TAKE IT OUTSIDE: A recipe for a simple summer picnic or an al fresco feast

Dining al fresco, at a picnic site or sprawled on a beach blanket, is one of the joys of island life. And when you take it outside, even the simplest meal is an event.



A 19th-century engraving of a picnic celebration — A Water Party on the Thames — eating al fresco is for everyone!

By CINDA CHAVICH


When I think of picnics, it’s usually family gatherings by a lake, everyone hauling coolers filled with chilled potato salad and cold fried chicken, or smoky sausages to grill over the fire.

A picnic can be that kind of big portable potluck, or a simpler collection of noshes, pulled from your backpack and eaten while perched on a rocky outcrop at a day hike destination. Planning private picnic for two, in a secluded spot, is always a romantic gesture.

What you pack depends on the occasion, where you’re going, and how far you need to carry your picnic lunch. But it should be something that’s easy to eat (preferably out of hand) and travels well. Your menu may be simple — a great sandwich or wrap, with a bag of crunchy vegetables and a cookie — or an elaborate al fresco tapas feast of frittata, stuffed peppers, garlicky shrimp and ceviche. You may opt for a charcuterie board selection of artisan cheeses and cured meats — the classic antipasto platter — or a full meal, complete with a starter, salad, entree and dessert, pulled from a wicker basket, with proper plates, cutlery and a bottle of bubbly.

But a great picnic all about simplicity and fun, good food enjoyed in the great outdoors with good people.


FOOD THAT TRAVELS

Whatever your choice, picnic food should be portable, the kind that can be made ahead without losing its appeal, and tasty when served cold.

I’m always up for an eclectic selection of flavours, especially the kind of thing that you can slather on a bit of baguette or pile onto a cracker, whether it’s a smoky canned sardine, a schmear of creamy, herbed cheese, a bit of meaty pate or a scoop of garlicky hummus.

Finger food is picnic food for me, a grazing buffet of easy appetizers, hard-cooked eggs, a selection of cheese and charcuterie with olives, crisp radishes and celery, crusty bread, grapes or dried fruit.



Anything handheld is a good choice for a picnic. I love to bake calzones filled with cheese, spicy chorizo or roasted vegetables, or make a big muffuletta sandwich to slice into individual servings at the park. For the latter, split a baguette or crusty round loaf and remove some of the bread inside before spreading with olive tapenade and mayo, and layering with sliced ham or grilled eggplant, roasted peppers and cheese. Use focaccia bread for a sturdy sandwich made with similar fillings, or stuff split pita bread and roll it up. All will stand up to some jostling without getting squished and soggy.

You can stick with a simple sandwich for a family hike (think peanut butter and banana) or pull out the stops with cold smoked salmon or tuna, herbed cream cheese and watercress, hummus with roasted vegetables, or a bahn mi of grilled chicken, pickled carrots and cilantro on baguettes.

For a gluten-free picnic nosh, pack classic chicken or salmon salad, with lettuce leaves for wrapping.

Plan a more substantial picnic menu around fried chicken or cold roast beef, a vegetable frittata and hearty portable salads — pasta, quinoa and potatoes are the perfect base for a salad that goes anywhere without going limp, and a kale salad just gets better over time.

Drizzle your grain or pasta salads with assertive dressings made with garlic and chopped herbs, add roasted peppers and cauliflower, and finish with grilled shrimp or chunks of smoked salmon .


Fresh seasonal fruit makes a refreshing finale, whether you tote along a watermelon or simply snack on local berries. A little chocolate brownie or lemon square is never out of place at a picnic.


FILL YOUR BASKET

If you have the time, you can prepare an elaborate picnic menu at home, but it’s more fun to be spontaneous with some good grab-and-go picnic fare.

Cherry picking local goodies, or turning to the experts to pack your picnic, is always a smart solution.

Cheryl’s Gourmet Pantry in Oak Bay is one go-to spot for a variety of take-out salads, appetizers and desserts to build an impromptu picnic. Or call ahead for one of her themed picnic baskets, with everything you need for an outdoor feast, from napkins and glassware to dishes. This experienced caterer has several selections, whether it’s the popular For Lover’s Only picnic with smoked salmon and cream cheese, raspberry-glazed chicken and fresh fruit; the Summer Classic with fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw and cookies; or a Tailgate Picnic featuring grilled beef tenderloin with horseradish cream.

Tea lovers will be impressed by the Ultra 26-morsel Afternoon Picnic Tea from The White Heather Tea Room, a selection of tiny sandwiches, scones (both savoury and sweet), tea cakes, madeleines, tarts and traditional Scottish shortbread, beautifully arranged in a portable box with your choice of tea.

Order a portable feast from Wild Mountain Food + Drink in Sooke, and let the chefs wow you with their picnic (aka party) box, complete with house-cured meats, duck liver mousse, artisan cheeses, Castelvetrano olives, quince mostarda, crostini and cookies.

Delis, bakeries and cheesemongers are ground zero for portable picnic fare, too.

Visit Ottavio Italian Bakery & Deli for their fresh loaves and pastries, a great selection of fine cheese, olives, imported grissini and crackers. Or order one of their curated antipasti platters, a selection of crostini or a savoury ricotta Torta Salata to share. Then head up the avenue to The Whole Beast for artisan cured meats, from salami and dried pepperoni to creamy chicken liver parfait.

Chiarelli’s does beautiful snack boxes, too, complete with a variety of perfectly aged cheeses, crackers and spreads. This well-stocked cheese monger carries everything you need for packing a gourmet’s picnic — think olive and artichoke tapenade, cornichons, tins of Spanish seafood conservas and caviar.

Look for creative charcuterie, imported cheeses, house made ferments and picnics for two (or lunch boxes to go) at Bull & Sons Deli on Fort Street. Or stop at Fol Epi’s downtown bakery on Yates, for their own pate en croute, cured meats, pickled vegetables and artisan baked goods.

For a mezze-style meal, get tabouli, muhammara, feta, olives and baklava at Fig Deli. Or have a cold Japanese picnic with take-out sushi, seaweed salad and fried chicken karage from Fujiya.

Think local when filling your basket at city grocers —Jenny Marie’s Crackers, Justo’s Hummus and dips, Haltwhistle cheese and Four Quarters charcuterie, with fresh vegetables to dip into the Root Cellar’s famous Green Sauce, and a Philips Soda, Babe’s Sparkling Bee Line or Cultured Kombucha to sip.

And if a picnic isn’t a picnic without cold fried chicken, you can always get takeaway chicken, whether you opt for the Korean fried chicken from Chicken 649, lemon rosemary chicken from Roast, or the spicy Cajun fried chicken at the new Popeye’s franchise in Saanich, a halal option.


KEEP IT COLD AND LEAVE IT CLEAN

Whatever you bring, plan to make it (or buy it) the day before your picnic and keep it in the refrigerator overnight to make sure everything is well chilled. Use a cooler or insulated cooler bag and add some ice packs to keep perishable foods, including salads and meats, cold. Get an insulated bottle or thermos for drinks and dressings.

Keep your insulated bag or cooler closed as much as possible to retain its cool temperature, and to guard your food from curious critters.



Don’t forget a blanket to spread on the ground (if you’re not heading to a picnic site with tables), or a camp chair and umbrella for shade. Avoid disposable plastic utensils, glasses or containers — you can easily bring dishes, cutlery and napkins from home to create a stylish spread. Vintage Melmac or enameled tin plates are perfect for picnics.

And haul out everything that you hauled into your picnic spot. Leave nature as you found it.

A picnic can be a meticulously orchestrated outdoor meal, the fuel for an athletic outdoor adventure, or just an impromptu lunch shared on a park bench. But wherever you are, there’s a secret garden, a hidden cove or a sunny spot to spread out the blanket, recline and dine.



SECRET SPOTS

Victoria is a picnic and park-lover’s paradise. Here are some secret spots for al fresco fun.


Beach Blanket Bingo:

There are many popular spots to get down by the water for a picnic, from Willow’s Beach to Island View beach.

Take a winding 20 km drive past Sooke to French Beach Provincial Park, where you’ll find tall trees and picnic tables in a pretty day use area, with a view of the waves breaking on the pebble beach. Or plan to spread your blanket in a shady spot along the sand at East Sooke Park.

Closer to the city, Parker Beach, just off Cadboro Bay Road, is a long stretch of sand for a stroll and an impromptu picnic. Otherwise, drive up to Tod Inlet and follow the wooded trail down to the little sandy beach.


High and Dry:

Want to get high up on a rocky spot with a big view? Try Mount Tolmie Park and its panoramic city views, all accessible by car. It’s a bit of a hike up to the top of Mount Doug, but you’ll work up an appetite for your portable picnic lunch. In the Highlands, Mount Finlayson is another grunt —and not for the faint of heart — but an Instagram worthy destination for a mountain-top munch in Goldstream Provincial Park.


Getting gnarly:

The gnarled Garry Oak and its rare ecosystem is unique in our landscape, old trees in meadows dotted with wild blue camas, nodding lilies and shooting stars. Tread carefully and thoughtfully if you plan to picnic among the twisted oaks and wildflowers in sprawling Uplands Park, at historic Fort Rodd Hill or perched on a bench, among the oaks and rhodos, in hidden Playfair Park.


If you go out in the woods:

A shady spot among the tall trees is a wonderful place to picnic on a hot afternoon. The Goldstream Provincial Park picnic area is popular, with tables, washrooms and a shelter, and easy nature walks in the surrounding woods.

Francis/King regional park is an accessible place to commune with the tall trees, especially along the Elsie King Trail where there’s seating to rest and have a snack. Or try John Dean Park at the north end of the Saanich Peninsula, for a walk through old-growth woods to viewpoints like spectacular Pickles’ Bluff.


Garden retreats:

If a manicured garden is more your style, head to the Japanese Garden at Esquimalt’s Gorge Park for your picnic. Or wander through the formal gardens at Hatley Park and castle in Colwood. There are plenty of manicured corners in sprawling Beacon Hill Park where you can spread out your picnic blanket, too, but expect tourists on the trails!



RECIPES


HAND PIES (CALZONES)


This is my version of a classic Italian calzone. You can make your own bread dough or start with frozen dough from the supermarket (I used Knead to Bake frozen bread dough, from Armstrong, BC, and found their frozen rolls perfectly sized for making an individual calzone.) This recipe is flexible — carnivores can augment these vegetarian pies with cooked chicken, slivered prosciutto, Italian sausage, chopped ham or salami. Calzones are delicious cold (like cold pizza) and make great portable lunches for hiking or cycling because they don’t get squished in your pack.


1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large red pepper, seeded and slivered

1 small chili pepper, minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 teaspoon oregano

salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 sundried tomatoes, soaked in warm water to rehydrate, then drained and chopped

2 ounces crumbled feta or 2 ounces shredded Parmesan

1 cup ricotta (or cottage cheese)

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella or three cheese Italian mix

1 14-ounce (398 ml) can artichokes, drained and chopped

1/3 cup chopped black olives

2 loaves frozen bread dough, or frozen bread rolls, thawed


Heat the olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium-low heat and slowly cook the onions until caramelized and golden, about 30 minutes.

Add the red pepper and chili pepper and cook for about 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in the garlic and cook 3 minutes longer. Remove the sautéed vegetables from heat and stir in the basil, oregano, salt, pepper, and sundried tomatoes. Set aside the filling to cool slightly, then stir in the feta or Parmesan, ricotta, artichokes and olives.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut each loaf of bread dough into 6-8 equal pieces. On a floured board, roll each piece into a 5-inch (12-cm) circle (alternatively use individual thawed frozen rolls). Wet the edges. Fill with 2-3 tablespoons of filling, fold the dough over top and press well to seal, then roll edge and crimp again. Brush the calzones with milk and poke them with a fork to allow steam to escape during baking.

Set the calzones on a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment and sprinkled with cornmeal. Bake for 20 minutes, until brown. Cool on a rack. Refrigerate or freeze. Makes 12-16.


QUINOA SALAD

A new take on tabouli — with protein-rich quinoa and added chickpeas, this portable salad makes a cool summer meal.


3 cups water or broth

1 1/2 cups quinoa

1 cup chopped grape tomatoes

1 cup finely diced baby (mini) cucumbers

1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley

¼ cup finely chopped fresh mint (optional)

2-3 green onions, finely chopped

1 small can chickpeas, rinsed and drained (optional)


Dressing:

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

1 large clove garlic, minced or pressed

½ teaspoon salt


In a saucepan, combine quinoa and water (or broth) and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for another 5 minutes (the quinoa will be al dente). For softer quinoa, leave it covered for 10 minutes before you remove the lid and fluff with a fork to separate the grains. Transfer to a bowl.

For dressing, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt and pour over the warm quinoa, tossing to season the grain.

Add the chopped tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, mint, green onions, and chickpeas and toss to combine. Cover salad and chill. Serves 4.


PECAN BROWNIES


This is your classic homestyle brownie—chewy, nutty, and addictive. I like to use a silicon mini muffin or square mold for individual brownies, but you can also make these in a regular 9- x 13-inch (3.5-L) baking pan.


1 cup unsalted butter 4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 cups granulated sugar 4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1 cup all-purpose flour 1⁄2 teaspoon salt ¾ cup chopped pecans (or walnuts)


Grease a 9- x 13-inch baking pan with butter, or use a silicon mini-muffin pan.

In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over low heat until its half melted. Add the chocolate and stir until both are completely melted. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Let the mixture cool (should be warm, not hot). Add the eggs, one at a time, beating with a whisk until the mixture is shiny. Stir in the vanilla, flour, salt, and chopped nuts to make a thick batter.

Pour into a prepared pan and bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes (about 12-15 minutes for mini muffins). A cake tester inserted in the middle of the pan should come out almost clean but with moist crumbs (you want to underbake brownies slightly for a chewy interior). Cool completely in the pan before cutting into small squares. Makes 36 to 42 pieces.


SEAFOOD SALAD ROLLS

Salad rolls make light, gluten-free picnic fare — feel free to use the seafood you prefer, cooked shrimp is classic, or substitute crab meat, lobster, salmon lox or cold smoked tuna. Find rice paper wrappers in Asian food markets.



Salad rolls:

½ pound (250 g) cooked medium shrimp, crab meat, or cold smoked salmon or tuna

2 oz. (60 g) rice vermicelli noodles

16 dried rice paper wrappers (about 8 inch diameter)

2 large carrots

2 mini English cucumbers

4 large green onions

2 cups shredded romaine or butter lettuce

shredded Thai basil or cilantro leaves


Peanut sauce:

¼ cup natural peanut butter (all nuts, no sugar)

1 teaspoon Asian hot chili paste (sambal oelek) or sriracha

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar or honey

1 tablespoon lime juice or rice vinegar

1 tablespoon water


Cook the rice vermicelli in a large pot of boiling water for 3-5 minutes, until tender, then drain and rinse in cold water to chill. Drain well and cut into 3-inch lengths using kitchen shears.

Cut the carrots into thin julienne strips (batons), about 2-3 inches long. Use a mandoline to make the finest strips, or a vegetable spiralizer. Cut the cucumbers the same way, discarding any excess seeds in the centre. Wash green onions well, then slice lengthwise into strips before cutting into 2-3-inch slivers. Halve the shrimp lengthwise if large (if using lox or smoked tuna, cut into strips).

To assemble the salad rolls, quickly dip a piece of rice paper into warm water to soften (work with one piece at a time). Set the softened rice paper on a clean kitchen towel. Arrange two or three pieces of shrimp along the lower half of the rice paper and arrange some cooked rice noodles, carrots, cucumber, green onion, lettuce, and herbs on top. Fold the sides over the filling and roll up tightly. The rice paper will stick to itself and seal the roll. Place rolls on a plate as you assemble them, and cover with a damp towel to prevent them from drying out and getting too chewy.

Continue soaking and rolling until all of the filling is used up. Cover the rolls with a damp paper towel and cover with plastic wrap, then refrigerate (for up to a few hours) if you’re not serving them right away.

Meanwhile, whisk all ingredients for the peanut sauce together until smooth and place in a small bowl for dipping.

To serve the rolls, use a sharp knife to cut across each roll diagonally and arrange standing up on a plate. Makes 16 rolls (32 pieces).


CORN AND CHILI PEPPER PANCAKES WITH SMOKED SALMON AND HORSERADISH MAYO

Serve these savoury corn and chile pepper pancakes as bite-sized snacks, topped with horseradish mayo and smoked fish. You can also make them larger for a light meal, topped with sour cream and fresh salsa, or as a side dish for grilled chicken or fish.


6 ounces (180 g) cold-smoked trout or salmon, sliced paper thin


Pancakes:

3 ears fresh corn (or 1.5 cups frozen sweet corn kernels, thawed) 2 small jalapeño chiles, seeded and minced

1 chipotle chile in adobo, chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped 6 green onions, chopped 2 eggs 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 cup cornmeal 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt 1 cup milk 1/4 cup plain low-fat yogurt 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

freshly ground black pepper 2 tablespoons (25 mL) canola oil


Horseradish Mayo:

1/3 cup light mayonnaise 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, drained

1 teaspoon wasabi powder freshly ground black pepper 1 green onion, minced


Bring a pot of water to a boil and add corn. Cover and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes. Cool corn and cut kernels from cobs. You should have about 2 cups (500 mL). Set aside. Otherwise simply thaw the frozen corn.

Place corn kernels in a bowl with jalapeño, chipotle, red pepper, garlic, and green onions.

In food processor, combine eggs, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, milk, and yogurt and whirl until smooth. Add vegetables and pulse just to mix. Stir in cilantro and black pepper. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

To make horseradish mayo, whisk mayonnaise and horseradish until smooth. Add wasabi and mix to combine well. Season with a little black pepper and refrigerate.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Pour in batter to make pancakes 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) in diameter for cocktails (or larger if serving as a side dish). Cook, turning once, until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and keep warm. Repeat with remaining batter.

Cool and refrigerate pancakes and mayo. To serve, place a dollop of horseradish cream on each pancake, and a rolled piece of smoked salmon or tuna. Take the components to your picnic site separately, and let guests top their own pancakes. Serves 6-8.

This story originally ran in YAM magazine