Food & Drink

Go Fourth with a picnic: Some star-spangled ways to celebrate the holiday

A picnic basket is filled with fried chicken, herbed potato salad, lemonade and chocolate sheet cake.
A picnic basket is filled with fried chicken, herbed potato salad, lemonade and chocolate sheet cake. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Capture the true spirit of America on her 240th birthday with a festive picnic spread that is open to reinterpretations.

For a star-spangled picnic that will draw plenty of oohs and aahs, you could go the quintessential route and build a classic American basket with Southern-style fried chicken, potato salad that has vinegar instead of mayonnaise, Texas sheet cake with a chocolate ganache topping and fresh homemade lemonade.

Or fix a basket with chipped chopped ham sandwiches and homemade bread-and-butter pickles, baked beans, strawberry salad with pretzels and cold beer.

For picnickers with cross-cultural palates, treat them to a melting pot basket that has chicken kebabs on pita bread drizzled with a garlicky yogurt sauce, pesto orzo salad studded with sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cubes, light and refreshing horchata, and almond-loaded biscotti.

Rania Harris of Rania’s Catering in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, said when packing for a picnic, place ice packs at the bottom and hard plastic food containers over them. Soft items such as fruits should be on top.

Harris said the rule of thumb when deciding how much to pack depends on the menu. Generally an adult eats 4 ounces of salads (pack at least three salads for a good variety), two pieces of fried chicken and one hamburger or hot dog.

Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is a no-brainer but something worth repeating, so invest in big coolers or insulated backpacks.

Foods can be kept warm by insulating them in several layers of newspaper or towels and packing them closely as warm food will keep other warm food, well, warm.

To keep beverages cold, take a cooler that can be opened and closed with ease and retain the coldness for a while. Place the cooler in the shade so that the temperature will be preserved longer. Event planner Theresa Kaufman suggests placing frozen water bottles in the cooler. This way food items can be kept cold, and as the water thaws, ice-cold beverages would be available. Also, you would not have to fill the cooler with cold packs.

Portability is key when planning a picnic menu, so think of items that can be carried easily. Also, pack foods that are outdoor friendly and that can be conveniently picked up and popped into the mouth.

And, finally, don’t forget to pack a picnic attitude — blend patriotic and generous spirits, layer it with a sense of adventure and top it with a large dollop of good cheer.

Chicken Kebabs On Pita

FOR CHICKEN:

3/4 cup plain yogurt

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 jalapeno, finely chopped

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon coriander powder

Salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into cubes

5 small pita rounds

FOR YOGURT SAUCE:

1 1/2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt

1 medium garlic, finely minced

1 tablespoon mint, finely cut

Salt and pepper to taste

FOR SALAD:

1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut lengthwise in half

1 1/2 cups Romaine lettuce, shredded

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Make chicken: In a bowl, stir together yogurt, garlic, jalapeno, cumin and coriander powders, salt and pepper. Add chicken thighs and let marinate overnight or at least for 3 to 4 hours. Transfer to baking dish. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake chicken for 25-30 minutes, turning pieces once or twice.

Make yogurt sauce: In a bowl, mix all ingredients. Keep refrigerated until it is drizzled on the chicken kebabs.

Make salad: In a medium bowl, toss all ingredients together. Set aside.

To assemble chicken on pita, layer bread with salad and top it with the chicken kebab. Finally, drizzle the yogurt sauce on top and serve.

Serves five.

Horchata

1 cup white long-grain rice

5 cups water, divided

1/2 cup milk

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Wash the rice and place in a bowl. Add enough water to cover the rice and let it sit overnight.

Rinse the rice a couple of times.

Blend half the rice and 1 cup of water until rice is a smooth paste. Add 1 cup of water, milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon; blend well.

Transfer to pitcher and add remaining water. Chill and stir before serving over ice.

Serves eight.

Pesto Orzo with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

2 cups basil leaves, firmly packed

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup walnuts, chopped

6 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 packet orzo (16 ounces)

1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, diced in small cubes

Blend basil with half the olive oil, walnuts, garlic and red pepper flakes. Then add remaining oil slowly to form a smooth paste.

In a large pot, cook orzo according to directions.

Gently mix pesto with orzo. Add sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cubes.

Serves six.

Almond Biscotti

1 1/4 cups whole almonds, lightly toasted

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, plus 1 large white beaten with pinch of salt

1 1/4 cups sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Vegetable oil spray

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Draw 2 8-by-3-inch rectangles, 4 inches apart on parchment paper. Grease baking sheet and place parchment on it, ink side down.

Pulse 1 cup almonds in food processor until coarsely chopped. Set aside. Process remaining 1 / 4 cup almonds until finely ground. Add flour, baking powder and salt; process to combine. Transfer to bowl.

Process 2 eggs until volume doubles. Add sugar, butter, almond extract, vanilla extract and process until combined. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle half of flour mixture over it and gently fold. Add remaining flour mixture and almonds.

Divide batter in half. Using floured hands, form each half into 8-by-3-inch rectangles. With spatula coated with oil spray, smooth tops and sides. Gently brush tops of loaves with egg white wash.

Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool loaves on baking sheet for 30 minutes.

Slice each loaf into 1/2-inch thick slices. Lay slices, cut side down, about 1/4-inch apart on wire rack. Bake until crisp and golden brown on both sides, about 35 minutes, flipping slices halfway through baking.

Let cool completely before serving.

Makes 30 cookies.

Real Southern Buttermilk-Fried Chicken

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided

1 chicken (about 3 pounds), cut into pieces (I used 8 thighs and legs)

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 cups cake flour

Lard, for frying (I used Crisco shortening)

Make marinade: In medium bowl, whisk together buttermilk, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Place chicken pieces in large zip-top bag and pour in marinade. Seal bag and refrigerate for 12 hours.

Shake together flour and remaining 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in large paper grocery bag.

In large heavy skillet, heat lard over medium heat to 350 degrees. It should be 1 1/2 inches deep when melted. Prepare 2 rimmed baking sheets with wire rack over each pan (1 for floured chicken and 1 for fried chicken).

Remove chicken pieces from marinade and drop them in bag with flour. Gather open end of bag to close and shake vigorously to coat all the pieces with flour. Transfer chicken from bag to prepared baking sheet. Discard marinade.

Carefully place half of the chicken in hot lard. Fry, turning often, for 14 to 15 minutes, or until brown and juices run clear. Maintain frying temperature of 325 to 340 degrees. Drain chicken on clean wire rack. Repeat with remaining pieces.

Serves four.

Potato Salad

8 medium red bliss or new potatoes, scrubbed and halved or quartered

Kosher salt

1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh dill

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds, toasted over low heat

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put potatoes in pot and cover with water. Add salt, bring to boil and simmer over medium heat until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain potatoes. When cool enough to handle, cut into bite-sized pieces.

Place potatoes in bowl and add dill. Dress salad with olive oil and vinegars to taste. Add mustard seeds and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently, checking the seasoning and adjusting as necessary. Serve at room temperature

Serves four.

Texas Sheet Cake

FOR CAKE:

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder

1 cup water

2 cups self-rising flour

2 cups sugar

2 large eggs, at room temperature, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

FOR GANACHE ICING:

1 cup (8 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake pan and set aside.

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat, stir in cocoa powder. Add 1 cup water, then increase heat to high and bring mixture to boil. Remove pan from heat and whisk in flour and sugar, mixing well. Stir in eggs, vanilla and yogurt.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until golden on top. Remove cake from oven and allow it to cool in pan, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make ganache, place chocolate chips in large heat proof bowl. In medium saucepan set over medium-high heat, bring cream and corn syrup just barely to a boil. Stir to combine. Pour cream mixture over chocolate and allow to stand for 5 minutes, then whisk until smooth. Pour ganache over cooled cake and using an offset spatula, cover cake completely.

Serves 12.

Front Porch Sippin’ Lemonade

2 pounds lemons, washed

2 cups boiling water

1 1/2 cups sugar

Cold water

Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest from lemons. Add zest to boiling water. Cover and let steep 30 minutes.

Remove and discard lemon zest. Add sugar to warm lemon water, and stir to dissolve. Let lemon syrup cool to room temperature. Transfer syrup to a 2-quart pitcher.

Cut lemons in half, and squeeze out juice. (You should get 1 1 / 2 cups juice.) Stir lemon juice into lemon syrup.

Add enough cold water to equal 8 cups lemonade. Stir well. Refrigerate until serving time. Serve in tall glasses with lots of ice.

Makes 2 quarts.

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