Hot dogs are fine for the ball park, and blue crabs will do for the backyard. But there's something about the Preakness that demands a picnic with a little panache.
Nothing too fancy -- just something tasty and easy to transport. What we want is something between the fare of the rowdies in the infield with their bucket o' sticky chicken and the big spenders in the grandstand with their champagne and caviar.
Linwood Dame, chef and owner of Linwood's Cafe-Grille in Owings Mills, has been thinking about picnics; he and his wife have been planning a trip and he thought it would be nice to take along a picnic basket.
When it comes to picnics, "I'm not a ham and cheese kind of guy," he says. "I love to have a wonderful basket, real dishes, a bucket for the wine, a nice tablecloth . . . a lot of times you can find flowers along the way" -- though he doesn't advocate "borrowing" from any Preakness displays.
"I think I would do a wonderful salad Nicoise," he says, "with lots of leaf lettuce, capers, little haricots verts (skinny French green beans), little red bliss potatoes, cooked, little teardrop tomatoes, cooked hard-boiled eggs, sliced, Nicoise olives and grilled tuna that's been prepared ahead. Then what I do is just sprinkle on a nice olive oil and some balsamic vinegar.
"I'd have a loaf of crusty French bread, or focaccia [Italian flat bread] and chevre -- goat cheese -- may be marinated for a couple of hours in a little olive oil and fresh basil. And then I'd just have some cornichons, some radishes, and hard and soft salamis that I could eat with the French bread; maybe with a little olive oil.
"And I'd have a nice, light red wine that I could chill. Maybe a Beaujolais."
Dessert? "Some homemade cookies -- date, pecan and chocolate cookies."
Mr. Dame is not alone in turning away from traditional "picnic" foods. People are beginning to think differently about picnics, says Janet Garlock, a food consultant to the T. Marzetti Co. of Columbus, Ohio, makers of bottled slaw dressing.
"We all grew up on cold cuts and fried chicken -- now we want something a little bit different. Picnics and outdoor cooking have changed. They're becoming really popular when people are entertaining."
The informality of an outdoor gathering is appealing, she says, but people aren't quite willing to extend informality to the food: "They want something that's quick and easy, but something that looks good, whether it's on a buffet table or outdoors."
Although holidays and family reunions are the most popular picnic times, people are packing picnics on all occasions, Ms. Garlock said. "When they're bicycling, people are packing food and eating it along the trail somewhere," she said. Concerts, community events and benefits are also prime picnic times. (See accompanying story for tips on safe food handling.)
Barry Fleischmann, chef and owner of Innovative Gourmet, has to think about picnics this time of year, with the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase in late April and the Preakness in mid-May.
"Obviously," he says, "you want things that you don't have to warm up, that are easy to transport, not perishable -- and delicious, of course."
His ideal picnic menu would include spicy breaded chicken, herb-marinated shrimp, a pasta salad, a fruit salad, and chocolate cookies.
"There are some baskets you can buy that you can fit in the plates and glasses. . . . Of course, you can take a cooler instead of a basket, but you probably lose something in the charm."
The first recipe is from Linwood Dame of Linwood's Cafe.
Linwood's date, pecan and chocolate cookies
Makes 2 dozen cookies.
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup (about 5 ounces) chopped pitted dates
3/4 cup chopped pecans
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chunks
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Grease two large, heavy cookie sheets. Mix first four ingredients together in medium-sized bowl. With electric mixer, cream butter and both sugars in a large bowl until light and fluffy.
Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix in oatmeal mixture. Stir in remaining ingredients. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. Flatten each cookie slightly with a spoon.
Bake until brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool on cookie sheets 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.
Cookies may be prepared up to 5 days in advance and stored in airtight container.
The next three recipes are from Barry Fleischmann at Innovative Gourmet.
Spicy breaded chicken
8 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1/2 cup flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
2 tablespoons jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Dash of salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons olive oil
Combine bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, mustard, paprika oregano and red pepper in a bowl or on a large platter. Place seasoned flour in a plastic bag. Add chicken and toss to coat. Remove chicken from bag and shake off excess flour. Whisk eggs, jalapeno peppers, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper in small bowl and dip chicken to coat. Dredge chicken pieces in bread crumb mixture, pressing firmly to make it stick. Cover and refrigerate 45 minutes to an hour. In heavy skillet, melt butter and mix in olive oil. Saute chicken until cooked through, about 5 minutes on each side.
Serve with a commercial honey mustard.
Bow-tie pasta salad
1 pound bow-tie pasta
1 cup sweet peas
1/4 cup canned pimentos, sliced
1 cup button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup Virginia baked ham, minced
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare pasta according to package directions. Steam peas fo 1 minute. Combine cooked pasta, peas, pimento, mushrooms and ham gently in a large bowl. In a separate bowl or in a dressing bottle, put olive oil, basil, vinegar, parsley, and mustard.
Mix or shake to combine. Pour over pasta and toss. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.
Orange, apple and pecan salad
4 Red Delicious apples
1/2 cup pecans
orange-lime dressing (optional; recipe below)
Cut apples in half and core. Slice each half into eight pieces Brush with lime juice to prevent browning. Cut away rind from oranges. Slice each orange into 6 to 8 pieces. Place sliced apples and oranges on platter or in a sealable plastic container. Sprinkle pecans over fruit. Squeeze lime so juice covers fruit. Drizzle with orange-lime dressing, if desired.
Makes about 1/2 cup.
2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/3 cup salad oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix orange juice concentrate, lime juice and brown sugar. Whis salad oil, salt and pepper to taste.
Janet Garlock suggests a picnic menu of honey-Dijon chicken, slaw and bread sticks.
Green and white slaw
1 head cauliflower, broken into small pieces
1 head broccoli, broken into small pieces
1 cup green cabbage, shredded
1/3 cup chopped green onion
8 slices bacon, crumbled
1 cup bottled slaw dressing, regular or light
Mix vegetables and bacon. Combine vegetables in airtigh plastic container and chill them and the dressing for several hours. Pack in the cooler and toss together just before serving.
4 whole chicken breasts, boned, skinned and halved
3/4 cup bottled honey-Dijon mustard dressing, regular or fat-free
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Dip the chicken breasts in th dressing, making sure they are well-coated. Combine bread crumbs and cheese, and dredge chicken to coat. Place in baking dish and bake 50-60 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and tender. It's also good cold; it can be made in advance, chilled and taken to the picnic site in a cooler.
If you're planning to have a picnic in the Pimlico infield, there are rules about what you can take along.
Picnic baskets and coolers are fine, according to track officials and you can bring your own sodas, beer or wine as long as all containers and glasses are plastic.
But some things are banned. Here's what you need to leave a home: beer in kegs, "party ball" drink containers, hibachis and barbecue grills, scaffolds and ladders, umbrellas of any type, canopies, beach balls and animals.
Babies and baby carriages are allowed.
Tickets to the infield are $18 on Preakness Day; tickets ar available for $15 in advance at Baltimore-area Amoco stations.