I have a friend who does picnics better than anyone. His involve an enormous wicker basket, homemade baked goods, grilled vegetables on thick crusty bread, gingham linens… The public park picnics of my childhood—complete with soggy cheese sandwiches and two-liter bottles of Mr. Pibb—don’t hold a candle to the picnics I’ve experienced in my adult life. I will never go back to Fritos and Chips Ahoy.
Still, the picnics of my youth hold a relic of simplicity and casualness that my friend’s picnics do not. My mother never cared much about the aesthetic of our picnicking so much that we were all sated and having a good time, and that she remembered to pack a Frisbee and a dessert.
The perfect summer picnic, then, should straddle the line—low on fuss and high on good food, good drinks, and good friends. How do you add finesse to your al fresco dining fun without feeling like you’re prepping for an over-the-top dinner party? Opt for seasonal and simple—those dishes you can throw together in a pinch that highlight fresh ingredients without requiring much technique, like the three recipes below. Then all you need is to pack the Frisbee and you’re set.
As a pastry cook, I make quiche every morning at work. The best crust I’ve come across is a simple brisée, which you can make 1-2 days ahead of time. For picnicking, make individual quiches with a muffin tin for a dish that’s easier to pack and eat.
Makes 30 quiche
For the crust:
4 sticks butter, diced and cold
650 g all-purpose flour
2 tsp salt
240 g ice cold water
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1. Using a whisk or a standing mixer, combine the dries (flour and salt) into a large bowl. You can cut the butter into thin slices (rather than dice it) and work the slices into the flour with your hands—which makes for a flakier crust—or add the butter using the mixer on a low speed.
2. Once the butter is fully incorporated, pour the vinegar into the ice cold water and slowly add this liquid to the butter mixture. Work it in until there are no more dry bits of flour.
3. Gather the dough into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap or parchment. Stick in the refrigerator for an hour or two.
4. On a lightly floured surface (with a small bowl of flour nearby for more sprinkling to prevent the dough from sticking to your counter), roll out your chilled dough as thin as you can (roughly ¼-inch but not so thin you can’t handle it without tearing). Using a cookie cutter, cut the dough into rounds. Depending on the muffin tin you are using, make each round so there is a 1-1 ½-inch overhang, just like with a pie.
5. Lay the rounds on a baking sheet and let them rest in the refrigerator for about an hour. This will prevent the dough from shrinking when you try to shape it.
6. Place the rounds in the muffin pan and press each one in lightly, so the dough sits at the bottom of the mold and forms a cup for the quiche filling. Fold the overhang into itself so you have little ridges of dough, making sure each round is high enough to contain the quiche filling.
7. Place the muffin tin in the freezer so the dough gets hard, at least an hour if you can. This ensures that the dough will hold its shape.
8. Before baking, place a cupcake liner on top of each dough round, filling the liner with uncooked kidney beans or light baking weights. Bake at 350 F until the crusts are brown but not too dark (approximately 20 minutes). Let cool and remove the liners with the pie weights.
9. Fill each quiche crust with your ingredients.
For the basic filling:
¾ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Line the bottom of the quiche shells with your filling, such as a thin layer of caramelized onion, a cube of gruyère or a small dollop of herbed goat’s cheese.
3. Pour the egg/cream mixture over the filling almost to the top, making sure not to spill over the edge (hence adding the heavier pieces first). Add a dash of herbs, sautéed mushrooms or another delicious garnish.
4. Bake at 325 F for 20 minutes, or until the middle is souffléd and the top is lightly browned. Garnish with parsley, pepper and sea salt. Box up the quiches right away, or refrigerate overnight.
PEARLED BARLEY SALAD
The perfect accompaniment for grilled sides and refreshing on its own, this salad is extra flavorful when made in advance and the pearled barley is left to marinate in the citrus and olive oil dressing. We used zucchini and tomatoes in this recipe, but you can use whichever veggies are in season that grill nicely, like bell peppers and fennel.
200g pearled barley
2 cups water
¼ cup olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
8 oz feta (or another crumbly cheese)
8 oz small tomatoes, halved
2 zucchinis, sliced
1 cucumber, chopped
70 g pitted olives (or capers)
small handful of fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, mint), chopped
1. Slice zucchini into long strips and cut tomatoes in half, then coat them in olive oil, salt and pepper. Throw on a heated grill until crisp, as desired. Set aside to cool.
2. Meanwhile, boil water and cook your pearled barley. Drain and fluff in a large bowl.
3. Add feta cheese, olives, chopped cucumber, olive oil and lemon juice to the cooked grains. (The best is when the cheese melts a little.) Then toss in roasted veggies. Top off with chopped fresh herbs. Store overnight for added flavor.
The heat makes you want to imbibe light and fruity beverages, which is why adding fizz and fruit to your alcohol of choice is always a success. Try a homemade simple syrup sweetened with agave and flavored with strawberries.
For the simple syrup:
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 pint strawberries, thinly sliced
a few sprigs of basil, lemon thyme or other herbs, if desired
1. Combine sugar and water in a pot, and bring mixture to a low simmer until all the sugar dissolves. (To test, dip in a wooden spoon; the sugar granules should not appear.) Add sliced strawberries and let them steep in the mixture, which should be kept at a very low boil. You can also add herbs such as basil or lemon thyme. Set aside some fresh strawberries and herbs to use as a garnish.
2. After about 10 minutes on a low boil, pour the hot liquid into a heat-proof glass jar. If you added herbs, use a chinois or strainer to remove any fine stalks or leaves.
3. At your picnic, pour a little bit of the syrup over ice, along with an ounce or two of gin. Add fresh sliced strawberries and garnish your drink with a basil leaf. Top off with tonic or lemon soda, as desired.
Image courtesy and copyright Tiffany Mitchell; styling by Ruthie Lindsey.