November 23, 2022

This simple dish is best, of course, when cherry tomatoes are in season – that it gets better as it sits is a boon (Getty/iStock)

Imagine a painting of a pastoral scene on a fair summer day, a splendid feast laid out, fine carpets for lounging and guests nibbling on carefully transported morsels – a proverbial picnic in the grass, with dogs and children at the edges.

That’s one kind of picnic, but there are so many ways to picnic. Even the simple gesture of moving dinner outdoors on a balmy evening can feel picnicky, which is to say, nice.

That picnics are movable feasts adds to the experience. It’s the collecting and wrapping of the food, the carrying of the meal to a particular place and the anticipation of serving it that make picnics a kind of special event, be it a leisurely trip to the beach, an hourslong tailgate or a buffet lunch in a lush garden (the frugal city lunch you eat on a bench by a tree is a kind of picnic, too – savour it).

If I have to lug the basket, I want it to be filled with things I like.

Sandwiches are my favourite picnic food, so I offer a couple of them here. I’ve had a thing for sardines out of the tin since I was a kid, but now I want them served atop thinly sliced dense, dark rye bread, generously spread with good butter, sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper, a few rocket sprigs and a tiny squeeze of lemon, no more. Some would add a little Dijon mustard, but not me. Take all the ingredients to the picnic site and build the sandwiches there, or pack them to go. They look nice open-faced, but they could, of course, be made in a two-slice format.

An utterly simple and refreshing combination of a spicy, herbed cucumber salad and creamy ricotta, served on halved ciabatta rolls, is another option. Aside from good cucumbers, there are just two requirements: freshly baked bread, with a crisp crust and tender crumb, and the best ricotta you can find, preferably basket ricotta (you could also use natural cream cheese or queso fresco).

Next, I want a couple of substantial salads that are always nice to have on hand, picnic or not. For that, I packed white beans tossed with oven-charred cauliflower and a zesty vinaigrette, flecked with celery hearts and ground fennel, and cherry tomatoes and olives dressed with olive oil, a little oregano, vinegar, garlic and chilli flakes, and spooned over slices of fresh mozzarella. Just before serving, I toss in a handful of basil leaves and coat them in the dressing. Serve them right out of the container, if you wish. It’s all meant to be finger food.

Dessert at a picnic is always wanted, expected and deserved. Anything cookielike is a sure bet, especially if you’ll be crossing rough terrain, and pecan shortbread is my current favourite – crumbly, salty and buttery, with a touch of cardamom. Augment, if you wish, with a bowl of cherries, nectarines and peaches. And ice cream, if you’re clever enough to keep it frozen in your travels.

Then, wash it all down with a summery red hibiscus punch. Known in Mexico as agua de Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean as sorrel, the drink is made by simmering and steeping dried hibiscus blossoms with spices. The resultant ruby liquid, lightly sweetened, has a pleasant tannic quality and is deliciously thirst-quenching over ice. If you want your punch to live up to its name, add your spirit of choice. Read: rum. It’s a picnic, after all.

Hibiscus punch

This bright beverage is inspired by Caribbean sorrel drink and Mexican agua de Jamaica (Getty/iStock)

This bright beverage is inspired by Caribbean sorrel drink and Mexican agua de Jamaica (Getty/iStock)

This bright beverage, inspired by Caribbean sorrel drink and Mexican agua de Jamaica, is made by steeping hibiscus flowers to extract flavour – and colour. It is then lightly sweetened and served chilled, like iced tea. Add cinnamon, ginger and allspice if you wish. It makes a great ruby-coloured cocktail mixer as well.

Serves: 6 to 8

Total time: 40 minutes, plus chilling

Ingredients:

80g dried hibiscus (see tip)

1 cinnamon stick (optional)

1 (5cm) chunk of ginger, peeled and chopped (optional)

1 tsp allspice berries (optional)

120ml agave syrup or granulated sugar, or to taste

Ice

Lime wedges, for serving

Method:

1. Bring 1.9L water to a boil in a medium stainless-steel pot.

2. Add hibiscus flowers, and cinnamon, ginger and allspice berries, if using. Turn off heat and steep for at least 30 minutes.

3. Strain mixture into a pitcher or bowl and cool to room temperature. Sweeten to taste. Serve chilled over ice, with lime wedges.

Tip: You can use whole hibiscus flowers or pieces, but if using pieces, steep for less time, tasting as you go, until it is your desired strength. If you wish, you can also dilute the drink with water to taste.

Marinated mozzarella, olives and cherry tomatoes

This simple dish of marinated cherry tomatoes, olives and mozzarella is best, of course, when cherry tomatoes are in season. That it gets better as it sits is a boon: bring it to dinner parties or picnics, or simply let it sit in your fridge, a satisfying lunch at home. A generous handful of basil leaves, sprinkled atop just before serving, gives everything a bright, herbal finish. You’ll want to make this all summer long.

Serves: 4 to 6

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

450g cherry or grape tomatoes, a mixture of colours, halved

Salt and black pepper

135g olives, such as Moroccan or niçoise

60ml extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, smashed to a paste

Pinch of dried oregano

Pinch of red-pepper flakes

450g fresh mozzarella, cut into ⅔cm slices

Basil leaves, for garnish

Method:

1. Put cherry tomatoes in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the olives and toss.

2. In a small bowl, stir together olive oil, vinegar, garlic, oregano and red-pepper flakes. Pour mixture over tomatoes and olives. Toss well to coat and let sit for at least 10 minutes and up to an hour.

3. When ready to eat, arrange mozzarella in the centre of a large platter (or arrange on individual plates). Spoon tomato and olive mixture over mozzarella. Garnish with lots of basil leaves.

Sardines on buttered brown bread

These sandwiches are a celebration of good bread, butter and anchovies (Getty/iStock)

These sandwiches are a celebration of good bread, butter and anchovies (Getty/iStock)

In addition to celebrating the star, anchovy, these open-faced sandwiches should be a celebration of good bread and butter. Choose a dense, dark European-style rye, thinly sliced, or a rustic whole-wheat bread. They look nice open-faced, but they could, of course, be made in a two-slice format.

Serves: 2 to 4

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

4 small slices dark, dense European-style rye bread

115g unsalted butter, softened

1 (130g) tin oil-packed sardines

Salt and black pepper

1 tbsp chopped dill

2 tbsp thinly sliced spring onions or chives

Rocket, for serving

Gherkins or other pickles, for serving

Lemon wedges, for serving

Method:

1. Lightly toast the bread, then cool to room temperature. Spread each toast generously with butter.

2. Distribute the sardines among the toasts (cut large sardines in half lengthwise; leave small sardines whole).

3. Sprinkle each toast lightly with salt and grind pepper directly over the sandwiches. Garnish with chopped dill and slivered spring onions.

4. Serve sandwiches open-faced, with rocket, gherkins and a lemon wedge.

Cucumber-ricotta sandwiches

Part sandwich, part salad (Getty/iStock)

Part sandwich, part salad (Getty/iStock)

Part sandwich, part salad, this is an extremely refreshing and satisfying meal. It’s very simple, but there are two requirements: freshly baked bread, with a crisp crust and tender crumb, and the best ricotta you can find, preferably basket ricotta. Skip the low-fat supermarket type: instead, make your own or use natural cream cheese or queso fresco.

Serves: 2 to 4

Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients:

6 thinly sliced Persian cucumbers

Salt and black pepper

1 serrano chilli, very thinly sliced (or minced, with seeds, if preferred)

12 large basil leaves, torn

2 tbsp lime juice (from 1 large lime)

1 tbsp chopped dill

2 tsp chopped tarragon

2 tsp chopped mint leaves

1 tsp thinly sliced chives

250-500g, rich ricotta, drained

2 ciabatta rolls, split lengthwise, lightly toasted (or a baguette split lengthwise)

Coriander sprigs, for garnish

Calendula or other edible flower, for garnish (optional)

Method:

1. Put cucumbers in a bowl and season with salt and pepper, then toss. Add chilli, basil, lime juice, dill, tarragon, mint and chives. Toss well.

2. Spread ricotta generously over each ciabatta toast. Spoon cucumber mixture over ricotta on each toast. Garnish with coriander springs and calendula petals, if using.

White bean salad with roasted cauliflower

This is the kind of substantial salad that’s nice to have on hand, no matter the occasion. If you have time, it’s best made with large dried white beans, such as cannellini, simmered at home (it’s great to have a pot of cooked beans in the fridge all summer long, for deploying in salads and soups). But using canned beans is absolutely OK. The recipe calls for roasting the cauliflower, but it could also be cooked on a grill to impart some pleasant smokiness.

Serves: 4 to 6

Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients:

For the salad:

1 small head cauliflower, cut into 1½cm slices

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and black pepper

680g cooked white beans or 2 (425g) tins, drained

100g thinly sliced celery heart (the tender inner stalks and leaves)

3 tbsp chopped parsley

3 tbsp slivered spring onions

For the dressing:

1 large shallot, diced small

2 tsp Dijon mustard

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp lemon zest

2 tbsp red wine vinegar, plus more to taste

½ tsp ground fennel (optional)

60ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste

Salt and black pepper

Method:

1. Heat oven to 200C. Put cauliflower on a rimmed baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Roast on the top rack until nicely browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Make the dressing: put shallot in a small bowl with mustard, lemon juice, lemon zest, vinegar and ground fennel, if using. Stir well to combine, then whisk in olive oil. Season to taste.

3. Make the salad: put beans in a low salad bowl. Add celery and cauliflower, pour the dressing over and toss well, taking care not to crush beans. Let salad rest for 30 minutes or so to meld flavours. Taste and adjust for salt, acid and oil. Add parsley and spring onions, toss once more, then serve at room temperature.

Pecan shortbread

Crumbly, salty, buttery and with a touch of cardamom (Getty/iStock)

Crumbly, salty, buttery and with a touch of cardamom (Getty/iStock)

This pecan shortbread – crumbly, salty and buttery, with a touch of cardamom – is delicate in flavour but sturdy enough in structure for a dessert on the go, ready for picnics or potlucks. Make this easy shortbread a day or two before you need it. After slicing, store the pieces in a tightly closed cookie tin. They’re lovely alone, just out of the tin, but you can augment them with a bowl of cherries, nectarines and peaches, or ice cream, if you wish.

Serves: 8 to 10

Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling

Ingredients:

340g salted butter, cut into 1½cm cubes

160g sugar

½ tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp ground cardamom

450g all-purpose flour

180g toasted, chopped pecans

Powdered sugar, for dusting

Method:

1. Heat oven to 160C. Put butter, sugar, vanilla and cardamom in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally.

2. Carefully add flour and pecans, and mix a few minutes more, at low speed at first, then medium, until dough comes together. Remove dough and knead for 1 minute. Press dough into a 22cm square cake pan (alternatively, press into a 22cm fluted French tart pan with a removable bottom).

3. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Let cool and cut into squares, bars or wedges with a serrated knife while still slightly warm. Store in a tin until needed. To serve, arrange on a plate and dust with powdered sugar.

And to drink…

Among the recipes for this picnic meal is one for hibiscus punch, a drink that I love. It would be great with these dishes in any outdoor venue. But you might want wine as well, something in keeping with the relaxed, informal nature of a meal in fresh air and something versatile enough to go with any dish you might choose. A good, dry rosé is just the thing, whether from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the United States or anywhere else. It can be pale or dark, and as long as it is relatively low in alcohol, 13 per cent or less, it will go with everything, including hot weather. Prefer a white or red? Why not? The same guidelines apply – dry and low-ish in alcohol.

Pairings by Eric Asimov.

© The New York Times