What is it about eating a meal outside that just makes everything seem wonderful in the world? I'm smitten with alfresco dining, hungering for the open-air charms of rooftop restaurants (less common than you'd think here in Portland, Ore.) and practically camping out at the table on my back porch (or, as it's become known, "the satellite office") for the bulk of the summer. But my favorite summertime dining experience of all is the humble picnic.
I love setting out a blanket on a summer lawn, unpacking surprising treats from fetching little thrift-store baskets that make me feel much fancier than I am. There's the contrast between rustic surroundings and carefully prepared fare, the calming effect of an endless warm summer evening, and the basic lovely surprise when a still-warm pie is presented in the middle of a municipal park. Sometimes, though, you need to pack a picnic with a bit more practicality — no wicker baskets or checkered tablecloths, no stemware (plastic or otherwise) that you can use to dress up an occasion. Sometimes you want to pack a picnic for a hike.
I am a huge, huge fan of the post-hike picnic. As someone who feels like she should be given a medal just for bicycling the (mostly flat) mile and a half to the office, I am of the opinion that actual physical exertion should be rewarded with actual delicious food. There's also the basic reality that if you're climbing a mountain, you're going to work up an appetite.
Sometimes I go basic, tossing a granola bar or a few apples in a backpack — if I've hiked far enough, even a squashed 5-hour-old veggie burger can seem amazing. But sometimes I like to pack a proper picnic meal. Food you can sit and linger over, savoring the meal along with the summit view. Yes, preparing hike-friendly food is a bit more difficult than the usual summertime picnic spread. But with a bit of thought and planning, it can be easily done.
First, there's the basic food safety precautions. If you're going to be outside for several hours, it's best to leave your favorite egg and seafood combinations for another day (I'm sure my more laissez-faire European colleagues would take issue, but I've got a cautious view toward food poisoning). Dishes also need to lean more toward sturdiness than delicacy, so that you don't end up with a container of crumbs. And it's a good rule of thumb when it comes to flavor as well. Even if you usually appreciate the subtle charms of barely seasoned food, a sweaty few hours on the trail tends to bring out cravings for big flavors (as well as a few shots of protein and sugar).
As anyone who has backpacked through Europe can tell you, it's hard to go wrong with a crusty loaf of bread and wedge of good cheese. But why stop there? While lettuces may go limp, grain-based salads hold up beautifully, especially when studded with a handful of nuts, cheese or beans to add some welcome protein. Given food safety concerns, you probably want to leave mayo-dressed pasta salads at home (though perhaps you might have wanted to anyway), but salty-savory peanut sauces or punchy citrus or vinaigrette dressings work nicely. Simple slices of fresh fruits or vegetables can be surprisingly welcome, given their juicy crunch. And, of course, don't forget about a sturdy stack of cookies to bring along for a sweet reward. After all, you did just take a hike.