Both my parents worked full-time when I was young, so my grandmother took care of my younger sister and me. She had her hands full thinking up entertainment for two little girls during the hot Baltimore summers, but one sure-fire way was to bribe us with a picnic on the banks of a nearby stream.
My grandmother's picnics were never rushed affairs, not in their preparation or their enjoyment. Her secret: She always cooked the picnic fare the day before and chose foods that packed well and stayed fresh for hours in a cooler placed under a tree.
I still follow her basic picnic rules today as I plan our family's annual Fourth of July picnic.
I start with sandwiches made from a variety of spreads paired with rye and pita breads. Making the spreads myself lets me control the calories and fat, and most taste better after being stored in the refrigerator overnight. Packed into lidded plastic containers in the cooler, along with breathable plastic bags of washed and torn lettuce, sprouts, red onion slices and other fixings, they become a make-your-own-sandwich smorgasbord. Any leftover spreads can be eaten with sliced raw vegetables for a low-fat afternoon snack.
Around the sandwiches, I build menus that are both fun and practical for the long, hot evening while waiting for the fireworks to start. Chilled soup is often a big hit, especially a spicy gazpacho or a pureed fruit soup made with ripe cantaloupe or berries. Both can be made the day before the picnic, packed into icy thermoses and kept in the cooler until serving time.
Marinated salads are another welcome picnic food if made with crunchy vegetables that won't wilt in the heat (red or green pepper, raw corn kernels scraped from the cob, cucumber and cabbage are great). Coleslaws, potato salads and pasta and rice salads can be made ahead of time also. The longer the flavors mingle, the better they taste. Be sure they are kept cold at the picnic site.
Dessert is always simple -- home-baked cookies or fruit bars. And don't forget the lemonade.
Green and White Gazpach
Makes 4 to 6 servings
6 cups snow peas
3 cups defatted chicken, beef or vegetable broth
1 small onion, finely minced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2 cup seeded and minced green pepper
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
3/4 cup minced celery
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Z salt, black pepper
Combine snow peas and broth in large saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Bring to boil. Lower heat and simmer 25 minutes. Strain out snow peas and reserve for another purpose.
Add onion, garlic, peppers, celery, lemon and lime juices, tarragon, cumin, cayenne and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and chill 3 hours or overnight. Adjust seasonings before serving. Serve cold.
Tangy Carrot-Raisin Slaw
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons fat-free mayonnaise
6 cups grated carrots
1/2 cup raisins
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, well drained
freshly ground pepper
Whisk together yogurt and mayonnaise in bowl. Add carrots, raisins, pineapple and pepper. To make salad tangier, add more yogurt. Cover and refrigerate 15 minutes or overnight before packing into cooler container.
Fourth of July
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound uncooked small macaroni
1/2 cup nonfat cottage cheese, drained
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup nonfat plain yogurt
1 1/2 cups corn kernels
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
Cook macaroni in large pan of boiling salted water until just tender, 18 to 20 minutes. Drain well.
Process cottage cheese in blender until smooth. Stir in vinegar, oil and yogurt. Add macaroni and toss well. Let stand 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Before serving, stir in corn, basil and tomatoes.
Makes about a dozen cookies
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons unbleached white flour
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly spray paper with nonstick cooking spray.
Cream together butter, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt in bowl. Add egg white and whisk until smooth. Stir in flour and oats, mixing well.
Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet, spacing cookies 4 inches apart to allow them to spread while baking. Using back of wooden spoon, press batter into 2 1/2 -inch rounds.
Bake at 425 degrees until edges turn golden, 4 to 6 minutes. Immediately lift cookies from baking sheet with metal spatula and drape over rolling pin to cool in curved shapes.