Summertime's long, warm days are the perfect setting for the ultimate alfresco dining experience: a picnic. Whether you're heading out to watch Fourth of July fireworks next Tuesday or attending an outdoor concert, a picnic packed with simple, easy-to-transport foods makes any summer outing a little special. To take the guesswork out of what to pack, we asked some experts to assemble picnics tailored to particular occasions, from a romantic open-air dinner for two to a family foray with a meal in a hamper. You can provide the basket or let the pros do all the work for you - just don't forget the blanket and the bug spray.
Romance in a basket
When Nancy Cohen, owner of Eddie's of Roland Park, set about constructing a romantic picnic for two, she focused on sensual yet simple foods. "This is an easy picnic that doesn't take up a lot of space and won't require a lot of work outside," she says.
She begins with champagne and strawberries. "Fresh fruit is an easy-to-eat finger food and it is very sensual," she says. For the hamper, Cohen suggests a main course of crab cakes - a perennial favorite and just as delicious cold as warm - or a cold tenderloin with Caesar salad, pasta salad and baguettes.
"The Caesar salad comes with the salad, the dressing, the croutons and the cheese all separate, so it is easy to assemble, won't be messy and won't be soggy by the time you get there," Cohen says.
To create a romantic atmosphere, Cohen recommends heading out in the cooler early evening. Because that is a prime time for bugs as well as mood lighting, she suggests packing citronella candles along with the cloth napkins and champagne flutes to create a functional yet romantic ambience.
"In the summer, you want lots of water," she adds. "If you want to bring sparkling instead of still that's fun, but you want water to stay hydrated." And for the end of the evening, don't forget the Altoid mints.
Give girls' night out a new twist by getting the gals outside for fresh-air fun. Nona Nielsen-Parker, executive chef at Stone Mill Bakery and Cafe, says that she wouldn't want anything messy for such an outing - nothing that requires cutting or a lot of sauce.
But that doesn't mean the food has to be sedate. "I was thinking women are more adventuresome in their tastes and like different things," Nielsen-Parker says. "Plus, I was looking for color, and a little bit of everything so the meal was balanced."
To start, Nielsen-Parker suggests baba ghannouj and hummus with sliced bread, followed by curried chicken salad on miniature rolls, chopped salad with lemon vinaigrette (packed separately) and asparagus spears blanched with salt and pepper.
A delicious summer starch is Nielsen-Parker's basmati rice salad, made with corn, grape tomatoes, red onion and a little oil and vinegar. "It's easy to make and will hold up well," she says.
For dessert, Nielsen-Parker recommends bite-sized brownies and raspberry shortbread cookies. No girls' night out would be complete without water, soda and, of course, wine.
"I have a carrying bag with ice packs that I use to carry the food, and in your picnic basket you can put your real china, silverware and glassware," she says. "If you think you will be somewhere that you can't sit a wineglass down, do it like they do in Europe and use tumblers."
"The first thing you need with a family picnic is a plan," says Eddie's Cohen. She recommends taking the food in coolers and baskets packed into a wagon that can double as a plaything at the picnic site. Bringing bird books, binoculars and treasure-hunt items also can help keep kids busy.
For food, she'd keep it simple. "You're out there to have a good time, and if it gets too complicated, it takes away from having fun with the family," she says. In addition to a lot of water, she opts for kid-friendly chicken fingers. She bypasses salty chips that make everyone too thirsty and don't always stay fresh in favor of bite-sized summer fruit.
Although Cohen is a fan of cold corn on the cob, a cold corn salad mixed with red peppers and a vinaigrette dressing might appeal more to the masses, she says.
For dessert, lemon bars are simple and refreshing in the summertime. For the children, she would pack a variety of gummy candy - worms, lightning bugs, bottle caps - that are fun.
One of Cohen's favorite picnic sandwiches is focaccia or a baguette stuffed with field greens, mozzarella and tomato and spread with pesto. Unlike some sandwiches, this will not get soggy and it packs a lot of fresh ingredients. Whether you are toting crab cakes or sandwiches, "Things should be easy to eat and not require a lot of utensils," she says.
Robin Miller, author of the book Picnics (Clarkson/Potter, $14.95) and host of Quick Fix Meals With Robin Miller on the Food Network, likes to create an atmosphere with her picnics by adding themes. "When you think in terms of themes, you're really planning a mini party," she says.
Because the food can be particularly portable, an Asian theme works well for a picnic, Miller says. Use chopsticks instead of conventional forks and knives, and serve food in paper carryout containers instead of on paper plates.
"You could swing by a restaurant and ask to purchase [boxes] or pick up some side dishes from the restaurant and ask for extra boxes," Miller says. (Just don't pack food in paper containers or you will have a basket full of spills.)
Miller's Asian basket would include easy-to-transport, Asian-inspired salads such as Thai noodles with vegetables and peanuts, and sesame-glazed shrimp salad with sugar snap peas or packable Thai chicken roll-ups.
Add tropical-fruit salad sprinkled with coconut and, of course, fortune cookies. Top it off with a thermos filled with a cooling treat. "Ginger tea on ice would be super refreshing in the summer with lemon," she says.
Sesame-Glazed Shrimp Salad With Sugar Snap Peas
4 teaspoons sesame oil (divided use)
1 pound raw medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup sugar snap peas, ends trimmed
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until bright pink, turning frequently. Transfer the shrimp to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, blanch the snap peas in a large pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, until bright green and crisp-tender. Drain, set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, cilantro and the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil. Add to the shrimp and toss to coat. Add the snap peas and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store in a sealable plastic container in the refrigerator until you are ready to pack it into a cold cooler.
From "Picnics," by Robin Miller
Per serving: 281 calories, 24 grams protein, 18 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 177 milligrams cholesterol, 248 milligrams sodium
Tips for a worry-free outdoor repast
Nothing ruins a picnic faster than not being prepared. Remember that the point of a picnic is to get away from it all and find a scenic spot outdoors where you can spread a blanket and nibble and chat away.
But if you forget the wine opener, the whole day can be spoiled faster than ants can get to the picnic hamper.
Robin Miller, author of Picnics (Clarkson/Potter, $14.95) and host of Quick Fix Meals With Robin Miller on the Food Network, offered tips for a great outing:
Bring a bottle opener, paper towels, bug spray, sunblock, trash bags and cloth wipes for quick cleanups.
The most important thing to remember is to keep cold foods consistently cool. "Food can't be out for more than two hours between the temperatures of 40 and 140 [degrees]," says Miller. She takes perishable foods straight from the refrigerator and packs food in layers with ice, taking a separate cooler for drinks. Picnic carriers such as a picnic backpack (available from thepicnicstore.com) or the Wine Lover's basket (from williams-sonoma.com) come with insulated compartments for both food and beverages.
Avoid anything that can get soggy, such as sandwiches and chips. If sandwiches are a must, pack tomatoes separately or separate them from the bread with a piece of lettuce. Or go for wraps instead; they don't get squashed like traditional bread sandwiches.
Miller prefers vinegar-based salads to those with mayonnaise. While she says mayonnaise now has preservatives to reduce food-born bacteria, "For me, it's easier to not worry about it. I'd rather have a pasta salad with tons of vegetables and a vinaigrette."
Just because it's portable, picnic food doesn't need to be boring. "It can be beyond fried chicken and apple pie on a red checkered blanket," Miller says. "Think in terms of it being a party."