Summer is an ideal time to round up your best friends, grab your gingham blanket and pack a picnic for the outdoors. Whether you dine al fresco at the beach (while being mindful of the pesky seagulls), in a park or even your backyard, a good picnic is as much about tasty food as it is about convenience.
But what to eat?
We all have those family members who are known for their deliciously inspiring, Instagram-worthy recipes. In my family, my Aunt Jan is always my go-to when I crave something different but can’t decide on a specific cuisine or dish to prepare. As an avid cookbook collector, Aunt Jan is full of tried-and-true recipes that put Ina Garten to shame and make Pinterest look like child’s play.
My favorite picnic recipes are quick to prepare, easy to transport and explode with flavor. By using fruits and vegetables that are in season or from local vendors, you can create a lip-smacking pique-nique that would bring Yogi Bear out of hibernation. Hey, hey, hey!
Aunt Jan’s Orzo Salad is one of the most robust cold salads I’ve ever prepared. Its Mediterranean-inspired flavor profile uses an abundance of fresh produce and has the perfect umami of herbaceous greens, tangy vinegars and salty olives. Swing by Funky Flamingo in Gulfport or Spiro’s Produce and Deli in South Pasadena for some of the best produce around! Also, Aurora’s Fresh Produce out of Immokalee sets up weekly at the Corey Avenue Sunday Market and they carry beautiful, ripe veggies that burst with flavor. While you’re there, visit local fresh herb grower John Majka (AKA “The Herb Guy”) for everything you could possibly need to finish this salad with absolute perfection.
When it comes to Asian flavors, I am a curry fiend! I love the pungent warmth that curry powder offers to a dish and my Curry Chicken Salad can easily be made vegan with a plant-friendly protein (I suggest extra firm tofu or tempeh) and readily available vegan mayo.
Summer rolls aren’t just for Asian restaurants! They make a super satisfying side dish that bursts with raw crunch and gusto. Rice paper wrappers are available at any Asian market (one of my personal favorites is MD Oriental Market in Pinellas Park) or local grocery store in the ethnic food aisle. While the process of rolling these vegan delights can seem ambitious, it’s totally worth the end result. Like any of my picnic recipes, ingredients can be omitted, swapped or substituted to include your favorite combo of fresh veggies and herbs.
Now, where to go?
From Gulfport to downtown St. Pete, great parks abound in Pinellas! For a summer feast to remember, head out to Fort De Soto or Honeymoon Island to dine seaside en plein aire or try Azalea Park and Boyd Hill Nature Preserve for a grassy patch of shade.
No matter where you enjoy your outdoor escape, it’s all about good food and great company to share it with!
Aunt Jan’s Orzo Salad
1 cup orzo, cooked
½ oz sun dried tomatoes, chopped
¼ cup red onion, minced
½ cup each red, green and yellow bell peppers
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp chopped green olives
2 Tbsp chopped kalamata olives
¼ tsp ground black pepper
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 ½ Tbsp olive oil
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
Not a fan of parsley? Substitute fresh basil chiffonade for an Italian flair. You can also swap the orzo for a short, gluten-free pasta for max flavor.
Cook orzo according to the package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. In a large bowl combine all ingredients except vinegar, oil and cheese. Mix red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar and olive oil to form emulsified dressing. Pour over the orzo mixture and gently mix to combine. Fold in the feta cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly.
Easy Curry Chicken Salad
3 chicken breasts
1 ½ cup mayo (Pro tip: Use a good mayonnaise like Duke’s or Hellman’s)
3 Tbsp curry powder
2 stalks celery, large dice
¼ cup chopped scallions (white and green parts)
Salt/pepper to taste
Optional garnish: 1 cup whole salted cashews
Sauté chicken breasts in a skillet until lightly browned. Dice into chunks and set aside. In a large bowl, combine chicken and rest of ingredients, except the cashews. Adjust seasonings as desired. Refrigerate one hour for flavors to blend. Garnish with cashews before serving.
Fresh Vegan Summer Rolls
6 round rice paper wrappers (9-inch diameter)
12 fresh mint leaves
2 colored bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 whole zucchini, thinly sliced
1 cup shredded carrot
Optional additions: Tofu, rice noodles, purple cabbage
In a shallow dish, soak rice paper wrappers individually for 10-15 seconds until softened. Remove from water and place on a flat work surface. Lay three mint leaves in the middle of the rice paper. Assemble the rest of ingredients on top of the mint leaves in the middle of the rice paper and roll like a burrito, ensuring the ends are tucked in. Continue the process for remaining rice paper wrappers and filling. Serve with soy sauce, peanut sauce or sweet chili dipping sauce.
Morgan Banno is a culinary student at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Former head chef at Gulfport restaurant Stella’s, she’s owner of the meal-prep service, Nun on the Run. Morgan holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of South Florida. As a ballerina-turned-chef, Morgan’s studies have brought her across the globe in pursuit of all things adventure and food.