Sometimes summer get-togethers just wouldn’t cut the mustard without hot dogs, hamburgers, and Grandma’s macaroni salad. But once in a while, it’s nice to take things up a notch and picnic in style.
- Get better burgers by using good beef like Black Angus or ground rib-eye (you’ll probably have to ask the butcher to grind the rib-eye). Mix the meat with fresh herbs and any of the following: soy sauce, diced beets, blue cheese, chanterelles or other flavorful mushrooms, and shallots. Alternatively, go for a non-beef base, such as Portobello mushroom, eggplant, or lamb. Use a quality bread, such as ciabatta. And up the ante with toppings: fancy mustard, herb-mayo, sun-dried tomatoes, gourmet pickles, and nontraditional cheeses like Havarti, Gouda, or double Gloucester.
- Give deviled eggs elegance by mixing the filling with fresh tarragon and capers; crème fraiche, dill, and smoked salmon or crab; prosciutto or sundried tomatoes with some grated Parmesan on top; chives, sour cream, and salmon roe. Top each egg with a sprig of herbs. You could also make a classic deviled egg with some herbs and topped with caviar or truffle.
- Make potato salad posh by using a quality spud like fingerlings or creamer potatoes. Instead of the traditional mayonnaise dressing, mix lemon, white wine vinegar, olive oil, a couple tablespoons of Dijon mustard (with visible seeds), dill, shallots, and salt and pepper. For maximum flavor, toss as soon as the potatoes are out of the water. (For a German-style approach, see Kartoffel Salat: Food My Momma Usta Make.)
- Improve corn on the cob by grilling it, brushing with cilantro-butter, sprinkling with chili powder/paprika mix, and drizzling with lime and queso blanco (a mild, white Mexican cheese).
- Upgrade apple pie by making an apple-and-cherry clafoutis or crumble. Both are extremely easy desserts. (If you want to try a twist on the standard apple pie, see Mom’s Sour Cream Apple Pie.) Pair with fresh cream, or a good-quality ice cream or gelato in vanilla, hazelnut, cinnamon, pistachio, lavender, or other unique flavors. Serve with espresso, iced lattes, or a nice dark-roast coffee.
- Liven up your lemonade by mixing with cranberry, pomegranate, or strawberry and, if you like it, fresh grated ginger. For adventurous palates, try adding some basil leaves.
- Upgrade your water by adding cucumber slices to the water pitcher. It’s surprisingly refreshing on a hot day.
- Vary the beer diet with sparkling wine-and-juice spritzers (Bellinis), mojitos (rum, lime, mint, and sugar; see Mojitos for a Mambo Mama), or white sangria (for a red sangria recipe, see Sangria).
It’s still a picnic, so your finest china and glasses would be over-the-top—and downright dangerous—to use out of doors.
- Swap paper for linens. Not only does it up the style ante, but it’s more environmentally friendly. A nice tablecloth can make all the difference. Tie cloth napkins with twine, a daisy, or checkered ribbon.
- Reusable plastic is generally a better-looking and a more sustainable choice than throwaways. There are many attractive melamine plates and acrylic glasses out there (check PlumParty or Jonathan Adler for colorful options). More traditional styles and solid colors are available at Target, Amazon.com, and Bed, Bath & Beyond.
- Dress up your table with a floral arrangement, a series of clear glass bottles with one to three flowers each, mason jars filled with bright-colored fruits, or Moroccan candle lanterns. Hang paper lanterns or a garland from a tree above.
- Present your food in picnic baskets or just regular baskets lined with a nice fabric—not necessarily checkered, but if you crave authenticity, go for it. Tuck sparkling wine and/or beer into ice in tin flower pails or buckets.
Photo courtesy of Diane Miller