Sunday, June 13, 2004

Picnics for the lazy gourmet

Give yourself a gift basket from the deli

By Johnathan L. Wright
Reno Gazette-Journal

"A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou"

Omar Khayyam, "The Rubaiyat"

The poet got it only partly right, at least as far as gourmet picnics go. Foodies who want al fresco adventure will never be satisfied with an offhand baguette and a beaker of fermented grapes.

Instead, a great picnic unabashedly celebrates both the joy of having someone else prepare gourmet goodies, and the belief that no meal, even one eaten in a meadow, lies beyond the reach of stylish food and drink.

Carry on and carry out

At their picnics in the Italian countryside, ancient Roman nobles feasted on shellfish pulled from tubs of ice. Two millennia later, gourmet picnickers follow their lead. A salad of pasta and cold-water Mexican prawns and oceanic treats like squid salad, shrimp cocktail and oyster shooters can kick up the feast.

For shellfish, pick it up the same day as the picnic, if possible, or no earlier than the day before. Put them in the freezer half an hour before you pack them just to get that chill on. If shellfish is well iced, there's no reason two hours can't go by, but no more, before dining.

One of the best parts of preparing a posh picnic is hovering over the cheese case, trying to choose from among the wedges, wheels and rounds. Whatever you do, leave packaged sliced cheeses at the supermarket. Don't pre-slice cheese, either; sliced cheese starts releasing its oils and dries out more quickly.

Most picnic foods are served cold, and cold dampens flavor, which means that standard picnic fare like potato and macaroni salad can taste even more bland than usual. But when you go gourmet, cold isn't a factor because you order foods with strong flavors that overcome the chill - like a Thai chicken salad.

A little wine is fine

For a real backpacking trip, wine isn't usually an option because glass is too fragile. But for a gourmet picnic, wine is a must.

Many quality wines now come in half bottles, which are perfect for picnics. Whites tend to travel better than reds, so pinot grigios and sauvignon blancs make sense. Even gourmet picnics have menu limitations. Green salads are out - they tend to wilt, even on short trips. Picnics demand tougher fare like salads based on pasta or on grains like couscous. Skip the mayo as well. It spoils too easily.

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Going Out: Italianfest

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Helpings: Fresh strawberries
Picnics for the lazy gourmet