In Praise of Picnics

Grab a blanket and your favorite foods, and celebrate with an easy outing.
By Julia Dowling Rutland

Picnics mean different things to different people. Some carefully prepare transportable recipes and pack up their wine coolers and small cheese boards. Other picnickers simply grab a few items at the market and kick back on a sun-bleached bench. Whatever your style, these movable spreads are quintessentially summer.

So relax and enjoy the following delicious recipes and food memories from coastal chefs, cookbook authors, and party planners. Let nature be your table under the big blue umbrella sky.

"The ideal spot to have a beach picnic is someplace isolated. It's great if you can be on the leeward side of a dune, where there is less wind. You'll have sun but avoid sand blowing into your food. My approach to a beach menu is something simple, and comfort food makes it special. I bring meals that are prepared in advance, chilled, and transported, or are easily prepared on site. A lot of public beaches have grills―all you have to bring is the charcoal. I like to focus not so much on the food as the overall experience."
―Chef Tim Creehan

Grilled Grouper Sandwich with Chipotle Tartar Sauce
Chipotle Tartar Sauce is an easy variation on classic tartar sauce and would also be tasty with French fries or crab cakes. Chipotle peppers (dried, smoked jalapeños) in adobo sauce add full, smoky flavor.

¾ cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons diced celery
1 tablespoon minced onion
2 tablespoons dill pickle relish
1 tablespoon minced canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
4 (5-ounce) grouper fillets
4 teaspoons lemon pepper
4 Kaiser rolls, toasted on grill
1 tomato, sliced
1 red onion, sliced
4 Napa cabbage leaves

To make the tartar sauce, combine first 5 ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and chill 3 hours. Sprinkle grouper with lemon pepper. Grill fillets, covered with grill lid, over medium-high heat (350° to 400°) 4 minutes on each side or until fish flakes with a fork. Place each fillet on a Kaiser roll. Top with Chipotle Tartar Sauce, tomato, onion, and cabbage. Makes 4 servings.

Creole Coleslaw
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup ketchup
¼ cup vinegar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon ground red pepper
6 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded carrot

Combine first 8 ingredients in a small bowl. Combine cabbage and carrot in a large bowl. Add the desired amount of dressing, tossing well to coat. Chill up to 2 hours or serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
Chef Tim Creehan
Beach Walk Café
Destin, Florida

"I like to keep things simple for a beach picnic―no reason to be all fancy-schmancy and then have sand ruin your efforts. Besides, the beach is the definition of casual. But the drama and brilliant sunshine of a beach picnic call for food that has big, bright flavor. Don't let the simplicity of these crostini fool you: The little morsels taste lusciously complex, especially when peaches are in peak season. In fact, I only make these when the best peaches are available. I serve them with a raucous green salad with herbs, and a cold bottle of vinho verde or French rosé."
―Author Jeremy Jackson

Crostini with Peaches and Blue Cheese
For easy packing, keep the toasted crostini, peach mixture, and blue cheese in separate containers. Assemble on site. You'll skip broiling the cheese, but the flavor is equally sublime.

36 thin baguette slices
Olive oil
3 cups peeled and thinly sliced peaches (about 3 medium)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 cup (4 ounces) blue cheese, crumbled
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Brush baguette slices with olive oil; place on a baking sheet. Broil until toasted and crisp. Cool completely. Toss peaches gently with vinegar. Top crostini with peaches and blue cheese. Sprinkle with pepper, if desired. Broil until cheese is hot, soft, and very lightly browned. Makes 3 dozen.
From Good Day for a Picnic by Jeremy Jackson
(William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2005)

"One of my favorites is a chic beach picnic for 10 to 12 people on a beautiful day in early summer. I'll tote all the goods in a red wagon and red-and-white coolers. For the setting, I'll spread a large bamboo mat, scattered with canvas cushions and surrounded by red canvas umbrellas. Each couple gets a picnic basket with wet wipes, bug spray, sunscreen, food for two, red plastic cups, and utensils. I'll use Frisbees as plates, then for after-lunch fun."
―Event planner Tara Guérard

Tara' s Killer Bloody Mary
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Dash of hot sauce
Pinch of celery salt
Pinch of fresh dill
Pinch of freshly cracked black pepper
1 ½ ounces (3 tablespoons) vodka

5 ounces (about 2⁄3 cup) Clamato tomato cocktail
1 pepperoncino

Combine first 6 ingredients in a 10-ounce glass. Fill glass with ice. Pour in vodka and Clamato; stir well. Garnish with pepperoncino. Makes 1 serving.
Tara Guérard
Soirée Event Planning and Design
Charleston, South Carolina

"My wife and I drive down the coast toward Santa Cruz and stop along the way at a place called Davenport Landing, a really small beach with soft sand about one mile from Año Nuevo State Reserve. My wife likes salmon, so I bring Salmon Salad that we eat with Cucumber, Red Onion, and Basil Salad. When my daughter comes, one of her favorite things to eat is frozen grapes. We buy some Flame or Thompson seedless grapes and freeze them the night before, then toss them in the cooler with lemonade and a few beers for Dad. What a getaway!"
―Chef Phil Conde

Salmon Salad
You can use leftover grilled, baked, or sautéed salmon to make this as a sandwich filling or as a dip for crackers or bagel chips.

1 (1-pound) salmon fillet
1⁄3 cup mayonnaise
1⁄3 cup sour cream
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon diced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped capers
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place salmon in a Dutch oven, and add water to cover by 1 to 1 ½ inches. Cover Dutch oven, and bring to a simmer; simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and let stand 5 minutes. Transfer salmon to a large bowl. Cool fish, and flake. Fold in mayonnaise, sour cream, and lemon juice. Stir in remaining ingredients. Cover and chill 30 minutes. Makes 3 cups.

Cucumber, Red Onion, and Basil Salad
Take this salad on the road―toss the ingredients together and let them marinate on the way. The salad will be ready when you arrive.

2 English cucumbers, thinly sliced (about 5 cups)
½ red onion, thinly sliced (about 1 ¼ cups)

½ cup basil leaves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and chill 1 hour. Makes about 4 cups.
Chef Phil Conde
Yankee Pier
Larkspur, California

"I've traveled throughout our country, and no matter where you venture―among the red cedars of the Olympic Peninsula, down the laurel-lined lanes of Santa Barbara, around the rocky crags of Maine, across Maryland's Eastern Shore, or through the Carolinas to the tropical Florida coast―you're bound to find a shaded farm stand offering local produce. You might pack a hamper with childhood-favorite tuna sandwiches, potato chips, and lemonade; or load up on lobsters, mussels, and clams for a bonfire feast. But along the way you'll want to stop for the season's best offerings: juicy peaches, succulent blueberries, golden-sweet corn, and vine-ripened tomatoes. After all, a coastal picnic is more than just a destination."
―Author Russell Cronkhite

Mussels with Fennel and Garlic
¼ cup olive oil, divided
5 dozen mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 bay leaf
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup diced onion
1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup dry white wine
Crusty French bread

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add mussels and bay leaf; sauté 1 minute. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, and next 4 ingredients, and cook 1 minute. Add wine; cover and cook 3 minutes or until mussels open. Discard any unopened mussels. Cool completely. Chill until serving. Serve with French bread. Makes 4 servings.
From A Return to Family Picnics by Russell Cronkhite
(Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2005)

"First, I pack a bottle of Devil's Gulch Pinot Noir. Then, I prepare Cider-glazed Pork Loin Sandwiches on fresh hearth-baked bread, along with black-walnut pesto and crisp butter lettuce. With the sandwiches, I like Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese from Wisconsin, an aged cow's-milk cheese with a washed rind. For a sweet ending, my wife loves apple coffee cake."
―Chef Matt Christianson

Cider-glazed Pork Loin Sandwich with Walnut Pesto
Matt uses black walnuts for an earthy flavor. Regular walnuts make a good substitute because black walnuts may be difficult to find. Allow the pork to stand 10 minutes after removing from the oven to ensure juicy, tender meat.

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 (2-pound) boneless pork loin
¾ cup fresh apple cider
2 tablespoons butter
¾ cup walnuts, toasted
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1 shallot
¾ cup (2 ounces) shredded Parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 slices fresh whole-grain bread
1 head Bibb lettuce

Heat vegetable oil in a large ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add pork loin and cook 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Bake pork loin in skillet, uncovered, at 375° for 10 minutes. Add cider and butter to skillet, basting pork with pan juices. Bake 45 more minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest portion registers 150°. Cover with foil; let stand 10 minutes or until a thermometer registers 160°. Cut pork into 1⁄8-inch-thick slices. Reserve drippings in skillet.

Process walnuts and next 6 ingredients in a food processor until smooth, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides. Spread pesto evenly on 1 side of each bread slice. Layer 6 bread slices, pesto side up, with pork slices, reserved drippings, and lettuce. Top with remaining 6 bread slices, pesto side down. Makes 6 servings.
Chef Matt Christianson
The Lark Creek Inn
Larkspur, California

"I always keep Spiced Fig-and-Zinfandel Compote around the house. It's perfect for picnics because it's so versatile. Spoon some over mild goat cheese on crostini, spread it on smoked turkey sandwiches, or even serve it with ham for an informal picnic with the kids. Ideally, picnics include artisan cheeses, foie gras terrine, nice country bread, perhaps some thinly sliced prosciutto, some marinated olives―all with St. Francis Old Vines Zinfandel or a white wine such as a Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling."
―Chef Mark Dommen

Spiced Fig-and-Zinfandel Compote
¾ cup diced dried Mission figs
½ cup diced dried apricots
1⁄3 cup raisins
1 ½ cups Zinfandel wine

1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 whole clove
1 (1⁄2-inch) cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons honey
¼ teaspoon salt

Combine first 5 ingredients in a nonaluminum saucepan, and let stand 30 minutes.

Place a small skillet over medium-high heat until hot; add coriander seeds and next 5 ingredients, and cook, stirring constantly, until spices are toasted. Transfer spices to a clean coffee grinder and grind until fine. Set aside 1 tablespoon spice mixture. Reserve remaining ground spices for other uses. Bring fruit mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 35 minutes or until thickened. Add lemon juice, honey, salt, and 1 tablespoon reserved ground spice mixture to fruit mixture; cool. Makes 1¾ cups.

Note: We prefer toasted and freshly ground whole spices, but you can substitute prepared ground spices in the following proportions:
¾ teaspoon coriander, ¾ teaspoon fennel, ½ teaspoon cumin, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, 1⁄8 teaspoon clove, and ½ teaspoon cinnamon.

Chef Mark Dommen
One Market
San Francisco, California

"In addition to wine and cheese, we bring Spiced Angel Cake to picnics because the blending of flavors and comforting nature of the dessert is perfect. It's light, delicious, and a great way to end the meal."
―Chef David Myers

Spiced Angel Cake
Too rich to be angel food cake, too light to be shortbread, this mildly fragrant dessert is a Coastal Living staff favorite.

½ vanilla bean
1 teaspoon lemon rind
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 ¼ cups sifted cake flour

¾ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
Orange marmalade
Crème fraîche

Split vanilla bean lengthwise; scrape out seeds. Stir seeds and lemon rind into butter.

Beat egg whites at high speed with an electric mixer until foamy. Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form and sugar dissolves (5 to 6 minutes). Fold butter mixture into the meringue.

Whisk together flour and next 4 ingredients. Gently fold dry ingredients into meringue. Carefully spoon batter into a lightly greased 15- x 10-inch jellyroll pan; spread to edges of pan. Bake at 350° for 14 minutes or until golden. Cool cake completely. Cut cake into squares. Top each piece with a dollop each of orange marmalade and crème fraîche. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Chefs David and Michelle Myers
Sona
Los Angeles, California

"There's nothing better than a picnic at the beach on a sunny afternoon. Eating delicious food, sipping wine, and enjoying good conversation with friends is what the lazy days of summer are all about. For a perfect ending to a picnic, serve delicious brownies that are meant to be eaten with fingers―no plates, forks, or spoons. They're especially good with chilled grapes and fresh berries."
―Author Barbara Scott-Goodman

Perfect Picnic Brownies
½ cup butter
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 large eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup chopped walnuts

Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan over low heat. Beat eggs and sugar at medium speed with an electric mixer until well blended. Gradually add chocolate mixture to egg mixture, beating at low speed until blended. Gradually add vanilla and flour, beating until blended. Stir in walnuts. Pour into a lightly greased, aluminum foil-lined 8-inch square pan. Bake at 325° for 35 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack. Cut into squares. Makes 6 servings.
Adapted from The Beach House Cookbook by Barbara Scott-Goodman
(Chronicle Books, 2005)