When the sun sets, pull out the picnic blanket

STORY BY Kerry Dunnington      PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella


From concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s outdoor performances at the Patapsco Female Institute, summer’s cultural offerings are made for eating “en plein air.” There’s nothing quite like the combined pleasures of a picnic on the grass and entertainment under an open sky.

Picnics are all about pleasure, says Susan Desaulniers, who lives in Columbia and has been packing picnics for her family for more than 30 years. Furthermore, she says, dining_out_1muffin_tin“Summer food somehow tastes better surrounded by the earth, warm air, family and friends.” Desaulniers’ family lived in Paris for several years and picnicked often at the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre museum, at the Bois de Boulogne or on the grounds of a chateau such as Chantilly or Versailles. “There were so many options!” she says.

“When we came back to this country, picnics became one of our go-to family activities.” The family has picnicked at outdoor music festivals and in their own back yard. The food can range from simple to complex, she says. “Often it’s baguette, salads, vegetables, hard boiled eggs, dried fruit and wine (for the adults!),” she says. “People generally expect sandwiches and deviled eggs,” she points out. “But it’s more fun to surprise guests by serving fare they aren’t imagining.”

Howard County, with its public parks, waterfront venues and outdoor cultural events, is the perfect place for picnics. Shakespeare under the stars, a concert in the park, or fireworks over a field call for food that complements the setting.

When preparing the menu for an alfresco party, focus on foods that travel well, can, for the most part, be made in advance and are best served at room temperature. Avoid foods that have sauces or drippy elements that can get soggy. Select menu items with broad appeal; go for comfort food rather than challenging items. Look for a range of textures and a colorful presentation.

Desaulniers suggests a tapered-down menu: “One appetizer, a one-dish main meal and individual desserts.”

Appetizers that don’t require utensils work well, so dips like hummus are perfect. Nuts are great for snacking and better than chips, which are likely to get crushed in transit. It’s best to stay away from leafy greens (because they tend to wilt) and also from mayonnaise-based dishes that need to be kept chilled. Whole fruit, like berries or stone fruits, and individual desserts like brownies, cookies or cupcakes avert the need for extra plates and utensils.

In addition to the hamper, the plastic containers and the blanket, here are some hostess-friendly tips and suggestions that will make your picnic stand out.

  • Small portable tables or card tables are a great landing spot for picnic items.
  • To keep food and beverages cold, freeze drinking water in re-usable drinking containers, which will help keep food cold and then serve as drinking water.
  • Use 6-cup muffin tins (they stack perfectly) as a multipurpose plate and beverage holder. The individual sections are great for buffet items.
  • Use tea towels for place mats and Ball jars to transport beverages and cold soups.
  • Arrange fresh-cut flowers in a hollowed-out pepper.
  • Pack picnic items in reverse order, the serving items and tableware on top.
  • Don’t forget the cutting board (also helps with items that can topple over), corkscrew, extra trash bags, serving utensils, flashlight and lighter.


Shrimp Vegetable & Quinoa Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette


  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1½ cups extra virgin olive oil

Combine salt, pepper, mustard and apple cider vinegar in blender. Pulse until ingredients are combined. Slowly add olive oil and blend until ingredients are incorporated. Transfer to a 2-cup capacity jar. Keep dressing at room temperature until ready to use.


  • 1½ cups quinoa, cooked according to package directions
  • 1½ pounds steamed jumbo shrimp, peeled, deveineddining_out_2shrimp
  • 1 cup carrots, julienned
  • 1 cup yellow pepper, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 1 cup red pepper, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • 1 can (14 ounces) chickpeas, drained
  • ½ cup pitted, roughly chopped Kalamata olives
  • ½ cup sliced scallions
  • 1 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • ¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
  • basil leaves, garnish

Toss the quinoa with just enough dressing to evenly coat the grains.
In a large bowl, combine shrimp, carrots, yellow pepper, red pepper, chickpeas, olives and green onions. Toss with just enough dressing to lightly coat the ingredients.
Transfer the quinoa and shrimp mixture to a container to accommodate the ingredients and toss to evenly distribute. Top the salad with crumbled feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds and basil leaves.
10 to 12 servings


Cucumber Bisque

This soup must be prepared a day in advance.

  • dining_out_3cuke1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 teaspoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and sliced (about 3 cups)
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • a few grindings of fresh black pepper

In a medium pot over moderate heat, melt butter and sauté onion until transparent. Whisk in flour and slowly add chicken broth. Continue whisking until mixture is well combined. Add cucumbers to broth mixture. Cover pot and bring mixture to a boil, decrease heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until cucumbers are fork tender. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool completely.
In a food processor, puree the cucumber mixture until smooth. Add the yogurt, parsley, salt and pepper and puree until velvety smooth.
Refrigerate overnight.
Divide soup evenly into Ball jars.
6 servings *

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