Things all picnic baskets need
How to Cook Everything: There are four components to a simple, pleasurable picnic: dips, poached food, raw or pickled food and beverages. Recipes: Poached Vegetables Followed by Poached Fish, Hummus and Kosher Pickles, the Right Way
The New York Times
Having grown up in the city, I never really got the hang of picnics until recently, when I started venturing down to the beach in the early evening and staying through sunset. At the beginning, there was no pattern: I'd roast a chicken, make a frittata, toss a salad, grab some leftovers. It was, in essence, a "normal" dinner, transported. There's nothing wrong with that.
But as the occasions went by (and I've been working on this for three or four years now), it became clear that the whole thing could be done more efficiently and consistently with a flexible menu, one that changed a bit but wasn't reinvented every time we decided that the weather was good enough and work done enough to make it down to the beach. The menu meant that some things were made only occasionally, that very little needed to be done at the last minute, and that a bag could be kept packed that would, if not absolutely guarantee that we wouldn't forget something essential, at least minimize the chances. (I'm talking about salt, a corkscrew and napkins, for example, the last of which, as it happens, I forgot only last week, to my embarrassment.)
There are four components to my picnic: dips, poached food, raw or pickled food and beverages. To take these categories one by one:
I'm addicted, I confess, to mayonnaise; there is almost nothing that isn't improved by it. Homemade mayo, using a food processor, takes — literally — three minutes. (Washing the food processor takes longer, but that's why they invented dishwashers.) You can spice it with garlic, lemon, pimenton (current favorite), curry, herbs and so on. (Or you can use bottled mayonnaise and spike it with lemon juice and anything else you like and have a fair substitute.)
Hummus, to me, runs a close second; in this, tahini is essential, as are garlic and lemon. Cumin and pimenton are optional, as, again, are herbs or blends like za'atar.
Water is an efficient conductor of heat and an easy and reliable cooking medium. Poaching produces brilliant-colored vegetables and tender, juicy, usually not-overcooked fish. See the notes in the recipe, but please don't be bound by my choices: Almost any vegetable can be poached and served cold, then dipped in mayonnaise! The only caveat is to cook really strong-tasting vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage by themselves, unless you want your subsequent items to taste like them. Otherwise, the stock only improves as you cook more food in it.
RAW OR PICKLED FOOD
Nothing says you have to poach carrots, of course: You can eat them raw. I myself prefer to make a few pickled cucumbers, which are easy and change things up. I like to have a few cheese or charcuterie options in the fridge for this portion of the meal also. (This summer I discovered I'm not the only person with an affinity for liverwurst, as friends of all ages gobbled it up.) Bread is obviously handy.
You don't need me for this, but taking wine with a few ice packs really makes a difference.
There are no chips here (they're not forbidden, but unnecessary), but it's worth noting that this is quite a convenient picnic even without them. All of this food can be made well ahead (you want it cold, after all), and it keeps well. Mayonnaise, hummus, pickles, cured meats, cheeses all last for a week or more. Even poached vegetables and fish stay just fine for days, as long as they're well-wrapped. Knowing this, you can cook a little at a time and augment your supplies as things run out. In fact the only element that spoils quickly is the bread, and for this you can substitute crackers.
The most challenging part of the whole thing, as I implied earlier, is the packing list, so I'm sharing mine, in the hope that I haven't forgotten anything.
Salt and pepper
Napkins or paper towels
Damp paper towel or rag in plastic bag
POACHED VEGETABLES FOLLOWED BY POACHED FISH
Time: An hour or less
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Note: It's actually easier to cook these ingredients sequentially because they cook at different rates. These are just ideas for vegetables (but I would not go on a picnic without carrots because, when poached, they're not only delicious but gorgeous). In general, cook more-common aromatics — onions, carrots, celery — before stronger-flavored vegetables, like fennel. And save the fish for last, because then you're cooking fish in vegetable broth rather than the other way around.
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into sticks
1 pound potatoes, peeled (or not) and chunked
1 bulb fennel, trimmed and sliced
1 pound green beans, topped and tailed
1 to 2 pounds shrimp or other fish, peeled or cleaned (or both) as necessary
1. Put a tablespoon or so of salt in a medium (say 6-quart) saucepan and add enough water to cover whatever you might cook. Bring to a boil.
2. Add the carrots, reduce the heat so the water bubbles gently (cover partly) and cook until just tender, about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove, plunge into ice water (or at least cold running water). When cool, drain and put in a plastic container or sealable bag.
3. Potatoes: Same treatment. About 15 minutes, again depending on size. Fennel, green beans: Ditto. Five minutes or less for each.
4. Shrimp or fish: No different really, except if you're cooking white fish, undercook it a bit so it doesn't fall apart. Shrimp just has to turn pink. Cooking time for shrimp, scallops, squid: 2 minutes or so. For fillets (nothing too thin, or they fall apart): 5 minutes or so.
Time: 15 minutes with precooked chickpeas
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 cups drained well-cooked or canned chickpeas, cooking liquid reserved if possible
½ cup tahini, with some of its oil
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves peeled garlic, or to taste
Juice of 1 lemon, plus more as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin or paprika, or to taste, plus a sprinkling for garnish
Chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish
1. Put the chickpeas, tahini, oil, garlic and lemon juice in a food processor, sprinkle with salt and pepper and begin to process; add chickpea-cooking liquid or water as needed to produce a smooth purée.
2. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or lemon juice as needed. Serve, drizzled with some olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of cumin or paprika and some parsley.
KOSHER PICKLES, THE RIGHT WAY
Time: 1 to 2 days
Yield: About 30 pickle quarters or 15 halves
1/3 cup kosher salt
2 pounds Kirby cucumbers, washed (scrub if spiny) and halved or quartered lengthwise
At least 5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large bunch fresh dill, preferably with flowers, or 2 tablespoons dried dill and 1 teaspoon dill seeds, or 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1. Combine the salt and 1 cup boiling water in a large bowl; stir to dissolve the salt. Add a handful of ice cubes to cool the mixture, then all the remaining ingredients.
2. Add cold water to cover. Use a plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the bowl and a small weight to keep the cucumbers immersed. Set aside at room temperature.
3. Begin sampling the cucumbers after 4 hours if you quartered them. It will probably take 12 to 24 or even 48 hours for them to taste pickled enough to suit your taste.
4. When they are ready, refrigerate them still in the brine. The pickles will continue to ferment as they sit, more quickly at room temperature and more slowly in the refrigerator. They will keep well for up to a week.