Experiment with picnic salads this summer

Potato salad made with vinaigrette dressing is a much safer picnic choice than typical mayo-based dressing. BY JACK CLEMONS
June 30, 2014

Last week we marked the official arrival of summer June 21. This was when the sun reached its farthest point from the equator, its northernmost position in the sky, and gave us the longest span of daylight of the year. Since then we’ve begun enjoying the typical outdoor recreational activities at the heart of summer vacations: boating, bike riding, trail hiking and swimming in the hazy heat.

As you load your cooler or backpack with food to fuel your excursions, it’s a good time to think about food safety. High temperatures and raw food (especially meat and poultry) are an ideal combination to cultivate unwelcome bacteria. The safest foods to carry along for an outdoor picnic are precooked, chilled and without egg-based ingredients.

For example, a long-standing picnic staple is potato salad. Most recipes call for mayonnaise, and some include chopped, hard-boiled eggs. Without sufficient refrigeration, you’d be asking for trouble trying to serve this dish. A better alternative is a potato salad made with vinaigrette dressing, like the one in the photo.

Waxy potatoes are simmered until tender, peeled and chopped into a bowl. Then, an emulsion of olive oil, vinegar, grainy mustard and herbs is poured over the potatoes, drenching them with bright flavor and color.

This can be eaten while the potatoes are still warm, at room temperature or chilled. Another popular version of oil-dressed potato salad calls for bacon and drippings in the mix. I find this should only be served warm, or the bacon becomes too hard and the entire dish feels too oily.

If you’d like to bring cole slaw to your picnic, consider a lemony dill vinaigrette dressing instead of the standard sweetened mayo or sour cream versions. A pretty combination of white cabbage, red cabbage and carrots adds color as well as flavor to the snappy slaw.

Precooked pasta, grains or beans are also good beginnings for a picnic salad. Anything from penne to rice to quinoa and every type of bean can add texture, flavor and color interest to a picnic salad. Avoid recipes that include cheese or simply omit it when assembling the dish. Make up for the missing texture with chopped zucchini or cucumber. For dessert, combine pasta with chopped fruit in a poppy seed vinaigrette for a sweet surprise.

If you’re packing a cooler with drinks, keep a few things in mind. First, a full container will maintain the chill longer than one that is only partially filled; load up on ice and cold packs. Second, store the food in a separate cooler from the drinks; you’ll be in and out grabbing bottles or cans fairly often, raising the temperature inside each time. Of course, you’ll want to keep your coolers out of direct sun; most coolers have white lids to reflect rather than absorb sunlight and heat.

I’ve included a few recipes for you to try on your next outing: potato salad, soba noodle salad, non-mayo cole slaw and a fruity pasta mix. Of course, there are endless variations to what you can toss together for a perfect picnic dish. But, no matter what you plan to eat, be sure to drink plenty of water.

Potato Salad

1 lb yukon gold potatoes
1 t salt
3 T rice wine vinegar
1 T whole-grain mustard
1 minced shallot
1 T minced parsley
1 T capers
1 T snipped chives
3 T olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste

Scrub the potatoes and place them in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Add 1 t salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until tender, but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain potatoes in a colander and peel when cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, whisk together vinegar, mustard, shallot, parsely, capers, chives and olive oil; set aside. Chop the potatoes into bite-sized pieces and place in a serving dish. Pour the dressing over the warm potatoes and toss gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled. Yield: 4 servings.

Soba Noodle Salad

4 oz soba noodles
1/2 cabbage
10 Brussels sprouts
3 carrots
5 green onions
1/2 C peanut butter
3 T rice wine vinegar
3 T toasted sesame oil
1 T lime juice
3 T soy sauce
1 T honey
1 T finely grated ginger
1 pressed garlic clove
chopped peanuts (optional)

Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and place in a serving bowl. Discard the tough outer leaves and core the cabbage; cut into slender shreds and add to bowl of noodles. Halve and thinly slice the Brussels sprouts; add to the bowl. Peel and trim the carrots; grate into the bowl. Trim the green onions and slice into the bowl.

Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over noodle mixture. Toss to combine and serve garnished with chopped peanuts (if desired).

Cole Slaw

1/2 small red cabbage
1/2 small green cabbage
2 carrots
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 C olive oil
1 T honey
1 t dill weed

Remove the tough outer leaves and core both cabbages. Slice into thin shreds and place in a serving bowl. Grate carrot into the bowl. Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over vegetable mixture. Toss to combine; adjust seasonings. Yield: 4 to 6 servings. Note - this will become more sharply flavored if stored overnight in the refrigerator.

Pasta Fruit Salad

1/2 lb corkscrew pasta
3 T apple cider vinegar
2 T olive oil
1 minced shallot
1/4 C honey
1 t Dijon mustard
1 t black poppy seeds
1 1/2 C chopped fruit*

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and place in a serving bowl. Whisk together remaining ingredients (except fruit) and pour over pasta, tossing to coat. Add fruit, tossing until well blended. Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled.

Yield: 6 servings. *A combination of melon, berries, peaches and grapes.

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