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Thursday, June 26, 2003 02:20 pm

Picnics in the park

Tips on making an outdoor meal memorable


No meal says the Fourth of July quite like a picnic. Spreading out a well-worn blanket on a patch of green grass and dining on cold fried chicken is as much of a time-honored tradition as fireworks and cherry pie. As the season for the ultimate in outdoor dining jumps into high gear next holiday weekend, why not add a little pizzazz to your picnic?

When it's time for an open-air meal, local chef and cooking instructor Julianne Glatz leaves the paper napkins at home. A fan of dining under the stars, she has to travel no farther than the backyard of her country home. But whether you're planning a backyard buffet or just heading to the local park with a box lunch, she insists a picnic can be an elegant affair.

Glatz follows certain rules to insure her portable meal is a success. First, serve food that requires only a fork. "Especially if you're not sitting at a table, it's much easier to eat food that you only need a fork for," she says. "Not necessarily finger food, but food on skewers and salads, for example. That's my biggest thing: food that you don't have to fiddle with." Though most people think skewered food involves grilled meat, Glatz suggests threading fresh melon balls with cooked shrimp, for example, instead of serving a bowl of fruit. "Serve raw vegetables on skewers, instead of on a platter, with a dip. Anything with a dip."

Each year she and her family visit the Ravinia Music Festival north of Chicago for one of her favorite picnic outings. Ravinia is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but it's not just the music that draws her to the place. "Part of the fun is seeing the picnics people put together," she says. "They range from deli take-out containers, plastic forks, and a blanket to folding tables covered with linen, silver candelabra, and platters of pâté and caviar."

Glatz's personal picnic menu may include favorite dishes like tarragon shrimp and melon skewers, chicken and apple sausages in cheddar pastry, chilled tomato and cantaloupe soup, corn and crab salad in lettuce cups. The meal is completed with macadamia nuts, white chocolate bars, and fresh fruit. In fact, she recreates her favorite picnic menu during one of her cooking classes at her business, Real Cuisine. Needless to say, at Ravinia her picnic spread has drawn admiring glances from other concertgoers. "We didn't have silver platters--but quite a few people asked us who had catered our meal," she says.

In the right hands even a bucket of fried chicken can seem special. "It doesn't have to be elaborate food, but fresh and seasonal food is a must. And anything that can make the meal look visually appealing is nice," says Glatz, who has decorated dishes with chopped vegetables, herbs, or edible flowers.

Don't forget the basics. Don't leave prepared foods outside in warm weather for more than two hours. Discard leftovers. Bring disposable moist towelettes or extra water, soap, and paper towels, so you can wash your hands. Avoid bringing dishes that contain raw eggs, such as cream pies or homemade ice cream. Pack food directly from the refrigerator into your cooler. Transport the cooler and picnic basket in the interior of your vehicle, not the trunk. Use a separate cooler for drinks and food, so the one containing perishable items won't be constantly opened and closed. And once at the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade.

If you want a totally hassle-free meal, many local groceries and restaurants make picnic meals. Jennifer Maurer, a manager at the Higher Ground Cafe, says box lunches packed with sandwiches and fruit are very popular this time of year. They're perfect for a uncomplicated picnic for two. "Right now, we've got 60 lunches going out the door," she says.

And don't forget the atmosphere. Even if you aren't listening to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the stars or don't have advanced culinary talent, there are still simple touches that can make any picnic a success. Light a few candles, throw a colorful tablecloth over a picnic table, and play some of your favorite music to set the mood. After all, the point of a picnic is to enjoy a meal in the great outdoors. Even a bratwurst tastes better when served on a silver platter.

Besides food
Essentials for the well-packed picnic basket:
blanket, old quilt, or tablecloth
paper or cloth napkins
garbage bag
matches, candles, and candleholders
paper towels
insect repellent

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