The appeal of an outdoor picnic in the summertime largely comes from the combination of (a small group of socially-distanced) good friends, balmy weather, a cooler of cold beverages, some great music on the Bluetooth speaker, and the ease of disposable plates, utensils, and tablescapes. However, a picnic menu can prove more stressful than one might expect, since you need to rely on dishes that travel well and can hold their own even in the absence of an on-site fridge or temperature-controlled storage.
Sure, you could easily stick with picnic classics like burgers, hot dogs, and sub sandwiches … but if you’d like to get a little more creative with your al fresco spread, then we’ve got 9 satisfying and seasonal recipe suggestions for you, each one developed by a professional chef.
Watermelon Feta Salad
(By Tracy Wilk, lead chef, Institute Of Culinary Education, New York City)
Adding a crumbly cheese like feta to watermelon and mint results in a brilliant salty-and-sweet flavor combination, and lead chef Tracy Wilk also weaves mint and lime throughout her salad, which offer bright, herbaceous, and tangy notes to the dish. “This dish is super crisp, summery and refreshing. Ideally, it should be served cold, but it can hold up to being outside for a bit if it’s not in direct sunlight,” Wilk explains.
- 1 medium seedless watermelon, rind removed, chopped into 1-inch pieces
- Juice and zest of 1 lime
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- .25 cup mint, chopped, plus additional for garnish
- .5 cup feta cheese, broken up into chunks
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Add watermelon, mint, lime, and olive oil to a large bowl and toss until well-combined. Season with salt & pepper.
- Transfer the salad to a serving platter and top with feta chunks. Garnish with additional mint before serving.
Maple Bacon PB&J
(By Henk Drakulich, DVP/executive chef, La Brea Bakery Café, Los Angeles, California)
“This PB&J is a savory and smoky twist on your favorite childhood classic and is guaranteed to add some fun to any picnic lunch. Whether you eat it right away or pack it in a cooler to enjoy a few hours later, this PB&J will offer a unique, flavorful spin on a classic summer sandwich,” executive chef Henk Drakulich says of this easy and nostalgia-packed sandwich variation, which prominently features both maple syrup and maple-glazed bacon.
- 4 slices maple-glazed bacon
- 4 oz peanut butter
- 3 oz jelly (flavor of choice)
- Maple syrup, to taste
- 4 slices artisanal sandwich bread (Drakulich recommends La Brea Baker Gluten Free Multigrain Artisan Sliced Sandwich Bread or Rustic Country White Sandwich Bread)
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the bacon on a large, oven-safe baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Brush the bacon with maple syrup and continue baking for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
- Place toasted (or not toasted) bread on a flat surface. Equally spread peanut butter and jelly on 2 slices of bread. Add maple-glazed bacon, top with remaining pieces of bread, and serve.
Bacon Cheddar Chive Scones
(By Bakery Lorraine, San Antonio, Texas)
Because bacon is always a good idea for a picnic, these scones make an appropriate addition to any Labor Day Weekend, or after Labor Day weekend, menu. They’re very easy to pack, they can be kept outside in the warm weather without compromising their texture or taste, and they’re characterized by both smoky bacon and melty cheese. Can’t really argue with those benefits.
- 320 g all-purpose flour
- 20 g sugar
- 9 g baking powder
- 2 g baking soda
- 150 g butter, chilled
- 100 g heavy cream, plus some extra for topping
- 100 g sour cream
- 3 g salt
- 8 g chives, chopped
- 90 g Cheddar cheese, shredded, plus extra for sprinkling
- 140 g bacon, cooked and chopped
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
- Cut the chilled butter into 1-cm cubes.
- Using a paddle attachment on your stand mixer, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the cubes of butter and mix on low speed until it forms a shaggy mass (you should see chunks of butter throughout).
- Add heavy cream and sour cream and mix until the batter comes together.
- Add the chives, cheese, and bacon and mix. To keep your scones light and flaky, work the dough minimally and let the paddle go until everything is just incorporated.
- Scoop into 3 oz portions onto a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. Keep the scones 2 inches apart. Brush each scone with cream and sprinkle with shredded cheddar cheese.
- Bake for approximately 24 mins, rotating your tray halfway through baking.
Chicken Club Egg Rolls
(By Mike and Amy Lee, owners, Break Point, San Diego, California)
If you’re looking to whip up some picnic bites that are just as simple to serve as they are to transport, then packaged egg roll wrappers are about to become your best friends. These edible parcels can hold any number of different fillings, and a quick dip in frying oil will turn them into crunchy and satisfying handheld treats. With this recipe, restaurateurs Mike and Amy Lee give a picnic MVP — the chicken club sandwich — the egg roll treatment, to delicious effect.
- 1 package of egg roll wrappers
- 1.5 cups seasoned cooked chicken, diced (the Lees suggest a rotisserie chicken for this purpose)
- .75 cup cooked bacon, chopped
- .75 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 egg, scrambled with 1 tsp water
- 1-2 avocados, sliced
- Place a heaping spoonful of chicken in the center of the egg roll wrapper, on the diagonal.
- Place avocado slice on top of chicken.
- Add bacon and cheese, and ensure avocado is kept near the middle of the filling.
- Fold egg roll short side in and wrap longer side around like a burrito. Seal and brush with egg wash.
- Fry until golden brown and slice diagonally before serving.
Cacio e Pepe Pizza
(By Carlos Calderon, brand chef, North Italia)
Pizza doesn’t tend to come up often in discussions about picnic fare … which, now that we think about it, is a relatively surprising fact. After all, pizza stands up formidably to a lack of refrigeration, and it counts among the easiest-possible foods to consume sans silverware. Brand chef Carlos Calderon recommends making your own pizza for your next picnic, and he especially favors this red-sauce-free pie inspired by cacio e pepe. “The Cacio e Pepe Pizza is a great nontraditional Italian item to have for a picnic! It has all of the classic [elements] needed for a top-notch picnic [dish]: cheese & bread. This particular pizza travels really well, making it the perfect food to make at home and take to go. I definitely recommend cooking it a little longer in the oven to make it crispier than usual, but be careful not to overcook it because you will dry the dough out and have a hard cracker,” advises Calderon.
- 10 oz pizza dough (homemade or store bought)
- Flour, to coat
- Semolina, for dusting
- 1.5 tsp garlic oil
- A pinch of kosher salt
- 2 fl oz panna da cucina (savory Italian cooking cream, found at Italian markets and online)
- 3 oz mozzarella cheese
- 2 fl oz Pecorino crema
- 1 tsp black peppercorns, toasted and crushed
- 1 tbsp parsley chiffonade
- 1 tbsp Pecorino Romano, grated
- Preheat your oven to 550 degrees F for at least 30 minutes.
- Roll the pizza dough in flour and gently pull dough to form a 12-inch round.
- Dust the pizza peel with a very thin layer of semolina before building the pizza.
- Brush the crust with 1 tsp garlic oil and season with salt.
- Evenly spread the panna on the dough, leaving the crust perimeter area bare.
- Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese evenly over the panna.
- Bake, rotating once, for 7-10 minutes, or until the crust is golden-brown.
- After pizza is fully cooked, drizzle Pecorino crema evenly over the pizza and evenly brush the crust with remaining .5 tsp garlic oil.
- Garnish the pizza with black peppercorns and parsley chiffonade and top with Pecorino Romano.
Crab Stick Kimbap
(By Judy Joo, chef and cookbook author, Judy Joo’s Korean Soul Food)
“Kimbap is Korea’s official picnic food. It is a classic Korean rice roll, akin to sushi, but everything is cooked inside,” says chef and cookbook author Judy Joo of her favorite picnic dish. “[Kimbap] is the classic quintessential Korean picnic snack, and [it’s] so easy to make. My mom used to pack it for my school lunch as well, as it is easy to eat and provides you with a complete, balanced meal too! You can stuff these seaweed-wrapped rice rolls with anything! The traditional ingredients are seasoned spinach, perilla leaves, carrots, pickled radish, any protein you like (or make it vegan), cheese, egg, cucumber, lettuce … [but] practically anything goes! I love kimbap made with either crab (usually those imitation crab meat sticks) or bulgogi beef, or the veggie ones with delicate Korean mountain vegetables. The rice is also usually just seasoned with sesame oil (not vinegar like sushi rice) and a little salt. When cut, the rolls display a kaleidoscope of colors from all of the different stuffings.”
For the rice and roll:
- 2 cups uncooked, short-grain Korean or Japanese rice
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil, plus extra to brush on top of the roll when finishing
- 1 tsp roasted sesame seeds
- .5 tsp kosher salt
- 5 sheets kimbap seaweed sheets (nori)
For the dressing:
- 2 tbsp mirin
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp sugar
- Kosher salt, to taste
For the vegetables:
- 10 oz baby spinach
- 2 carrots, julienned
- 1 small Kirby cucumber, julienned
- 6 oz sweet yellow pickled radish (danmuji), julienned (or packaged in precut strips)
For the crab sticks and egg:
- 5 long sticks of imitation crab meat
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten with a splash of water and a generous pinch of kosher salt
- Cook the rice according to the package instructions. While the rice is still warm, mix in the sesame oil, sesame seeds, and salt. Set aside.
- To make the dressing, whisk all ingredients together in a medium bowl and add salt to taste. Set aside.
- To prep the vegetables, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and prepare an ice water bath. Blanch the spinach in the boiling water until just wilted, then “shock” in the ice bath. Drain well and squeeze out any excess water.
- In a medium bowl, toss together the spinach and half of the dressing.
- Prep the carrots by heating a non-stick skillet over medium-low heat and drizzling the skillet with oil. Lightly sauté the carrots until just softened (do not brown them). Remove from heat and toss the carrots in the remaining dressing.
- To cook the egg, drizzle a non-stick skillet with oil and put over low heat. Tip the beaten eggs into the pan and, when the bottom is set, flip over. Do not brown the eggs. Once the eggs are cooked, transfer to a cutting board and cut into long strips about .5 inch thick.
- Cut the crab sticks to the same length as the nori sheets. Arrange the vegetables, egg strips, and crab sticks on a plate and fill a small bowl with water.
- To roll the kimbap, place a nori sheet (shiny side down and longer side across) on a bamboo roller and use the water to dampen your fingertips. Scoop about ¾ cup rice onto the seaweed and use your fingers to spread it evenly across the sheet.
- Lay the vegetables, egg, and crab stick across the rice in long strips (roughly ¼-inch thick per ingredient) on the side of the seaweed closest to you. Using both hands, lift the bottom edge of the roll with the bamboo mat and roll away from you, tightly tucking the ingredients as you go. Use the bamboo mat to apply firm and even pressure, and keep rolling upwards until you reach the end.
- Repeat Steps 8 and 9 until you have 5 rolls in total. Brush sesame oil on top of the rolls and, using a long, sharp knife that’s been oiled to prevent the rice from sticking, cut the rolls into .5-inch pieces. Serve immediately or pack in an airtight container for a picnic.
Grilled South Texas Ranch Quail
(By Sylvia Casares, chef/owner, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, Houston, Texas)
“South Texas is quail country and is famous for the wild quail that run through the scrub brush. The birds are rich in flavor and considered perfect for family picnics and any kind of outdoor eating. It takes a little time to get them ready to grill, but it’s so worth it. They are the perfect size to load into a basket. Thank goodness for farm-raised quail as you don’t have to wait for someone to go hunting. Ask your butcher to butterfly and flatten them for grilling,” chef and cookbook author Sylvia Cesares tells us of her go-to picnic dish, which travels easily and makes for an appealingly gourmet departure from more expected grilled eats like burgers and hot dogs.
- 12 farm-raised quail, split down the breast and pressed to lay flat on the grill
- Sylvia’s Brine*
- Enchilada Queen Seasoning Blend**
- Vegetable oil
- Garlic butter***
- Rinse the quail. Place in plastic bags with zip seals or in a large, shallow, nonreactive pan. Pour the brine over the quail, seal or cover tightly, and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.
- Drain the brine from the quail and discard the brine. Pat the quail dry with a paper towel. Season the quail evenly on both sides with seasoning blend. Cover and allow to rest for about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, light a wood or hardwood charcoal fire at least 30 minutes before you are ready to cook. Coals are ready when covered with a light coating of gray ash. If working with a gas grill, preheat to medium-high. When ready to cook, rub the grill surface lightly with oil.
- Place the quail on the preheated grill and cook for about 5 minutes. Baste with garlic butter. Turn and cook for 5 more minutes, basting again.
- Remove the quail to a flat roasting pan. Baste once more with garlic butter. Cover tightly with foil and set aside off the heat for about 10 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Test the quail for doneness: The juices should run clear when the thigh is pierced with a fork. If not quite done, place the covered roasting pan in the oven for 10 minutes. Serve immediately or pack in an airtight container for a picnic.
- Add 16 smashed garlic cloves and 1.5 cups water to a blender. Process until smooth.
- Add 2 cups coarsely-chopped onions to the blender and process again until smooth. Transfer pureed onion and garlic to 1.5-quart container with a tight-fitting lid.
- Add the salt and remaining 4.5 cups water. Stir well to combine.
**Enchilada Queen Seasoning Blend:
- Add 4 tsp garlic powder, 4 tsp onion powder, 4 tsp freshly-ground black pepper, 2 tsps salt, and ⅛ tsp cayenne pepper to a small container or shaker and shake to combine.
- Store in an airtight container in a dark place or refrigerate for up to 6 months.
- Add 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, 3 minced garlic cloves, and ½ tsp salt to a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly (or to room temperature). Refrigerate any leftovers.
Plant-Based Kabob Pitas
(By Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, chef/owners, Kismet, Los Angeles)
Plant-based picnic entrees are simpler than ever to brainstorm and prepare, and chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson like to draw inspiration from popular Mediterranean street snacks like gyros and falafel when crafting their vegetarian kabob pitas. If you’re picnicking at home and have the ability to heat the veggie patties right before serving, then it’s worth the extra effort, but if you’re bringing these kabobs to a different location, then rest assured that they’ll still taste great at room temperature.
For The Kabob Pitas:
- 4 veggie patties (Kramer and Hymanson prefer Field Roast Plant-Based Fieldburger Patties)
- 2 tsp pomegranate molasses
- 4 fluffy pitas
- 5 oz arugula
- 1 small bunch cilantro, cut into 1” lengths (stems and all)
- Sliced dill pickles
For The Cumin-Chili Spice Blend:
- .25 cup coriander seeds
- 1.5 tbsp cumin seeds
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 5 whole dried red chiles (such as árbol) or 2 ¼ tsps red pepper flakes
- .25 tsp black peppercorns
- .75 tsp kosher salt (Kramer and Hymanson use Diamond Crystal)
For The Roasted Onions:
- 2 yellow onions
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 4 sprigs thyme (optional)
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
For The Tahini Vinaigrette:
- 1 cup tahini
- ⅓ cup white wine vinegar
- 1.5 tbsp honey or agave syrup
- 2 tbsps kosher salt
- 2 garlic cloves, grated on a rasp grater
- .75 cup water
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Cut onions into 8 wedges each, cutting through the root end so the wedges hold together. Lay the wedges on the prepared sheet pan and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for 5 minutes.
- Scatter the optional thyme around the onions and drizzle the oil over the onions. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Remove from the oven and cover with foil to allow the onions to steam while you prepare the rest of the recipe. Leave the oven on.
- For the tahini vinaigrette, whisk tahini, vinegar, honey or agave, salt, and garlic in a large bowl to combine. Whisk in the water until smooth and creamy (this step can also be done with an immersion blender).
- In a medium skillet over medium heat, toast the coriander, cumin, fennel, chiles or pepper flakes, and peppercorns until fragrant. Transfer to a bowl and let cool completely.
- With a spice grinder, grind the spices and salt into a medium-fine powder. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
- Remove and discard the skins from the onion wedges, leaving the wedges intact.
- Cut the veggie patties into 1-inch squares. Skewer half a patty’s worth of the squares onto each skewer, alternating with 2 onion wedges per skewer.
- Pour the leftover oil from roasting the onions into a small bowl and stir in the pomegranate molasses to create a glaze.
- Prepare a hot charcoal grill fire, preheat a gas grill on high heat for 10 minutes, or heat a grill pan over medium-high heat until hot. Grill the skewers 2 minutes per side or until browned.
- Once off the grill, brush the skewers with the pomegranate glaze and sprinkle with 1 tbsp of the cumin-chili spice blend.
- Warm the pitas in the oven for 3-5 minutes. Keep the warm pitas wrapped in a kitchen towel until ready to assemble sandwiches.
- Use a serrated knife to cut a slit in one side of each pita, leaving the other side intact. Layer the arugula, cilantro, tahini vinaigrette, skewers, and pickles into the pita. Pull the skewers out of the pita, leaving their contents inside. Add more sauce on top, if desired.
(By Krystle Smith, blogger/recipe developer, Baking Beauty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
This no-cook picnic contribution can function equally well as a side dish or as a dessert, and while it does contain some dairy (in the form of cream cheese), it’s durable enough to withstand late-summer temperatures (as long as it’s kept out of direct sunlight). “Juicy fruit and rich cheesecake filling come together in this fun side dish, [and] I love that it’s no-cook. It is also quick to make and is always the first thing gone at picnics!” Smith insists.
- 8 oz cream cheese, softened
- .5 cup white sugar
- 8 oz whipped topping, thawed (Smith uses Cool Whip)
- 3 cups strawberries, sliced
- 1 cup blueberries
- 1 cup raspberries
- In a large bowl, combine cream cheese and sugar (with a whisk or beater) until smooth. Fold in Cool Whip.
- Add strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries and stir until fully combined. Keep cool until serving.