In a teaching kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America, a group of students is cleaning up after the morning session. Chef Joseph DePaola’s voice rises above the clang of pots and pans as he reminds them to refrigerate any leftover foods they’ve been working on, before heading out to lunch. This food-safety rule underscores everything they learn in the intense three-week practicum taught by DePaola.
It’s no surprise, then, that food safety is a primary issue when I ask him about preparing for a picnic. “Cooked foods have to be cooled properly,” he says. “I like small containers to keep foods separate. Temperatures are very important. Cook it and then cool it as quickly as possible. This is true in your home, but especially when you’re planning a picnic. When I’m backpacking, I’ll make dishes in advance and freeze them. I put them in my cooler, and by the time I’m ready to eat…” Voilà! The dish is thawed, and still bacteria-free.
The next advice he proffers has to do with which food items hold best. “For example, with salads – we have greens, herbs and dressings. But if I dress it early, what happens? It wilts; it starts to decompose. It’s not at its best. Acids and salts [from the salad dressing] pull water from lettuces, and textures change; they get mooshy. To maintain freshness, I’d say dress á la minute: to the minute. So, a little baggie of vinaigrette; add it to your container of salad at the last minute.”
Chef DePaola is an assistant professor who has been teaching at the CIA for 12 years, guiding students through a number of classes: á la carte, Mediterranean, breakfast, fundamentals, banquets. “This job is 100 percent contact,” he says, referring to the constant flow of back-and-forth communication in the kitchen. “We want to make an impact on [students] so that when nobody’s looking, they’ll do the right thing. And they’ll understand what they’re doing: Every decision you make in the kitchen should be logical and make sense, whether it’s food safety, efficiency in time or in getting the most out of the food products.”
Translating this into picnic prep, DePaola talks efficiency. “What do I suggest for a picnic? Typically, leftovers – when I say that, I mean pre-prepared, precooked – have traditionally been the best. So, in that case, a pre-roasted chicken, baked or grilled fish. You can grill an extra steak – or a head of cauliflower, if you want to go vegetarian. Pre-prepared makes the job easier. Because, what do we want to spend our time doing? Being out with each other, enjoying ourselves, playing in the grass, smelling the flowers, talking about the clouds.”
Anything handheld is apropos for casual outdoor munching. Remember crunching into slices of watermelon when you were a kid, letting the sweet juice run down to your cheeks and elbows and into the grass? “Slice and dice things smaller so they’re easier to eat,” says DePaola. “Why even bring utensils? Take lettuces or endive or wraps to put your food in. Bring a hand sanitizer, which can be vinegar and water or lemon juice. Take a lemon and rub it on your hands. That’s healthier than sanitation wipes. I don’t want to put those in the earth or in the mouth!”
The CIA’s overriding focus on grain-forward, plant-based menus permeates all of DePaola’s suggestions. “This is where we as a species must move in order to sustain ourselves. It’s a larger trend in food in general. For picnics, I’d say grains. Start simple; use canned beans or legumes. When you’re making rice or quinoa, bulgur or faro, make more so you have the leftover portion to do something with. Think foods high in vinegar, high in acids. High acid reduces bacterial growth. So, use vinaigrettes instead of dressings.
“Also, think lower in fats. At room temperature, fats coat the palate and mask flavors. Grilling and roasting are great trends, and they’re also healthier. We don’t need the extra fat. Think less animal protein. We don’t need as much. Less is more. Take that chicken and shred it into greens with a nice vinaigrette of cider vinegar, red wine vinegar or balsamic. Lemons and limes in spring and summer are amazing. Use lots of herbs and greens – parsley, cilantro, chervil, tarragon – that are less resinous and more delicate. The more diverse our diet is, the better we’re going to be, the better our overall health. Fruits, I’d do day and night. For picnics, take what’s fresh, local and seasonal. It requires less effort. Fresh fruit is already at its best – and cheapest and most abundant. If nothing else, I’d finish with that.”
I ask if there anything that people should absolutely never do in preparing for a picnic. “Watch the highly perishable items that are cooked and left at room temperature: cooked potatoes, cooked eggs, cooked proteins. Cooked rice – you can get very sick. People think ‘the Chinese food made me sick.’ No! Nine out of ten times, it’s the Bacillus cereus in the cooked rice!” He points out that that’s why sushi rice is doused with vinegar, and that German potato salad is dressed with vinegar rather than mayonnaise made with raw eggs. “I love condiments that are high in salt or high in acid, which are bacteria inhibitors or at least slow down the development. I want to really enjoy my picnic and not…” We won’t go there.
Instead, feast your eyes at the CIA’s www.ciafoodies.com/category/free-recipes for fabulous ideas that you can try at home, including Corn Salad with Summer Fruits and Vegetables, Chayote and Jicama Salsa, Grilled Zucchini Kebabs, Traditional Cole Slaw (substitute olive oil for the mayo) and much more. This Pan Bagnat is a make-ahead taste of the Mediterranean. Because the sandwiches get chilled after assembly, this recipe calls for letting them sit out for an hour before eating –which, if you’re in the hot sun at the park or beach, seems to be negating those best food-safety practices. I’d keep them in the cooler until time to devour. Enjoy!
Pan Bagnat Sandwich & Dressing
• 6 tablespoons red wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons chopped basil
• 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 4 anchovy fillets
• 1 jalapeño, roasted, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
• 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 8 ciabatta rolls or 2 baguettes
• 1 lb. drained oil-packed tuna, flaked
• 1 cup peeled, seeded, and diced tomato
• 1/2 cup Roasted Pepper Topping (recipe below)
• 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pitted Kalamata olives
• 1 large seedless cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
• 1/2 cup minced red onion
• 2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
• 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1. Combine the vinegar, basil, parsley, anchovies and jalapeño in a blender and purée until smooth. With the motor running, slowly pour in the oil. This dressing can be made in advance and stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two days. Let it warm to room temperature and stir or shake well to recombine before using.
2. Cut the rolls in half lengthwise and scoop out the insides. Crumble the bread that you’ve pulled out of the rolls into a medium bowl and add the tuna, tomatoes, roasted pepper topping, olives, cucumber, onion, eggs, capers and garlic. Add enough dressing to moisten and bind the filling. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Brush the inside of the rolls with some of the remaining dressing. Fill the roll with about a half-cup of the tuna mixture and firmly press the sandwich closed. Wrap each sandwich tightly with waxed paper. You can hold the assembled sandwiches in the refrigerator for up to eight hours.
Roasted Pepper Topping
• 3 medium bell peppers (red, yellow and green), left whole with stems
• 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
• 2 tablespoons golden raisins
• 2 tablespoons dry sherry wine
• 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
• 1/2 cup diced, seeded tomato
• 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
• 5 Kalamata olives, pitted & cut into strips
• 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, plus leaves for garnish
• 1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
• 1 garlic clove, minced
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ Fahrenheit.
2. Rub the peppers with a little olive oil and place them in a baking pan. Roast the peppers, turning them every 15 to 20 minutes, until they are very soft: about 45 minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, pull out and discard the stems and seeds. Pull off the skin and cut the peppers into thin strips. You can roast as many peppers as you wish and store any that you don’t need for this dish in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.
3. In a small bowl, combine the raisins with the sherry and let the raisins soften for about 10 minutes.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil, vinegar and mustard. Add the tomato, onion, olives, cilantro, jalapeño and garlic and stir to combine.