I do love a picnic. There’s something special about eating a meal outdoors, sipping rosé, and laughing with good friends and family. But it’s easy to fall into a picnic rut, because once you find a dish you like, the desire to branch out is lessened. Don’t let this happen to you! Live large! Dream big! And make one or more of these terrific recipes for your next picnic or barbecue. (And if you want to just make the side dishes and pick up chicken for the main dish, we’ve got you covered.)
Not all pasta salads are created equal, and leave it to food blogger-goddess Deb Perelman to come up with the perfect summer pasta with roasted carrots (pick up a bag of multicolor heirloom carrots at your neighborhood Trader Joe’s), and a genius sunflower seed pesto dressing with cheese for umami, lemon zest and juice for brightness, and a healthy glug of olive oil for richness. Chop up some carrot greens or some kale to sprinkle on top for a contrasting pop of color.
I am obsessed with Mediterranean flavors, and so is Molly Yeh, who discovered her love for the food of Israel on a Culinary Birthright tour a number of years ago. Living in the far corner of Minnesota, far from a deli, she recreates it all on her own. You will love these adorable, colorful sliders — homemade mini pita (feel free to sub purchased pita) stuffed with crunchy-crusted falafel and topped with spicy yogurt, fresh mint leaves, and gorgeously pink pickled onions. Plenty of protein, and perfect for the vegetarian in your group.
Although Lebovitz encourages substitutions in this recipe, I say why mess with perfection? This sunny slaw proves a substantial salad. There’s plenty of crunch from the toasted cashews and fresh cabbage, carrots, and radishes; slices of roasted or grilled chicken provide the substance; and a tropical tone is achieved with the addition of mango and chopped mint and cilantro. Toss it with your vinaigrette of choice, although I’d recommend one made with rice wine or apple cider vinegar, olive oil, a chopped shallot, and a spoonful of good Dijon mustard. Heaven!
Everyone has at least one friend with dietary restrictions — dairy, gluten, etc.— and if you’re a good host (and I know you are!), you’ll want something that everyone can eat. This updated tabboulee subs in finely chopped raw cauliflower for the traditional bulgur wheat but keeps all the good herbs and veggies and the garlic- and lemon-scented dressing of the classic dish. Optional “boosters” include chickpeas (protein!) and diced dill pickles. Your Paleo/vegan/raw diet friends will be thrilled.
This salad is almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. This is really a killer August salad, as it makes use of heirloom tomatoes, fresh sweet corn cut off the cob, and ripe peaches, but you might be able to sneak it into late July. This is a happy riff on the classic Panzanella, an Italian standard made with chunks of day-old bread, a handful of fresh basil, and big cubes of juicy tomatoes. The addition of peaches and chickpeas (you could sub in some diced feta cheese for the chickpeas if you are a dairy lover — I highly recommend it) brightens the salad and that is definitely not a bad thing.
Next to fried chicken, I consider this the ultimate picnic food, and I’m obsessed with deviled eggs on every level. If I see them on a restaurant menu, they are ordered forthwith. These go a step beyond the egg yolk mashed with mayo and a little Dijon. She also adds crème fraiche for a creamier mouthfeel, white wine vinegar for a touch of acid, and a judicious amount of white truffle oil and black truffle salt to amp up the umami without going overboard. Top half with tiny red tobiko roe or salmon caviar, and the other half with black caviar. So much luxury in one bite!
If you don’t know about this wellness-centric website, you should. The photos alone are enough to make you forget that no dairy is involved in any of the recipes — everything is plant-based. And that dressing! You’ll be eating it with a spoon. It’s made with raw cashews, sunflower seeds, lemon, Dijon mustard, a little honey, and some fresh dill. The salad itself combines fresh peas, snap peas, snow peas, and pea shoots with lightly pickled shallots and quartered new potatoes. It’s both delicious and lovely.
Food bloggers Lindsay and Bjork are one of the few couples out there blogging together, and I’m here for that adorable family business model. These sturdy dessert bars have a layer of fresh raspberries (mashed with lemon, sugar, and a little cornstarch and flour to keep it together) sandwiched between an oaty shortbread-like crust and a streusel top. Every bite of this sweet delight screams “summer picnic” to me.
If there’s an easier, happier dessert than rice krispie treats, I’ve yet to find it. Joy’s version amps up the flavor quotient with the addition of nutty browned butter, smooth peanut butter, and flaky sea salt (to balance the sweet). She adds in whole mini marshmallows at the end for extra pockets of meltiness. You can always make it a teeny bit healthier (ha!) with brown rice krispies, and yes, they exist. Find them at Whole Foods. I know it makes me feel better to do that. The lies we tell ourselves!
Even the best picnic could use a little help to raise the spirits, if you see where I’m going with this one. To that end, take some strong iced black tea, combine it with a little sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and, of course, vodka. Grill some ripe peaches, quarter them, and add to the spiked tea and refrigerate. As the fruit macerates in the vodka/tea mixture, the magic starts to happen, and it infuses the liquid with a little fruit, a little smoke, and a lot of flavor. Raise a glass to summer!
More from Make It Better:
- The 10 Best Donut Shops in Chicago
- 2018 Chicago Food Festivals You Won’t Want to Miss
- 4 of the Best New Cookbooks to Check Out This Summer
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.