Memorial Day picnic? Try these tips to make it special

May 22, 2013 

Serve sweet potato salad in a glass to add a little class to your picnic. JULIAN BRUNT/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALD

There's no better way to start the summer than with a family picnic.

The French coined the phrase in 1692 calling it a pique-nique, but the Brits caught on shortly thereafter and passed it along to us and the rest of the world. The Italians call it al fresco and certainly this dining experience is found anywhere that has a temperate climate.

Wikipedia describes it as a "pleasure excursion," but if yours is ill-planned it might prove to be a most unpleasant experience. Here are the basic things one must consider -- who to invite, where to go and what to eat. Sounds simple, right?

If you bring food that doesn't do well in the heat, is not finger food or easily eaten with a spoon, it can make things difficult.

Likewise, if you choose a spot with lots of gnats and mosquitoes or blowing sand, you may find yourself on an excursion that is not pleasurable at all. It will pay dividends if you take your time and plan your picnic well.

Another fundamental question is whether your picnic is going to be homemade or store bought. The answer to that question is going to depend on how rushed you are for time and how much money you have to spend.

Certainly all the ingredients for a fine picnic can be found at the grocery store, but that might prove expensive. Most of the big-box stores have a good selection of deli meats

and cheese and a pretty fair selection of already cooked food as well. But a good start can be made with as little as a loaf of French bread, a selection of sliced cheeses, such as mozzarella, white cheddar or a good Swiss, and a few slices of salami, mortadella and pepperoni.

If that doesn't ring your bell buy a few pieces of fried chicken, a side of barbecue ribs and some potato salad and you will have satisfied most people.

If you decide to go it on your own try a chicken salad spiced up with a little curry or a homemade potato salad that can be quite special if you use sweet potatoes. If you want the best of both worlds make a po-boy with an assortment of cold cuts and top it with olive salad. Don't forget plenty of paper towels, ice for the cooler, drinks and trash bags to pack all of your trash out with you when it's time to go home.

SWEET POTATO SALAD

2 cups diced sweet potatoes (peeled)

4 slices smoky bacon

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1/3 cup diced celery

2-4 chopped green onions

1/2 cup mayonnaise (substitute a little olive oil if you like)

1 small sprig thyme, chopped

Choose locally sweet potatoes if you can find them. Wash them well in cold water, peel if you like and cut into a medium dice. Boil in salted water until fork tender, then drain and set aside. Fry the bacon until crispy, drain and then chop. Combine all of the ingredients, making sure not to mash the sweet potatoes and then refrigerate for an hour or so before serving.

An alternative to this recipe is to roast the diced potatoes after tossing in olive oil and thyme, leave out the mayonnaise and season with just a bit of freshly ground black pepper and toss in the other vegetables.

MISSISSIPPI MUFFALETTA

This is a Mississippi muffaletta because instead of using the classic Italian charcuterie the recipe calls for, traditional Southern favorites are substituted. The olive salad can be homemade, but most folks are satisfied with store bought. If you're lucky enough to make a trip to New Orleans pick up a jar of olive salad at Central Grocery in the French Quarter.

1 loaf French bread

6 thick slices bologna or mortadella

4 thick slices hogshead cheese

1 cup olive salad

1 large tomato sliced

Split the French bread horizontally, layer in the bologna and hogshead cheese, but do not add the olive salad and sliced tomato until ready to serve. Wrap bread and sliced meats tightly in plastic wrap and store in the ice chest. When the time is right open the sandwiches, add the sliced tomato and scoop on plenty of olive salad. Be sure to serve with a handful of paper towels.

This recipe can be made a bit more savory if you sauté the bologna in a little oil until it is well browned.

CURRY CHICKEN SALAD PISTOLETTES

6 freshly baked pistolettes

1 cup chopped chicken

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2-3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 cup grapes, halved

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup cashews

If you really want to make this from scratch roast a whole chicken that's been stuffed with herbs, de-bone it and chop into cubes. Otherwise you can buy cooked chicken at the deli or just simmer a few chicken thighs in a little chicken stock until done. Chicken breasts are not recommended as they tend to be too dry. In a large mixing bowl add the yogurt, curry powder and mayonnaise, mix well. Add the chicken, cilantro, celery, cashews and onions, mix again and then add the grapes. Refrigerate at least one hour before making the sandwiches. Carefully slice the pistolettes open, add plenty of the chicken salad and serve at once. If you want to serve this just as a salad, store in individual plastic containers and make sure to keep them in the ice chest until it is time to eat.

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