BY BILL ST. JOHN
The Italians call it dining “al fresco.” For the French, it's “en plein air.” To us, it's keeping the flies away from the chicken salad. But little else means summer in Colorado than eating outdoors and planning a picnic underneath Old Sol.
Picnic prep differs from dining room prep, though, so here are some food and cooking tips on how to make it in the morning, serve it in the evening, and still keep its smile on.
- If food is going to be served a day after it's prepared, start with the freshest of the fresh.
- If you’re using greens to “cup,” hold or finger food, opt for leaves from Belgian endive or radicchio, perhaps smaller kale, over leaf or romaine lettuces. The former don't pass out after a few hours stuffed with cream cheese mousse or some paté.
- Same goes for lining a serving tray to hold, say, crudités, sliced meats or cold cuts or other opt-in foods: Lay down stiff, water-holding greens such as kale instead of showy, but flimsy, lettuces.
- Lightly toast larger slices of bread before cutting them into smaller rounds or triangles. That helps prevent moist toppings from making the bread soggy. When constructing finger sandwiches, place cheese or meat slices — not lettuce leaves — closest to the bread (make the lettuce an inside layer). That helps prevent sogginess, too. In other words, minimize moisture in foods that touch bread.
- If serving a sauce or condiment, place it on top of, not under, the other elements.
- Pasta is difficult to keep al dente when it is soaked in a dressing. A cool risotto works, though. Also pilaf.
- Nearly every ethnic restaurant offers take-out. Vietnamese spring rolls make good picnic appetizers; so do some Chinese dim sum. In Italy, people fancy room-temperature pizza as walking-around food. It makes great picnic fare; go for a thin crust pizza, low on the sauce and cheese. Have it sliced at the pizzeria. A few fresh herbs (oregano, thyme or marjoram) that you add can boost flavor that seems to get lost when a pizza cools.
- Keep in mind that any red wine served at the ambient outdoor temperature (say, 80-90F) really tastes awful. Its fruit is dulled. Its tannins are harsh. It’s just too much in the mouth. That's why it's OK to cool down many a summer red to about 55-60F, the temperature of well or spring water. Your food and your palate will thank you for it.
- Here’s a cool trick to bring your reds down in temperature and even to retain the chill on those white wines: Soak in water a cotton towel, kitchen or terrycloth it doesn’t matter, wring it out and drape it over or around the wine bottle. Evaporation (even on a humid day) will help keep the bottle cool or bring down the temperature of a warmish red wine.
- No picnic is possible without baby wipes.