About halfway through the 1955 classic “To Catch a Thief,” Grace Kelly pulls her convertible sports car off the winding road heading toward Cannes. She retrieves a picnic basket from the trunk and soon she and Cary Grant are — despite the luxurious French Riviera setting — lunching on cold chicken and (probably lukewarm) beer.
OK, so yes, they are Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. They could eat an ice cream cone while roller skating and look effortlessly elegant. We just can’t compete with that, but we can take a simple cue from the scene: Picnicking doesn’t need to be at all elaborate. Cold fried chicken and beer? Why not?
Ironically, a gentleman from the down-to-earth Northwest — celebrated gastronome James Beard — touted the elegant extreme of picnics. In his 1960 cookbook, “James Beard’s Treasury of Outdoor Cooking,” he suggests a “luxury picnic for two” complete with Champagne, pâté, lobster Newburg and camembert. His beachside picnic menu includes grilled Italian sausages, cioppino (tomato-based fish stew) and zuppa inglese (a layered custard and cake dessert). Other menus feature Thermoses of Bloody Marys or martinis, Bermuda onion sandwiches, angel food cake and Roquefort-Cognac spread for bread.
But have no fear. Somewhere between chicken-and-beer and lobster-and-Champagne is a whole world of picnic possibilities to make for a memorable Memorial Day.
Getting into the great outdoors — whether on a forested trail, in an urban park or on a road trip to the beach — is what the picnic is really all about. Taking a meal along just gives us reason to linger: an excuse to relax and enjoy the surroundings, to play hooky for an hour or two.
SandwichesSandwiches are the classic portable food. It’s best to choose bread with a sturdy character — like baguette or ciabatta, breads that have a relatively dense texture and won’t go too soggy in transport.
There’s nothing wrong with everyday roast beef and turkey sandwiches, but take a tip from the French with the baguette: Slather the bottom half with Dijon mayonnaise and top it with good sliced ham and real Gruyere cheese. Or cut cooked chicken breast in thick slices for a ciabatta sandwich, topped with slices of tangy plum and caramelized onions.
You can go the wrap route as well; spread a large flour tortilla with cream cheese, top it with a layer of arugula or baby spinach, add a few slices of turkey and roll it up for the trip, secured in foil or plastic wrap.
SaladsDispense with the lettuce for your picnic salads; it takes extra care to keep crisp and demands the last-minute fiddle of dressing just before serving.
Consider instead filling a plastic container with sliced vine-ripe tomatoes scattered with slivered basil or chopped parsley, topped with a little drizzle of oil and vinegar. Or thinly slice fennel bulb, add orange segments and toss with a vinaigrette embellished with fresh orange juice.
Sliced cucumbers, jicama, radishes or blanched green beans, tossed with a simple vinaigrette, are also great salad options that stay crisp in transit.
SoupsCold soups are perfect picnic fare. Make a batch of gazpacho, borscht or vichyssoise and keep it chilled in a large Thermos. You can even keep soup in mind for dessert: Poach ripe peaches for a few minutes in a sugar syrup (with a few sprigs of lemon verbena, perhaps), skin them and purée with some of the poaching liquid and a little splash of white wine or Champagne. Plain fruit is always a treat too, though fresh strawberries sliced and tossed with minced mint and a drizzle of brandy add panache to the picnic.
SnacksCured meats (salami, coppa, prosciutto), cheeses, crackers, bread, olives and nuts are all great picnic accoutrements, enough to make a light meal themselves or to embellish other courses in a more substantial meal. (Beard wrote, “Picnic appetites are usually stupendous — be sure that you have oceans of food.”)
Other ideasYou can avoid advance prep entirely with an effortless menu that trumps even Grace Kelly’s: a quick stop at the grocery store for rotisserie chicken, a baguette, some cheese and a crisp, cool white wine or rosé.
Temperature control is the key consideration for picnic planning. Not only does the right temperature keep food at peak quality, but it’s also crucial for food safety, particularly anything that includes eggs, mayonnaise, dairy and other easily perishable ingredients. An ice chest equipped with frozen gel packs is a classic solution, but today you can find a variety of thermal bags, picnic backpacks, even a Williams-Sonoma monogrammed picnic tote with all your picnic needs, down to miniature salt and pepper shakers. Stores today carry fancy picnic blankets, thermal wine totes and folding picnic tables, all in the name of making the most of picnic outings.
With Memorial Day already upon us, we begin making that mental shift to a summertime state of mind. Toss an old blanket in the trunk, slip a corkscrew and bottle opener into your glove compartment, and you’ll be ready for even an impromptu picnic this season. Leave Cary and Grace in the dust.
Food writer Cynthia Nims is author of such books as “The Best Places Northwest Desserts Cookbook” and “Stone Fruit.” Her latest book, “Salmon,” is being published this month.