The leaves haven't turned, and it feels like summer still. There's a whiff now and then of some cool relief, and when that happens, dive into your closet and uncover your picnic blanket. You know, the one you might've used for the beach. Or lake. Or park. We can still go to those places, you know. Some of us can lounge outside on blankets all year long (We're looking at you, Southern California and Florida).
And while we're all lolling about on the grass reveling in nature, it would be nice if someone fed us grapes like those privileged Greeks back in the day, no? Well, a lot of things would be nice. Here's something you can make nice yourself: a lovely, well-thought-out picnic feast.
The formula for an idyllic early fall picnic starts with the first factor, the people. Then food and supplies. It's OK to pack light on this occasion, especially while it's still hot outside. Just bring enough little nibbly components that people can graze on all afternoon — and dessert. Oh, don't forget the cups. Or a cutting knife. Someone's always forgetting one essential thing. We have a checklist at the end of this article to prevent that mishap.
And the ideal location? Well, you're on your own for that. But we're here to help with all those other parts that can lead to picnicking perfection. Your shopping, cooking, and packing strategy depends on how many people will be eating outdoors with you.
For 2 people:
Bring half of each recipe you make. You don't want to run out, but you don't want too much left over either. So if you make a cold pasta salad, bring half of that if you don't have a lot of other substantial food. If you do, just bring two or three servings. Two sandwiches, tops. If you're going the cheese and charcuterie route, buy one cheese and one cured meat, and bring half of each. One bottle of wine, a six-pack of good craft beer, or a couple thermoses of homemade Arnold Palmers should do it. If you're just bringing wine or beer, be sure to bring water too.
As for smaller nibbles, don't cart in the whole heavy glass jar of pickles or olives. Just put a few in a re-sealable, leak-proof container. Fruit is a must. Those previously mentioned grapes taste delicious with cheese, and they're so portable. Figs are just the best ever. Do that. And apples are the obvious — if not too obvious — choice. But slice them ahead of time and dip the slices in water with a bit of lemon in it to keep the apples from browning.
For 6 to 8 people:
When the picnicking with a small crowd, you'll think in more technical terms. For cheese and charcuterie, buy two kinds of cheese, semi-hard or semi-soft, and two salumi of varying textures. Plan to have 2 ounces of each selection per person. So that would be 12 to 16 ounces of each meat and cheese you choose. If you're serving fruit and other sides, there's no need for more. Crackers are easier than bread, but if you crave a crusty, hearty loaf or stick of French bread (because you're human!), by all means bring that and feel free to rip off hunks instead of slicing.
Three bottles of wine and two beers per person should work. Have others bring more if they want this to be more party than picnic. That stuff is heavy. You'll need a jar's worth of pickles and olives. One bunch of grapes and four sliced peaches, if they're still in season. Bring one batch of each salad recipe. The more options you have, the less you need of each one. A dozen cookies, minimum. That's non-negotiable.
Check out these fine supplies you can pick up for your picnic:
Govino Wine Glasses (Buy it here)
Drink your wine (or whatever) in an elegant yet practical shatter-proof, food-safe, BPA-free polymer which reflects a wine's color and projects its aromatics much like crystal. Govino can be used and recycled. They're light and easy for picnics. These "glasses" were the winner of the bronze IDEA award in 2012 for international design excellence, and winner of the Good Design award in 2010 by the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design. $13. Buy it.
Uplands Cheese Company Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra Aged (Buy it here)
Nibble on the 2010 American Cheese Society Winner: Best in Show and a 2011 American Cheese Society Winner. A maturation process that lasts 12 to 18 months intensifies the flavors of this cheese, especially the sweetness. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is produced between spring and fall with the milk from pasture-fed cows. Made in Wisconsin, it is an Alpine-style cheese, similar to a Gruyere. It has a savory, round, nutty flavor that picnickers will go for. One order is 6 ounces. $30. Buy it.
Iberico Jamon (Buy it here)
Floral, nutty, sweet, and earthy: The finest ham on the globe doesn't come cheap or easily. The Pata Negra pigs of Spain forage solely on acorns that fall from oak and cork trees, which results in the most flavorful pork marbled with fat so tender it melts in your mouth. See what the fuss is about with two ounces of Fermin's best Iberico Jamon at your picnic for two. $20. Buy it.
Rosemary Crackers (Buy it here)
These crisp crackers flavored with rosemary go beautifully with soft and semi-soft cheeses, spreads, and salumi. They're perfect for a picnic. $7.50. Buy it.
Hickory Smoked Almonds (Buy it here)
Raw almonds are nice and all, but smoked almonds taste even better. Hickory smoked? Now we're really talking. Plus, they're super convenient and portable. $7.25. Buy it.
Nocellara Mini Olives (Buy it here)
Crunchy and almost sweet, these Nocellara Italian olives are great for munching on the go with this single serving that includes a little fork. Their lightly briny taste and firm texture are a delightful accompaniment to any picnic spread, especially a cheese and charcuterie one. $5. Buy it.
Dean & Deluca Signature Cutting and Serving Board (Buy it here)
This 20-inch paddle-shaped cutting board was designed to be the ideal vehicle for both cutting and serving cheeses and meats on your picnic blanket. It's crafted from solid, kiln-dried maple from the northeastern United States and treated with a food-safe stain. It's $48. Buy it.
Meyer Lemon Shortbread (Buy it here)
Don't forget the cookies on your picnic! Sweet and tangy Meyer lemons make this buttery shortbread a wonderful early fall treat. $6.75. Buy it.
You'll also want to make a couple dishes that hold up well in transport and still-warm weather:
Cold Pasta Salad with Baby Artichokes
Teardrop or cherry tomatoes, garlic, A cold pasta salad makes a simple side to serve at barbecues or picnics, and this one has a punch of extra flavor from salty ricotta salata cheese. Preparing the artichokes takes a few extra minutes, but you can substitute frozen artichoke hearts to save time or if you can’t find baby artichokes. Once you boil the pasta, just toss everything together and as the salad sits, the flavors will meld. Get our Cold Pasta Salad with Baby Artichokes recipe.
Chinese-y Chicken Salad
If you want something like chicken or tuna salad, but you don't want mayonnaise sitting outside for hours (you don't), then go for this chicken salad. The dressing has vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, chile paste, ginger, honey, hoisin sauce, and scallions. And just what does this dressing dress? Well, there's shredded cold rotisserie chicken, slivered almonds, thinly sliced medium red bell pepper, English cucumber strips, red cabbage, green cabbage, and iceberg lettuce. Get our Chinese-y Chicken Salad recipe.
Store-bought frozen puff pastry is so convenient for easy, last-minute picnic snacks like this savory version of palmiers, a classic French pastry. Brush some tomato paste over the thawed pastry, layer on prosciutto and Gruyère cheese, and bake until golden and flaky. Get our Prosciutto Palmiers recipe.
Fresh Corn and Tomato Salad
Make this while the tomatoes and corn are still fresh and local. This simple salad of in-season tomatoes and sweet corn will breathe new life into your early fall picnic. You can make it up to eight hours ahead, though you may want to mix the basil in at the last minute so it doesn’t wilt or discolor. Get our Fresh Corn and Tomato Salad recipe.
Pickled Radish and Sweet Butter Tea Sandwiches
Anything pickled goes so well with something rich and meaty like picnic charcuterie. The contrast works. So try pickling radishes to give them a sweet and tangy bite for these elegant little sandwiches. Slather soft white bread with butter, and use watercress for a peppery crunch. The pickled radishes need to be made at least one day in advance, so plan on that. Get our Pickled Radish and Sweet Butter Tea Sandwiches recipe.
Shortbread Lemon Bars
If you're not buying lemon shortbread cookies, make the bar version yourself. The appeal of lemon bars is stems from the buttery shortbread crust and the intensely tart lemon-curd filling. It's irresistible. Get our Shortbread Lemon Bars recipe.
Picnic Packing Checklist:
- Food (no mayonnaise!)
- Ice packs for keeping food cool, or freeze water bottles, which you can drink as they defrost
- Resealable, leak-proof containers
- Corkscrew or bottle opener
- Eco-friendly plates
- Eco-friendly cups
- Reuseable utensils
- Serving utensils like a serving spoon or tongs
- Cutting knife with a cover or kitchen towel wrapped around the blade
- Mini cutting board
- Cloth napkins
- Moist towlettes/paper towels
- Trash bags
- Big blanket that's not precious to you
- Picnic basket, backpack, or bag
- Friends/lover (but only if pronounced "luuuvah"/family/dog
— Head Image: Gear Patrol.
Amy Sowder is a New York City-based food and fitness writer who's also on Chowhound's editorial staff. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Ice cream is a strong motivation for her running habit. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.