Pack a picnic and find a shady spot and relax

Serve this summer punch in a watermelon shell.
Serve this summer punch in a watermelon shell.

We mustn’t lose the art of picnicking. It’s all too easy to grab a bag of takeout food and head to a park or the lake.

As a girl, picnics were a family event: My mother, grandmother and aunts would put their heads together and come up with a portable menu. We always headed to one of two places: the forest preserves or Lake Michigan. The cool thing about both was that they offered shady park-like spots to spread out blankets, set up lawn chairs, eat, take naps after swimming or lay back and read a book.

The food came packed in giant metal coolers that required two uncles to lift out of my parents’ station wagon. Casseroles were covered in kitchen towels and set in cardboard boxes. Fly swatters were kept handy. I’m pretty sure I never saw an actual picnic basket.

On the menu? Fried chicken, “cold cuts” (as my grandmother called them) for sandwich-making, lemonade, watermelon, several kinds of salads (kidney bean, macaroni, potato), always potato chips, and either pie or cake for dessert.

Picnics are at the top of my list of summer memories, mostly because we ran around like lunatics, played badminton or bocce ball, dug to China on the beach and ate watermelon (always in swimsuits) until we fell into a sticky heap giggling and spitting seeds. What a mess we were! We never came home without matted hair and sand in our shorts.

Now’s a good time to start making some summer memories. Whether it’s just you and the kids or a gathering of family, keep it fairly simple.

I’ve provided some inspiration, I hope, with these simple recipes. A couple tips: Make Ultimate Summer Picnic Punch in advance and store it in big sealed jars until you get to where you’re going. The pasta salad here has no mayonnaise in it, which makes it perfect for a picnic.

Bring extra watermelon along and cut it there, where the mess won’t matter. Wrap a sharp carving knife in foil, then in a kitchen towel for safe traveling.

Ultimate Summer

Picnic Punch

1 mini seedless watermelon

8 ounces lemon juice

2 cups frozen strawberries

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups ice

Slice the mini watermelon in half, using a spoon to scrape all of the fruit from the center of the melon. Place in a large blender.

Add the lemon juice, strawberries, sugar, and ice to the blender. Blend until pureed.

Pour lemonade straight from your blender, or pour into a pitcher. For an extra fun way to serve this drink, pour it into the two empty halves of the watermelon, add a skewered strawberry and lemon for garnish, then slurp your lemonade from a straw. Serves 6.

Spinach Artichoke Tortellini

1 (20-ounce) package tortellini

3 cups packed baby spinach

1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme or basil leaves, chopped (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cook tortellinis according to package directions; set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, chop the baby spinach and artichoke hearts and add them to a large bowl. Add in the shredded Parmesan.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic and thyme or basil. Add salt and pepper. Taste and adjust to your preference.

4. Once the tortellinis have cooled, add them to the bowl with the spinach, artichokes and cheese. Toss to combine.

5. Pour the dressing over the pasta salad and stir well to make sure everything is coated.

6. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serves 6.

Hawaiian Chicken Drummies

2 pounds chicken drummettes (or party wings —a combination of drummettes and wings)

1 1/2 cups pineapple juice

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons pineapple, finely minced

1/4 cup bacon, cooked and crumbled

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel, then place them single-layer, skin-side up in an oven-proof baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake 25 minutes, then drain the chicken grease.

While the chicken is baking, make the sauce: Combine the cornstarch with the pineapple juice until it's dissolved. Add the pineapple juice mixture to a small saucepan along with the remaining ingredients. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 3-5 minutes until thickened.

Pour the sauce over the chicken and bake for another 15 minutes. Serves 2.

Mini Pies in a Cupcake Tin

2 (2-count) packages refrigerated pie crusts

4 cups or 2 (21-ounce) cans pie filling (cherry, blueberry, apple, peach, etc.)

1 egg, whisked

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 12 muffin cups with cooking spray.

Roll out a single pie crust on a flat surface. Use a large cookie cutter or any sort of circular lid to cut out a 4-inch circle of dough.

Press each dough circle into the bottom of a muffin tin so that a tiny rim of dough remains sticking out the top. Repeat with remaining dough to fill all 12 muffin cups.

Fill each cup with about 1/4 cup pie filling, or until the filling nearly fills the cups.

Use the remaining dough to cover the tops of each pie.

To make a lattice crust, use a knife or pizza cutter to cut out thin strips of dough, then lace together to form a lattice.

To make a standard crust, cut out a circle of dough just large enough to cover the top of the crust. Use your fingers to gently press the top crust to the bottom crust until they stick together and no gaps remain.

Use a pastry brush to brush the tops of each pie with the whisked egg. Then bake 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is lightly golden and the filling begins to bubble.

Remove and let cool for at least 15 minutes. Then very carefully use a knife to loosen the edges of each pie and gently lift each pie out.

Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate. Makes 12.

A few picnic ideas ...

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about outdoor eating away from home. Here are some tips:

Refreezable ice packs are a must.

Paper towels are essential and don’t blow away like napkins.

Trash bags work not just for clean up but for wet swimsuits and towels.

Bring blankets for the kids. They encourage napping; a good thing. If buying, check for beach blankets that have weighted corners and are washable.

Got any old vinyl tablecloths? Use them under a blanket to keep it dry if ground is damp.

Do not leave home without sunscreen/bug spray/first-aid kit/hats.

Mason jars are great for serving individual salads.

Snacking: Let kids dig into a designated plastic bowl full of grapes, melon balls, raisins, dried apricots, strawberries, mini chunks of cheese.

Deviled eggs are standard picnic food. Put them in muffin/cupcake liner paper in a tin for easy carrying and serving.

Suzanne Boyle