- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The problem with picnics is the schlepping. And the packing. And the fact that many picnic foods taste like the leftovers they are.But then there’s the great outdoors. The soft breezes. The dappled sunlight on our picnic baskets. The joy of dining with nature and our friends.

And if we ask an expert, we learn that it’s not all that difficult to pack much of anything. We just need to use our imaginations and follow a few simple food safety tips.

Take something as easy as the sandwich, which is perfect picnic fare for the tired but willing. All we need is to play a few new riffs on old sandwich favorites for a highly portable — and interesting — Memorial Day picnic.

Instead of old-fashioned sliced chicken with mayo, we can try a chicken Caesar sandwich that is cooked at home and assembled in minutes at the picnic site. Rather than the too-familiar tuna with celery, check out sun-dried tomato tuna with arugula. In place of the standard bologna and cheese, assemble a delicious cold-cut sandwich with pesto. As a sub for tried and true (but boring) peanut butter and jelly, smother white bread with almond butter, preserves and fresh strawberries.

We can accompany these sandwiches with easy (dare I suggest commercially prepared?) side dishes for a picnic that won’t leave us panting with exhaustion — either the work or the schlepping kind.

But first a few tips on packing and food safety that serve well throughout the summer picnic months.

• Keep cold foods cold (at 40 degrees or below) until you need them.

This isn’t as difficult as it sounds, according to Bettye Nowlin, a registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, who lives in Southern California.

“Pack foods directly from the refrigerator into an insulated container with a frozen ice pack. You can also use frozen food as an insulator,” she says. If frozen foods aren’t on the menu, try freezing juice boxes and tucking them in with the perishables. The boxes will keep other foods cold and thaw slowly so that the children have cool drinks later in the day.

Take two coolers, one for food and one for drinks. “If you have kids, you know they’re going to go for drinks, so pack them in a separate container that can be opened over and over,” Miss Nowlin says. Thus, we need not fear that chilled meats and other foods that require refrigeration will heat up as the cooler is opened repeatedly before we’re ready to eat.

• Keep warm foods warm until you need them.

Heat kills bacteria so a simmering pot of whatever will be hostile to bacterial growth. Once off heat, bacterial growth is inevitable. How long will cooked foods remain safe outside the refrigerator? In the house, the time limit is no more than two hours after cooking, Miss Nowlin says. Outside, make that no more than an hour. So plan your cooking and eating schedules accordingly. If a hot food needs to be Thermos-packed, do so.

• Keep cooking and serving dishes and utensils separated and make sure protein foods are cooked well enough to kill bacteria.

It’s generally safer to cook foods at a picnic site, since there’s less opportunity for bacterial growth on the food between cooking and eating times. But site cooking requires a little planning. The goal, of course, is to prevent transferring bacteria, as well as to avoid bacterial growth.

To avoid cross contamination, cooked foods should not be placed on a platter or carried with utensils that have been used for raw meat, fowl or seafood.

Don’t slice tomatoes with the same knife used on raw steak, for example. And don’t serve cooked chicken with the same utensils or on the same platter used when it was raw.

When grilling at a picnic site or at home, Miss Nowlin recommends using a meat thermometer and checking internal temperatures before serving. (They should be at least 165 degrees for chicken, 160 degrees for burgers, 160 degrees for steaks done medium well.)

• If cooking away from home, make sure preparation, cooking and eating surfaces are clean. Hands, too.

Always wash hands before cooking or eating. Moist towelettes are a great choice. Antibacterial soap is fine when accompanied by towels to wipe off the dirt. And wash hands between tasks. The fewer tasks there are, the fewer chances for contamination.

Use newspapers, towels or blankets to cover public picnic tables. Take along portable cutting boards for slicing.

Miss Nowlin has one made of thin plastic, almost like a sheet of cardboard, that has no crevices in which bacteria can grow.

She bought it at the supermarket and says it’s great for picnics and is dishwasher safe.

To sanitize a cooking surface, use 1 teaspoon of bleach in 1 quart of hot water with sponges to clean it off. Or, for ease, Miss Nowlin suggests mixing it in a spray bottle at home and using it to spray picnic surfaces. After spraying, simply wipe the area dry with a paper towel.

All grills — whether portable or at the picnic area — must be cleaned after every use and again before cooking.

All black particles should be scraped off to rid the grill of potentially cancer-causing substances.

• Avoid foods made with raw eggs.

Picnics are a particularly bad place for homemade Caesar salad whipped up with raw eggs, homemade ice cream made without first cooking the custard through and homemade mayonnaise. Commercially made mayonnaise, however, can actually help prevent bacteria growth, given the preservatives used to make it. (But it’s no substitute for keeping foods at 40 degrees or lower.)

Make sure hard-cooked eggs taken to a picnic are cooked until none of the yolk is runny. Even after boiling, eggs should not be out of the refrigerator for longer than two hours. Hard-cooked eggs that are cracked should not be eaten.

• What’s the best menu choice for those hungering for a minimum of work?

Cold foods that are refrigerated and kept cold until serving require little fussing. That’s why sandwiches are a great picnic choice.

“For sandwiches, you can even freeze some ingredients and take them with you, and they will thaw by the time you need them,” Miss Nowlin says.

Examples of this are cheeses such as mozzarella and Swiss, roast beef and pork, cooked chicken, ham and meatloaf, but remember to keep them chilled until serving.

Serve the sandwiches that follow with cold cooked veggies drizzled with a little olive oil at the last minute and cleaned, raw fruit that has been sliced at home — and don’t forget the chips.

Chicken Caesar sandwich

2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled

2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

2 tablespoons olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

8 slices sourdough or rye bread

1 small head (about 4 cups) Romaine lettuce, cut in 1-inch slices

⅓ cup prepared Caesar salad dressing

cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 (-inch) slices red onion, halved

Tomato wedges, optional

Mince 2 to 4 cloves garlic (4 is great if you love garlic), and set aside. Cut chicken in -inch slices.

Heat olive oil in skillet and saute garlic for 30 seconds, or until fragrance is released.

Add chicken and saute until cooked through, 3 to 5 minutes. Season to taste with pepper. Turn off heat and set aside.

Grill or broil bread until lightly toasted, about 1 minute per side.

In bowl, toss together Romaine, salad dressing, Parmesan, red onion and chicken. Season to taste with pepper.

Pile onto 4 slices of toast, top with remaining toast and serve with tomatoes on the side, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Picnic packing instructions: Saute chicken in garlic and cool a little. Pack in plastic container and refrigerate.

Place toast in a plastic bag and pack. (Do not seal bag or toast will become soggy.) Place lettuce in large resealable bowl and refrigerate. Pour salad dressing into plastic container.

Spoon cheese into plastic container. Pack red onion and tomatoes, if using, in a plastic bag. Refrigerate everything except toast until transporting to picnic.

Pack everything except toast in cooler with ice or cold packs. (Pack toast at room temperature.) Just before serving, wash hands. Then toss lettuce with chicken, dressing, cheese and onions. Pile onto toast to make sandwiches and serve with tomatoes, if desired.

Sun-dried tomato tuna with arugula

1 garlic clove, peeled

20 oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes, drained

cup light mayonnaise

2 scallions, chopped

2 6-ounce cans tuna packed in water, drained

Arugula

4 5-inch lengths of Italian or French bread, halved horizontally

Mince garlic and tomatoes in food processor. Add mayonnaise and process just to combine. By hand, stir in scallion and tuna and mix to combine.

Mound tuna salad onto bottom halves of bread, top with lots of arugula and cover with top halves of bread.

Makes 4 servings.

Picnic packing instructions: Make tuna salad, spoon into plastic container and refrigerate. Slice bread and pack. Place arugula in plastic bag.

Refrigerate everything except bread until transporting to picnic. Pack everything except bread in cooler with ice or cold packs. (Pack bread at room temperature.) Just before serving, wash hands and assemble sandwich.

Cold-cut sandwich with pesto

1 20-inch baguette

⅓ cup commercially prepared vinaigrette

1 to 2 cups greens of choice

10 ounces sliced cold cuts of choice

4 ounces sliced cheeses of choice

4 tablespoons commercially prepared pesto

1 cup sliced marinated artichokes or pitted olives of choice

Cut baguette in half lengthwise. Drizzle vinaigrette over both halves. Layer greens over bottom baguette half, then top with cold cuts and cheese.

Spread pesto over inside top of baguette and top cold-cuts and cheese with artichoke hearts or olives. Put halves together. Cut into quarters.

Makes 4 servings.

Picnic packing instructions: Slice baguette and pack. Measure out vinaigrette and pour into plastic container. Place cold cuts and cheeses in separate plastic bags. Measure out pesto and spoon into plastic container.

Measure out artichokes or olives and place in plastic container. Refrigerate everything except bread until transporting to picnic.

Pack everything except bread in cooler with ice or cold packs. (Pack bread at room temperature.) Just before serving, wash hands and assemble sandwich.

Almond butter with strawberries and preserves

5 tablespoons almond butter

8 slices white bread

12 strawberries, sliced

4 tablespoons strawberry preserves

Spread one-quarter of almond butter on each of four bread slices. Top each with one-quarter of strawberry slices.

Spread 1 tablespoon strawberry preserves on each of remaining four slices of bread. Place on top of almond butter slices, preserves-side down. Cut into triangles. Makes 4 servings.

Picnic packing instructions: Make sandwiches without strawberries. Slice strawberries and pack in separate sealed container. Refrigerate everything until transporting to picnic.

Pack in cooler with ice or cold packs.

Just before serving, wash hands, open sandwiches and arrange strawberries over almond butter. Reassemble sandwiches and serve.


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