By Suzanne Corbett
Warm weather and countless outdoor venues call to the culinarian within to pack a picnic and dine al fresco; to create a basket repast that reaches beyond the humdrum quick fix sandwich and chips.
I strive for something a little gourmet and something a little nostalgic that will craft a menu of delectable delights guests can nosh and linger over, while lounging on the lawn or at the patio table.
Wondering how a chef would pack a picnic, I asked Butler’s Pantry executive chef Greg Ziegenfuss for his thoughts. Before assembling a picnic or menu, he first considers the event and what he thinks people will like.
“It depends on the mood, the theme and location,” Ziegenfuss said. “ In my basket I like to keep it simple and include high-end meats like Black Forest ham and German sausages from G & W Meats, or sausages from Salume Beddu.
“I’ll add good cheeses, some grapes, seasonal fruit (berries are in season now) and crusty breads. I also like to have a couple of different breads,” he added. “And I have to have wine in that basket or beer, if you like. We certainly don’t have a shortage of good beers here.”
Ziegenfuss recommends bringing together a little bit of this and a little bit of that – a variety of items designed to please your guests. While he likes to keep it simple, he enjoys presenting the unusual or unexpected, such as his jarred salad layered in a mason jar. It’s a sophisticated take on salad that can become the star of the menu. Just place dressing in the bottom of a jar, add a layer of tomatoes or root vegetables such as carrots or beets, which can benefit from marinating in the dressing, then top with greens.
“You can dump the jarred salads on a plate if you like, but they are designed to be eaten from the jar. Just shake it or turn it upside down to toss, then open and eat. A picnic salad is great served with grilled or smoked salmon,” Ziegenfuss said.
Impromptu picnics are a favorite of Patrick O’Brien, Cedar Lake Cellars’ kitchen manager, who oversees the newly revamped, lakeside Smokehouse and The Marketplace, located in the winery’s tasting bar. Both operations offer a variety of foods perfect for lounging lakeside with a bottle of wine.
O’Brien’s perfect vineyard-themed picnic involves creating a balanced menu that includes foods made for easy nibbling.
“The Marketplace features local meats and cheeses – all core items anyone can use to build a grab-and-go picnic,” O’Brien said, noting a basket isn’t a requirement for picnicking. “We created party trays that are perfect for a lakeside picnic. They offer a good assortment of meats, cheeses, crackers and cold salads like our naked chicken salad (chicken salad served without a tortilla wrap or bread).
To complement a basket of chilled foods, consider adding a hot item or two. No matter the combination, O’Brien emphasized while planning any al fresco soiree, remember food safety rules: Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
To strike a menu balance between Cedar Lake’s cold trays, O’Brien recommends adding something hot from the Smokehouse. Top picks – the BBQ-topped pork, chicken-topped nachos or the Pretzel Corks (Bavarian pretzel bites served with a cheddar cheese sauce), Cedar Lakes’ signature snack. “We changed the name from bites to corks for fun,” O’Brien said. “After all, we are a winery.”
Tenacious Eats chef Liz Schuster takes a different approach when picnicking. She loves to pack the picnic basket with surprises.
“You never know what’s going to be in the basket. That’s what makes having a picnic so much fun,” said Schuster, who loves to picnic in the park. “One of my favorite things to pack is fried chicken – one of my most favorite things in the whole world. I remember every time we had a picnic, my grandma made fried chicken.
Posh picnics are all about style, with a stylist menu, staged in fantastic surroundings, where one can graze and enjoy – places like Forest Park, especially Art Hill during its film series, or on the grounds surrounding The Muny, which celebrates its centennial season this year. Picnics have been enjoyed before Muny productions since the beginning, and the tradition continues throughout the season, with theater-goers arriving early to eat outside and take in the free pre-show entertainment. Savvy fans know to arrive early in order to claim one of the tables surrounding the outdoor performance venues. Otherwise, bring a blanket and your folding chairs. There are plenty of prime locations nearby under one of Forest Park’s mighty oak trees.
To add a gourmet touch to this year’s summer picnic basket, consider adding one of these two recipes, courtesy of chef Liz Schuster.
- 1 pound seedless grapes, cut in half4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small jalapeño pepper, diced
- 1 small banana pepper, diced
- 1 small red onion, diced
- 1 bunch cilantro, minced
- 2 limes, zested and juiced
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 1teaspoon ancho chili powder
- 2 teaspoons agave nectar
- 1/2 cup of non-sweetened grape juice or grape soda
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and chill. Serving suggestions: Spoon over fried chicken tacos or serve with crisp tortilla chips and queso fresco.
Boo Yah Slaw
- 1 Honeycrisp apple, julienned
- 4 stalks celery, julienned
- 1/2 Vidalia onion, julienned
- 1/2 red cabbage chiffonade
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- Saltand pepper to taste
In a large bowl, combine apples, celery, onion and cabbage. In a separate small bowl, whisk together honey, vinegar, lemon zest and juice until emulsified. Toss into vegetable mixture and serve immediately. Picnic tip: Keep vegetables sealed in a separate bag or bowl and keep cool; place the dressing in a jar. Shake dressing before opening jar, then toss into slaw before serving. Makes six to eight servings.
Corbett is the author of “The Gilded Table,” “Pushcarts & Stalls: The Soulard Market History Cookbooks” and “Unique Eats and Eateries of St. Louis.” She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.