Planning The Perfect Picnic (Food Poisoning Not Included)

paris picnic
Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

The solstice may be a few weeks off yet, but let’s not kid ourselves: summer has begun. A favorite warm weather pastime the world over is dining al fresco. I first discovered the joys of the picnic, in particular, when I was 10, and my family spent the summer traveling Europe in a borrowed Westphalia camper van.

From the Swiss Alps to the Yorkshire Dales, we practiced the art of picnicking and the menu was always a regional variation on bread/cured meat/cheese/chocolate (this is also what fueled my obsession with those foods).

Now that I’m an adult (at least, in theory), I still find picnics to be the ultimate form of outdoor indulgence. This summer, whether your travels take you overseas or only as far as your backyard, plan on making a habit of putting together a portable meal. Eating outdoors is a fun, easy, relaxing way to enjoy the season, especially if you follow these food-safety tips:

  • Make your menu tempting at room temperature. Fried chicken may be a Southern picnic staple, but it’s also a case of food poisoning waiting to happen if it’s not consumed within two hours of preparation (click here for the USDA’s microbiological explanation). Also, two words: soggy coating. Instead, serve sandwiches and grain-, pasta-, or roasted vegetable-based salads.
  • Keep it cool. Line an ice chest with ice packs, and then stash perishables, or if you’re hiking, fill and freeze the bladder from a hydropack. If something needs to be served at “room temperature,” use the ambient air temp to gauge when you should remove it from the cooler. Got some great cheese and it’s 100 degrees out? Five or ten minutes will do the trick.
  • retro picnicepiclectic, Flickr
  • Good hygiene begins at home, but don’t forget to pack some anti-bacterial gel for pre- and post-meal cleanup.
  • Keep it compact, green and clean. A bottle of wine is the ideal companion for a picnic, but broken glass definitely doesn’t make for a good garnish. Use a neoprene wine bag to keep your bottle chilled and protected (if temps are soaring; even red wine needs a cool-down). Use designed-for-outdoor-use stackable cups. For plates and cutlery, forgo the paper-waste and invest in either outdoor dining dishware or biodegradable bamboo products, which are widely available. If you have access to a compost bin (or some chickens), save all non-meat and dairy food scraps in a Tupperware. Leave your picnic spot cleaner than you found it.
  • Keep food fresh and pest-free by covering it with a lid, clean dishtowel or mesh dome (you can frequently find vintage versions of the latter at flea markets and antique shops).

Berkeley’s Edible Cities Guide Leads Urban Foragers To Free Good Eats

plum treeAnyone who’s ever snagged fruit off of their neighbor’s trees or bushes (oh, don’t look at me like that) will appreciate the new online Edible Cities guide from Berkeleyite Cristian Ionescu-Zanetti.

Berkeley is ground zero for the localized food movement, and “urban foraging” has been growing in popularity amongst local chefs as well as home cooks.

As a former resident and recent subletter, I can attest to just how many tasty treats grow in this region, which is composed of many microclimates. All manner of citrus – most notably Meyer lemons – heirloom varieties of plums, cherries, loquats, avocado, raspberries, blackberries, pomegranates, persimmons, rosemary, wild fennel, miner’s lettuce, wild watercress, mustard plants…they all flourish here, sometimes in backyards, but often in public spaces.

Hence, Edible Cities, which uses a Google Maps interface that denotes where specific species are free for the picking. In a recent interview in Berkeleyside, Inoescu-Zanetti, who is originally from Romania, stated that urban foraging’s “most important aspect is education: Kids need to learn where food comes from, and adults need a refresher, as well.” Here, here!

According to its mission statement, Edible Cities’ goal is to promote local food security by “mapping publicly available food sources” and “enable a more sustainable mode of food production that lessens our environmental impact.” In plain English, you can have free fruit and preserves year-round, instead of buying tasteless, imported crap sprayed with God knows what.

Oakland has a similar program, Forage Oakland, which began in 2008. Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Tampa also have fruit gleaning projects, which are variously used for residents and to provide fresh food for those in need.

[Photo credit: Flickr user OliBac]

How to Choose Ripe Fruit

Video of the day: a goaty guide to pronouncing foreign cheeses

The holidays are Cheese Season. At no other time of the year are cheese and specialty food shops as thronged by dairy-seeking customers. They’re hungry for a fix or searching for a gift, recipe ingredient, or the makings of a cheese plate. Cheese is love, and one of the easiest, most elegant ways to kick off a cocktail party or conclude (or make) a memorable meal.

With that in mind, the folks at Culture: the word on cheese magazine (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) have produced this clever (and utterly adorable) video to aid you in pronouncing some of those delectable but tricky foreign cheeses from France, Spain, and Switzerland. Happy Hoch Ybrig, everyone!


Five foods of fall

fall foodsIt seems like summer had just begun (that’s because a few weeks ago in Seattle, it had), and now we’re in the throes of early winter fall. It’s actually a beautiful time, what with the trees turning color, cutting through the gray and damp. The weather is crisp and on rare days, the sky is cerulean. There are worse places to experience the change of season.

Living in such an autumnal environment makes me crave the colorful foods of fall. The region you live in determines when exactly certain ingredients make their way in and out of local farmers markets, true. But there’s a general timetable for these foods, so start looking for them now. As some extra incentive, these foods are high in nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin A, and antioxidants, and most make for beautiful additions to the holiday table when piled in a shallow bowl, or added to a cheese plate.

1. Persimmons
A traumatic childhood experience with an unripe persimmon led me to give this fragrant, glossy orange fruit a wide berth for over 20 years, and not until I began working as a vendor at the Berkeley Farmers Market did I work through the pain and overcome my aversion. If you’ve never tasted an unripe persimmon, it’s like biting into a mouthful of metal filings. They’re so astringent, they literally suck all of the moisture from your mouth. Tough, tough stuff. Happily, I’ve grown to love (ripe) persimmons for their cheerful appearance, intriguing texture, and sweet, spicy, perfumed flesh redolent of apricots, cinnamon, and allspice.

Persimmons are indigenous to Asia, but grow well in temperate climates. The two most common varieties are Fuyu and Hachiya. Fuyus resemble squat tomatoes, and are ripe when they turn bright orange but are still firm to the touch. I enjoy eating them out of hand or sliced into salads. Try them sliced with bitter greens, toasted walnuts, and fresh or soft-ripened goat cheese, with a Sherry vinaigrette.

[Photo credit: Flickr user caryn74]fall foodsHachiyas have an elongated, acorn-like shape, and are soft and gelatinous when ripe. Their sweet, pulpy flesh makes them an excellent addition to baked goods such as cake or tea bread, or try them in sorbet or a steamed pudding topped with unsweetened whipped cream. They’re also delectable for out-of-hand eating: simply cut off the top and scoop out the jelly-like flesh with a spoon.

Hachiyas are high in tannins, and the astringent substance that makes them so unappealing when unripe is also corrosive, so be sure to avoid using aluminum cookware or foil when working with them.

Dried Hachiyas are also delicious and diverse in the kitchen. Choose fruit that is soft, but not so ripe you’re unable to peel it. After peeling, pass a wire through the calyx, or stem end, bring the ends of the wire together to form a circle, and hang it on a line in a cool, dry place. You’ll need to massage the fruit periodically to help break down their internal membrane and to release moisture. Enjoy them for snacking, baking, or in porridge or oatmeal. They may develop a harmless fine, white powder on the surface.

2. Winter squash
The much-maligned winter, or hard squash is a nutritional powerhouses, high in iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C. With their thick, durable shells, which come in a breathtaking array of hues, textures, shapes, and sizes, they can last up to a month without refrigeration, as long as they’re kept cool and dry. You can compost the skins and pulp, and dry their seeds so you can grow your own squash next year.

I find even the names of different varieties of squash tempting: sweet dumpling, acorn, Cinderella, sugar pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, buttercup, butternut, delicata, red curry, kabocha, and hubbard. Note that carving pumpkins are not meant for eating; the flesh is too stringy and the flavor inferior, although the seeds are delicious when roasted.

There are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties of squash out there; get to know some of the growers at your local farmers’ market and find out what they recommend for your purposes. When selecting squash, choose ones that are heavy for their weight, with no soft spots.

While most hard squash have sweet flesh, there’s still a range of flavor complexities between varieties. Some are more watery while others have a more pronounced squashy flavor or firm or creamy flesh. You may want to experiment to see what works best for your specific recipes, but the most common varieties work equally well for sweet or savory dishes.

Use leftover roasted squash in stir-fries, tossed in at the end of cooking with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, and bitter greens. Roast peeled slices until they’re lightly caramelized and serve them with a handful of fresh arugula, candied pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or crumbled bacon, and shaved pecorino cheese, and a vinaigrette of roasted pumpkin seed oil or good-quality balsamic vinegar. Use squash in baked goods like tea breads and cakes.

3. Grapes
Unless you shop at the farmers market, you’re likely unaware of just how many table grape varieties are out there: Bronx, Golden Muscat, Niabell, Ladyfinger, Black Monukka. Some are winey and intense, others slip their skins and have a squidgy texture, similar to wine grapes.

The beauty of grapes is that they require no more than a rinse and they’re ready for the table. I use them halved and paired with fresh or grilled chicories and shavings of a dry, semi-firm cheese like Manchego for salads, or roast them with a bit of olive oil and serve them alongside wilted greens like Lacinato kale and grilled sausages. Feeling lazy? Pile them in a pretty bowl, pour a glass of dessert wine, and pop in a DVD for a low-key evening with friends or your main squeeze. Spitting seeds isn’t sexy, so do ask for a sample before purchasing.

4. Brussels sprouts
Poor things. Dissed by children almost everywhere, and equally unloved by many adults, Brussels sprouts get a bad rap due to poor cooking technique or old product. Like all brassicas (the genus of cruciferous vegetables–members of the mustard family–that includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower), these guys can get seriously sulfurous and nasty if overcooked or past their prime.

Look for tiny, tightly-closed sprouts (you can also purchase them on the stalk at farmers markets and some grocery stores) the size of large marbles. The shouldn’t be gargantuan, or have yellowed, withered outer leaves or be opening up like a flower in bloom. You’ve been warned.

Get your fresh sprouts home. Heat up some bacon fat or olive oil, and saute them over medium-high heat until the outer leaves just begin to open, and they’re slightly caramelized (this is the key step). Finish things off with some minced garlic cooked until fragrant. Toss sauteed sprouts with crumbled bacon, crisped prosciutto, toasted breadcrumbs, or grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. Try a combination of the above. Spike them with chile flakes, chopped, toasted nuts, or drizzle with walnut or hazelnut oil (don’t try to cook them in these; their smoke point is too low and the oil will scorch). If for some crazy reason these ideas don’t make you a convert, just do what a friend of mine did as kid: sneak them into the bathroom and flush them down the toilet.
fall foods
5. Pears
European pears (as opposed to the crunchy, apple-like Asian varieties) possess a refined elegance that calls to mind the days when they were cultivated for French nobility.

The year-round availability of domestically grown varieties of European pear can be attributed to their affinity for cold storage. Pear season is usually over by the end of November, and unlike apples, European pears require a period of cold storage at 32 to 35 degrees before being ripened for several days at room temperature prior to selling. They’re just simply delicate for picking and shipping when ripe.

To further ripen them at home, place in a paper bag on the counter. If you can’t use fully ripe pears immediately, refrigerate them or they’ll get mushy.

I prefer pears poached in red or white wine or a simple syrup spiked with vanilla bean, ginger, or spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. As a dessert, this showcases their elegant shape, and makes for a sophisticated finale to a dinner party. Remember to slice a tiny piece of the bottom off of each pear before serving, so they’ll stand up on the plate (you can also use a dab of whipping cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone, or creme anglaise to anchor them in place). Serve with a healthy dollop of same, or vanilla or honey ice cream. Hello, autumn.

[Photo credits: soup, Flickr user Tammy Green aka Zesmerelda]

Why Brussel Sprouts are Healthy

Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;