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Eating out has taken on new meaning this year, becoming a more significant and convoluted endeavour than we ever imagined it could be. With the restaurant industry in a tentative, capricious state, we’ve found creative ways to venture out, discovering new potential, even in random patches of grass.
The outdoors has become a spacious dining room – an affordable destination for groups of friends who can pack (or pick up) their own meals and spread out against scenic backdrops without fear of invading each other’s personal space. And in the absence of summer garden parties and swanky rented hall and hotel events, even caterers are packing special occasion menus in baskets to serve on picnic blankets.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of good food that also happens to be portable and need not be fussed with to keep warm or cold.
If picnicking brings to mind sandwiches and potato salads on bendy paper plates, here are some unfinicky options that are flexible enough to make use of a range of ingredients you may already have in your fridge, garden or pantry.
Sweet-tart and brilliant pink, this can be made with ingredients pilfered from the backyard. Potential for boozy versions: Gin Fizz, Backyard 75 or a Rhubarb Bourbon Sour. If you have mint or basil in the garden, tear a few leaves in.
- Fresh or frozen rhubarb
- 1 lemon, chopped (peel and all – optional)
- Sparkling water or Prosecco
- Fresh mint or basil (optional)
Chop the rhubarb (and the lemon, if you like), measure it and put it into a pot. For a concentrated syrup, add approximately 1 part sugar and 1 part water to 4 parts rhubarb. (so, if you have 4 cups rhubarb, add about 1 cup each sugar and water). To make it ready-to-drink, cover the rhubarb completely with water, but keep the quantity of sugar the same.
Bring to a simmer and cook, mashing with a spoon or potato masher, until the liquid turns pink and the rhubarb is very soft. Pour through a sieve into a pitcher and adjust the sweetness, if it needs it. If you made a concentrate, pour some bright pink syrup over ice in a glass and top up with tap or sparkling water, with a few sprigs of fresh mint or basil you’ve crushed with your fingers to release their flavourful oils, if you like.
For a Gin Fizz: add gin and top up with sparkling water. For a Backyard 75: Shake 2 ounce each of gin and rhubarb syrup in a cocktail shaker with a squeeze of lemon and ice; strain into a flute and top with Champagne or Prosecco. For a Rhubarb Bourbon Sour: Shake 2 oz bourbon (or whisky) with 1 oz rhubarb syrup in a cocktail shaker with half an egg white, a squeeze of lemon and ice; strain into a short bar or coupe cocktail glass.
Now that everyone has a handle on sourdough, grilled or toasted slices are structurally ideal for loading up open-faced sandwiches (also known as crostini or tartines). Transporting them with toppings in separate containers makes for a more interactive meal, one that’s far more interesting than having everyone unwrap a sandwich.
Anchor your toppings with a swipe of whipped ricotta, goat cheese and/or feta (or smashed chickpeas or white beans, or avocado, scooped out of its skin and mashed onto toasts with a fork), then pile on grilled or roasted vegetables, pickled veggies, marinated lentils, oily tuna or sardines, jammy (halfway between hard and soft-boiled) eggs, briny olives, kimchi or capers, peppery radishes, bits of sausage and all kinds of leftovers. Scattering toasted nuts or seeds, dukkah, fresh herbs or sprouts on top add colour, flavour and crunch.
For the whipped cheese
- Feta (Macedonian is creamier), ricotta or goat cheese (or a combination)
- Cream or milk, as needed
- Lemon juice, to taste (optional)
- Sourdough, baguette or other sturdy bread
- 1 garlic clove, halved
- Olive or other vegetable oil
- Chickpeas, white/butter beans or avocado
- Fresh, roasted or grilled vegetables, herbs, pickles, cooked eggs, olives, kimchi, oily tuna or sardines, or anything you can rummage from your fridge
- Fresh herbs, sprouts, chopped nuts or seeds
To whip your cheese, pulse it in the food processor, adding a bit of cream and/or lemon juice to loosen it up (you’ll need more or less depending on the consistency of your cheese), until it’s creamy and smooth.
Slice your sourdough and rub with the cut side of a clove of garlic; brush or drizzle with oil and toast on the grill (or in a 400 F oven), flipping as needed until golden.
To mash chickpeas: Drain canned chickpeas (or white beans) and roughly mash with a fork, adding a pour of olive oil, a big pinch of salt, and a bit of garlic or squeeze of lemon, if you like. To make jammy eggs, gently drop whole eggs into boiling water and set the timer for 7 minutes; drain and run under cool water to stop the cooking. Transport, peel and slice onto your toast onsite.
Pack up your toppings in reusable containers and let everyone top their own toasts. Feeds as many as you like.
A filet of salmon is quick to cook and tasty at any temperature, travels well and can be flaked to add to cooled pasta or piled onto toast. Poaching is a gentle cooking method; you could also cook it on a soaked cedar plank in the tradition of West Coast First Nations communities, providing a buffer between the fish and the intense heat of the grill, while infusing it with the flavour of cedar.
- 1 salmon filet, with or without skin (1-1 1/2 lbs)
- Fresh mild herbs, such as dill, parsley and cilantro
- Sliced lemon (optional)
- Salt, to taste
- White wine (optional)
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Run your fingers over the surface of the salmon and pull out any pin bones.
Put a handful of fresh herbs and a few slices of lemon into the bottom of a shallow baking dish. Place the salmon filet on top and season it with salt. (If you like, lay a few thin slices of lemon on top as well.) Pour about half a cup of white wine or water around the filet and cover with foil.
To plank: Soak a food-grade cedar plank in water for at least 30 minutes, then place on a preheated grill for about 5 minutes, until it starts to smoulder. Place the filet on the plank (on top of a handful of herbs, if you like) and close the lid.
Either way, cook the salmon for about 15 minutes, or until the fish turns opaque, and the thin end flakes with a fork but the thicker part is still moist.
Let cool, then transport or refrigerate until you’re ready to pack it up to go. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, dill or cilantro to taste. Serves about three people for every pound (before cooking).
Cool green pasta
There’s a world of fresh green sauces to be whizzed up using handfuls of fresh mild herbs, veggie tops and baby greens – all can dress up cooled pasta, perhaps more enticingly than mayo or vinaigrette. To make pesto, use any combination of leafy greens, even if they’re wilty, asparagus stalks work as well; omit the cheese and nuts for a simpler Provençal pistou.
For the pesto
- Handful of creamy nuts (walnuts, cashews, pine nuts or almonds)
- One or two handfuls of leafy greens (baby kale or spinach, arugula, carrot tops)
- A few asparagus stalks, chopped (optional)
- Smaller handful of mild green herbs, like parsley, cilantro or basil
- 1 garlic clove
- Lots of Parmesan, grana padano or pecorino, freshly grated
- Nice olive oil
- For the chunky pasta
- Seasonal veg (tomatoes, peas, asparagus, beans, rapini, radishes)
To make the pesto, pulse everything except the olive oil (starting with a pinch of salt – Parmesan can be salty) in the bowl of a food processor until it’s mulched; with the motor running, add olive oil until it loosens up and has a saucy consistency. Taste and add salt if it needs it.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente, adding asparagus stalks, green beans, broccoli or any vegetable you’d like to blanch for the last minute or two of cooking time. Drain them together and run under cool water in a colander to stop them from cooking.
Toss with the green sauce, with an extra pour of oil if it needs it. Add any other vegetables you like, and refrigerate until you’re ready to pack it up and go.
As far as creamy custards and puddings go, a posset is as simple as they get. The British dessert is made by whisking lemon or lime juice into scalded cream, triggering a transformation of acid, fat and protein into a perfectly smooth, set dessert that has the sweet tang of Key lime pie. This is a common ratio of cream-sugar-juice that can be easily doubled; finely grated zest is often added as well, but will detract from its silky texture.
- 2 cups whipping cream (35 per cent)
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup lime or lemon juice (or a combination)
- Berries for serving (if you like)
In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and sugar to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, standing by the stove, ready to lift the pot off the heat if the cream starts to bubble up and threatens to boil over, for 4-5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and whisk in the lime or lemon juice. Pour into small jars and refrigerate for a few hours, or until set. Top with berries, if you like. Seal with lids to transport to your picnic spot. Makes 4 possets.
Fruit crisp is more portable when pressed into bar form; the same crumb mixture is used for the base and topping, and you can make use of any kind of jam, compote or preserves you have in the pantry. If you have ripe berries or stone fruit that need to be used (fresh or frozen), cook them in a skillet with about half the quantity of sugar, mashing with a potato masher or fork, until the mixture thickens to the consistency of jam.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose or whole wheat flour
- 1 1/2 cups oats
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup butter, grated or cut into pieces
- 1 1/2-2 cups jam or other fruit preserves
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl. Grate in the butter (or add it in pieces) and blend with a fork or your fingers until the mixture is well combined and crumbly. (Alternatively, blitz it all together in the bowl of a food processor.)
Press a little more than half into the bottom of a parchment-lined 9-inch-by-9-inch pan. Spread with the jam, and sprinkle the rest of the crumble mixture on top, squeezing a bit as you go to create larger clumps.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the crumbs are pale golden and the jam is bubbling around the edges. Cool before cutting. Makes 9 squares.
If you plan a lot of picnics, a set of enamel-coated plates and bowls are lightweight and durable, or some mismatched dishes (the chipped plates you might otherwise get rid of) and cutlery you’re not particularly attached to can go from kitchen to bike basket to park and back again. A blanket stashed in the back seat (or bike basket) makes impromptu picnics easier.
If a key part of the dining out experience is not cooking, there are plenty of takeout options that travel well and work for sharing – sushi, noodle bowls, cheese and charcuterie, flatbreads with hummus, baba ghanoush, olives, feta, stuffed grape leaves and other finger foods that can be assembled into a mezze platter.