When the first official day of summer arrived Friday, picnic season began in earnest — or as earnest as anyone wants to be on a lighthearted summer day.
Whether the main course of the picnic is steak, hot dogs or veggie burgers, it’s not really a complete outdoor meal without a few cold side dishes to cool off the outdoor diners.
Potato salad and coleslaw are classic picnic foods, but there are many other vegetable or grain-based combinations that travel well to potlucks and picnics and also have the advantage of not being made with mayonnaise, one of the prime perpetrators of summer food illnesses. Rice, pasta and bean salads with a light dressing can add a refreshing side to the picnic table.
Orzo salad combines the look of rice and the
taste of pasta, perfect for dressing with an Italian twist of basil and tomatoes. Lentil salad packs twice the protein of a hot dog with far less fat.
These easily transported salads aren’t really new; tabbouleh, made with cracked wheat, parsley and lemon, has been a Mediterranean staple for centuries. Lentil salad is on the menu at Philadelphia’s City Tavern, a historic re-creation that serves only foods that were eaten in colonial America.
What is new is the increased awareness of food-borne illnesses that can be an unpleasant souvenir of a fun summer outing.
Following a few food safety guidelines is the best way to prevent bringing home a bug that can be far more harmful than the ants and mosquitoes picnickers often fight off.
The food safety experts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggest keeping food cold with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs.
For big gatherings, officials advise keeping drinks in one cooler and food in another so the frequent forays into the drinks cooler don’t warm up the food in the food cooler.
The goal is to keep the food at 40 degrees or below since bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 40 and 140 degrees.
Separating raw meat, poultry and fish from other picnic foods is also advised by FDA officials in order to prevent cross contamination.
For those without enough coolers to separate foods, an improvised cooler made by lining a cardboard box with a clean garbage bag and filling it with ice will keep drinks or salads cool for several hours, leaving the best cooler for more temperature-sensitive items such as meat.
If it’s absolutely necessary to carry raw meat in the same cooler as other foods, FDA officials suggest packing it at the bottom of the cooler to reduce the risk of it dripping on anything else.
At serving time, FDA officials recommend keeping food out of the sun if possible and sets one hour as the maximum time for prepared foods such as barbecued meat, vegetables and condiments to be out of the cooler.
Putting out a portion of the food and leaving the rest on ice until replenishing the spread on the table also helps to cut down on the time the food spends in the temperature danger zone.
Following the food safety guidelines helps to ensure that picnic guests will be talking later about how much they enjoyed the food, not about how they wish they skipped it.
Mally’s Rice Salad
- 1 package Chicken Rice-a-Roni or yellow rice mix
- 4 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1⁄2 green pepper, chopped
- 12 pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced
- 2 8-ounce jars marinated artichoke hearts, halved
- 3⁄4 teaspoons curry
Cook the rice according to the package directions and cool.
Add the onions, peppers and olives. Drain the artichoke hearts, reserving the marinade.
Stir the curry into the marinade.
Add the artichoke hearts to the rice mixture and toss with the marinade.
(Recipe from “The Hospice Care Team Cookbook,” 2013)
- 4 cups dried lentils
- 2 carrots, peeled and julienned
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 2 large garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 1⁄2 cup olive oil
- 1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 bunch fresh chives, chopped — about 6 tablespoons
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pre-soak the lentils by placing them in a colander and rinsing them thoroughly with water to clean.
Place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with water. Let stand at room temperature for at least 8 hours.
Drain and rinse the lentils. In a large saucepan, combine the lentils, carrots, onion, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper.
Add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the lentils are tender, but not overcooked. Check frequently for doneness during cooking.
Drain the lentil mixture in a colander and transfer to a large bowl. Remove the fresh thyme and bay leaf. Cover and refrigerate the lentil mixture for at least 1 hour, until chilled.
In a large bowl, combine the onion, oil, vinegar, chives, mustard, garlic, salt and pepper.
Add the lentil mixture to the dressing and mix gently. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
Let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving to allow flavors to develop.
(Recipe from “The City Tavern Cookbook: Recipes from the Birthplace of American Cuisine,” by Walter Staib)
Lemony Orzo Salad
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 1⁄3 cup zucchini, chopped
- 1⁄3 cup red onion, chopped
- 1⁄3 cup fresh parsley, minced
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced OR 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons fresh mint, minced
- 1⁄2 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup tomato, chopped
- 1⁄3 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 2 tablespoons kalamata olives, chopped
Cook the orzo pasta according to package directions, omitting the salt and butter; drain.
Combine the pasta, zucchini and onion in a bowl and toss to mix.
Whisk the parsley, lemon juice, basil, olive oil, mint, salt and pepper in a bowl until mixed.
Add the pasta mixture to the olive oil mixture and toss to coat. Stir in the tomato, cheese and olives.
Serve at room temperature or chilled.
(Recipe from “California Sol Food,” by the Junior League of San Diego)