New and Exciting Picnic Recipes

These 15 creative recipes offer fun variations on perennial outdoor favorites.
By Tabitha Alterman
April 25, 2008
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Spice up your summer picnics with new variations on classic picnic dishes.
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Now that you’re in an Earth Day frame of mind, why not get outdoors and continue to celebrate Mother Nature with sunny day picnics? The following recipes offer bright new twists on good old fashioned picnic favorites. Why not retire that boring hamburger for a tasty homemade lentil burger or free-range lamburger instead? Or snack on freshly made tortilla chips and zesty salsa instead of the usual packaged fare?

Besides adding exciting and nutritious new flavors to your life, these recipes will help you take advantage of the bounty you’ll find at farmers markets in the coming months. The cookbooks referenced below will give you even more ideas: They aim to feature the best of whole, organic, natural and seasonal cuisine. All of the following recipes serve about four to six picnickers, and would be fine to prepare the evening before your venture out.


Chips & Dip

Instead of overly greasy and salty chips served with store-bought sour cream dip, try this refreshing and addictive combination.

Baked Sweet Potato Chips

Adapted from Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables (Gibbs Smith, 2006).

2 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tsp dried red pepper flakes or Cajun spice mix
1/2 tsp sea salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Slice the sweet potatoes into rounds as thin as you can get them (a mandoline works best if you have one).  Toss the potatoes in a bowl with the oil and seasonings. Spread them on a baking sheet, and bake until they are browned and crispy, about 20 minutes.

Mushroom Yogurt Dip

Use whatever mushrooms you can find in-season to highlight their at-peak earthy flavors. Adapted from The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook (Whitecap, 1998).

1 tbsp nut oil (walnut, sesame, hazelnut, etc.)
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 spring onions, finely chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
8 ounces plain, thick yogurt
1 tsp cumin, ground
2 tbsp thyme or lemon thyme, chopped

Heat the oil in a sauté pan, then add the garlic and onions. Sauté for 3 minutes and add the mushrooms. Cook for 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from heat, strain off excess liquid and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the yogurt, cumin and thyme. Let sit for at least 10 minutes.


Chips & Salsa

Your picnic partiers will surely appreciate the time you put into preparing home-baked tortilla chips and freshly made tangy salsa.

Chili-Flavored Tortilla Chips

These chips have robust flavor, and will fill your home with a wonderful aroma as they bake. Adapted from The Splendid Grain (William Morrow, 1998).

Tortillas
2 cups masa harina (available at specialty or natural foods stores)
About 1 1/4 cups warm water
1 tbsp fresh herbs (marjoram, oregano, cilantro, savory, basil, etc.), chopped

Chips
2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp chili powder
1 dozen homemade corn tortillas (or purchased tortillas)

To make tortillas: Put the masa harina in a mixing bowl and stir in the water and herbs. Knead thoroughly for about 3 minutes, or until the dough forms a smooth, silky mass that does not stick to your hands. It should be moist and pliable enough that a pinch of dough will easily press flat when pushed between your fingertips. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 5 minutes, or refrigerate it for up to 24 hours.

With moistened hands, divide the dough into 12 balls. Roll each ball between your palms until smooth. Cover the balls with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. With a rolling pin, press each ball into a tortilla about 6 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick.

Heat a heavy ungreased skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Bake the tortillas, one at a time, for 30 seconds on the first side, 1 minute on the opposite side, and another 30 seconds on the first side. There should be several light brown spots. The tortilla should puff up a bit, then deflate as it cooks. Keep finished tortillas stacked and tightly wrapped in a cloth.

To make chips: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the water, salt and chili powder in a spray bottle. Shake to dissolve the salt. Lightly mist both sides of each tortilla.

Stack 3 tortillas at a time on a cutting board. Cut into wedges. Place tortilla wedges in a single layer on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until chips are well crisped.

Tomatillo Salsa

This traditional variant of tomato salsa is intensely pungent. Adapted from Joy of Cooking (Scribner, 2006)

8 ounces tomatillos, husked, rinsed, chopped
1 small white or red onion, chopped
3 to 5 serrano or jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 tsp sea salt
3/4 tsp raw sugar or 1/2 cup powdered stevia
Water

Combine all the ingredients with just enough water to loosen the mixture into a saucelike consistency. If preparing well in advance, do not add the onion until just before serving as it can overpower the other flavors.


Riot of Color Salad

Way better than any iceberg salad you’ve ever had, this gorgeous salad will knock the socks off your picnicking friends! Feel free to experiment with various colorful greens and edible flowers. Adapted from The Edible Rainbow Garden (Periplus, 2000).

Dressing
1 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar
2 to 4 tbsp sunflower oil
1 tbsp clover or wildflower honey
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Salad
1 head romaine lettuce
1 head butter lettuce
1 small head frisée
1 small head radicchio
4 to 6 leaves multicolored Swiss chard
Dozen edible flowers, such as yellow and blue violas, purple pansies, nasturtiums, yellow calendulas and red dianthus

Whisk together all the dressing ingredients, and set aside. Toss the salad greens, and arrange on a platter. Separate some flowers into petals, and leave some intact. Sprinkle the petals, then the blossoms over the greens. Let the diners dress their own salads.


Raw Beet & Apple Slaw

If you like sweet-tart-crunchy-tangy cole slaw, you’ll love this interesting variation. No added sweeteners are required, because beets and apples are sweet enough. Feel free to experiment with other firm fruits and vegetables, too, such as carrots, turnips and pears. Adapted from The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook (Jones Books, 2008).

1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled
1 small cucumber, peeled
1 large apple, washed, unpeeled
1 pound beets with greens attached, washed
2 tbsp white vinegar
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Grate ginger, cucumber and apple directly into a medium-sized bowl using a cheese grater. Cut off the green tops of the beets. Peel and grate the roots, and add to the bowl. Roll together 3 to 4 beet leaves and stems, and chop them into fine shreds (about 3/4 cup). Add to the bowl, then mix all the ingredients until evenly distributed. Add vinegar, oil, salt and pepper, and mix well.


Pea and New Potato Salad

Take a break from lame mayo-and-mustard-based potato salads, and let fresh peas and marble-sized new potatoes take center stage. Adapted from Serving Up the Harvest (Storey, 2007).

1 1/2 pounds tiny new potatoes, scrubbed
Cold water
Salt
2 cups shelled peas (about 2 pounds with pods)
3/4 cup sour cream or crème fraiche (substitute a mixture of tahini and miso for a tasty vegan alternative)
1 spring onion, bulb and greens, sliced
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
1 tbsp grated horseradish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a saucepan, cover the potatoes with cold water and salt generously. Bring to a boil for 3 minutes. Add the peas and cook another 3 minutes. Plunge immediately into ice water to stop cooking, then drain.

In a large bowl, stir together the sour cream, onion, dill and horseradish. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the peas and potatoes and mix gently with a rubber spatula. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving.


Lentil Burgers

This  mix makes fine burger patties to slide into a bun, but you can also cook smaller portions and stuff them into pita pockets. Adapted from 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans, and Grains (Plume, 1998).

1/2 cup dried green, brown or red lentils, rinsed
1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tsp cumin, ground
1 tsp coriander, ground
1 tsp sea salt
1 1/2 cups water

Combine the lentils, brown rice, onion, carrot, garlic, cumin, coriander and salt in a medium saucepan. Add the water. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and boil gently until the rice and lentils are tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed, about 40 minutes. Drain in a colander to remove any excess liquid. Let cool slightly, then process in food processor until fairly smooth. Form into 3-to-4-inch patties.

Just before cooking the burgers, mist them with oil, and grill over a medium-hot fire. Grill until crisp on both sides, about 5 to 10 minutes.


Free-Range Mint-Spiced Lamburgers

Find free-range lamb producers near you at Eat Wild and Local Harvest. Adapted from The Farmer and the Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Spit-Roasting Grassfed Meat (Left to Write Press, 2008).

1 small onion, finely minced
1 tsp sea salt
4 ounces chevre (soft goat milk cheese)
1 cup fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1 small chili pepper, diced (seeds and white membrane removed)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp garam masala (optional but adds an exotic kick; available at Asian groceries and natural foods stores)
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb

With your hands, mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Loosely shape the mixture into 4 or 5 meatballs, then flatten each ball until it’s about 1/2 inch thick. With your fingertips, make a well in the middle of each patty to prevent the meat from getting puffy over the flames.

When your grill is medium-hot and you can hold your hand 5 inches above it for no more than 4 seconds, brush the grill lightly with vegetable oil, then set the patties directly over the flame with the wells facing up. Grill, covered, about 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium burgers.


Curried Free-Range Chicken Salad

This exotic version of chicken salad takes advantage of the complex flavors found in pasture-raised poultry, and the smoky depth an open fire gives it. Adapted from The Farmer and the Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Spit-Roasting Grassfed Meat (Left to Write Press, 2008).

2 cups free-range chicken (any cut will do)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup salted cashews
2 ribs celery, diced
3 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp turmeric
3/4 cup mayonnaise or vegan substitute
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 cups salad greens, rinsed

Grill the chicken over gentle smoke, until the inside temperature reaches 165 degrees. Remove from the grill, let cool, then debone if necessary, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.

Combine the chicken, raisins, cranberries, cashews and celery in a large work bowl. Add the curry powder and turmeric, and stir well, then stir in the mayonnaise, salt and pepper. Refrigerate this mixture for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

In a work bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss the greens in the dressing until well coated.

Serve the chicken salad over the greens.


Chickpea Salad with Tomatoes and Feta

This tangy Mediterranean bean salad will stand in nicely for a predictable three bean salad. Adapted from 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans and Grains (Plume, 1998).

4 cups chickpeas, cooked
3 large ripe tomatoes, diced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp dry white wine
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces fresh feta cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 cups salad greens (Include some sharp-tasting greens, such as arugula or watercress, for extra flavor.)

In a large salad bowl, combine the chickpeas, tomatoes, onion and mint. Toss to mix. In a separate bowl, combine the lemon juice, wine, mustard and garlic. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Pour over the chickpea mixture and toss together. Add feta cheese, and toss again. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand for 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Toss in salad greens just before serving.


Hummus with Jalapeno-Cilantro Pesto

If you’re a fan of freshly made hummus served with pita bread, you’ll want to try this wonderful new way to prepare it. The spicy pesto adds flavor, but also a nice bright color. Instead of serving this classic dip with bread, serve it alongside matchstick carrots, kohlrabi, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers or eggplant. Adapted from Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes (Running Press, 2008).

Pesto
1 cup cilantro, packed
1/3 cup flat leaf parsley, packed
2 green onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 to 2 jalapeno chiles, stems removed
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Hummus
30 ounces cooked or canned garbanzo beans
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup tahini
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves
Sea salt, to taste

To make the pesto: Combine the cilantro, parsley, green onions, jalapenos, olive oil and garlic in a food processor, and blend until smooth. Using a rubber spatula, transfer the pesto to a small bowl; season with salt and pepper to taste. Do not wash the processor bowl.

To make the hummus: Drain the garbanzo beans, reserving 1/2 cup of the liquid. Combine the garbanzo beans, reserved liquid, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil and garlic in the processor bowl, and process until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl.

To serve: Make an indentation in the center of the hummus with a large spoon. Spoon the pesto into the indentation and swirl gently.


Cold Crunchy Whole Grain and Artichoke Salad

Adapted from The New Whole Grains Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2007).

1 cup farro, spelt berries, hard winter wheat berries, hulled barley or whole oats (or try a combination of these grains)
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 sprig rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 ounces fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
12 baby artichokes (or 1 13-ounce jar artichoke bottoms, drained)
Half of a large lemon, if using fresh artichokes
1 small bell pepper, sliced
1 cup shelled edamame
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small heavy saucepan, dry-toast the grains over high heat until hot and lightly fragrant. Add the vegetable stock and rosemary, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for about one hour, until grains are tender. Drain any excess stock and cool to room temperature.

Chop the garlic, basil and pine nuts in a food processor until very fine. Add lemon juice and process until smooth. Gradually add olive oil to make a smooth paste.

Trim and halve the artichokes, and put in a large bowl of cold water with the lemon half. Bring a large pot of water to boil, drain the artichokes, and boil them until a knife can be inserted easily.

In a serving bowl, toss the cooked grain, dressing, artichokes, bell pepper and edamame. Season with salt and pepper, and serve.


Simply Cherry Balsamic Fruit Salad

Far less syrupy and bland than standard fruit salads, this sweet-tart mixture will have your toes tingling! Adapted from The Go Green East Harlem Cookbook (Jones Books, 2008)

Zest of one large lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup strawberries, sliced
1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar
1 small watermelon
3 tart apples
1/2 pound fresh figs
1/2 pound cherries
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

Add lemon zest to the olive oil and let soak overnight. Add strawberries to the vinegar and let soak overnight.

Cut watermelon into 1/2 inch cubes. Cut apples in half and remove cores, then cut into 1/2 inch cubes. Cut figs in half. Pit cherries. Place all in a large glass bowl.

Pour lemon-infused oil over the fruit and toss. Add the vinegar mixture and toss again. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes.

Garnish with walnuts before serving.


Coconut Custard Pie

Last — but definitely not least! — don’t forget to bring along a scrumptious and refreshing dessert. On hot days, make this treat extra-refreshing by letting it chill in your cooler until serving time. Adapted from The Tofu Cookbook (Thorsons, 1998).

6 ounces graham crackers
1/4 cup unsalted butter (or vegan alternative)
1 1/2 cups medium-firm tofu
4 tbsp organic vegetable oil
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp sea salt
3/4 cup raw sugar or 1/2 cup powdered stevia
1 1/4 cup shredded raw, unsweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Crush the graham crackers to fine crumbs with a rolling pin. Melt the butter and drizzle over the graham crackers. Pat into a greased pan, packing firmly. Bake for 15 minutes, then set aside.

Turn heat down to 350 degrees. Process tofu, oil, vanilla, salt and sugar in a food processor until smooth. Stir in 1 cup coconut. Pour the mixture into the pie shell, and bake for 15 minutes. Sprinkle the top with the remaining coconut, and bake 5 minutes more. Remove from oven, cool, and chill before serving.


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