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Picnic season gets off to a racing start PICNICKING FOR PREAKNESS


Remember the picnic of the '80s? Rent the beach place, call the caterer, order the limo, have the butler go ahead with the Dom Perignon . . .

Nothing could be further off the mark in the health-conscious, earth-conscious, family-conscious '90s. And, with Preakness weekend coming up, nothing could be more welcome than a down-home, 1990s-style outdoor feast.

Whether you pack up the crew and head for the infield at Pimlico, or simply pull out the portable TV and fire up the home grill, Preakness weekend "officially" opens Maryland's alfresco dining season.

"Picnics are such a great way to spend time with your family," says Kerry Whitaker, a lifestyle consultant who divides her time between an office in New York and a home in suburban Baltimore. "Oh, sure, it would be nice to gather everyone and go on an ocean cruise . . . but with the current economy, we can't do that."

And anyway, who would want to, she asks, when the pleasures of dining alfresco are so numerous and so sweet. "It's nice to be outside and smell the flowering trees and watch the birds . . . and you can take the Tupperware tops and makes bases out of them and play baseball."

"Picnics have elements of celebration and spontaneity about them," says Rosamond Richardson, author, with Linda Burgess, of a new cookbook called simply "Alfresco." Ms. Richardson and Ms. Burgess both live in England, where picnics have long been a nearly hallowed tradition. "On those glorious days early in the year," Ms. Richardson writes, "warm and bright with that unique energy which spells spring, the feeling of freedom as you take off to a beautiful spot in the countryside, with lunch packed in a basket, is incomparable."

If the racetrack isn't your destination, there are plenty of other beautiful spots in the area, Ms. Whitaker points out, with more than 70 parks in the city and another 100 in outlying areas. (The "government" pages of the phone book are a great place to track down new picnic spots, she says; they're usually listed under a heading such as "Parks and Recreation.")

But picnics are so pleasant -- and can be so whether they're put together with either a tiny effort or a whole-hearted plunge -- that you don't have to leave home to enjoy them. The fact that more and more Americans are watching what they eat and that more and more people are concerned about protecting the environment can make picnics more healthful and nicer all around.

"In the '90s we have to think about things that are more earth-friendly," Ms. Whitaker says. Some of her suggestions:

* Pack cloth napkins and ordinary silverware, instead of disposables.

* Pack food in reusable plastic containers.

* Pack a citronella candle to discourage bugs.

* Think about taking frozen juice boxes for the beverage; they do double duty as "ice-packs" to keep food cool and as healthful thirst-quenchers when they thaw. This is an especially good idea if you're traveling any distance to dine, because it eliminates the need to carry a heavy ice chest.

* Pack fruit for snacks or dessert, choosing such things as apples, oranges and plums that come in their own natural "wrappers," instead of berries or grapes, which have to be

protected with other packaging.

* Don't forget to take along a bag to collect trash; if you do take along recyclable items, such as aluminum cans, take along a blue recycling bag to collect them.

Besides being environmentally sound, cloth napkins and good silverware add a special touch to an outdoor meal. "Alfresco meals can be as elegant or informal as the occasion demands," Ms. Richardson writes. "Wherever you are eating, you can set the scene with your choice of table setting. It's amazing what a pretty tablecloth, vase of summer flowers and cheerful napkins, plates, cutlery and glasses can do!"

The food also can be as simple or as elaborate as you want to make it. If you prefer simple meals, think about making things more healthful: Take turkey sandwiches instead of bologna or peanut butter and jam; grilled chicken instead of hot dogs; a pasta salad for a main dish; juice instead of soda.

But really, there's no point in depriving yourself of a feast, especiallyif you're only going as far as your own or a neighbor's back yard. Personally, I can't think about a picnic this time of year without thinking of the wonderful foods traditionally associated with the season of the Triple Crown: biscuits with country ham, cold fried chicken, marinated vegetables and rich pecan pie.

It's nice to live in the '90s for this kind of meal as well: the biscuits can come from the chilled food shelves, the veggies from the salad bar, the pie crust from the frozen food bins.

Kerry Whitaker suggests oven-baking the chicken, dipping pieces it in lemon juice or light Italian dressing, then rolling them in seven-grain bread crumbs and baking in a 350-degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes.

If you're staying close to home, grilling might be an option: Think of chicken breasts or salmon and vegetable kebabs.

"Enjoyed as much for its informality as for the food, a barbecue allows everyone to get involved," Ms. Richardson writes: "there is nothing quite like it."

Picnic take-along tips

Here are some tips from Kerry Whitaker to make a picnic more enjoyable:

* Pack foods you will eat first on the top of the hamper or cooler.

* Find a shady spot to store the cooler, if possible.

* Pack moist towelettes for quick clean-ups.

* Pack paper towels for spills.

* Pack bags for collecting trash (recycling bags for recyclable items).

* Don't forget: Matches, bottle opener, corkscrew, flashlight.

* Pack citronella candles if you'll be staying into evening.

* Pack one good sharp paring knife in a cardboard sleeve.

* Don't forget personal items, as well: sunglasses, sunblock, brimmed hat, sunscreen and coverups for evening or after swimming.

* Some of these items can be stored in the picnic hamper or cooler, to make packing much swifter next time.

* Keep this list in the basket for next time.

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