SPLENDOR ON THE GRASS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Food just seems to taste better when it's eaten outside.

"It's really sort of a state of mind," said DeeDee Stovel, author of Picnic (Storey Books, 2001, $9.95). "You find a nice place and you go with people you like and you sit outside and have a nice meal. You could be eating the same food at home and it wouldn't be the same."

Stovel's book provides menus and ideas for 29 picnics, including a spring hike, an after-ski picnic and a tailgate picnic. But because summer is around the corner, it seems appropriate to focus on summertime picnics.

Summertime picnics can be as simple as sandwiches on a towel at the beach, or as spectacular as the Maryland crab feast offered by Biddle Street Catering in Baltimore. One way to take a picnic to the next step is to build it around a theme, with food and accessories that work together to create a total experience.

When you create a themed picnic, accessories can make a big difference. For his Maryland feast, Larry Levy, Biddle Street Catering president, creates a "tablescape" with nautical rope and small anchors, among other things. A picnic for children might be transported in a toy wagon, or include teddy-bear-shaped cookies. A garden picnic could have flowers, good wineglasses and a beautiful tablecloth.

"When coming up with picnic theme ideas, consider color combinations," writes Anita Louise Crane, the author of The Perfect Picnic: Outdoor Entertaining With Style (Sterling Publishing Co., 2002, $27.95). "If the picnic is by the sea, how about using green and blue tones to dress the table?"

Nearly any food can be transported and eaten at a picnic, as long as a few safety precautions are taken. However, mayonnaise, eggs and dairy products spoil easily, so extra care must be taken with those foods.

To find picnic baskets, two Web sites to try are: picnicfun. com and picnic-baskets.com. Many baskets come with plates, cutlery, candlesticks and other picnic gear.

Backyard picnic

Crane delights in creating feasts for the eyes as well as the taste buds. "I'm always looking at my picnics as a visual scene," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Utah.

For backyard picnics, she suggests covering patio tables with white linen tablecloths, and displaying fresh flowers on top. If there's no suitable table, spread some colorful blankets on a flat part of the lawn. Decorate with flower petals, if you wish.

This might be an occasion for fine china and linen napkins, but sturdy plastic or paper plates and cutlery can work, too.

Even if the picnic is only a few steps from your kitchen, plan ahead so you're not running inside for stuff. Don't forget the salt and pepper, or the corkscrew for the wine. And save that Vivaldi compact disc for some other occasion. "It's best for Mother Nature to be the musician for a garden party," Crane said.

Anything fresh and flavorful works for a garden party. Brightly colored salads or quiches are especially nice. For classic romantic picnic fare, consider wines, cheeses, breads and fresh fruit. And what's to stop you and your guests from dressing for the occasion, in billowy dresses and straw hats for the ladies, and seersucker suits for the gents?

Berry-picking fun

One of Stovel's favorite picnic spots is Mount Greylock in Massachusetts. "In the blueberry season, we go up, have a picnic, and pick the blueberries," she said. "You get a little exercise, and then you can just loll around on the blankets and enjoy your dinner and your blueberries. That's probably one of my favorite memories."

Inspired by that location, Stovel, a caterer who has supplied many picnics for revelers at the famous Tanglewood music festival in Massachusetts, includes a berry-picking picnic in her book.

She suggests taking assorted breads, cheeses and salamis, as well as cold berry soup, which can be enhanced with the freshly picked berries.

Remember to bring knives and cutting boards for the cold cuts, and supplies (a strainer and clean water) to wash the berries you pick. Beautiful blankets and bouquets of flowers make the meal even nicer.

Maryland crab feast

Biddle Street Catering offers several picnic themes, including a country hoedown, a Mediterranean picnic feast and a cowboy barbecue.

One of the more popular is the Ultimate Maryland Crab Feast. This is so lavish it even includes carving tables with pit beef and a whole smoked turkey.

Insulated beverage carriers are available in gallon sizes, Levy said, and are great for taking soups, baked beans and even hot vegetables. Naturally, for the crab feast, he would take crab soup. Another popular side is a chilled gazpacho enhanced with a big gob of crab meat.

Decorations can include burlap for tablecloths, fishnet, baskets and shells. Brown sugar can be sprinkled about to resemble sand (beware of ants, however) and old crab traps can be found at flea markets and used to hold napkins and cutlery.

Kids' party

For kids, a picnic might be beside a pool or in the back yard. A storybook-themed picnic might have food and activities based on a book, says Crane. Food can be transported in a toy plastic wagon, or sandwiches can be stuffed into a brightly colored beach pail.

Crane also recommends bringing buckets, shovels, jump ropes, flying discs, butterfly nets and other toys to a child-centered picnic.

But the fun part is the food. Watermelon is required. "You can't very well spit watermelon seeds out on the dining-room carpet, yet it's expected at a picnic," Crane writes.

Other kid-friendly foods include sandwiches, chips and baked chicken fingers. Crane suggests an ice-cream social, with several kinds of ice creams and toppings. This would probably be best close to home.

Stovel's book includes a "teddy-bear picnic" suitable for a small child's birthday party. She suggests using a large stuffed bear for a table-top centerpiece, and giving a smaller bear to each child as a party favor.

Her menu includes teddy-bear cookies that are shaped with cookie cutters.

Take-along tips

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Prepare cold foods ahead of time and refrigerate overnight. Transport the food in insulated carriers that have been chilled themselves or are kept cold with ice or ice packs. Eat food within four hours of packing it.

Meat, fish or chicken that will be grilled at the picnic site can be frozen and allowed to thaw on the way. When grilling, only remove from the cooler the amount that will fit on the grill. Do not place cooked meat on a platter that held raw meat.

Bring hot foods that are liquid to as high a temperature as possible, then place in a thermos bottle that was just rinsed in boiling water. Other foods can be wrapped in aluminum foil while at a high temperature, then placed in an insulated carrier.

Wine and other beverages can be protected with specially made insulated carriers. If near a beach or stream, beverages can be placed in the water.

Remember bug spray, sunscreen, a first-aid kit and water. Keep the bug spray far away from the food, and off the hands of the picnickers.

- From "Picnic" (Storey Books, 2001, $9.95) and "The Perfect Picnic: Outdoor Entertaining With Style" (Sterling Publishing Co., 2002, $27.95)

Cold Berry Soup

Serves 8

3 cups buttermilk

3 cups orange juice

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon lemon juice

dash each of ground cinnamon and ground nutmeg

1 cup washed fresh berries

Whisk together all the ingredients but the berries and chill thoroughly. Take it to the picnic in a large thermos bottle. Take berries in a plastic bag, or use ones that you pick on location. To serve, divide the soup into cups and add the berries.

-- Adapted from "Picnic" (Storey Books, 2001, $9.95)

Teddy-Bear Cookies

Makes 5 dozen cookies

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup solid shortening

1/4 cup milk

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Cream the sugar and shortening in the large bowl of an electric mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in the milk, egg, lemon zest and almond extract until well blended. Sift together the dry ingredients and add to the creamed mixture until the dough is well mixed. Shape the dough into a disc, wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator for 1 hour or more, until firm.

Divide dough in half. Form each half into a flattened ball, and place one on a lightly floured surface. Roll to 1/8 -inch thickness and cut into teddy-bear shapes with a cookie cutter. Bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes, or until lightly browned around edges. Remove from baking sheets and cool on wire racks. Let your child help decorate with icing, sprinkles, raisins, etc.

Cookie Icing

Makes 1 cup

4 cups confectioners' sugar

3 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice

food coloring

Mix the sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth.

Divide into smaller bowls and add the desired food coloring.

-- Adapted from "Picnic" (Storey Books, 2001, $9.95)

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