Anyone who knows me now would find that hard to believe. Actually, they would think I was lying because I don’t particularly enjoy being outside or anything associated with being outdoors – the heat, the bugs, the sun, the wind – not a fan. But when I was younger, I had a thing for picnics. And not just any old picnic. It had to be a fancy-ass picnic with tablecloth and napkins, real dishes, glasses, forks, knives, and all the rest. Yes, I was the Martha Stewart of picnics. So it wasn’t the picnic, it was the glamour and the idea of a picnic. Even in graduate school, I had beautiful picnic baskets completely loaded with matching linens, glassware, and plates. And the picnic menu, of course, was not a sandwich, chips, and a banana. Nope. We’re talking charcuterie, roast meats, fresh baguettes, and wine. This all started when I lived in Missouri. I’m not quite sure why but I was in the middle of the state and there are a lot of beautiful naturally occurring geological features in the state parks along with flowers, trees, and rolling terrain. One place I remember was called the Devil’s Icebox. It is a cave situated in Rockbridge State Park with a walking path so you could hike into the cave and then into the Icebox. Regardless of the season, the temperature steadily dropped the further you walked down until it was literally freezing. It could be 90 degrees at the top, but the bottom was always freezing. Interesting, right? But not really the point of the story. The point of the story is that I would take my dates to that park, and we would picnic with all the accoutrements of cheese, roasted meats, and table linens with wine glasses. If they survived that experience, then I would consider dating them again. It was also during this time that I further developed my fascination with really good food and how to prepare it. So, believe it or not, picnicking became part of my development as a chef. Who knew? I may have been a practicing clinical psychologist at that time, but my heart was already and definitely in the kitchen. Once I left Missouri, that was not the end of my picnic obsession. I was on a mission to find the best tools and equipment for creating a beautiful, well-rounded picnic, oh, and, perfect. I moved on from park settings to outdoor concerts and plays. So, we would arrive early, set up the banquet table, and then eat and drink throughout the entertainment while the rest of the world sat on blankets and drank warm beer. At the height of my picnic extravaganza, I found a portable picnic table complete with a matching umbrella, basket, and table linens. It, of course, had to include all the dishware, glassware, and cutlery needed for a table of four. Again, I would roll out a feast reminiscent of Déjeuner Dans Le Jardin set in the French countryside. I was in Heaven. The festivities fizzled out not long after I had my first daughter. The heady days of picnics and Martha Stewart crammed in a picnic basket on the lawn at the country club or the museum was long gone. Gone but not forgotten. Now, I love the idea of picnics and picnic food. All kinds of food are possible for picnics so don’t limit yourself to the boring stuff. If you’re making a sandwich, make it a great sandwich. Go beyond the Wonder bread. Don’t just grab that bag of chips. Get creative. You’ll surprise yourself. I’m definitely not suggesting Martha Stewart but have fun with the possibilities. Ask the question, will it picnic? If the answer is a resounding, YES! Then go for it. Nothing is off-limits! Here's a recipe to prove it. You will have to make it ahead of time but you’re not going to cook at the picnic (unless it’s a barbecue), you’re just going to eat, and drink! Dump the pasta and mayo salad and try out this versatile orzo (it is pasta after all) salad.
Mediterranean Orzo Salad
Serves 4 – 6
½ lb orzo, cooked according to package directions and drained
½ large cucumber, small dice
½ small red onion, small dice
½ cup Feta cheese, crumbled
1 cup grape tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
2 tsp dried oregano
¼ cup white balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Place cucumber, onion, and tomatoes in a large bowl. Sprinkle oregano, vinegar, and oil over the top and toss. Add orzo and toss. Crumble cheese over the top and toss gently. Check for seasoning. Add kosher salt and pepper as needed. Add additional vinegar and/or oil as needed. Serve cold or at room temperature.