Imagine a painting of a pastoral scene on a fair summer day, a splendid feast laid out, fine carpets for lounging and guests nibbling on carefully transported morsels — a proverbial picnic in the grass, with dogs and children at the edges.
That’s one kind of picnic, but there are so many ways to picnic. Even the simple gesture of moving dinner outdoors on a balmy evening can feel picnicky, which is to say, nice.
That picnics are movable feasts adds to the experience. It’s the collecting and wrapping of the food, the carrying of the meal to a particular place and the anticipation of serving it that make picnics a kind of special event, be it a leisurely trip to the beach, an hourslong tailgate or a buffet lunch in a lush garden. (The frugal city lunch you eat on a bench by a tree is a kind of picnic, too — savor it.)
If I have to lug the basket, I want it to be filled with things I like.
Sandwiches are my favorite picnic food, so I offer a couple of them here. I’ve had a thing for sardines out of the tin since I was a kid, but now I want them served atop thinly sliced dense, dark rye bread, generously spread with good butter, sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper, a few arugula sprigs and a tiny squeeze of lemon, no more. Some would add a little Dijon mustard, but not me. Take all the ingredients to the picnic site and build the sandwiches there, or pack them to go. They look nice open-faced, but they could, of course, be made in a two-slice format.
An utterly simple and refreshing combination of a spicy, herbed cucumber salad and creamy ricotta, served on halved ciabatta rolls, is another option. Aside from good cucumbers, there are just two requirements: freshly baked bread, with a crisp crust and tender crumb, and the best ricotta you can find, preferably basket ricotta. (You could also use natural cream cheese or queso fresco.)
Next, I want a couple of substantial salads that are always nice to have on hand, picnic or not. For that, I packed white beans tossed with oven-charred cauliflower and a zesty vinaigrette, flecked with celery hearts and ground fennel, and cherry tomatoes and olives dressed with olive oil, a little oregano, vinegar, garlic and chile flakes, and spooned over slices of fresh mozzarella. Just before serving, I toss in a handful of basil leaves and coat them in the dressing. Serve them right out of the container, if you wish. It’s all meant to be finger food.
Dessert at a picnic is always wanted, expected and deserved. Anything cookielike is a sure bet, especially if you’ll be crossing rough terrain, and pecan shortbread is my current favorite — crumbly, salty and buttery, with a touch of cardamom. Augment, if you wish, with a bowl of cherries, nectarines and peaches. And ice cream, if you’re clever enough to keep it frozen in your travels.
Then, wash it all down with a summery red hibiscus punch. Known in Mexico as agua de Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean as sorrel, the drink is made by simmering and steeping dried hibiscus blossoms with spices. The resultant ruby liquid, lightly sweetened, has a pleasant tannic quality and is deliciously thirst-quenching over ice. If you want your punch to live up to its name, add your spirit of choice. Read: rum. It’s a picnic, after all.