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The Picnic Spread

Pressed for Time? Don't Let It Hamper Your Quest for an Alfresco Meal for Two.

(Photo And Styling By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post; Grass From American Plant)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008; Page F01

Have we lost the art of the intimate picnic?

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There is evidence for concern. Sad wicker hampers were seen aplenty at spring yard sales. Outfitted baskets were not high on the list of June's bridal gift registries; if you own one of them, how long has it been since you used it?

And the main-course fare that once filled those hampers (freshly fried chicken, boiled hams and glorious whole pies made from scratch) has been replaced by sets of sandwich-chips-cookie-soda and wine-cheese-baguette, look-alike "gourmet" samplers or a costly selection of small containers from the prepared-foods case. Or whatever fast food is on the way to where you are headed. In a rush.

With the holiday weekend, weeknight concerts and the promise of slower-paced days just ahead, we figured this was a good time to reacquaint ourselves with food that can come together quickly yet deserves to be savored. We challenged three Washington area caterers to compose summery picnic menus for two in a range of price points. They relied on commonly found pantry items, store-bought items and prepped salad-bar ingredients to make the numbers work and the recipes sing.

Molly Marino, a classically trained 32-year-old private chef who lives in Cleveland Park, filled the $10 bill with vegetarian fare built for the outdoors. The dressing for her sweet potato salad owes its creaminess to a roasted red pepper puree instead of heat-sensitive mayonnaise, and her hummus gets its earthy flavor from black-eyed peas and caramelized onion. A stone-fruit salsa, toasted tortilla chips and a refreshing homemade limeade round out the menu. Her picnic has "the added benefit of being flavorful and healthy," she says.

Executive chef Carla Hall, 44, who has owned Alchemy Catering in Wheaton for eight years, packed her $20 picnic with Asian-inspired food and an aggressive plan: "I like to choose dishes with bold flavors that are memorable when served chilled and/or room temperature. Call it ego, but I also want someone looking at the spread saying, 'Wow! Where did they get that? That looks fantastic!' "

She chose salmon that cost $8 per pound and added lime zest to store-bought teriyaki sauce, which retains its flavor when chilled. She shopped for produce at Asian markets, where prices are often lower. Her fish, jasmine rice salad and slaw can be made in advance and eaten with chopsticks. With a few dollars left in her budget and a choice of dessert or beverage yet to be made, the chef bought a bottle of plonk. (As an alternative, you can skip the wine and macerate blueberries and chunks of mango in a ginger-infused simple syrup, with toasted coconut as garnish.)

It was a sure bet that as the owner of Seafoodie in Reston, Kevin Mesiah would create his $30 picnic around a well-designed seafood dish. The 45-year-old self-taught cook came up with a lime-ginger corn salad with poached shrimp that looks and tastes bright and lively. "It's a one-pot dish, and good food for a picnic setting," he says.

Mesiah kept costs down by using shredded Parmesan cheese and prepped vegetables from the salad bar for the shrimp and for his first course, a spinach artichoke dip. His is more economical than a standard spinach-artichoke dip because it calls for frozen creamed spinach; no cooking is involved, either. His dessert can be composed on-site, with layers of honeyed fruit, yogurt and granola.

Of course, there's no requirement that any of their dishes be consumed alfresco. For those without outdoor space or picnic plans, spread a blanket on the floor, lay out the spread and call it dinner.

Picnic Resources and Recipes

See this page for a shopping list and breakdown of picnic costs.

Under $10

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