Grant Allen: Pack up a picnic (+recipes)

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Bite-sized is best for picnics, finds Grant Allen.

Grant Allen shares his top picnic tips and recipes. Photo / Thinkstock
Grant Allen shares his top picnic tips and recipes. Photo / Thinkstock

Most Kiwis love a picnic. Part of our culinary heritage, New Zealand picnics involve pies, salads, sandwiches, things packed in chilly bins, a barbecue on-site, paper napkins, drinks (pre-frozen, so they remain cool on arrival), a tin of baking, games, blankets, thermos flasks and too much food.

The earliest picnics in England and France were hunting parties. Picnics became more popular in Europe after the French Revolution, when royal parks became open to the public and the hoi polloi were able to enjoy and eat in them. The English Victorians took picnicking to elaborate heights.

However, "al fresco" eating has been around forever. Whether it was in the form of a lunch in the field for workers or a more salubrious affair involving servants, silver and linen, historically all classes have eaten outdoors.

Tail-gate picnics, these days popular at fashionable race days and polo matches, had a much humbler beginning. Originating in the United States, eating and drinking from the tailgate of a vehicle took place before sporting events such as baseball, hockey and football and were used as a community-builder and celebration after the match.

Summer is the obvious time for picnics but we all know that food has to be maintained at a certain temperature to remain safe.

We also have to think about how it will be eaten. Are you taking plates and cutlery and how easy is it to eat sitting on the grass? How casual is the picnic and how smart does it have to look?

These days, fantastic disposable eating implements are available that save a lot of clean-up time and don't comprise style. A big chilly bin with lots of slicker pads is a must. Making your food hand-held size is a good idea. You'll also need to think about how you'll take your rubbish away, post-picnic.

A possibility for a group attending the same event is to have a pot-luck picnic. Get someone to make all the starter food, someone to make pies, someone to bring bread and someone to do sweet things.

If you are going to go this way, do co-ordinate.

How many sausage rolls and soggy sandwiches do you really want?

The biggest challenge is to introduce fresh textures and flavours to more traditional picnic offerings. If you have room, throw in lots of blankets to sit on, a few cushions and take your best tea towels as napkins.

Bring something refreshing and non-alcoholic to drink. Avoid sweet fruit juices - lime and soda is crisper, or try bottled water with a squeeze of lemon or watermelon, preferably well-chilled.

The best idea is to present a range of food that you don't necessarily need to eat off plates. Start with some good flavours to whet the appetite. Olives, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and gherkins can be offered in their jars and smoked meats can be laid out on a plate. These have been preserved already so will travel well, but do keep them cool on the drive.

You need to think about some substantial absorption if you are drinking alcohol. You can't go wrong with a bacon and egg pie. If I am making one of these, I include the usual bacon and egg, plus diced, cooked potatoes, peas and grated cheese. Remember to season the filling well. I think it's better to make one big pie for this kind of entertaining as individual pies can seem a bit heavy on pastry on a warm day.

Cut your pie into generous portions that are ready to be picked up and eaten without a plate.

If you plan to take salad leaves, make sure they are a crisp variety. Iceberg or cos lettuces will hold (take them whole and pull apart before serving). Mesclun and soft-leaf varieties will wilt in the sun.

Why not provide a crunch with some form of salsa? This adds freshness and can be used on its own or as an accompaniment.

As for the sweet stuff, it's pointless to bring a cream cake. Make something that is reasonably firm so it will last the distance. And for a finale, why not go all out and make individual jellies set with fruit? Better still, as Andrew Giles from Urban Cafe suggested to me, almond milk jellies with a little passion fruit. These are smooth, cool and sophisticated, just like any race day should be. Transport these in your chilly bin.


Recipes

Meatball mini burgers
Race-day salsa
Spinach, silverbeet, feta and egg pie
Pear cakes
Almond milk jelly with kiwi fruit and passion fruit


Picnic tips

1. To set up your tail-gate or car boot picnic, arrange the boot of your car to act as a table top with wooden boards or trays.

2. Use disposable cutlery and vessels. I like the ranges available online.

3. Small bottles of soda are easy to manage with straws.

4. Stemmed glasses are easily toppled, so drink your wine from tumblers.

5. Buy a selection of smoked and cured meats, such as pastrami, salami and prosciutto. Buy a jar of olives.

6. Buy a can of dolmades and add a squeeze of lemon juice to sharpen them up. Buy a mix of dried fruits.

7. Slice a watermelon.

8. Make a fresh salsa for some clean, crisp tastes.

- Herald on Sunday

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