When she was director of events and catering for Hart House at the University of Toronto, Arlene Stein often found time to take her love of food outdoors, managing such large-scale events as the Picnic at the Brick Works in addition to al fresco banquet fundraisers for Slow Food Toronto featuring some of Toronto's top chefs. Currently director of program for Evergreen Brick Works, an environmental centre in the city's Don Valley, Stein thinks picnics are a great way to bring large numbers of family and friends together to enjoy great food in city parks: "The more the merrier," she ethuses.
Picnics, Stein suggests, are a great way to spend time with friends and family members who have kids, so do encourage them to bring along the small fry when you're putting your guest list together. As a rule, gathering people in summertime is hard to do, so plan well in advance. Have a rain date in mind in case the weather doesn't co-operate and - since it's a picnic - invite as many people as you can.
SETTING THE SCENE
If you're planning a picnic in a city park, check with the municipality to see if larger private gatherings are an issue: In most cases, they aren't, but it doesn't hurt to ask. For a truly bucolic experience, consider a field, meadow, bluff top or stretch of shoreline. Whatever the location, the setting is a casual one, so "everyone pitches in and helps with the set-up and clean-up, so there is no great burden on the host," says Stein.
"We throw such parties all the time and have a portable Weber barbecue that we bring with us to use for grilling. Most public parks have picnic tables that you can use for free," she adds.
If tables aren't available, bring plenty of blankets, throws and even canvas folding chairs. "I like to do stage picnics early in the evening when the sun is still warm, but it's not killer heat. Find a place with some shade and some room to spread out. If you are really lucky, you'll find a place [where]you can have a fire to continue the picnic into the evening."
In terms of entertainment, bring guitars, drums or a boom box to provide music and encourage impromptu singing sessions. "We have a lot of musician friends who enjoy playing together, casually, at our picnics," Stein says. "Kids love listening to music as well as singing and playing the drums. Entertainment brings people together."
FOOD AND DRINK
It's all about easy, Stein advises. To start, put together a great charcuterie platter with local cheeses, Persian Torshi pickles, Kozlick's Canadian mustards and fresh breads. "If I'm the organizer, then I bring the protein, usually pre-marinated chicken and ribs that can be barbecued very easily," Stein continues. "I ask all the guests to contribute a side [dish]that doesn't require any cooking, such as salads or fruit platters made from fresh seasonal ingredients. July picnics are all about summer salads and cherries. August picnics are all about blueberries and peaches. Everyone loves the classics: coleslaw and potato salad. But do try something different - a salad made from yams, for instance."
In terms of serving, "you need to bring real dishware - paper doesn't cut it. If you don't have enough to bring from home, ask everyone to bring their own plate, glass and utensils. The host should also bring tablecloths and napkins. Nothing disposable. Leave no footprint."
For drinks, "we always bring fresh lemonade and iced teas. If you can get away with it - depending on park rules - by all means bring some wine - sparking, rosés or pinot noirs. For dessert, serve berries and cream, grilled peaches with mascarpone and homemade s'mores."
Turn salad into the perfect picnic food by serving it on skewers. Watch food stylist Adele Hagan prepare three delicious variations.
Add sizzle to any picnic with the 14.5-inch Weber Smokey Joe charcoal barbecue, Stein's must-have outdoor-dining item. "It's easy, it's portable, it's home barbecuing to go," she says. $54.99 at Sears, Home Depot and other stores across Canada (visit www.weber.com for retailers).