Picnic Perfect

by Liz Caskey on February 5, 2010

Photo Credit: GibaN.

The last time I went on a picnic was a very hot afternoon in California. Visiting our friends living in Napa, we first journeyed north to Calistoga to soak and rejuvenate in their famous mud baths. After, we decided to extend the afternoon with an impromtu picnic in the municipal park surrounded by tall, shady oaks. On the way to the park to stock up on provisions, we stopped by Cal Mart, a little boutique supermarket. We filled our cart with prosciutto, artisan cheese, rustic bread, fresh fruit, a mesclun salad, dark chocolate, and a tasty Syrah from the Alexandre Valley. Of course, we forgot the most important thing, a bottle opener, and had to return. A picnic with no wine? I think not.

We settled under the shade of a craggy century-old tree. We grazed, sipped, laughed, napped, and spent a lazy afternoon without a single worry nor hurry.  This kind of picnic, for me, is synonymous with summertime hanging out. Since we are in the peak of summer in Chile, with a climate very similar to Napa, I am suddenly being seized on a daily basis to take my meals outside. Picnics are genius: combine tasty food, casual dining, amazing nature, a little vino, and exquisite company. In Santiago, there’s pretty much a plaza a few blocks in any direction, and if you really want to get into nature, a 30-60 minute drive east, west, north, or south, will yield Andean vistas, green pastures, and maybe even, a sandy beach. Perfect for copping-a-squat.

As I plan out this weekend’s picnic, here are a few tips to share to pull them off effortlessly:

Simplicity, The Golden Rule: First, consider where you are having the picnic, climatic factors, and the feasibility of eating the menu you are envisioning. Are you thinking on a beach? Well at least in these latitudes, it can get pretty damn windy and things like sand and napkins get airborne. Or are you heading to a park with infrastructure, grills, running water, and a picnic area to stage a traditional barbeque?

For a wild-ish setting like  a beach, think of menu items that are ready-to-eat, i.e. wrapped sandwiches. It’s not the appropriate time to show off all that cheese you smuggled past SAG (customs) on your last trip to France, unless you’d like it “rolled” in sand instead of ash.

If you are dealing with tables or grass, Mediterranean tapas or pick-ats for easy noshing always work and many times only require a trip to the corner deli. Stock up on easy-to-serve options like serrano ham, Spanish potato tortilla, chewy rustic bread, marinated olives (stuffed with blue cheese, yum…), roasted peppers, perhaps some Brie. In Chile, sweet corn tamales known as humitas, prolific in the summer, can be bought warm and served with a pre-made Chilean Tomato Salad.  For dessert, fresh seasonal fruit is more appropriate than chocolate that can melt. If you insist on the chocolate (I know, I know), keep it in the cooler. Like any meal or party, I recommend choosing a theme so as to not arrive with a mismatch of flavors and textures.

Be Prepared: As a former caterer with pack-out lists longer than my arm, I can definitely tell you that preparation is key to having a good time on any picnic. You avoid crisis situations like getting to the middle-of-nowhere and realizing there’s no bottle opener for the beer or wine.  While that cute wicker basket that Dean & Deluca is hawking may look as fashionable as your Louis Vitton bag, a cooler is WAY more practical to keep the drinks cold and the food fresh. Who really wants to drink a lukewarm rosé and warm aioli? Ick.

When you pack out the cooler, don’t forget to first pack the ice, then the wines and drinks, after the meat, then the mayo and cheese. Bread and lettuce should go on top to avoid direct contact with the cold causing a “burn”.

Beyond food, don’t forget a thick blanket to sit on, utensils and plates, napkins (cloth is classy and ecologically friendly), a sharp knife and cutting board, a bottle opener (I have mentioned this three times, there’s a reason!), a lighter, salt and pepper, paper towels, and a trash bag. If you really want to out do yourself and score points with your buddies, or date, bring the crystal glasses and a little flower vase to cut wild flowers for the table. The glasses feel so luxurious in the middle of an abundant setting like nature. Details, details.

So now all you have to do is recruit your friends, and listo. Happy picnicking!

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