Picnic Practicality Strategies
What to Pack, What to Eat, and Where to Park for an Idyllic Lowcountry Picnic Experience
By Holly Herrick – Charleston Hospitality Group Editor
Late spring and early summer in Charleston afford comfortable temperatures for outside dining, and the landscapes’ heaven-sent and generous brush of beauty across the area with gorgeous views of everything from swaying marsh grasses and open water to shaded parks or secluded gardens.
While spontaneous picnics for two or three are easily put together with a quick run to a great wine and cheese shop and a whimsical trip to the nearest park. More specialized, romantic and substantive picnics demand a little more advance planning. Here are some tips from our well-seasoned picnic team:
Picking the Best Location and Time of Day
When I was a child, every time I saw my mother pack up our huge, vintage woven straw picnic basket, I knew we were going to Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts. This was a favorite summertime destination for my family. As fun as it was, it was a long drive and I’ll never forget the warm, soggy, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that quickly filled with gritty sand with each gust of wind on the beach. So, for this reason alone, I suggest staying away from on-sand beach picnic spreads, unless you can find a picnic table at one of the beaches, such as Folly Beach under and on the pier.
Some wonderful downtown parks for a picnic include small, intimate Washington Square at Broad and Meeting Streets, White Point Garden at The Battery at the lowest tip of the peninsula where “the Ashley meets the Cooper,” and historic Hampton Park located near The Citadel at 80 Mary Murray Boulevard. The 60-acre park is the largest in town, and arguably one of the most beautiful. Dripping with Spanish moss covered live oaks, beautifully tended garden beds, a duck pond and miles of walking trails, the winding road that encircles it follows the path of the historic Washington Race Track, built in 1792. Waterfront Park near One Vendue Range presents a vast view and breezes off The Cooper River and easy swinging benches to park and take it all in or spread a blanket on the well-groomed park lawn near the gorgeous pineapple fountain in the center of the park.
Mosquitoes, the bane of the Lowcountry, tend to flock at dusk and early evening. Avoid picnicking at these times and when the earth is damp. A sunny, slightly breezy day, will help keep the bugs at bay, and so will bug spray, if you are inclined to use it.
The two primary concerns when packing for a picnic are food safety and freshness/variety. You want to avoid using sauces or ingredients (such as mayonnaise) that can cause food poisoning when not refrigerated. Stay away from foods that are best-served hot and focus on foods that will be delicious and safe to eat at room temperature or slightly warm. Variety and the tastes of your guests is important, too. To make a slightly elegant, satisfying basket, pick from some of these suggestions:
One or two types of cheeses, especially those that are best slightly warm and melty, such as camembert, Fontina, or goat cheese.
A nice baguette of bread. No need to slice. Just tear and spread on the cheese.
Grapes, berries, peaches, and other summer fruits. Cube sweet cantaloupe or honeydew and skewer with ham or prosciutto and fresh basil for an easy bite of deliciousness.
Easy summer or tea sandwiches with butter, smoked salmon and cucumber or roasted asparagus and Dijon mustard.
Easy transportable desserts such as delicious chocolate chip cookies or shortbread.
Chilled beverages for everyone. Fresh lemonade, wine, fruity sangria.
Crunchy, fresh mayonnaise-free salad. I love this red cabbage slaw from my cookbook, Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith). It can be made ahead, is healthy, delicious at room temp as well as cold, and everybody loves it:
Red Cabbage Slaw with Bacon, Scallions, Toasted Pecans, and Roquefort
1 medium head red cabbage, cored, quartered, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 scallions, cleaned and finely diced
1/3 cup Roquefort cheese, crumbled (or substitute fresh goat cheese)
7 slices bacon
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Trim the rough outer leaves off of the cabbage and discard. Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise and then cut out the core and discard. Cut the halves in half again, lengthwise. Slice each quarter into very thin, consistent 1/8-inch-thick-slices. Toss to coat in a large bowl with vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. Cover tightly with a damp kitchen towel and marinate at least 3 hours but no more than 5 hours at room temperature (or refrigerate to marinate overnight).
Rinse the scallions and trim off the root; dice finely and set aside. Crumble the Roquefort into chunky pieces and set aside. Cut the bacon into a 1/4-inch dice and cook over medium-high heat until crispy and golden brown. Remove and place on paper towels to drain; set aside.
Discard all but 1/2 teaspoon of the reserved bacon fat. Heat in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the pecans and cook until golden, tossing to prevent burning, about 3 minutes. Add the sugar, as well as salt and pepper to taste; set aside to drain on paper towels.
Just before leaving for the picnic, put the chilled, marinated cabbage in a large, plastic bowl with a lid. Top with the scallions, cheese, nuts and bacon. Toss vigorously just before serving.
If you’re looking for something completely cooked, packed and packaged ahead, Queology makes a beautiful picnic pack including rolls, barbecue pork or chicken, choice of two sides for $29.99 (enough to feed four) and 25-piece and 50-piece wing platters. All you have to do is pick it up at 32 N. Market Street, 843.580.2244
Although wonderfully nostalgic, a wicker picnic basket it not obligatory. A sturdy carrying basket or bag (ideally with built-in temperature regulation) will do. Here are a few more items to add to your list:
Plastic or paper plates
Cutlery as needed: knives, forks, spoons
Picnic blanket/folding chairs
Happy International Picnic Day!