City Room asked a few of our city’s most talented chefs to design a creative and portable picnic basket for a sunny Fourth of July meal. Previous submissions came from Marcus Samuelsson, of Red Rooster Harlem, and Vincent Visceglia, of Karloff. Don’t forget to share your own homemade baskets in the comments.
When I was growing up in the Mediterranean, sometimes it seemed like picnics in the countryside were all my family ever did. From daylong trips to epic Roman ruins in the Lebanese hills, or days at the beach where Venus was rumored to have been born in Cyprus, or simple afternoon hikes to the wooden bridge by our farm in Tuscany, we never left the house without an ample supply of simple, finger-friendly food, mostly put together by my mother, to enjoy at whatever gorgeous destination we were headed. Inspired by those childhood romps into the deeply perfumed Mediterranean maquis, I would pack a picnic basket with:
This was a classic of my mother’s. Living in an impoverished Madrid in the late 1960s, she cooked the classic: onions and boiled potatoes, just barely bound with beaten egg and fried in extra virgin olive oil. It remains the cornerstone of any picnic I create today: simple, delicious and perfect hot from the pan, cold from the fridge, or at room temperature after a long, hot walk under the sun.
Radishes, washed and cut with a cup of labne, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar
Radishes make for great picnic food, as they are hearty and resilient. I love the Lebanese style of dipping them in thickened yogurt, olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar (a spice mix). It’s also really easy to put together.
Tabbouleh with lots of herbs and lemon
This was a family staple growing up, made in the Lebanese style with a smidgen of cracked bulgur soaked directly in lemon juice to soften it, and then mixed with so much flat-leaf parsley that it became more greens than grains.
This Tunisian variation on Sicilian caponata (or Provençal ratatouille) uses grilled vegetables instead of fried, chopped together with cilantro and lime juice. It is wonderfully smoky and perfect as a side salad or vegetable.
Umbrian lentil salad with celery hearts and salt cod
My friend and fellow chef Salvatore Dennaro makes this for our lunches in the olive groves. He tosses lightly blanched little green lentils with lots of chopped celery hearts, a little red onion, and poached salt cod. Dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and some lemon juice. It’s a perfect hearty dish to keep one’s energy going, whether hiking or picking olives.
Prosciutto and melon butter on brioche rolls
Prosciutto and melon is the quintessential appetizer to eat in a hot Italian summer, but you don’t want to fiddle with sloppy pieces of melon bouncing around in a basket. I whip cantaloupe melon with an equal amount of sweet butter and fill a roll generously. Complement with thin-sliced prosciutto di Parma, jamón Serrano, or even one of the many quality air-dried or lightly smoked American hams coming out of the South.
Watermelon cubes with lime juice and chili
I learned this combination of sweet fruit, salt and acid from the many Mexican cooks I have worked with. It might seem odd at first, but I find the combination extremely refreshing and bright.
Sara Jenkins is the chef and owner of Porsena, 21 East Seventh Street at Third Avenue, East Village, (212) 228-4923, and Porchetta, 110 East Seventh Street at First Avenue, East Village, (212) 777-2151. Follow her on Twitter at @porchettanyc.