Dining Out

Focus On Picnics

There's more to a good picnic than blue sky and a checkered tablecloth. Here are some tips for creating a perfect al fresco meal.

May 23, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Recipe for a perfect picnic: Start with a glorious day -- blue sky, maybe a few puffy clouds, not too hot, not too cold, preferably with a gentle breeze. Add charming companionship, friends or family. Season with some of your favorite foods. Relax and enjoy.

Of course, it's not that easy to whip up an ideal outdoor dining experience. It takes organization and labor beforehand. To help you execute a perfect picnic, we talked to food and organization experts, and checked out local sources for equipment. Here are some suggestions.

What to eat

Eating, after all, is the point of the outing.

"My perfect picnic would be French," said Cindy Wolf, chef and owner of Charleston, in the East Harbor. "I'd have a whole lot of good, unpasteurized French cheeses. Maybe some prosciutto or soppressata, or Black Forest ham.

"I'd have wonderful breads, and fresh fruits -- definitely peaches, and berries. I would make a black raspberry or blackberry pie. Oh, and I'd make a big salad. We're getting some purple Cherokee tomatoes from California, and locally, someone is growing for us German stripe tomatoes -- they're these huge yellow tomatoes with a V-shaped red stripe going through. They're really juicy and not mealy. I'd make a basil vinaigrette, or maybe a lemon verbena vinaigrette."

Ned Atwater, executive chef at Caves Valley Country Club, believes in keeping picnic food simple.

"I love cheese, so cheese would have to be there. Preferably more than one kind. I like to have things I can carry -- bread, cheese and fruit -- something I can carry as far as we can walk. I want to get far enough away to relax and enjoy it."

Harriet Dopkin, of the Classic Catering People in Owings Mills, has been planning a picnic to share with friends.

"I'm having gazpacho with crab or shrimp," she said. "Of course, you keep the crab separate until the last minute. Then I'll have a spring tart with asparagus and Fontina." For the main course, she's thinking about tenderloin sandwiches on ciabatta with grainy mustard. And for dessert, biscotti and fruit.

"It's easy -- everything is pre-done."

Paper or plastic?

There are attractive paper plates these days, available even in supermarkets, usually with napkins, and sometimes with knives, forks and spoons to match. Or you might want something a little more substantial, like plastic.

"If you're using plastic, it should be beautiful plastic, in keeping with the beautiful surroundings," Dopkin said.

Pottery Barn has unusual square plates, along with trays, glasses, ice buckets and silverware in acrylic in translucent blue, amber and green ($4-$20). Crate & Barrel has insulated 24-ounce tumblers with lids in '50s-type neon colors ($5.95). It also has a beautiful white, scalloped-edge metal platter ($19.95).

Need a picnic cloth? April Cornell has Provence-inspired tablecloths ($38 for a 50-inch square), placemats ($6.50 each) and napkins ($5) in vibrant, summery colors.

Games to play

Badminton

Croquet

Twister

Hearts

A cookout, and then some

Chef Mark Henry of the Oregon Grille at Oregon Ridge, said: "We load up the boat with a small Weber grill and go out to a strip of beach. We have assorted vegetables with shallots and garlic herb butter, wrapped in foil, shrimp with slices of lemon, sliced onions and basil, with a little olive oil, wrapped in foil, potatoes with fresh Parmesan, salt, pepper and butter, wrapped in foil. And we have strip steaks, with cracked black pepper.

"We take everything wrapped in foil, all stacked neatly in the cooler. When we get to the beach, we start the fire, then go tubing. When we come back, the fire is ready."

Henry stacks all the foil packets on the grill -- "so the lid is sitting about 6 inches off the grill" -- and then rotates the packets from top to bottom, so everything gets done. The last thing he does is take the lid off the grill and allow the fire to get hot to cook the steaks.

"We made enough food for eight people, just on that little grill."

Stebbins Anderson in Towson has Weber Go Anywhere charcoal grills that are rectangular (10 inches by 16 inches, $45.99 to $54.99) and round Smokey Joe portable grills (14.5 inches in diameter, $40.99 to $70.99).

Romantic lighting

You need something that won't be affected by wind. You can use tea lights in votive candleholders or candlesticks with hurricane shades. Target has brushed-steel candleholders with frosted glass shades in three styles and several pastel colors ($7.99 to $12.99).

You can also use lanterns. Pottery Barn has glass-and-metal lanterns in various sizes ($9-$40). Williams Sonoma has small lanterns in a couple of colors ($8.50).

Getting organized

"I always have lists," said Connie Conner, director of catering at Harbor Court Hotel. "A buying list, a linens list, a food list, a beverage list and a necessities list." That last is especially important, she said, so that you have salt and pepper, sugar and artificial sweetener -- "and did you remember to bring the lemons?"

Other things Conner recommends thinking about when organizing a picnic:

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