Ultimate Takeout – Planning the Perfect Picnic

Pick a spot. Under a shady tree. Next to your favorite watering hole. At a Metropark. In your own backyard. Lay a blanket. Pick a table. Watch a concert. Spy the birds. Bring the pooch. And break out the eats.

It’s summer in Michigan, and that means it’s time for the ultimate takeout. Have a picnic. Take your show on — or off — the road, and your universe of possibilities changes.

We often conjure romantic notions of brimming baskets of treasures — cold salads, grilled meats, and loaves of fresh bread. Truth is, picnics can be as simple as sandwiches and drinks or as extravagant as filets and flutes — and everything in between. Whether big and social, family-centered, or intimate and romantic, the picnic is an international custom.

If you’re a cook, have at it. You’re special. Cook it, pack it, and go. If the kitchen isn’t exactly your domain, don’t despair. Delis, farmers markets, carryouts, and groceries all offer great choices. Sunday brunch with bagel-and-lox sandwiches. Grilled chicken and vegetables served in bread bowls and wrapped in colorful dish towels that double as napkins. Fresh baguettes with smoked meats and cheeses. Cold fried chicken and potato salad, homemade or not, is a picnic tradition. For dessert, whole fruit, cookies, pies you can eat with your hands…it’s all good.

The more you picnic, the less effort it takes. You develop packing and hauling efficiencies that allow you to throw together what you need faster — and with minimal fuss — so that going on a picnic will be…well…a picnic.

Plan ahead. If the picnic’s in your own backyard, it’s simple to keep food cold, set up elaborately on the grass, and have lots of ice on hand for the suds. Getting the picnic from trunk to turf away from home isn’t always so easy. You may have to walk — far — to schlep the food to the lake. A public park might not permit, say, glass containers. There might be no place for cleanup. “Real” dishes can get heavy … fast. Once you know where you’re going, you’ll know what to take.

For safety’s sake, keep hot food hot (above 140°F.) and cold food cold (below 40°F). Coolers can do this — as long as each type of food is in its own cooler. Your best bet: Serve all cold food. And if you’re lucky enough to have a grill nearby, keep your food cold until you cook it.

Few people have the perfect basket to carry everything in one neat package. The modern version of the two-handled basket is the insulated cooler. But if possible, put everything else in a basket. It doesn’t have to be the quintessential Hollywood type that you carry over your arm. A laundry basket lined with a pretty tablecloth will suffice nicely. After you remove the cloth (which, incidentally, you can use to sit on or to display your food), line the basket with a colorful garbage bag and use it for refuse.

Wheel it! If you have a van or an SUV, take along an inexpensive plastic wheelbarrow or a children’s wagon. Or use one of those wire carts people take to farmers markets. Even a baby stroller can make transporting gear easier. Backpacks are great for drinks — and crunchy snacks won’t get smashed. Duffel bags on wheels — the kind used for traveling — are also good, and there are even special bike carriers just for food. Think about what else you might own that has wheels or could double as a picnic helper.

Presentation counts. What you bring to the picnic can help set the mood and frame your food in tasteful fashion. Styrofoam is never elegant. Serving from attractive disposable platters and bowls can bridge the gap from crass to class on the grass. Keep your eyes open for serveware that offers the most in bang-for-the-buck looks but that’s also unbreakable, stackable, and not too weighty. You can still bring your favorite throwaways or Tupperware, but when you serve, you’ll offer home-style elegance.

Where to buy: Zieben-Mare, Franklin, 248-539-8879, ziebenmare.com // Odd Fellows Antiques, Berkley, 248-399-6098, oddfellowsantiques.com // Williams-Sonoma, Somerset Collection South, Troy, 248-637-0672, williams-sonoma.com // Sur-la-Table, Somerset Collection South, Troy, 248-283-1051, surlatable.com // Plum Market, West Bloomfield, 248-626-7000, plummarket.com // Anthropologie, Birmingham, 248-593-5653, anthropologie.com // Orvis, Royal Oak, 248-542-5700, orvis.com


You might not need everything, but here’s a complete list to consider.

  • Food
  • Drinks
  • Cooler
  • Basket
  • Portable grill
  • Picnic blanket or tablecloth
  • Tarp or plastic tablecloth to put under the blanket (if the ground is damp)
  • Folding camp chairs and portable tables
  • Antibacterial gel or wipes
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Umbrella
  • Serveware/plates/cups
  • Tongs, big spoons, and serving dishes
  • Knife and small cutting board
  • Scissors
  • Napkins
  • Paper towels
  • Condiments: Salt,pepper, mustard, ketchup, and such
  • Bottle opener and corkscrew
  • Trash bags
  • First-aid kit
  • Fun stuff: Frisbees, a football, etc.

Brazilian Hot Dogs

You’ll need good quality hot dog buns or rolls for this recipe, since the sauce has quite a bit of liquid, which will quickly make lesser buns soggy.

Hot Dogs (your favorite brand), grilled
Good-quality buns

Assemble the hot dogs and spoon a large serving spoonful of the Brazilian Peppers Sauce (recipe below) over the hot dog (try not to use very much liquid). Eat immediately.


This sauce is my version of what’s served at hot dog stands all over Rio de Janeiro. I take it further and serve on hamburgers, grilled salmon, and more.

1/4 cup olive oil
4 cups sliced yellow or Spanish onion
8 bell peppers, assorted colors
4 cups fresh chopped tomatoes, or 1 can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes in juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot red pepper sauce (such as Tabasco) to taste

Heat oil in a large pot over high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, and hot pepper sauce. The sauce should be sweet and sour, so adjust the vinegar to taste, as well. Makes sauce for 12 or more hot dogs.


2 pints (4 cups) grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
3 cups peeled, seeded, diced cucumber
1/2 cup fresh chopped dill
¼ cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch chopped scallions,
white and green parts, garnish
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and toss well. Makes 8 servings.


If your picnic site has a grill, you can freeze the chicken in the marinade and leave it in your basket for up to four hours as it defrosts (it will take much longer if you’re defrosting in a cooler). Simply grill the chicken on-site.

2 ½ to 3 pounds small or medium boneless and skinless chicken breasts (if the breasts are large, cut each in half horizontally into 2 halves)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 teaspoons paprika

Place all ingredients in a large zipper-style bag and turn several times, massaging the marinade into the chicken. Marinate for up to 5 hours.

Prepare a grill to medium-high heat. Remove the breasts from the marinade (discard marinade) and grill for 6 to 7 minutes per side. Allow to cool completely before packing. You may wish to cut the chicken into strips for sandwiches. Makes 8 servings.


1 large or 2 medium eggplant, unpeeled, and sliced lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices
3 zucchini, halved lengthwise
2 red bell peppers, halved lengthwise
4 large carrots, halved lengthwise
Olive oil for grilling
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large Spanish or other mild onion, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons sugar


1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup pesto (homemade or jarred)
1 large baguette or 16 slices good-quality grainy bread

Preheat grill to medium-high. Lightly brush eggplant slices, zucchini, red pepper, and carrots with olive oil and grill, turning once or twice, until just softened and lightly charred (do not overcook, or the vegetables will be mushy). Transfer to a large dish. Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and set aside to cool. Cut into smaller pieces to use for the sandwiches.


In a large skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion slices and sauté, breaking up the slices into rings, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add sugar and continue to cook until the onions are golden. Let cool.


Combine mayonnaise with pesto and stir until smooth.

Cut the baguette into 8 diagonal pieces and halve each piece horizontally. Spread some pesto mayonnaise on the bread. Divide vegetables among the slices and season to taste with salt and pepper. Top with remaining bread slices. Wrap well in plastic wrap. You can also pack all the ingredients separately and build your own sandwiches. Makes 8 servings.


3 pounds small red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled, halved (or quartered if large)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 cups fresh chopped parsley
1 cup finely chopped red or Bermuda onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons drained capers
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and cook until just tender, about 12-15 minutes. Drain well, but do not rinse the potatoes. Transfer the hot potatoes to a large bowl and sprinkle the vinegar over and toss the potatoes with 2 large spoons. Allow the potatoes to cool (they don’t have to be cold), before adding the remaining ingredients and tossing well. Transfer to a serving bowl or other bowl to transport, cover with plastic wrap or tight-fitting lid, and chill until ready to serve. Makes 8 or more servings.


4 ears fresh corn, raw (or frozen corn kernels, thawed)
1 cup seeded, chopped cucumber (peeled or unpeeled)
1 can (about 14 oz.) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (about 14 oz.) small red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup chopped sweet onion
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

Slice the kernels off the cob and transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss well. Chill until ready to serve or to pack for your picnic. Makes 12 servings.


This coffee cake is easy to make and serve and packs well.

3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, cut into pieces
3 eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 quart (4 cups) blueberries


1/2 cup flour
1 cup oatmeal
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted/sweet butter cut into pieces

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease well or spray a 9×13″ baking dish with nonstick cooking spray, or line with parchment. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and cinnamon. Work butter into the dry ingredients with a mixer or your fingers until well combined. Stir or beat in eggs, milk, vanilla, and 2 cups of blueberries. Spread batter in the baking dish and sprinkle the remaining berries over.


Place all topping ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse for about 5 seconds. Sprinkle the cake with the crumb topping.

Bake for 1 hour until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool. Cut into squares before serving. Makes 12 or more servings.