We’re in the midst of seasonal change; some heading into warmer weather, the rest leaving it, but all of us wanting to enjoy it. So let’s do something different and have a Picnic Stress Free Dinner Party while we can.
Picnics take place outdoors, generally some distance from a refrigerator. You might take a cool box with you, but in my experience, these are more highly valued for keeping drinks (commonly beer) cool. Avoid food that will make you ill if it isn’t kept cool, for example, raw or soft boiled eggs and soft dairy.
Foods to consider include breads, cakes, fresh fruit and vegetables, undressed salads, unopened tins or jars, hard (old) cheeses, salt cured meats. Cooked meat is generally ok if it starts out well refrigerated and is consumed within about three hours.
While most of us will take some kind of bottled alcohol (beer, cider or wine), make sure that you have water and softer alternatives too. You might also like a thermos of hot tea, coffee or chocolate.
It’s a picnic. You’ll need a blanket to sit on, a lovely retro melamine picnic set in a wicker basket, some shade from the sun and insect repellent.
Casual – whatever’s clean and preserves “decency”. Or a Picnic Outfit.
Herb Dip: chuck two cups of herbs and green leaves (e.g. spinach, rocket) in a blender with a clove of garlic, and a tablespoon of capers (rinsed if salted or drained if pickled) and blitz. Add the juice and zest of a small lemon and ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil. You can add a chilli if you like it spicy. And you can add parmesan to make it pesto some other time.
Crudités: Chop some mixed vegetables into sticks. Good dipping vegetables include carrots, green (runner) beans, celery, daikon, asparagus, pepper (capsicum), baby corn, green (spring) onions, endive leaves, and anything else that has a nice crunch to it.
Use lovely fresh bread like ciabatta, baguette, or English muffins. Suggestions on fillings include:
- Preserved meat (e.g. ham), a dry cheese (e.g. Parmesan) and arugula (rocket).
- Sliced hard-boiled eggs and pickled onions with grilled asparagus.
- Finely sliced cucumber, onion, mashed tinned salmon with a sprinkle of vinegar or lemon juice.
Fresh and crunchy is best, so leave acidic dressings until the last possible moment as the acid will soften the vegetables.
Grilled Vegetable and Pasta: Cook ¾ lb (340 g ) dried penne or spiral pasta according to the packet directions. Make your dressing by adding 2/3 cup of fresh basil leaves, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, 1/3 cup (80 ml) fresh lemon juice, 2 teaspoons lemon zest to a blender until mixed, then gradually add 1/3 cup (80 ml) extra-virgin olive oil until it goes creamy. If it looks too thick, add some more oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and if you are a sweet tooth, a little honey. Slice, brush with oil and grill Mediterranean vegetables of choice, e.g. zucchini, eggplant, onion, peppers for about 10 minutes until they are nice and soft, and a bit charred and smokey. Chop into smaller pieces and toss with the pasta and dressing. Refrigerate until cool.
Greek Salad: Throw together two chopped tomatoes, one Lebanese cucumber, one red pepper, one red onion, 3½ oz (100 g) feta cheese and 3½ oz (100 g) olives in a bowl. To make the dressing; whisk together 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of dried oregano, a little salt and pepper to taste. Mix just before serving.
Lentil Tabbouleh: Rinse and boil 7 oz (200 g) Puy lentils for 15 – 20 minutes until cooked. Leave to cool and mix with a chopped spring onion, 7 oz (200 g) of halved cherry tomatoes, a bunch of chopped parsley and a bunch of chopped mint. Stir in 4 tablespoons of olive oil and dress with lemon juice, salt and black pepper.
Fruit: watermelon, mixed berries, peaches and other seasonal. You could skewer fruit to make kebabs or smear slices with Nutella.
Cakes: something moist like banana or carrot. You’ve been busy making fresh stuff, so give yourself permission to buy cakes or cookies.
Normally we would work to a 6.30 for 7.00 pm schedule, but your meal might start earlier or later depending on whether you are in summer or winter time. And you will be preparing all the food at the same time so that it’s ready to go when the time comes. My only suggestion is to make the food that needs for the flavours to develop (e.g., salad dressings) first, and the food that may lose its texture or freshness last.
And I know this is not what people think about when it comes to Dinner Party, but there is no reason why they have to be formal let alone indoor occasions.