Picnic season is upon us! There’s nothing we love more than gathering with friends at a beautiful park, the beach, backyard, you name it, too share a meal. After years of concerts and movies in the park (which is a favorite Chicago Summer activity) I have found there is a wide spectrum of picnickers. On one end you’ve got the fancy type; real cutlery, plates, wine glasses, table cloth, flameless candles, a four course meal. And on the opposite end, the bare bones type; grocery bag full of packaged snacks, a sandwich, no blanket. These are two extremes, with lots and lots of variety in the middle. Whatever your style, I’d consider picnicking somewhat of an art and each year I’m trying to perfect my craft.
First things first, the food. Location, time of day, how far we’re traveling etc. all play into what items end up in our picnic basket. Generally you can expect to find components for a charcuterie plate; crackers, cheese, olives, cured meat. A nice sturdy salad, maybe it’s a pasta or grain salad or something with a hearty green like kale that holds up to travel and grazing. Kabobs, slow roasted salmon, grilled chicken, pork tenderloin, all make for good protein options and can be enjoyed cold / room temperature. A good natural wine is our picnic drink of choice and dessert can range from a variety of delicious dark chocolate bars to a rustic summer fruit tart.
This month’s recipe is an ideal picnic dish. Textural, flavorful, easy to assemble on site. Crunchy cucumbers and pickled onions topped with marinated feta, toasted pine nuts, za’atar and mint. Give it a try for your next al fresco gathering
This recipe takes a little preplanning for the marinated feta and pickled onions, but it’s worth it! We like keeping the salted cucumbers + pickled onions, marinated feta, seeds and spice mix, and herbs separate until you’ve arrived to your destination. It comes together in less than 30 seconds on site and the presentation definitely gives elevated picnic vibes.
Marinated Feta: Requires 12-24 hours
6-8 oz. Good quality Feta Cheese (we prefer the traditional sheep milk variety)
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
3-4 strips fresh orange zest plus 1 tablespoon juice from the orange
3 tsp. finely chopped fresh oregano OR 2 tsp. Dried oregano
1 Tbsp. very coarse ground peppercorns (we like to crush them in a mortar and pestle)
Combine olive oil, herbs, orange zest and juice, and pepper in a small bowl. Cut feta into 1/2 inch cubes. Pour olive oil mixture over feta and gently combine. Store in an airtight glass container in the fridge for 12-24 hours to marinate.
Quick Pickled Red Onions: This will make more than you need! Use them on anything from grain bowls and breakfast tacos. They will last in the fridge for up to two weeks.
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoons sweetener (such as maple syrup, honey, cane sugar)
Slice red onions and pack in a glass jar or other deep container. Heat the vinegar, salt and sweetener over medium heat, just until simmering. Turn off heat and pour vinegar mixture over sliced onions, the onions should be submerged. Let onions marinate at room temperature for 30 minuted and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Crunchy Cucumber Salad Assembled: Serves 4-6
4 cups irregularly sliced/chunked cucumbers 1/2-3/4 in. thick
1/2 cup pickled red onions
3 Tbsp. Pine nuts
1 tsp. Za’atar spice
1/4 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/4 cup mint leaves
Toast pine nuts over low heat until light golden brown, add za’atar spice and toast another 30 seconds, shaking the pan to keep anything from burning. Transfer spices to a small bowl, add Aleppo pepper. Toss cucumbers with 1/2 tsp salt. Add pickled red onions and 1 Tbsp pickling liquid to the bowl or container and give another stir. To assemble, crumble feta (leaving large chunks) over cucumber, onion mixture, next evenly sprinkle pine nut / spice mix, followed by mint leaves and finally a drizzle of 2 Tbsp. olive oil from the marinated feta. Enjoy! Ideally outside, on a picnic blanket.
Good food is one piece of the puzzle. But a comfortable picnic experience also requires a little gear. Here are some of our favorite things for the ultimate picnic set up.