By Susan M. Selasky
They say life’s a picnic.
Or, at least, it can be if you heed our advice and fill up that basket, toss in a favorite quilt or vintage throw and head for the outdoors.
Picnicking is a great way to relax, nosh on some terrific eats and enjoy a sun-filled afternoon lunch or early dinner. Picnics can be about the food, the venue, the company — or all three. The best picnics, of course, are the simplest.
With that notion in mind, here are some tips to help you plan the perfect picnic. And unless you’re planning a picnic for a crowd there is no need to spend days cooking. Keep it simple. For picnic accessories, check big box retailers and other stores that sell outdoor goods. Chances are, a lot of it is on sale or marked down for the season.
Pick the right basket or tote
Choose your food toting vessel wisely. Wicker picnic baskets that come with their own set of plates and utensils are fine — even nostalgic.
Wicker is lightweight, so it’s easy to carry. Some wicker baskets now have an insulated compartment for keeping foods at the right temperature. Newer fabric picnic baskets also are lightweight, come in several colors and have insulated pockets for cold packs.
But either way, make sure you have storage space.
“It’s really important to have enough picnic bags,” says Annie Bell, author of “The Picnic Cookbook” (Kyle Books, $19.95). “You need one for your drinks and one for your food.”
Find the right blanket or throw
“Vintage throws, called kanthas, or old fabrics can class up a picnic in one hot hurry,” says Mary Liz Curtin, co-owner of Leon and Lulu in Clawson.
What are kanthas? According to Curtin, they are “vintage sari fabric hand-stitched by Indian village women, are highly collectible and no two are alike.”
You can also use comfortable lightweight blankets, a quilt, a sheet and even towels or rugs, as Bell recommends.
“You can think in terms of a rug per person, and one is for the picnic itself,” says Bell, who also likes using lightweight blankets because they are easy to fold. Don’t worry about overdoing it, she says. “If you don’t need them all that’s fine, but at least you will have them to set the food on.”
Decide on the dishes and utensils
When it comes to dishware and glassware: Again, think lightweight, because you’ll have to lug them to your picnic spot. Good options are lightweight acrylic or colorful melamine dishes, bamboo or paper.
Bell recommends a sharp folding knife to cut a piece of cheese or salami. With plates, Bell suggests a happy medium such as lightweight bamboo plates. “I don’t recommend lugging heavy plates,” she says.
Pack the right foods
When deciding on a menu, stick to hand-held foods and ones that travel well. Leftover cooked chicken, turkey or beef make terrific sandwiches. Or buy pre-made sandwiches or the components to make them on site. Finger foods like sliced cheeses, smoked salmon, kalamata olives, sliced salami, fruit and raw vegetables are easy and can be easily shared. Antipasto salads are fine, but choose ones with a vinaigrette because they hold better than those with a creamy dressing. Pack the vinaigrette on the side and don’t forget the baguette.
Contain it all properly
There’s no shortage of plastic storage containers on store shelves. Some have sections for packing the dressing separate from salads so that the lettuce doesn’t get wilted. Others can separate condiments from the sandwich.
But in her book, Bell advises against using plastic storage containers as serving dishes, or “the most special picnic can end up looking like a Tupperware party.”
Try packing food and drinks in canning jars. They fit well in baskets and travel easily.
Keeping picnic food safe
Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is paramount when serving food outdoors. Here are some things to remember:
—Bacteria that can lead to food-borne illness can pose a threat when food is left out in temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than 2 hours (1 hour if it’s hotter than 90 degrees).
—Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees or cooler until you’re ready to serve. Keep them in a cooler packed with ice or ice packs. To serve, place foods on ice that’s set in a shallow container, or on ice packs. Replenish ice as needed. Serve the food within the time frame mentioned above.
—Hot food brought to a picnic needs to stay hot until ready to serve. That means keeping it at or above 140 degrees, according to www.fda.gov. Keep it well-wrapped and in an insulated container.
—Bring lots of utensils to prevent cross-contamination.
©2013 Detroit Free Press
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PICNIC