Splendor in the grass Pack a picnic with high style: These meals are easy and elegant

May 12, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Hot dogs are fine for the ball park, and blue crabs will do for the backyard. But there's something about the Preakness that demands a picnic with a little panache.

Nothing too fancy -- just something tasty and easy to transport. What we want is something between the fare of the rowdies in the infield with their bucket o' sticky chicken and the big spenders in the grandstand with their champagne and caviar.

Linwood Dame, chef and owner of Linwood's Cafe-Grille in Owings Mills, has been thinking about picnics; he and his wife have been planning a trip and he thought it would be nice to take along a picnic basket.

When it comes to picnics, "I'm not a ham and cheese kind of guy," he says. "I love to have a wonderful basket, real dishes, a bucket for the wine, a nice tablecloth . . . a lot of times you can find flowers along the way" -- though he doesn't advocate "borrowing" from any Preakness displays.

"I think I would do a wonderful salad Nicoise," he says, "with lots of leaf lettuce, capers, little haricots verts (skinny French green beans), little red bliss potatoes, cooked, little teardrop tomatoes, cooked hard-boiled eggs, sliced, Nicoise olives and grilled tuna that's been prepared ahead. Then what I do is just sprinkle on a nice olive oil and some balsamic vinegar.

"I'd have a loaf of crusty French bread, or focaccia [Italian flat bread] and chevre -- goat cheese -- may be marinated for a couple of hours in a little olive oil and fresh basil. And then I'd just have some cornichons, some radishes, and hard and soft salamis that I could eat with the French bread; maybe with a little olive oil.

"And I'd have a nice, light red wine that I could chill. Maybe a Beaujolais."

Dessert? "Some homemade cookies -- date, pecan and chocolate cookies."

Mr. Dame is not alone in turning away from traditional "picnic" foods. People are beginning to think differently about picnics, says Janet Garlock, a food consultant to the T. Marzetti Co. of Columbus, Ohio, makers of bottled slaw dressing.

"We all grew up on cold cuts and fried chicken -- now we want something a little bit different. Picnics and outdoor cooking have changed. They're becoming really popular when people are entertaining."

The informality of an outdoor gathering is appealing, she says, but people aren't quite willing to extend informality to the food: "They want something that's quick and easy, but something that looks good, whether it's on a buffet table or outdoors."

Although holidays and family reunions are the most popular picnic times, people are packing picnics on all occasions, Ms. Garlock said. "When they're bicycling, people are packing food and eating it along the trail somewhere," she said. Concerts, community events and benefits are also prime picnic times. (See accompanying story for tips on safe food handling.)

Barry Fleischmann, chef and owner of Innovative Gourmet, has to think about picnics this time of year, with the Maryland Hunt Cup steeplechase in late April and the Preakness in mid-May.

"Obviously," he says, "you want things that you don't have to warm up, that are easy to transport, not perishable -- and delicious, of course."

His ideal picnic menu would include spicy breaded chicken, herb-marinated shrimp, a pasta salad, a fruit salad, and chocolate cookies.

"There are some baskets you can buy that you can fit in the plates and glasses. . . . Of course, you can take a cooler instead of a basket, but you probably lose something in the charm."

*

The first recipe is from Linwood Dame of Linwood's Cafe.

Linwood's date, pecan and chocolate cookies

Makes 2 dozen cookies.

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

2/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup (about 5 ounces) chopped pitted dates

3/4 cup chopped pecans

2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chunks

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Grease two large, heavy cookie sheets. Mix first four ingredients together in medium-sized bowl. With electric mixer, cream butter and both sugars in a large bowl until light and fluffy.

Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix in oatmeal mixture. Stir in remaining ingredients. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart. Flatten each cookie slightly with a spoon.

Bake until brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool on cookie sheets 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

Cookies may be prepared up to 5 days in advance and stored in airtight container.

*

The next three recipes are from Barry Fleischmann at Innovative Gourmet.

Spicy breaded chicken

Serves four.

8 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves

1/2 cup flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper

2 eggs

2 tablespoons jalapeno peppers, finely chopped

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

Dash of salt and pepper

1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs

1 teaspoon parsley

1 teaspoon crushed garlic

1 teaspoon ground mustard

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground oregano

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