From other shores, for outdoors All-American picnic deserves dishes from all Americans

June 27, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

AH, the Fourth of July. Fireworks, fried chicken, potato salad and green beans -- good old American favorites.

And foreign food to many U.S. citizens, who've come to this land from other countries and, while reveling in the freedoms they have here, still keep a bit of home in the kitchen.

"American cooking" is not a melting pot, it's a smorgasbord: We are free to pick and choose among the hundreds of cuisines available, even in smaller cities and towns. Tacos and red beans and rice. Fried rice and won-ton soup. Stuffed grape leaves and pita bread. Chicken with pomegranate sauce and yogurt with mint and raisins. Ratatouille and crispy long baguettes. What better time to celebrate the diversity of the American tables than July Fourth, the day the fledgling country declared itself free of tyranny in any form?

Preparing a Fourth of July picnic with an international flavor is as easy as spinach pie. Even if your family already has an ethnic preference, it might be fun to sample dishes from other cultures, some historic on these shores, some more recent arrivals.

Something to realize from the outset: The tradition of picnics is older than the United States -- much older.

There's a legend that a Persian king, Bahram, discovered salt while on a picnic, said Michael Mir, owner and chef at the Orchard Market Cafe in Towson. Mr. Mir came to the United States from Iran in 1973 and studied architecture, but eventually his love of food and cooking led him to the restaurant business.

"Bahram loved to hunt and would go with his entourage to hunt, and there was always a huge picnic as well. When the game was caught, they had a barbecue right there." The story is that Bahram dropped a bite of barbecued meat on a stone, then picked it up and put it in his mouth. It was delicious, and he began rubbing all his meat on the stone -- which was rock salt.

Persian new year, or Now Ruz, which comes with the sprinsolstice late in March, is another notable picnic occasion, Mr. Mir said. "Basically the entire city gets up and goes on a picnic." Traditionally, the Now Ruz picnic celebrates spring, love and romance, with music and games and lavish food.

"A typical picnic meal," Mr. Mir said, would consist of barbecue, usually marinated meat that is cooked on skewers, grilled tomatoes, dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, salad Olvieh, which is Persian chicken salad, and a cold "soup" or appetizer of yogurt and herbs.

Good picnic salad

The salad Olvieh is particularly good for a picnic, Mr. Mir said, because it is chilled, and can be served on greens or in a sandwich, in pita bread or on French baguettes.

Families drive out of the city, often to an orchard or park, and spread blankets on the ground. A portable gas grill or charcoal grill is started and the cook-out begins. After the meal there might be storytelling, music, "definitely dancing," and games. "The backgammon set was never left at home on the day of the picnic," Mr. Mir said.

Then the adults would settle in for a nap, while children waded or swam in nearby streams. After the nap it would be teatime, and maybe time for a light supper of leftovers before driving back to the city.

Mr. Mir recalls lying under heavily laden apricot trees and falling asleep trying to guess which one would fall into his mouth.

Italy meets the Philippines

Roland Keh, one of the owners and a chef at Amicci's, in Little Italy, is the beneficiary of two different traditions: His mother's heritage is Italian, and his father's is Filipino. His father, Rolando, is a chef at the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, and his mother, Dolores, is noted for her pasta dishes, pastries and Christmas cookies.

"Our picnics could be anything," Mr. Keh said, with a laugh. "Anything from all-American 'dogs and 'burgers and potato salad to whatever my mom or dad wanted to fix. The Filipinos do a lot of things outdoors -- that's a big part of their culture." A Filipino picnic might be a feast with roast suckling pig and lots of fresh fruit. There might also be roasted chicken and pork -- "Of

course everything's marinated in soy sauce and garlic," he said.

But when he and his family and friends go on a picnic, Mr. Keh said, the food is light. "I'd make up a nice little antipasto, with roasted bell peppers and artichoke hearts, maybe some eggplant, in an eggplant caponata or salad, and I'd take a nice, crusty loaf of Italian bread, some prosciutto ham, and some honeydew melon and some cantaloupe. . . .

"And you can't forget the wine. You always have to have some nice Italian white wine, like a pinot grigio, or a nice wine right now is Prosecco."

A French version

Of course, when it comes to elegant outdoor dining, the French tradition is the one that comes to mind. A new book, "Picnics of Provence," by Craig Pyes (Simon & Schuster, $14), offers eight ++ "country-style picnics to enjoy at home or abroad."

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