Outdoor Feasts: Inspired Picnics and Healthy GrillsJun 30, 2020 ● By Marlaina Donato
Nothing defines the summer season quite like firing up the grill or escaping with a picnic basket to a favorite hideaway. From luscious fruits to gorgeous greens, enjoying a meal outdoors inspires us to eat what is in season and invites us to sip the moment. Most of all, it gives us special time with loved ones or with ourselves.
Ashley English, of Candler, North Carolina, author of A Year of Picnics: Recipes for Dining Well in the Great Outdoors, sees picnics as a delicious excuse to eat healthy and in sync with the seasons. “No matter what time of year you’re picnicking, there’s always going to be something ripe and in season to showcase. We all know that foods eaten at their peak time of ripeness simply taste better, so use your summertime picnic as an opportunity to bite into a ripe watermelon or your autumn picnic as the ideal time to bake an apple crisp.”
Thinking outside the box can jazz up the ordinary. English sings the praises of picnicking not only in woodlands and on beaches, but on rooftops. Being open to different times of the day welcomes a shift in mood. “I’m particularly fond of breakfast picnics. They’re an excellent way to clear your head and get motivated, as they’re an activity fully engaging all of the senses. Twilight picnics are another favorite. As the sun begins to set, the light is less harsh and the mood outdoors becomes decidedly quieter. I find picnics during this time of day to be especially relaxing,” says English.
Simple tasks like washing salad greens or whipping up a quick hummus dip the night before a picnic can save considerable time. Traditional picnic baskets are not required, and English recommends vintage suitcases, wooden crates or a backpack, especially if the picnic destination involves an uphill trek. She also emphasizes simplicity: “While a lavish spread with myriad options is quite fun, a simple picnic can be equally enjoyable. A grazing board to-go is quite easy. Pack up a medley of fruits, veggies, charcuterie or cheeses, crackers, spreads and pickles and a little something sweet, and you’ve got all you need to create a memorable meal outdoors.”
Robyn Lindars, of Fort Myers, Florida, author The Healthy Electric Smoker Cookbook: 100 Recipes with All-Natural Ingredients and Fewer Carbs, says, “I love grilled veggies paired with goat cheese and fresh herbs on French or Italian bread. You can add capicola or just stick to veggies for tasty sandwiches that do well in a cooler.”
Grilling “adds a ton of flavor to food without needing to add additional fat or calories. Cooking over fire is also the oldest method of cooking,” says Lindars. Happily, the health risks associated with barbequing meat over hot coals can be reduced by using flavorful marinades or opting to go vegan.
Reducing temperature decreases carcinogenic compounds associated with grilling meats and can be best accomplished by waiting until charcoal turns to embers or turning the gas grill down a notch or two. Grilling further from the flame on an elevated rack is also a good option. Citrusy or balsamic vinegar-based marinades naturally minimize toxic potential by reducing the formation of unhealthy compounds, studies show.
“You are what you eat and what you eat was eating. Opt for the highest-quality protein possible—grass-fed beef, organic, humanely raised protein,” suggests Lindars. “Make your own marinades and rubs to avoid ingredients like soybean oil and corn syrup. You can easily make your own with simple ingredients like olive oil, fresh herbs, vinegars, sea salt and spices. Fresh rosemary, lemon zest, juice, sea salt, pepper and garlic with a splash of olive oil makes for an amazing marinade, and can even be paired with grass-fed butter to put on chicken. A basic rub of smoked paprika, sea salt, fresh ground pepper and dash of garlic powder is great on just about anything.”
Marlaina Donato is the author of several books and a recording artist.
Recipes for Outdoor Feasts
3 lb small-to medium-size tomatoes, possibly a mixture of San Marzano and Campari tomatoes (The smaller tomatoes will get more exposure to the grill)
2 large cucumbers
1 poblano pepper
1 head of garlic
8 oz mini-bell peppers
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 cup water (or more)
Dash olive oil
1 Tbsp sea salt (preferably bourbon barrel smoked sea salt)
1 Tbsp black pepper (preferably bourbon barrel smoked pepper)
1 tsp sugar
1 large bunch basil
1 ripe avocado, diced
Preheat a charcoal grill for medium direct heat—about 350° F. (Gas works, but will not produce as much smokiness as charcoal.)
Prepare the veggies to go on the grill: wash everything and slice the cucumbers into thin lengthwise pieces; put the garlic cloves onto skewers.
Grill the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, garlic and poblano pepper until char marks form on all sides.
Remove the veggies and place in a big pot. Add water.
With an immersion blender, mix everything together until uniform in consistency.
Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste; more water for a thinner consistency; and the basil at the end with one last blend with the immersion blender.
Chill at least 3 hours before serving so the flavors have time to meld together.
Garnish with diced avocado and fresh basil.
Recipe and photo courtesy of Robyn Lindars.
Yields: 8 to 10 servings
A combination of fresh fruit, lime juice and chili seasoning, fruta picada is served at markets and roadsides throughout Mexico. The combination of spice and salt partnered with sweet fruit is guaranteed to take the edge off of a blistering summer’s day.
3 Tbsp chipotle powder
3 Tbsp smoky paprika
1 Tbsp plus 2 tsp sea salt
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
1½ tsp celery seeds
1 pineapple, peeled, cored and cut into spears
½ watermelon, peeled, cut into spears and seeded
1 large jicama, peeled and cut into spears
1 large papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into spears
Juice from 2 limes
Grind all of the spice blend ingredients together in a spice grinder or food processor or with a mortar and pestle until finely powdered. Transfer to a lidded container with a shaker screen.
Place all of the fruit spears onto a serving platter. Squeeze the fresh lime juice evenly across. Let guests serve themselves as much fruit as they’d like, and then sprinkle with the spice blend.
From A Year of Picnics: Recipes for Dining Well In the Great Outdoors, by Ashley English. Photo by Jen Altman. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Grilled Romaine Hearts
1 romaine heart per person
1 Tbsp olive oil
Sea salt to taste
Fresh ground black pepper
Parmesan cheese or another hard, aged cheese
Prepare the grill for direct heat.
Rinse/dry the romaine hearts, drizzle with olive oil, sea salt and pepper.
Grill the romaine hearts on direct heat for 3-4 minutes on each side or until char marks form and the lettuce begins to wilt.
Remove the hearts from the grill, grate a generous amount of the cheese on the hearts and add a little more olive oil.
For a crowd, chop the hearts up and put them in a bowl to serve as a large salad on the side of the main course.
Recipe and photo courtesy of Robyn Lindars.
Kalamata Olive Hummus-Cucumber Picnic Sandwiches
Pita pocket bread, sourdough or other bread of choice
1 can organic chickpeas/garbanzos with original water drained off just a bit
½ cup organic sesame seeds or 2 Tbsp of tahini (½ cup organic, raw, unsalted sunflower seeds can be used in a pinch)
1 tsp cold-pressed virgin olive oil (optional)
1 minced garlic clove
½ cup kalamata olives (whole or halved, drained)
Conventional or English cucumber, thinly sliced
Organic lemon thinly slivered with skin intact
In a blender or Vitamix, add chickpeas with original water, sesame seeds/tahini and a slice of lemon to make the hummus. Blend until smooth, but don’t over-blend until too thin. Pour into bowl, stir in olives and drizzle with olive oil. Lastly, sprinkle the minced garlic on the top of the hummus and chill for a few hours or overnight.
Generously spoon hummus onto bread or into pita pockets and gently layer thinly, freshly sliced cucumbers and thin slivers of lemon. Optional additions: fresh herbs like oregano, thyme, lemon thyme or mint to add last between the slices of bread or tucked into a pita pocket. Keep in a cooler for picnics.
Southwestern Red Pepper-Avocado Sandwiches/Wraps
1 jar roasted red peppers (drained and dried with a towel) or freshly made, oven-roasted peppers
2 fork-smashed avocados or 1 large Florida avocado
Salsa of choice, preferably smoky chipotle or sweet varieties
Bread or wraps of choice
To assemble sandwiches, slather bread or wrap generously with smashed avocado, then press a roasted red pepper on top. Spoon salsa of choice and sprinkle with cilantro over all before covering with other slice of bread or rolling a wrap. Keep chilled until serving.
Green Garden-Basil Dip for Chips, Bread and Veggies
1 package thawed, raw, frozen peas
Handful of basil
1 or 2 handfuls unsalted roasted or raw pumpkin seeds
½ tsp sea salt
¼ cup water
In a blender or Vitamix, add all ingredients and blend until smooth. If peas need a bit more water for blending, add a tablespoon of water at a time until reaching the desired consistency. Pour into bowl and serve immediately with an array of dippers, including organic healthy chips and sliced veggies, as well as outside-the-box options like bok choy, squash or peppers.
New Twists on Old Favorites
Brew up delicious and colorful herbal teas for gourmet lemonades. Try hibiscus, lemongrass, lavender or fresh ginger tea, adding fresh organic lemon juice and a sweetener of choice.
In a blender, whip up unsweetened plant-based milk (almond, coconut or cashew) with a ripe banana, a small handful of dates and a splash of vanilla extract, and pour into popsicle molds.
Combine peanut, almond, sunflower or soy butter with cocoa or carob powder, a tablespoon of plant-based hazelnut creamer and a pinch of salt. Roll into balls and then add sesame, chia seeds, cinnamon, coconut sugar or chopped dates.
Picnic Safety Tips from Ashley English
Use insulated coolers for perishable items.
Before being stored in the refrigerator, cool any foods after preparation to room temperature to be served cold later.
When ready to head out for a picnic, pack ice into the bottom of the cooler and cover it with the food containers. To make ice last even longer, first place a bag of dry ice on the bottom of the cooler, cover it over with wet ice and place the food atop of it. Keep the cooler lid closed whenever not in use and store it in a shady location upon arriving at the picnicking destination. When returning home, if there is any ice left in the cooler, leftover items are considered safe to consume; if the ice is all melted, the food isn’t safe to eat. Reusable ice packs are also nice to use because they forgo the need to purchase new bags of ice each time.