As I write this it's a cool but sunny afternoon in New York and the window near my desk is open. Coming in with the breeze is the sound of someone playing a trumpet, the longing solo notes of Over the Rainbow combining with the faint roar of a jet on its upper Manhattan approach to LaGuardia, plus the steady white noise of avenue traffic. It's the sound of summer in the city.
But this sunny day has been the exception since most of last month it rained in New York. We can turn the poet's question, "And what is so rare as a day in June/Then, if ever, come perfect days," into a plea for sunshine and warmth. We are all craving perfect days, when we can enjoy the best of summer in the city -- city park softball games that have been played by the same neighborhood or corporate teams for years, nannies with their strollers and cell phones, crowded outdoor cafés, pretty cotton dresses, sidewalk fruit stands, and drinking an ice-cold Chablis instead of a Barbaresco. And picnics.
I live a couple of blocks from a city park and last Sunday afternoon I passed a family headed there for a picnic. One adult was pulling a red and white Igloo ice chest, another a metal mesh shopping cart filled with blankets and toys, and behind them, two small children with their equally small bikes. I wanted to turn on my heel and go with them. Many of us who live in cities, regardless of the size of our apartments, love the chance to have a meal outdoors. It's always a little messy but there's a romance to stepping off the sidewalk, planting yourself on the ground, and having the chance to recline, see an open sky and yes, slow down.
Cities are famously full of take-out food so getting a portable meal isn't a challenge. But eating a sandwich or frozen yogurt outdoors doesn't have the magic of preparing a real meal to be shared on a blanket. To make a meal a picnic, in my view, requires some props, planning and ritual.
Here's what to me makes a city picnic:
- You drink out of glass and use real flatware. No plastic.
- The meal takes a little longer to eat. Slow food is encouraged.
- Something on the menu should be eaten with your hands.
- You sit either on the ground or on a chair that can be folded and carried.
- If your picnic is at sunset, there are votive candles to add to the magic.
- When you finish your meal and head home, your borrowed "table" returns to nature and there's no sign that you were ever there.
A picnic doesn't need fancy stuff. Picnic baskets are iconic, but as I saw last week, a wheeled grocery wagon and a thermal tote bag may work even better. Because the lawns in city parks can be damp, it's prudent to first put down a sheet of plastic, with a blanket or huge beach towels on top. Parchment paper is excellent for wrapping your portable foods because when unwrapped it has enough substance and body to help protect your lap as well as the food. And always bring a trash bag or two and a few hand wipes or damp paper towels for sticky fingers.
And the food?
There's a difference between foods eaten al fresco and those for a picnic. After all, you can eat anything at an outdoor table. What's different about picnic food is its portability and that it is prepared and packaged so it can be eaten with your lap as your table.
Picnic food has much in common with the things we make to bring to work for lunch. But picnic food is also supposed to be fun, and also somewhat luxurious -- not in its cost but how we enjoy it. After all, this is supposed to be a meal over which we linger, leaning back in a low-slung chair or on an elbow while stretched out on a blanket. It's certainly easy to go into a deli and buy slices of salami, cheese, and a loaf of bread and that would make a perfectly fine picnic, but with a little planning and preparation, the meal can be more memorable and less costly.
When choosing your menu, keep serving in mind and try to pre-pack the food already divided into portions. For instance, make sandwiches in advance, serve single-portion fruit pies, or cut a watermelon into wedges before you head out.
Food safety is a topic that doesn't have much romance but it's July and the heat can make otherwise safe foods dangerous to eat. Remember that foods with cream and eggs can spoil and you may not always taste the spoilage. If you want something like a mayonnaise-based chicken salad in your picnic menu, just include chill-packs alongside the salad.
Even if you package all your food in single-servings, remember the essentials: napkins, 2 trash bags (one for trash, one for dirty dishes and recyclables), serving pieces (plates, cups, forks, spoons, coffee cups for soup), a single paring knife or Swiss Army knife, corkscrew or church key, and a dish towel -- I wrap one around wine glasses to protect against breakage while in transit and then use the towel as a kind of place-mat to put on the blanket or the ground and then put the food on top. Depending on the food you may also need salt, pepper, or hot sauce. And if you need more entertainment, there's always iPod music, your dog, or last week's New Yorker, although I personally prefer to turn everything off, especially the phone.
- Chicken. Although picnics can be synonymous with fried chicken, it's tricky to make well, greasy to eat, and it's not always the healthiest choice. If you want chicken at your picnic, I suggest you instead broil small seasoned chicken drumsticks that still have good flavor when eaten cold. We've added our recipe for jerk-flavored Broiled Chicken Drumsticks.
- Sturdy and full-flavored salads made with pasta or whole grains like tabouli, quinoa, couscous, and farro. See our recipes. I put single portions into re-used plastic containers from the grocery store or deli.
- Potato salad made with or without mayonnaise. For some it's not a picnic without it.
- Olives and cornichons mixed with little wedges of hard salami or chorizo and cubes of manchego, a hard Spanish sheep's cheese. To go with this, lots of sweet grape tomatoes.
- Coldcuts. Choose ones that are satisfying to eat without having to be in a sandwich, like prosciutto, boiled ham, or sopressata.
- Nibbles like pita chips (Stacy's is an excellent brand or make your own by toasting stale pita loaves in the oven), salted nuts, or little balls of fresh mozzarella called bocconcini.
- Chunky summer salads like one made with watermelon and tomato. See our recipe.
- Cold soup carried in a thermos and served in paper cups so that it can be drunk instead of eaten with spoons. See our recipe for Cold Cucumber Yogurt Soup.
- Shrimp salad made with boiled or roasted shrimp tossed with diced green pepper, red onion and a little spicy mayonnaise (remember to keep it cold).
- Picnic classics like three-bean salad, hard-boiled eggs, slices of cold meatloaf, cheese and bread, coleslaw, or spicy sesame noodles with peanut sauce, which I always make using Martha Stewart's recipe. We've added the link below.
- Single-serving desserts. The best picnic desserts are eaten in small bites and with your hands. These could be big strawberries with the stems left on, black and white cookies, brownies cut into quarters, or a no-icing cake cut into two-bite squares. While cupcakes are, to my thinking, a nearly perfect food under any circumstances, remember that the icing may get smashed if you don't carry them in a cupcake-friendly box.
What to Drink
Because most picnics need a cooler, there's no end to things you can bring to drink. Try to have your drinks be very cold before you pack them in your thermal bag and place them alongside the chill packs. Bringing ice -- put the cubes in a well-sealed plastic bag -- can serve double-duty because it will help keep all your foods cold in transit.
I also put a couple of bottles of water in the freezer the day before and then use them to chill the food and to drink after they've melted.
Other picnic-happy drinks are:
- Bottles of locally-brewed beer.
- Cold white or rosé wine. I particularly love Sancerre for its crisp chalkiness and excellent ones can be found for less than $20. Don't forget the corkscrew.
- Sparkling Spanish Cava or Prosecco. These usually cost less than $12.
- Make your own strawberry-lime cooler. At a restaurant lunch I recently had a very refreshing mixture of ice-cold strawberry and lime juice: purée fresh strawberries until liquefied and strain the juice in a fine sieve to remove any seeds. If the berries aren't sweet enough for you add some extra fine sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves. Then combine with lime juice and sparkling water. Combine in ratios to suit your taste for sweet versus tang.
- Cold herbal tea.
- If you're having a brunch picnic, have a thermos of hot coffee already mixed with milk and sugar.
June's imperfect days may have been marked by rain, but July has arrived and we can start planning for outdoor meals. But just in case, pack an umbrella.
Happy summer and Fourth of July.