ounce bag dried navy beans
1 cup Heinz ketchup
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons Heinz yellow mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 center-cut bacon slices, diced
Combine beans and 6 cups water in 6-quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.
Stir together ketchup, onion, brown sugar, vinegar, maple syrup, mustard, salt, Worcestershire and garlic powder. Sprinkle bacon on top. Cover and cook on high 4 to 5 hours. Uncover and cook on low 30 minutes or until slightly thickened. (Beans will be soupy.)
— Adapted from “Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ” (Oxmoor House, April 2015, $24.95)
Strawberry Pittsburgh Pretzel Salad
Servings: 20 squares.
2 cups finely crushed pretzels
1/2 cup sugar, divided
2/3 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 1/2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
2 teaspoons milk
1 cup whipped topping (I used homemade whipped cream)
2 cups boiling water
6-ounce package strawberry-flavor gelatin
1 1/2 cups cold water
4 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix pretzel crumbs, 1/4 cup sugar and butter; press onto bottom of 13-by-9-inch pan. Bake 10 minutes. Cool.
Beat cream cheese, remaining sugar and milk with mixer until blended. Stir in whipped cream or whipped topping; spread over crust. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Add boiling water to gelatin mix in large bowl; stir 2 minutes until completely dissolved. Stir in cold water. Refrigerate 1 1/2 hours or until thickened. (My mixture took 2 hours to set.) Stir in berries; spoon over cream cheese layer.
Refrigerate 3 hours or until firm. Cut into squares.