How to take your picnic to the next level

May 8, 2015

The picnics Jen Stevenson attends are more elaborate than just a blanket and a basket of food. Stevenson's picnics involve pre-bottled cocktails, dishes assembled al fresco and dessert displays on wheels. She is co-author of The Picnic and a member of The Portland Picnic Society.

Rebecca Sheir: Who's part of The Portland Picnic Society? Who comes to these picnics?

Jen Stevenson: We have a group of girls. Everyone is involved in the food and wine industry in some way. It really runs this amazing spectrum. We have several restaurant owners; we have quite a few food writers, cookbook authors and food stylists. One of our friends who's in the club owns a salami company, two of them own bakeries and one owns a chocolate shop.

We have this amazing spread of women in the Portland food scene, which is one reason our picnics are so spectacular and delicious. Everyone takes it to the next level really very effortlessly because good food is just such a part of their everyday life.

Get creative with how you bring things to the picnic


RS
: Many of the dishes in the book seem, at first glance, to be things that you'd never be able to take to a picnic. But you find these really creative ways to make them portable. Can you share some of your favorites?

Jen Stevenson (Photo: Leela Cyd)

JS: We get pretty creative with how we bring things to the picnic. We have pretty much transported a dish in every which way.

One of our favorite ways to bring things is in our official little red wagon. We have a Radio Flyer that's just for the picnic; it's just this battered red wagon we found at a garage sale. We can fit a lot in that wagon. We've done everything from fill it with ice and keep the rosé in there to turning it into our dessert display. If we have a lot of desserts, we'll put them all in the wagon and roll it back and forth as our sweet tooth strikes.

You can borrow from other cultures. You can use a tiffin, for example. A tiffin is an Indian-style lunch pail. It's separate compartments that stack on top of each other; then they click into place with a little handle -- a holder. It's wonderful because they're all separate.

We have this beautiful niçoise salad. You can pack the tuna in one layer so it doesn't get all over the tomato, the olives and the rest of the salad. That's one of our favorite ways to bring dishes that have separate components, because it's so tidy.

Make dishes -- and cocktails -- ahead of time


RS
: You aren't afraid of bringing cocktails to a picnic. Are they really that easy to make? Are they that easy and safe to transport?


Recipe from The Picnic: Shocking-Pink Beet Hummus

JS: Yes. In fact, our favorite way to bring cocktails to the picnic is to bottle them.

Our friend Katie Burnett, one of our picnic girls, is our resident mixologist. We had this one picnic where she came with a basket of bottled cocktails. The whole picnic just stopped. Everyone was crowded around these gorgeous little bottled cocktails. We were completely captivated.

She told us, "No, I promise it's really easy." We were like, "Of course it's not. Look how exquisite those are. It must be really hard." She told us how to do it, so now we always bottle our cocktails.

What you do is you make them at home. It's a little upfront investment. You have to get your bottles, your caps and your bottle capper. You can order them online. We tell you where in the back of the book. But it's just as easy to go down to your local beer-making supply shop and pick everything up there.

Once you have all the equipment, you just make your cocktails. We do them individually, but you could do them in a batch. Use a little funnel, pour the cocktail into the bottle and then cap it.

It's perfect because you have individual portions. Then when you're transporting them to the picnic, they're completely sealed. Even if they fall over or take a tumble, they're not going anywhere. It's this foolproof way to get your cocktail to the picnic. You have that "wow factor" when you put them out on ice and you have your paper straws. Everyone's oohing and aahing over your trick that must've taken forever but it really didn't.

But don't be afraid to do a little assembly on site


RS
: I love your idea for deviled eggs.


The Picnic

JS: They tend to be one of those dishes that can congeal on the way and not look as fresh and delicious as they should. We put the egg whites in a separate container, then we put the filling into a Ziploc bag. When we get to the picnic, we snip the corner off and we fill the egg right on site. Then we add whatever garnish we might be putting on that egg, whether it's a little ribbon of smoked salmon and a sprig of dill. By the time we serve it, it's super fresh and beautiful.

RS: You're not afraid to do a lot of assembly when you actually get to the picnic?

JS: No, we like doing a lot of assembly. I think we enjoy the challenge of seeing what exactly we can get away with. We realize that sometimes we go over the top, but it's fun for us, and it's a challenge.

For example, lemon lavender cream pots are little dishes of lemon curd. You bring the cream separately. You bring your bowl and your whisk, whip it on site, top the dish of lemon curd and add a little flower petal. It's really not that hard to bring something on site like that and do it right there. Everyone jumps in and helps. It adds a dinner party aspect to it, like you've brought the dinner party right outside. It just adds this whole other festive element to the picnic.

RS: You have a very clever and sneaky way of pitting cherries al fresco.

JS: We have a salad in the book. It's a gorgeous salad. It's perfect if you want to have something beautiful but you don't want to spend a lot of time making it. It's a cherry, pistachio and mint salad. I made that for a picnic that we have in the book. It's a theme picnic called "Meet Me at the Manor."

I had all these cherries, which means they have to be pitted. It's one of my least favorite things to do. I have a cherry pitter, but it's one of those that's very fidgety and tends to squirt juice in your eye. I was on the Internet looking at all the different ways to pit a cherry: You can use a paring knife or you can do the paperclip trick.

I found that you can use a wine bottle and a chopstick, and that works so beautifully. You just put the cherry on top of the neck of the wine bottle. Obviously, it should be empty at that point. You use a chopstick to poke the pit right through into the empty bottle. It's completely contained and easy. Then you have your cherries. You slice them in half, sprinkle some pistachios and some fresh mint on top, and you have a gorgeous salad.