Pack a perfect picnic

Posted: August 23, 2013

THEY SAY life's a picnic.

It can be if you heed our advice and fill up that basket, toss in a favorite quilt or vintage throw and head for the outdoors.

Picnicking is a great way to relax, nosh on some terrific eats and enjoy a sun-filled afternoon lunch or early dinner. Picnics can be about the food, the venue, the company - or all three.

With that notion in mind, here are some tips to help plan the perfect picnic. Unless you're planning for a crowd, there is no need to spend days cooking. Keep it simple. (See recipes, Pages 24-25)

For picnic accessories, check big-box retailers and other stores that sell outdoor goods. Chances are, a lot of it is on sale or marked down for the season now.

Pickin' the right basket

Wicker picnic baskets that come with their own set of plates and utensils are fine - even nostalgic. Wicker is lightweight, so it's easy to carry. Some wicker baskets now have an insulated compartment for keeping foods at the right temperature.

Newer fabric picnic baskets also are lightweight, colorful and have insulated pockets for cold packs.

Either way, make sure you have adequate storage space.

"It's really important to have enough picnic bags," said Annie Bell, author of The Picnic Cookbook (Kyle Books). She suggests one for drinks and a separate one for food.

Find the right blanket

Sure, you can grab an old sheet or raggedy blanket, but something vintage or exotic "can class up a picnic in one hot hurry," said Mary Liz Curtin, co-owner of lifestyle store Leon and Lulu, in Clawson, Mich.

She suggested using a kantha, made from "vintage sari fabric hand-stitched by Indian village women. [They] are highly collectible and no two are alike."

Towels or rugs can work, too. Plan on one rug per person, and one for the spread, Bell said. And better to bring extra than not have enough.

The dish on dishes

Again, think lightweight, because you'll have to lug everything to your picnic spot. Good options are lightweight acrylic or colorful melamine dishes, bamboo or paper. Woven paper-plate holders add stability if you bring the latter.

Bell recommends bringing a sharp folding knife to cut a piece of cheese or salami.

Pack the right foods

When deciding on a menu, stick to handheld foods and ones that travel well. Leftover cooked chicken, turkey or beef make terrific sandwiches. Finger foods, like sliced cheeses, smoked salmon, kalamata olives, sliced salami, fruit and raw vegetables, are easy and can be easily shared.

And don't forget the baguette!

Speaking of which, a great, easy picnic feast starts with a baguette, sliced lengthwise. Place fresh basil leaves and slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella on the bread. Sprinkle generously with good balsamic vinegar and olive oil, plus some fresh ground pepper. Wrap tightly in foil, pressing down on the loaf to flatten a bit.

When you're ready to eat, slice the loaf vertically into 2-inch pieces. So simple - and delicious.

Containment

There's no shortage of plastic storage containers on store shelves. Some have sections for packing the dressing separate from salads so that the lettuce doesn't get wilted.

Others can separate condiments from the sandwich.

But in her book, Bell advises against using plastic storage containers as serving dishes, or "the most special picnic can end up looking like a Tupperware party."

Try packing food and drinks in canning jars. They fit well in baskets, travel easily and look fun.

Food safety

Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is paramount when serving food outdoors. Here are some things to remember:

-Bacteria that can lead to food-borne illness poses a threat when food is left out in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees for more than two hours (one hour if it's hotter than 90 degrees).

-Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees or cooler until you're ready to serve. Keep them in a cooler packed with ice or ice packs. To serve, place foods on ice that's set in a shallow container, or on ice packs. Replenish ice as needed. Serve the food within the time frame mentioned above.

-Hot food brought to a picnic needs to stay hot until it's served. That means keeping it at or above 140 degrees, according to fda.gov. Keep it well-wrapped and in an insulated container.

-Bring lots of serving utensils to prevent cross-contamination.

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