Spring Recipe Revival
It is the time of year when I like to talk about cooking and dining in the great outdoors. The North Texas weather has been unconventionally cooler going into the spring months this year, however that makes for perfect picnic dining and outdoor grilling. While some may prefer the warmer temps, the delightfully tepid breezy days and cool (if not cold!) nights provide an alluring atmosphere for alfresco activities. The intolerable afternoon and evening high temperatures will be here soon enough - let’s enjoy the opportunity we have now for pleasant meals on the patio or in the park without blistering heat and a barrage of annoying insects.
THE PERFECT PICNIC
When planning a picnic, the most important thing to consider is how to pack and transport the food for maximum freshness, healthfulness and presentation. There are many different containers available, each designed for specific needs. It is always necessary to choose the best container that provides proper insulation. Cold foods need to stay cold, hot foods need to stay hot. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Achieving that goal is the challenge.
Reusable containers and plastic zip-top bags are leak-proof if sealed properly. These are generally easy to pack as well. This option is best for foods that need to be kept cold. Hot foods are best when thoroughly heated and stored in insulated, vacuum or thermal containers. Run hot water in the containers to heat the interiors before filling with hot food to ensure that the food remains hot.
Convenience is important and usually time is of essence when planning and packing a picnic. However, consider the environment as well and utilize reusable containers and utensils whenever possible. When using plastic bags for food, also use them to contain and transport dirty utensils after the meal, or use for collecting leftover trash. Be wise, not wasteful. Remember to pack a few moist towelettes for clean-up.
PACKING THE COOLER
The cooler is the best choice for transporting properly packed foods. The common Styrofoam cooler is a popular choice; it is economical and does a good job insulating the food. Lids on these coolers tend to come off easily though, making spilling common, and the old familiar squeak of the Styrofoam can drive you nuts while driving to your destination.
Molded plastic coolers are great for long distance traveling. They are easy to clean and do a great job insulating the food. It is best to use one that will fit the amount of food you are packing, but will not be too heavy to carry when full of food and ice. It is easier to manage two small coolers than one large one, unless you have good helpers!
Keeping food cold in the coolers is the primary concern. It is most important to begin by thoroughly chilling the food. The food needs to be cold before packing the cooler. Inside the cooler, consider ice packs of ice cubes in zip-top bags or freezer packs (reusable/refreezeable non-toxic gel-filled bags/containers). Freezer packs tend to stay cold longer than ice. They are very convenient and you don’t have to worry about water spills or leakage.
When packing the cooler, try to surround the food with ice or freezer packs, but with limited space keep the ice packs on top. A full cooler stays colder than a half-full cooler. Using solid containers for food protects it better than food in plastic zip-top bags, however, the bags usually make it easier to fit more food in the cooler. If packing food in glass bowls or on serving dishes, wrap well with plastic wrap and place inside a paper bag to prevent breakage. Use napkins and towels as cushions if necessary.
The traditional picnic basket works best for carrying the serving utensils, tablecloth or any sealed foods that do not require chilling or warming, such as chips or cookies. A large picnic basket can also conceal a smaller, soft-sided flexible cooler for holding the chilled food. Baskets come in a variety of shapes and sizes and should be chosen according to the intended use.
COMMON SENSE, BEST DEFENSE
Certain foods, such as those using mayo, require special attention. Mayonnaise is subject to bacterial activity, which can be very toxic, without many indications of spoilage present. Sometimes, if the recipe that includes mayo also includes lemon juice or vinegar, the acid content (as well as keeping the food cold) will help deter bacterial growth. It is always necessary to chill mayo-based foods thoroughly prior to packing, and always keep the food in an ice-packed cooler when not being served. Set the serving dish in a larger container lined with ice for a buffet-style picnic serving arrangement. Common sense is your best defense - it is always better to be safe than sorry!
FIRE-UP THE GRILL
About this time every year, I usually mention lots of grilling tips for the outdoors cook. Here are important things for every grill master to keep in mind:
-- Choose a grill that is sturdy and of heavy construction. A charcoal grill imparts a delicious flavor to the food. For convenience, gas grills are easy to start and control the heat, however, the flavor can be quite different from charcoal or wood-burning grills. When using a gas grill, use soaked wood chips (loosely wrapped in foil and set inside the grill) to help add a smoky flavor.
-- The temperature of the coals is important. For most direct cooking, medium-hot coals are fine. Slow coals are recommended for indirect cooking, such as barbecued meats. Use long grilling gadgets and barbecue tools for a safe reach from the heat. Keep a small spray bottle filled with water around to help tame the flame. Do not soak the coals with water; spray lightly as needed.
-- Lightly brush vegetable oil on the cooking grate before preheating the grill; it helps to keep food from sticking to the cooking surface. Marinating is the best way to tenderize tough foods and add great flavor. A simple liquid marinade consists of a cooking oil, an acid and seasonings. The oil moistens food and allows for even distribution of added seasonings. The acid is usually a citrus juice, vinegar, soy sauce or wine, and will tenderize food, as well as add flavor, depending on the length of time allowed for marinating. Marinades can also be dry, more commonly called <rubs>, such as a crushed herb-and-spice coating that is applied directly to the food before grilling.
-- Wooden skewers are commonly used to thread chunks of meat, seafood, vegetables and fruit for shish kebabs. Soak wooden skewers for thirty minutes before using to prevent burning on the grill. To eliminate the possibility of flaming skewers, and for easy turning, use flat metal skewers.
-- Always have a clean plate for cooked food. Do not put cooked food on a plate that was temporarily used for raw meat - cross contamination occurs, which could cause food poisoning. When using a barbecue sauce to baste food on the grill, have a fresh separate portion of barbecue sauce set aside to serve with the meal. Safe food handling should always be top priority. Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold and wash your hands after every task.
REJUVENATE THOSE RECIPES
We all have favorite recipes that tend to resurface at various times of the year. Nature’s emergence of spring growth, the urgency of spring cleaning and the surge of outdoor activities lend the perfect motivation to rejuvenate those recipes for today’s home cook. For example, I have lots of favorite cooking class recipes from many years ago that I have overlooked and not prepared for many years. Digging out those old recipes, and adding a few minor updated tweaks, provided inspiration for my highlighted recipe, Grilled Chicken Pasta Salad. While the overall taste remains largely the same, my new version utilizes all the new options in ingredients we conveniently have available to us in our modern world.
The grilled chicken preparation is now a bit lower in fat; I simply adjusted the amount of vegetable oil used in the marinade. Pasta is now available in many shapes, sizes and forms previously unknown, so choose a fun, healthful design - I chose the mini bowties. Where I originally used a “very gourmet” Dijon mustard, now I’ve opted for a German Düsseldorf yellow mustard. And of course, the range of fresh vegetables to include is much expanded from years ago. My original recipe called for including broccoli and cauliflower (which is perfectly fine and delicious). For an updated twist, I’ve kept the broccoli (only now, very lightly cooked), and mostly for eye-appeal, dropped the cauliflower and added fresh slices of colorful mini bell peppers. Only a few minor changes, again not enough to change the overall flavor or intent, but just enough to add the “spring cleaning” this recipe needed.
Use this example to rejuvenate your favorite recipes from springtime past. Incorporate the plethora of new, fresh, original, organic ingredients now widely available in every grocery store. A tweak on the taste, a fine-tune of flavor, an amended appearance and a most important concern - changes for healthful living, are all important aspects to consider when revisiting generations of handed-down recipes. Springtime rejuvenation is underway; spice-up all those perfect picnic and gourmet grilling favorites to enjoy outdoors while the outdoors enjoyment is good.
Grilled Chicken Pasta Salad
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
boneless/skinless chicken breasts, pounded to 1/2-inch thickness
1/2 pound uncooked mini bowtie pasta
1/2 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons Düsseldorf mustard
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot pepper sauce to taste
1 cup blanched broccoli florets
2 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup mini red bell pepper slices
Combine marinade ingredients in a large bowl, place chicken breasts in marinade, turning to coat and let marinate in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours (at least 1 hour). Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain cooking water and allow pasta to cool while grilling chicken. Remove chicken from marinade and grill on high heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side, until no longer pink in the center. Allow chicken to cool and cut into strips. Combine mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, and hot pepper sauce to taste in a large bowl. Add cooked pasta, broccoli florets, green onions and grilled chicken strips. Toss salad to coat with dressing. Top with mini red bell pepper slices to garnish. Chill thoroughly before serving.
(Notes: Use the flat side of a meat mallet to pound chicken breasts to 1/2-inch thickness. This allows for even (and quick) cooking on the grill. Use any shape pasta you prefer - I like the mini bowties for size, texture and appearance. Cook the broccoli florets to your liking - or leave uncooked, if you prefer. Blanching is simply cooking in boiling water very briefly, then cooling quickly in ice water to stop the cooking and preserve the color. This salad is a nice picnic dish, however, since it contains mayo, it is very important to keep it chilled until serving.)