Chefs often get asked, “What do you cook when you’re at home?” But now that summer’s finally here, we’d like to take the conversation outside.
So tell us, culinary ones: What do you pack for a picnic?
Jason McClure, executive chef at Sazerac restaurant in Seattle, is quick to answer. His favorite picnic spot is Lincoln Park in West Seattle, overlooking Puget Sound. Here are his tips for putting together the perfect basket. He even throws in a recipe, which you can file away for the next sunshine-y day.
Take it away, Chef!
Shop farmer’s markets.
“These markets showcase what’s available locally and seasonally. When you buy ingredients there, you can make simple dishes that don’t require a lot of cooking or preparation. Living in Seattle, I have a nice advantage to such foods from Pike Place Market.
Look for summer squash, which you can shave very thinly and add a bit of balsamic vinegar to … or even mix in a little shaved Parmesan cheese (you can bring a little in a cooler on your picnic and sprinkle on just before serving). Or get a couple of fresh ripe peaches, toss in some wild arugula, a little extra virgin olive oil, and the shaved Parmesan if you want. They are simple dishes that doesn’t need to be cooked ahead of time, don’t need to be refrigerated, and are pretty.”
Forgo the classics.
“My grandmother always brought the same potato salad and cole slaw to our family picnics for years because that’s what she had always done. It might occur to people to change it up and embrace something new. It doesn’t have to be more complicated; it can just be more interesting.
‘Classic’ picnic side dishes like potato or macaroni salads can be volatile if left in the hot sun for too long. I think people figure they can keep these cold in mini coolers, which on a hot day doesn’t always work. Or they think the foods will get gobbled up before they go bad. Again, not a foolproof plan. Also, these dishes can be fatty and unhealthy (they are made with a lot of mayonnaise and sour cream). That’s why I highly recommend getting fresh, local ingredients, or substituting mayo and sour cream with olive oils, fresh herbs, and spices that will allow the dishes to sit out and still taste good after a long time.”
Throw in some surprises.
“A great go-to dish for picnics is a gazpacho. All the ingredients are seasonal, and it’s really simple to make and transport in a thermos or jug. Not only that, but it’s easy to serve, savory, and healthy. It’s also very satisfying … you won’t need a lot of side dishes to go with it.
Also, growing up, my mom would always bring pimento cheese in mason jars to picnics. She would put the jars in coolers, then set them out on the tables with knives and all sorts of sandwich bread. It’s simple, fun, and always a crowd pleaser. I now do this with my daughter on picnics. She loves it.”
Ready to stake out your spot on the grass? Whip together one of Chef McClure’s favorite side dishes first.
1 lb. pasta (penne, rigatoni, macaroni, bow tie, etc.)
1 pint baby tomatoes
1 bunch asparagus, lightly blanched, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 cup lightly blanched English peas
2 tbsp. minced chives
1 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
1 lemon (zest only)
1 tbsp. lemon juice
4 tbsp. lemon-infused olive oil or extra virgin olive oil
Salt and cracked pepper, to taste
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
¼ cup grated Parmesan (optional)
1. Boil pasta in lightly salted water until just tender. Strain and cool under cold running water for moment, drain well.
2. Place in a bowl and add everything else. Toss gently until combined well.
When you want a really good meal – indoors – head to Sazerac, 1101 Fourth Avenue, Seattle (206-624-7755 or sazeracrestaurant.com).
Photo of Chef McClure by Evan Johnson