Life's a Picnic
Tips for planning the ultimate family-friendly spread
Photographs by Cybelle Codish
The word “picnic” is both a noun and a verb. It’s a meal eaten outside and an event. It’s something you go to, do, and eat. It’s a kicked-back attitude and serving-style experience that’s universal. It’s also one of the simplest, most gratifying memory makers.
No wonder painters, storytellers, movie moguls, and advertisers choose the picnic theme as the ultimate depiction of family fun.
It seems as if everyone has a favored picnic reminiscence. That impromptu romantic afternoon where you ate nothing but Brie, grapes, and Oreo cookies and remembered his favorite wine but forgot the corkscrew. A reunion of family and friends on that cloudless day with checkered tablecloths, cold chicken, potato salad, and icy lemonade. Or that terrific tailgate on that autumn afternoon — just before the team you love went on to beat the pants off the team you love to hate.
The best excuse for having a picnic is no excuse. It goes to reason that the best time to have a picnic is anytime. It’s an indubitable fact that everything tastes better eaten with the sky as your ceiling.
And lastly, there’s no place like away from home.
The best place for picnic is somewhere else. So plan your casual Sunday brunch out-of-doors. Go to an outdoor concert and sit on the lawn with a basket of goodies. Pack a duffel with PB&J, fresh fruit kebabs, and Frisbees and take your favorite youths to a state park. Almost anywhere you go this summer, from a concert in the park to your own backyard or one of Michigan’s myriad beaches, tote along some edibles and it is picnic time.
Remember, everything you carry with you to your picnic has to be carried back. So pack judiciously.
Beat the heat
Many foods taste just as delicious at room temperature as they do hot.
Pick up plastic containers
They’re great, but they can tip over and leak. It’s a good idea to wrap the entire containers in plastic wrap to avoid spills and messes.
Write down your entire menu
Check off each item as you pack it. It’s not always easy to run back for things like mustard, salad dressing, or hot sauce.
Discard your dishes
Disposables take the burden off the cleanup crew and are lightweight to boot.
Take a tablecloth
It’s perfect for laying on the ground or over a table. They’re usually inexpensive and you can use one all summer long.
Fill your basket or bag of dishes and serving utensils ahead of time and leave only the food as a last-minute packing detail.
Leave the preparation of some of the meal’s elements to others; it makes carrying and cooking less of an ordeal.
Meals on wheels
Some coolers come with attached wheels: a good investment.
Ice or gel packs keep foods cool when transporting. Some foods (like breads, brownies, cookies, and juice boxes) can be frozen ahead of time. They’ll help keep other food items cool — and they’re thawed by the time you eat. Bring hot and cold drinks in insulated containers.
Build Your Own Sandwich
Sandwiches are simple and reasonable to assemble and require no recipe. After all, in one form or another, sandwiches are the most popular portable food in the world. As with anything, ingredients matter — good bread, good fillings, and good layers are the only “rules” you need to follow.
- Start with a good shell: excellent bread, pita, lavash, or even crisp lettuce leaves.
- Simple fillings: shaved meats, thinly sliced cheese, fresh vegetables, protein salads (tuna, chicken, and such).
- Don’t overfill. Less is usually more.
- Top with your favorite condiment or spread.
- Cut and eat.
You've plotted out the perfect picnic, but where to go?
Here are some hot spots in metro Detroit.
Belle Isle: This nearly 1,000-acre island park offers the perfect picturesque backdrop for outdoor dining. Walk off lunch by strolling the aquarium, conservatory, and Dossin Great Lakes Museum. belleisleconservancy.org
Independence Oaks: With more than 1,280 acres, this park in Clarkston offers prime picnic options as well as beautiful water views and trails for hiking and biking.
Lincoln Street Art Park: Where else in Detroit can you dine underneath a dinosaur sculpture? The unique park is one big work of art. greenlivingscience.org/lincoln-street-art-park
Lake St. Clair Metropark: Enjoy your al fresco feast while taking in the sights of Lake St. Clair by grabbing a table near the marina or laying a blanket on one of the park’s open, grassy picnic areas. metroparks.com
Your house: “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.” When it comes to picnics, Outkast has the right mindset. If it rains on your picnic, don’t cancel. There’s nothing wrong with an indoor picnic and if you forget something you don’t have to go far. Don’t forget that it’s Michigan: Wait 5 minutes and the weather most likely will change.
Chili Roasted Crunchy Spiced Chikpeas
(Makes 6-8 servings)
The key to success with these is dry them very well and bake them twice. There’s chili powder in this recipe, but your favorite seasonings — za’atar, sugar, or cinnamon — are great alternatives.
- 2 cans (about 15 ounces each) cooked chickpeas
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Drain again well. Use a clean dishtowel to dry chickpeas (discard any “skins” that fall off).
Line a rimmed baking sheet with several layers of paper towel and arrange the chickpeas on the sheet. Allow them to dry 3 or more hours.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Brush a rimmed baking sheet with oil. Transfer the chickpeas to the baking sheet. Shake lightly to coat. Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and allow the chickpeas to cool. Bake again for 30 minutes more. Sprinkle all the seasonings over the chickpeas and shake the pan again to coat. Eat warm, or cool completely before transferring to an airtight container.
NOTE: If they are still not crunchy, reduce heat to 200 F and allow to dry even more.
Lemon Yogurt Olive Oil Loaf
(Makes 12 servings)
- 1½ cups flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 extra-large eggs
- ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line the bottom of an 8x5- inch loaf pan or 9-inch round cake pan with parchment. Set aside.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk well. Set aside.
In another bowl, beat together the oil, yogurt, sugar, eggs, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients a up at a time and beat to incorporate.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for about 50-60 minutes (or 30-40 minutes for the cake), or until the top is golden and dry and a toothpick inserted into the center of the comes out clean. Allow to cool until warm enough to handle. Run a knife around the perimeter of the pan and tip the loaf out of the pan.
3-Bean Baked Beans
(Makes 8 servings)
- ½ cup dried/uncooked great northern beans
- ½ cup dried/uncooked black beans
- ½ cup dried/uncooked pinto beans
- ½ pound bacon, cooked and chopped (optional)
- 1 cup chopped onions
- ½ cup ketchup
- ⅓ cup dark brown sugar
- ¼ cup molasses
- 1 cup finely chopped carrots
- 1 cup finely chopped celery
- ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, or more to taste
Soak beans in a bowl for several hours or overnight in just enough cold water to cover completely. Drain (reserve the liquid) and rinse. Transfer to a pot and cover with 10 cups of water. Bring to a boil then simmer for 1½ hours. Drain well. Transfer to a large bowl. Add the bacon, if using. Combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan, plus 4 cups of reserved liquid and bring to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. Pour mixture over beans and toss well. Add enough remaining liquid or water to make the beans “soupy.”
Preheat oven to 325 F. Spray a 3-quart glass or ceramic dish with nonstick cooking spray. Transfer the beans to the baking dish. Cover with foil. Bake for 1-1/2 hours until beans are tender. Remove the foil and bake for 1 more hour. Add more water and stir if the beans appear dry.
(Makes 12 large cookies)
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 cups rolled oats (not instant)
- 1 cup semisweet mini chocolate chips
- 1 cup golden raisin
- ½ cup sweetened flaked coconut
- ½ cup salted, roasted sunflower seeds
- ½ cup chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment. Set aside.
Combine flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl and whisk well. Set aside.
Use an electric mixer to beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until creamy. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until incorporated.
Add the flour mixture and beat until just combined. Add remaining ingredients and use your hands to incorporate into the dough.
Shape dough into 3-inch balls (about cup) and place about 3 inches apart on the baking sheets. Flatten the batter to about ½-inch disks.
Bake cookies in the preheated oven until lightly golden at the edges, about 15 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets before removing.
Jicama Blueberry Slaw
(Makes 8 servings)
- ¼ cup fresh lime juice
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- ¼-½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
- 1 cup peeled, grated, shredded, or julienned jicama
- 1 cup peeled, julienned carrots
- 2 cups finely grated or shredded sliced green cabbage
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- 1 cup (½ pint) blueberries
- ½ cup thinly sliced red onion
- ¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves
Combine dressing ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well.
Combine all slaw ingredients in a bowl and add the dressing. Toss well. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
What to Buy Versus What to Make
Homemade is almost always better. If you have the time, make it from scratch. But it’s not necessarily easier or cheaper to prepare your favorites. That’s where strategic shopping comes in. If the quality is excellent, buy it. But know that you are paying a premium for the convenience. If time is short, buy it. If it’s cheaper and quick to prepare (and just as good or better), make a beeline into the kitchen.
- Nut butters
- Fried Chips
- Fresh cut fruits and berries
- Cookies and other sweets
- Iced tea
- Flavored water
- Cheese spreads
- Baked chips, pretzels
- Trail Mix
- Cut veggies
Dress up your drinks with these easy tips.
Instead of toting all those sugar packets, bring homemade simple syrup. Make your own using a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water. Add extra flavor
to the base tea recipe by adding fresh mint or sliced lemons and limes after it’s done steeping.
This Italian liqueur is great for sipping on its own, but step up your libation game by incorporating it in a cocktail. It could be as simple as adding sparkling wine. Or make a mixed drink with gin or vodka and top off with club soda and a fresh lemon wedge.