With the heat of summer fading behind us, fall is a great time to pack up a picnic and enjoy the change of season. Whether you’re setting up at a local winery, state park or taking in the spectacular autumn colors on the Blue Ridge Parkway, having a meal packed along makes it much more of an event.
Eats & drinks
The key to planning a picnic is being prepared. Because you will be transporting your food, you will want to go with items that need little onsite prep, as well as foods that don’t get soggy, can be made in advance and served at room temperature. Sandwiches made on thick, crusty bread, like po-boys, muffuletta or bánh mì are tasty and transport well. Biscuit sandwiches are a Southern staple, and pair nicely with a number of fillings such as fried chicken, barbecue, ham and even pimento cheese. Or skip the sandwich idea altogether and offer a well-rounded cheese and charcuterie plate with nuts, dried and fresh fruit, pickles and/or olives, as well as a few meats and cheeses with crackers. Include a variety of styles and flavors to please all palates—Brie, Manchego, Gorgonzola, goat cheese, prosciutto, soppressata, mortadella and pâté are some delicious options on your personalized platter. When packing a charcuterie plate, be sure to bring a cutting board, knives and other serving utensils. Nuts, olives, dried fruits and other accoutrements can be placed in small jars that make for easy transport as well as elegant serving.
Round out the meal with salads that move beyond the usual potato, pasta and green variety. Roasted vegetables or cooked lentils tossed with grains like barley, quinoa or farro, or small pasta like orzo, with fresh herbs, olive oil and red wine vinegar are easily adaptable side salads which are also hearty enough to stand on their own. Tabbouleh, the Middle Eastern salad made with parsley, mint, tomatoes and bulgur wheat, is another great option. Or fill an insulated container with some warm soup—roasted butternut squash soup on a chilly fall day is warm and savory.
A cooler of chilled drinks is vital to your picnic, with nonbreakable glassware for serving. For chillier days, consider an insulated container with some warm cider or cocoa to round out your festivities.
Simple appetizers and finger foods, like bite-sized fresh fruit, nuts, and cheese straws, are always appreciated. Dessert should not be overlooked either! Instead of a cake or pie, consider smaller versions that transport easier like cupcakes, hand pies or a tin of cookies.
PICNIC SANDWICHES Po-boys, muffulettas and bánh mì are all served on thick, crusty French bread, which allows the sandwich to be made ahead of time. The crumb center of the bread can be hollowed out to make room for the sandwich filling.
PO-BOYS: Generally filled with roast beef or fried seafood such as shrimp, oysters, catfish or soft-shell crab. They can come “dressed” with mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, tomato and pickles, although a roast beef po-boy can also be served with gravy on it. The sandwich originated in New Orleans and is also popular along the Gulf Coast. In nearby Texas, a BBQ po-boy can be found featuring smoked brisket and other meats.
MUFFULETTAS: Another culinary tradition from New Orleans, this time served on a round, Italian-style bread. The bread is spread with an olive salad that features pickled vegetables (celery, cauliflower, carrots, peppers) as well as olives, and then stuffed with a variety of meats and cheeses such as salami, ham, mortadella, capicola, provolone, and mozzarella. The sandwich is made ahead of time and wrapped tightly so the flavors can marinate before serving.
BÁNH MÌ: Sometimes known as a Vietnamese po-boy, it began as a street food that combines pickled carrots and radish, cilantro, cucumber, and mayonnaise on a crusty bun, with some sort of protein, such as pork, chicken, pâté, tofu, or some combination thereof. Its distinctive sweet and spicy flavor is thanks to the inclusion of sriracha mayonnaise and/or jalapeños.
TO MAKE BÁNH MÌ PICKLES: Slice radishes and julienne carrots. (Onions are a nice addition, if desired.) Toss with 1 teaspoon salt, place in a strainer over a bowl and let sit 30 minutes. In a saucepan, combine 1 ¼ cups rice vinegar, ¼ cup sugar, 1 cup water and crushed red pepper. Bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Place vegetables in a jar and pour vinegar mix on top. Cover and let sit at least an hour, or overnight.
Gear & packing
Despite the classic image of a sweet wicker basket set upon a checkered tablecloth as the quintessential picnic gear, there are no hard and fast rules as to what your picnic gear should look like. As long as you have the essentials covered—food and drinks, serving items, a blanket or tablecloth upon which to set the food, and something in which to carry it all—your picnic can take on any style you prefer. A sturdy canvas tote and a cooler works just as well as that charming wicker basket.
You’ll want to pack your picnic as efficiently as possible. Keep the cool items cool and the warm items warm by packing them in the appropriate separate totes. Place larger, heavier items on the bottom of your bag or cooler, and use a cutting board as a shelf on top of the first layer to keep the upper layers from crushing anything beneath them, while also ensuring things don’t get too jumbled in transport. Tea towels can also be used to insulate items.
These items will come in handy at your final destination as well—a cutting board can become a flat surface to serve drinks from, while a spare towel can be used to wipe up spills. To cut down on waste, consider using melamine or enamelware plates and cups, which are lightweight and less likely to break in transit than everyday dishes. Wrap silverware settings in cloth napkins to make transporting them and setting up your picnic a breeze. Be sure to pack a bag for trash as well.
Whether your picnic destination has tables or not, you’ll want something to designate the serving area. A tablecloth, blanket, quilt or even a pretty sheet can fit the bill nicely—something that can withstand the elements, clean up easily and help set the tone of your event. Other items to consider, space permitting, are a portable table and chairs, and games such as bocce ball or a deck of cards.
With a bit of planning, picnicking is an activity that will appeal to the entire family. If you want to simplify preparation, don’t be afraid to outsource to your favorite deli or bakery. The goal is to get outside and enjoy the fall weather and scenery while it lasts, however you choose.