A Labor Day picnic is a way to use up the contents of your produce drawer and have a lovely late summer meal outdoors. Whether you box it all up to transport to a park or beach or plate it to serve in your yard, a picnic is a fun, easy and festive way to eat on a day when we take off from our ordinary labor. Picnics often involve less complicated foods and certainly less dishes to do! When our son was young, we would picnic at a nearby playground with other families on warm summer nights. The kids could run around and we got a break from the kitchen and time to chat with other parents. Now we are more likely to take a picnic when we go to hear music outdoors and almost always when taking the train or flying somewhere.
Picnic food has certain requirements – no mayo (or other ingredients that go bad from sitting out for a while), ease of eating (often to be picked up in the hands or off paper plates) and easily transported. I usually think of Italian antipasto when composing a picnic – if food can sit out on a buffet table for hours, it will probably be fine in a cooler or picnic basket. I try, whenever possible, not to use plastic containers so for picnicking or lunch boxes, I use glass or stainless steel boxes. I know everyone is not so persnickety. Even deli sandwiches or containers of salad bar takeout provide the makings for an improvised picnic.
All kinds of simple foods work on a picnic – cheeses, salami or other dried sausages, olives, nuts, sandwiches without mayonnaise, rice, pasta, and bean salads with oil based dressings, whole, sliced or cut up fruit (peaches, figs and watermelon are perfect right now), cleaned and cut raw vegetables like carrots, celery, peppers, jicama, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes). With just a bit more effort you can include cooked vegetable salads (like broccoli, cauliflower, roasted peppers, corn or summer squash) with vinaigrette and even cooked chicken, ham or bacon, smoked or cold, poached fish, canned tuna or salmon prepared with oil or mustard and even a frittata can hold up to jostling and temperature fluctuations if you are careful about sauces and timing and carry some cold packs.
My favorite picnic food is pesto. It’s great on pasta, beans, rice, baked or fried tempeh and tofu, chicken, fish or lightly cooked vegetables and doesn’t spoil easily. The traditional basil is my fallback but there are terrific versions made with arugula, kale, parsley and even Swiss chard. You can make it with or without cheese and even without nuts, black pepper or garlic, if you can’t eat or don’t like them. Just make sure to wash and dry your greens before blending and add plenty of fresh olive oil and salt which help preserve the greens. I use a food processor but you could make this with a mortar and pestle or in a strong blender.
So head out to a park or the beach, hiking or boating, your deck, porch or yard while the weather is mild and bring a meal with you – it’s easy to prepare ahead and you won’t spend your day off concerned with meal planning. If, by chance it rains, spread your tablecloth or blanket on the floor and invent a pretend outing. I once planned a birthday picnic in Riverside park but when it rained, everyone just brought their fixings to our apartment and we had a wonderful indoor celebration. You can picnic anywhere. Don’t forget lots of water and lemonade, beer, wine and/or a thermos of your favorite concoction to add to the festive feeling. Happy outings!
PRETTY TRADITIONAL BUT DELICIOUS BASIL PESTO
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted or raw
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, optional
- Pinch of salt and pinch of black pepper
- 2-3 cups washed and dried fresh basil leaves
- Handful of washed and dried parsley or watercress or arugula, optional
- 4 TBS extra virgin olive oil, or more to reach desired consistency
Put garlic in processor and pulse until finely ground. Add basil and any other green, if using, salt and pepper and process until all well mixed and leaves are all ground. Add nuts and cheese, if using, and pulse until ground and combined. Stop and scrape down sides. Stream in the oil while the motor is running. Stop and scrape down sides and see if it needs more seasoning or oil to reach a smooth consistency.
Use right away, thinned with a little (a couple of TBs) cooking water from pasta, rice or vegetables, to toss with pasta, rice, vegetables, cut up chicken or cooked beans (cannellini or great northern work well but so do many other types). Grate in a little lemon zest or squeeze in a little lemon juice for a fresh taste or add a pinch of cayenne or crushed chilies for heat. If using the salad for a picnic, cool in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. Pesto keeps well in the fridge for weeks with a thin coating of oil on top or in the freezer for months.
Shake or whisk until well blended:
- 2 TBs pesto
- 1 TBs wine or balsamic vinegar