How to Build a Perfect Picnic This Summer

You can’t control the weather, but you can make sure the food is amazing. Here’s how—with a little help from some of Chicago’s best chefs.

Russel Wright melamine tumbler, vintage wooden-handled flatware, vintage cooler, leather-wrapped thermos, polished nickel and brass ice bucket, vintage plaid wool blanket, outdoor acrylic pillow, Russel Wright melamine covered bowl, melamine plate, Russel Wright yellow melamine dinner plate, cotton napkin, and wicker picnic basket

Photography: Tyllie Barbosa; Food Styling: Carol Smoler; Styling: Barri Leiner Grant;
Photographer’s Assistant: Emily Hindin
 

GET THE LOOK
Clockwise from top: Russel Wright melamine tumbler, $12 each, Tabula Tua, 1015 W. Armitage Ave. Vintage wooden-handled flatware, $6 a piece, and vintage cooler, $125, Brimfield, 5219 N. Clark St. Leather-wrapped thermos, $160, and polished nickel and brass ice bucket, $195, Jayson Home, 1885 N. Clybourn Ave. Vintage plaid wool blanket, $195, Brimfield. Outdoor acrylic pillow, $54.95, Crate & Barrel, 646 N. Michigan Ave. Russel Wright melamine covered bowl, $45, Tabula Tua. Melamine plate, $4.50, West Elm, 1000 W. North Ave. Russel Wright yellow melamine dinner plate, $25, Tabula Tua. Cotton napkin, $3.99, World Market, 1623 N. Sheffield Ave. Wicker picnic basket, $39.95, Crate & Barrel.

See below for picnic goodies and recipes, course by course.

* * *

Starters: Wine & Cheese

Cotton-linen blend napkins, stainless steel spreader, melamine plates, acrylic double old fashioned glass, wineglasses, Natual polished horn spoon, stainless steel cheese plane, slate tray, and melamine divided tray

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa; Food Styling: Carol Smoler; Styling: Barri Leiner Grant
 

GET THE LOOK Clockwise from top: Cotton-linen blend napkins, $15 each, Jonathan Adler, 676 N. Wabash Ave. Stainless steel spreader, $22, Jayson Home. Melamine plates, $10, Elements, 741 N. Wells St. Acrylic double old fashioned glass, $20 for set of four, and wineglasses, $24 for set of four, West Elm. Natual polished horn spoon, $10, stainless steel cheese plane, $22, and slate tray, $22, Jayson Home. Melamine divided tray, $48, Jonathan Adler.

The all-important first course sets the bar for the ensuing spread. Cristi Menard, the senior buyer at artisanal food shop Pastoral (pastoralartisan.com for locations), says you’ll need some piquant cheeses (that travel well), a crusty baguette, crackers, fruity jams, and perhaps some nuts. Here are her picks. Make sure to toss a few bottles of wine, (these all cost less than $20 each!) and hard cider, de rigueur this summer, in your basket too. Pick the perfect patch of grass, spread your blanket, and let the feast begin.

Chiriboga Blue, a German buttermilk blue cheese ($28.99 a pound), and Pastoral’s house-roasted spiced almonds ($14.99 a pound) paired with Cattin Freres 2011 Riesling ($13.99)

Lille ($21.99 a pound), a creamy and spreadable cousin of Brie, and Sheridans Irish Brown-Bread Crackers ($6.99 a box) paired with Uncle John’s Cider Mill Draught Hard Cider ($3.99 a can)

Montasio Vino Rosso, a semifirm Italian cheese ($24.99 a pound), and Casalingo salame ($31.99 a pound) paired with Andrew Murray Vineyards 2010 ‘Tous Les Jours’ Syrah ($19.99)

Classico, an aged goat cheese ($30.99 a pound), and the Gracious Gourmet’s spiced sour cherry spread ($5.99 for three ounces) paired with Elk Cove Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir Rosé ($19.99)
 

THE CHEAT
Feeling lazy? Buy Pastoral’s premade themed picnics (each serves two). The Locavore features spreadable quark from Wisconsin, smoked duck sausage from Indiana, and other Midwestern delights (24-hour advance order required; $39.99).

* * *

The Main Event: Fried Chicken & Picnic Punch

Perfect Fried Chicken

Galvanized iron and wood tray, plaid wool blanket, acrylic pitcher, acrylic stemless tumblers, stainless steel and rubber flatware, melamine platter, and enamelware salad plate

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa; Food Styling: Carol Smoler; Styling: Barri Leiner Grant
 

GET THE LOOK Clockwise from top: Galvanized iron and wood tray, $39.95, Crate & Barrel. Plaid wool blanket, $75, Brimfield. Acrylic pitcher, $14.99, and acrylic stemless tumblers, $11.96 for set of four, World Market. Stainless steel and rubber flatware, $1.95 each, Crate & Barrel. Melamine platter, $10, and enamelware salad plate, $32 for set of four, West Elm.

Paul Fehribach, chef/owner
Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark St., 773-275-5725

Fehribach made his first dredge when he was seven years old. “It was horrible,” he says. Fortunately, the recipe evolved into a combination of “spicy herbaceous aromatics.” The brine, on the other hand, is a direct steal from the handwritten recipes of the legendary Edna Lewis Cookbook. Make this classic a day ahead and it’ll still be crisp and juicy at your picnic.
 

Makes 4 servings
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 14 to 20 minutes (per batch)
Special equipment: Long-stem clip-on fry thermometer, meat thermometer

Brine
2 qt. iced water
2 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. minced onion (or onion powder)
1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. dried thyme
2 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 cut-up frying chicken, about 4 lb.

1. Place the water and all the spices in a 4 qt. bowl with a fitted lid and stir gently to disperse the seasonings.

2. Add the chicken, making sure to completely submerge all the pieces. Cover tightly.

Do ahead: Make the day before and brine chicken in the refrigerator overnight.
 

Dredge
4 cups all-purpose white flour, sifted
1 cup fine-grind white cornmeal
1⅛ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. dried basil
½ tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. ground sage
4 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. dried thyme

1. Place the flour and cornmeal in a large mixing bowl.

2. Sprinkle all the seasonings over the flour and combine thoroughly. (Gentle mixing with a whisk gets this job done handily.) After blending evenly, tightly cover the dry ingredients and set aside until needed.

Do ahead: Not necessary, but making the dredge a day or two ahead will make your fry day easier.
 

Fry

1. Place 3 quarts of your favorite vegetable oil in a 2-gallon heavy-bottomed cast-iron pot. Attach the clip-on thermometer and heat to 375 degrees.

2. While the oil is heating, transfer your dredge to a shallow pan and lay the chicken, still dripping wet, in the dredge. Coat each piece thoroughly and leave in the dredge a few minutes to soak up more flour.

3. When the oil reaches 375 degrees, lay the breasts, skin side down, in the hot oil. Cook for 3 minutes before adding the thighs.

4. One minute later, add the legs and wings. The cold chicken will lower the temperature of the oil, so check the thermometer to maintain at least 325 degrees.

5. After 10 to 12 minutes, when the skin is crispy and golden brown, turn the chicken over. Cook another 6 to 8 minutes, until the thickest part of the breast registers 155 degrees internally on a meat thermometer.

6. Drain on a wire rack or towel. Serve at once, or cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
 

Tips and tricks:
Don’t be intimidated by the long list of spices. Both the brine and the dredge are superquick to make, and the chicken will turn out supermoist.

If you have a deep fryer, use it. Set the temperature at 375 degrees and cook in batches. Breasts take 18 minutes; thighs take 15; and legs and wings 14. Use a meat thermometer on the breast, as above.

Coddle your chicken. Cool to room temperature, line a large platter with paper towels, and arrange with as little stacking as possible. Loosely cover with foil or plastic wrap. Do not use anything airtight, or the crust will go limp.

Take a bow.
 

THE CHEAT
Order fried chicken from Crisp (2940 N. Broadway, 773-697-6910, crisponline.com). It makes four varieties (all delish, all priced at $13.95 for a whole chicken), but get the Plain Jane—it’s the least messy.
 

 

Double Dutch Picnic Punch

Paul McGee, mixologist/partner
Three Dots and a Dash, 435 N. Clark St., 312-348-4759

“This drink is really refreshing and perfect for the warmer weather,” says McGee, who opens his latest bar this month below Bub City. In this easy-drinking libation, “double dutch” takes on a dual meaning: The liquors, genever and curaçao, originate from the Netherlands and Caribbean Netherlands, respectively. “Plus, [it refers to] the jump rope game that you probably think you’re pretty good at after a few cups of this punch,” McGee adds.
 

Makes 10 servings
Prep time: 5 minutes

½ cup sugar
½ cup water
½ cup Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao
½ cup Bols Genever
¾ cup fresh lime juice
1½ cups Banks 5 Island Rum

1. Combine water and sugar in a saucepan and heat until the sugar crystals dissolve and mixture becomes syrupy. Allow to cool.

2. In a punch bowl, combine all ingredients.

3. Add cocktail ice (see tip) a few minutes before serving. McGee recommends a 50/50 punch-to-ice ratio.

4. Stir with a ladle for a few minutes to allow for some dilution.
 

Tips and tricks:
Mix the punch at home and transfer to a lidded canteen to transport.

Purchase cocktail ice at your grocer’s liquor department: The cubes will be larger than those from your freezer and will last longer.

Serve in punch cups with a fresh orange peel garnish.

Avoid skipping rope after consuming.
 

THE CHEAT
Pick up Gosling’s premixed Dark ’n Stormy cocktails (four-pack for $9.99) from Binny’s Beverage Depot (binnys.com for locations). You can store them in a cooler and sip straight from the 8.4-ounce cans.

* * *

The Side Show: Salads

Curried Potato Salad

Cotton napkins, melamine serving utensils, melamine salad bowls, metallic bowl, and wooden salad servers

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa; Food Styling: Carol Smoler; Styling: Barri Leiner Grant
 

GET THE LOOK Clockwise from top: Cotton napkins, $10 each, Jayson Home. Melamine serving utensils, $35, and melamine salad bowls, $35 each, ID, 3337 N. Halsted St. Metallic bowl, $20 for set of four, Brimfield. Wooden salad servers, $45, Tabula Tua.

Ryan Poli, chef/partner
Tavernita, 151 W. Erie St., 312-274-1111; Little Market Brasserie, 10 E. Deleware Pl., 312-640-8141

“This is always a hit at picnics and barbecues because it’s not your ordinary potato salad,” says Poli. “It’s a little different, packing flavor from the curry. And it’s not too heavy for a hot summer day.”
 

Makes 6 to 8 servings
Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 to 15 minutes

Potatoes
3 lb. mixed fingerling potatoes
1 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1½ Tbsp. curry powder
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¾ cup chopped celery
2 Tbsp. chopped tarragon
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp. crushed coriander seeds
½ tsp. cumin
½ tsp. pickled mustard seeds
Salt and pepper

1. Boil potatoes 10 to 15 minutes, until fork tender. Cool in refrigerator. Cut into ¼-inch-thick slices.

2. Blend the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and curry powder.

3. Add cilantro, celery, tarragon, red onion, spices, and ½ tsp. pickled mustard seeds (see below).

4. Add potatoes and season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Chill for up to 2 hours. Keep refrigerated until serving.
 

Pickled mustard seeds
¼ cup yellow mustard seeds
½ cup water
½ cup champagne vinegar
½ Tbsp. salt

Combine all ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes until seeds are plump. Drain off all liquid and cool.
 

Tips and tricks:
Add a little more water to the mustard seeds if they look dry.

Save extra mustard seeds to add to vinaigrettes, cooked fish, or anything else that needs a little tang.
 

THE CHEAT
Buy housemade potato salad at Mariano’s (marianos.com). The one called Metro ($3.99 a pound) has all the ingredients, seasonings, and heft that you want from this classic.
 

 

Roasted Beet Salad

Alexander Brunacci, executive chef/owner
Franks ’n’ Dawgs, 1863 N. Clybourn Ave., 312-281-5187; Peasantry, 2723 N. Clark St., 773-868-4888

“In Australia, beets are included in just about everything,” says the Aussie-born Brunacci. “The heartiness and richness of this salad are balanced by the pickled red onion, making it a perfect side.”
 

Makes 4 to 5 servings
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1½ hours

Roasted beets
2 medium-size red beets
2 medium-size golden beets
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Pinch of kosher salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Scrub the beets and cut off the tops, but don’t peel.

3. Place beets in a large aluminum foil packet, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with kosher salt.

4. Pinch the foil closed and roast for 45 minutes (or until a knife can easily cut into the largest beet).

5. Let the beets cool and rub off the peels.

6. Cut the beets into ½-inch cubes.
 

Pickled red onion
½ cup water
2 cups champagne vinegar
1 jalapeño pepper, cut in half
2 limes (juice and zest)
⅓ cup sugar
1 large red onion, julienned

1. Mix everything but the onion in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer.

2. Pour hot liquid over the onion.

3. Cover and let sit for an hour.
 

Vinaigrette
⅓ cup champagne vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
½ cup olive oil

Mix the vinegar, mustard, salt, and sugar, and slowly whisk in the olive oil.
 

Assembly
1 large orange, segmented with the pith cut off
½ cup goat cheese in bite-size pieces
2 cups arugula
Black pepper, freshly cracked

Toss the orange segments, goat cheese, arugula, roasted beets, ¼ cup of pickled red onion, and 2 to 4 Tbsp. of the vinaigrette together. Finish with freshly cracked black pepper.
 

Tips and tricks:
If you really like goat cheese, then go crazy with it. If you can find only one type of beet, then just use the one.
 

THE CHEAT
Buy the beet salad at Kaufman’s (4905 W. Dempster St., Skokie, 847-677-9880). The roasted beets and onions marinated in beet juice ($5.99 a pound) work nicely.

* * *

Sweet Endings: Brownies & Lemon Cream Pie

Salted Caramel Brownies

Cotton seersucker napkins, pink-printed melamine plate, melamine plates,  stainless steel and rubber flatware, leather-covered cooler, wooden pie box, and natural resin pie server

Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa; Food Styling: Carol Smoler; Styling: Barri Leiner Grant
 

GET THE LOOK Clockwise from top: Cotton seersucker napkins, $16 each, and pink-printed melamine plate, $11, Elements. Melamine plates, $4.95 (dinner) and $3.95 (salad), and stainless steel and rubber flatware, $1.95 each, Crate & Barrel. Leather-covered cooler, $1,495, Jayson Home. Wooden pie box, $25, Bang Bang Pie Shop, 2051 N. California Ave. Natural resin pie server, $18, Tabula Tua.

Gale Gand, founding executive pastry chef/partner
Tru, 676 N. St. Clair St., 312-202-0001

“These brownies stack and pack easily since they get their moistness from having caramel chunks throughout instead of frosting,” says Gale Gand, baker extraordinaire, cookbook author, James Beard award winner, artisanal root beer maker, and cooking school owner and teacher (at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest). This indulgent yet simple recipe is a riff on a salted caramel sauce she demos in her classes.
 

Makes 24 to 30 squares (depending on how you cut them)
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Special supply: Parchment paper

4 oz. high-quality unsweetened chocolate
12 Tbsp. butter
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. kosher salt plus ¼ tsp. to sprinkle over batter
1 cup (7 oz.) Werther’s Original Chewy Caramels, cut into small pieces

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a 9 x 13–inch baking pan with parchment paper.

2. In a microwave-proof bowl, melt the chocolate and butter together. Remove the bowl from the microwave and stir slowly to combine.

3. Stir in the sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and stir. Then add the flour and ½ tsp. salt; stir until combined.

4. Fold in the caramel pieces.

5. Pour the batter into the pan and spread with knife to level it. Sprinkle the remaining ¼ tsp. salt over the surface.

6. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.

7. Let cool on the counter overnight. Cut into squares.
 

Tips and Tricks:
Use a sharp scissors to cut the caramels.

Measure the parchment paper to neatly fit the bottom of the pan and then cut 3 inches wider on all sides. Notch the corners for a squared-off finish.

Grasp the exposed parchment paper, lift the cooled brownies out in one piece, and cut into squares.

Layer the brownies with waxed paper in a cookie tin and chill before transporting. They will warm up in the picnic basket and become nice and chewy.
 

THE CHEAT
Stock up on boxes of Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix ($2.99 a box at Jewel). Easier still, order from Floriole Cafe & Bakery (1220 W. Webster Ave., 773-883-1313)—pricey ($4.25 each), but gigantic and superchocolaty.
 

 

Icebox Lemon Cream Pie

Megan Miller, pasty chef/partner
Bang Bang Pie Shop, 2051 N. California Ave., 773-276-8888

Miller has always been obsessed with baking. During a brief fling with a pie truck, she had a DNA moment when she learned her great-great-grandparents had run a pie shop in Athens, Illinois. So she and her husband, David, teamed up with pie entrepreneur Michael Ciapciak to open a café of their own. Of all the pies Miller bakes at Bang Bang, why this one for a picnic? “It’s so simple, anyone can make it,” says her husband. “Even me.”
 

Makes 8 to 10 slices
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 to 20 minutes

Crust
1¼ cup graham cracker crumbs (such as Keebler)
¼ cup sugar
⅓ cup margarine or butter, melted

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Follow directions on graham cracker crumb box to bake crust. Bake and set aside.
 

Pie filling
5 egg yolks
20 oz. sweetened condensed milk
5 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
3 tsp. lemon zest

1. Beat yolks together until smooth. Add condensed milk and blend.

2. Slowly incorporate juice and zest into mixture. Mix until smooth.

3. Pour into cooled crust.

4. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes until sides of custard turn slightly brown and center is not liquid but jiggles when shaken.

5. Let cool to room temperature, cover tightly with foil, and freeze for 4 or more hours. Leave in freezer until you’re ready to go.
 

Tip and tricks:
To skip baking the crust, pick up a house-made graham crust ($25) from Bang Bang Pie Shop.
 

THE CHEAT
Swing by Bang Bang, which sells the whole pie ($30), or Fish Bar (2956 N. Sheffield Ave., 773-687-8177), which offers Mindy Segal’s strikingly similar Key lime pie ($25).

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