Our favorite chef, Ro Howe, owner of Barraud Caterers Ltd., in New York City, starts off her summer picnic series for WVFC with a simple but elegant repast—a tribute to the people of France, whose revolution gave ordinary citizens grounds (literally) for eating in the open air.
Here—to help us celebrate our own Revolution—is the first in Chef Ro’s two-part guide to grilling on the Fourth of July.
The French term pique-nique originally described an occasion where each participant contributed a share of the food and wine. But picnic, as we use it today, really came into its own in post–revolutionary France, when newly enfranchised citizens used the recently liberated royal grounds for their own entertainment. We thank the French for the concept of eating food “en plein air.” The English adopted the French practice of “pique-nique,” adapting the term as picnic in 1748.
Eating outdoors can be a delight or a disaster; the genes are in the planning. And, believe it or not, though picnics are a more relaxed form of dining, they require far more stringent planning than a dinner at home, for eating en plein air adds many (sometimes uncontrollable) extraneous elements to the simple lunch or dinner party.
Before you even consider the guests and the menu, check the weather forecast, setting aside a rain date. And before you make up a menu, consider transport. Whether you take public transportation or cab, car, or horse-drawn carriage, that choice will affect your food and drink menu. Baskets are romantic, but coolers are—well, cooler. Hand-carrying bulky, ice-pack-filled coolers with bottles of wine or beer and plastic containers of food requires a small legion of servants. This is not the quick and easy pick-up, pack-up picnic style. (The menu I’ve suggested below, for instance, is most suitable for laying out on your lawn or in a nearby park).
If you’re lucky enough to be traveling by car, the coolers can pack into the trunk, as long as your journey will not be longer than an hour. Yes, the cooler is certainly insulated, but the trunk of the car is the next hottest place in the vehicle, after the engine under the hood. So if your destination is more than an hour away, the cooler should be honored with a place in the air-conditioned car.
When developing your menu, you naturally start with the dishes that you know your guests will enjoy, but you should also consider the amenities at your destination. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a grill, your menu options grow deliciously. But so does the extra care of keeping raw meat and fish well chilled before it meets the fire.
The important bit: packing the food and beverages.
Make sure, days ahead, that you have frozen ice packs available. That means that they must be washed, dried before they go into the freezer (or they’ll stick to each other and the freezer), and laid flat and horizontal so they can perform their chilling duties efficiently. Beverages in plastic bottles, and even specially made concoctions, can be frozen ahead to arrive at the picnic in crisp, cold condition. Ensure that you have well-sealable containers for your food so there is no “cross-contamination” in the cooler. Use a separate cooler for any raw protein, separating the pieces well with many layers of plastic wrapping—especially chicken.
When selecting your menu, choose items that are pre-assembled. No messy on-site putting together from one container to another—unless, of course, you have contracted the use of a fully staffed field kitchen.
Choose items that go together nicely on the same plate.
Select items that will not wilt or otherwise be at less than their best without constant refrigeration—no delicate salad greens, triple crème cheese, or raw fish.
Here is a simple grilling menu for your picnic. My next post will provide shopping tips and some recipes. (In the list below you’ll find links to three recipes that I have already posted in previous issues of WVFC.)
None of these dishes should take more than 45 minutes to one hour to prepare: It should take you about three hours to put the whole picnic together, choosing one item from each section
Certainly, one dish from each section will make a delicious meal. All of them would be a celebratory feast in the vein fitting pre-revolutionary France!
For Nibbles to Start
Cannellini bean–smoked bacon hummus with preserved lemon relish
Unagi, pancetta and carrot-jalapeño slaw spring roll
On the Grill
Grilled honey and Sriracha flank steak
Ginger-chili lobster with grapefruit dressing
Grilled zucchini, green beans, and cremini mushrooms with truffle jus
Toasted cashew-vanilla rice
Gingered peas, cucumber, shiso with toasted sesame streusel—soy syrup
Crème fraîche crepes with strawberry salad
Peanut butter shortbread with chocolate-peanut butter mousse
Ro’s next post will provide grilling recipes.