My favorite summer picnic is a box of fried chicken from Royal Farms, a Tupperware full of whatever fruit is in season and a bottle of cheap sparkling wine. For dining al fresco, it can't be beat.
Memorial Day weekend is upon us, and I'm looking forward with glee to the official start of the eating outside season. I love a cookout but this week my mind is wandering towards picnics. I like packing up a cooler and taking it to a certain swimming hole to eat and drink and lounge in the sun with pals. Whether you're into camping or hiking or just taking a Frisbee and lunch to the park, think beyond the sandwich when planning your meal.
The best picnic foods are finger foods that can take an afternoon in the heat and some rough handling without falling apart. I don't like to fuss with utensils beyond a sharp knife for cutting cheese or a peach. If you are not inclined to cook, a box of fried chicken from your favorite joint is perfect—it's satisfyingly greasy, holds up well in a backpack, and is good cold, hot, or room temperature. I think Royal Farms does it best, particularly at the headquarters on 36th St. where they seem to take more care with their food prep. If you want a classier picnic experience, Neopol Savory Smokery—located at Belvedere Square Market, with stands in the Waverly and Downtown farmers markets, is a great place to load up. They have sausages that are divine sliced with some cheese and crusty bread, a spicy smoked hummus, smoked tofu that's lovely in thin slices for the vegetarians, and these little smoked cheese pies, similar to quiches, that are filled with smoked meats or vegetables. Right around the corner in the Market is Atwater’s, where you can pick up all kinds of little cake bites and mini-eclairs.
If you like to cook, I'm a fan of sweet and savory turnovers or hand pies. They're endlessly versatile. You can buy piecrust, of course, or even filo dough, but I like to make my own. My standard recipe is:
1 lb all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar (for sweet pies)
1/2 cup of butter and 1/2 cup of lard or shortening. Cut or rub this into the dry mixture until you have pieces of fat ranging from the size of cornmeal to the size of small olives. Add a cup and a quarter of very cold water, a third at a time, handling the dough as little as possible. Cover in saran wrap and let rest in the fridge for at least 10 minutes, but overnight is fine. Before you roll it out, let it rest on the counter top for at least five minutes.
This dough can be filled with anything your refrigerator holds. For sweet, I like strawberries and rhubarb with orange zest or blueberry with fresh ginger. Peaches are great with almond or nutmeg and brandy; blackberries are great by themselves or with brandy. Savory pies are fantastic too. Ham and cheese, ground lamb with rosemary and garlic and maybe some feta cheese, corned beef and potatoes, chickpeas mashed with ground turkey with onion, garlic, cumin, coriander and cayenne, empanada filling, samosa filling... almost anything can be encased in dough and baked. Just roll out the dough, cut into six-inch circles, add enough filling to nearly cover half, fold dough over the filling and crimp closed. A finger dipped in water and run along the edge of the dough will help it adhere. Put a few slits on the top to allow steam to vent and bake at 400 degrees until the hand pies are a nice brown color. (All meat should be pre-cooked.)