Writing about the "why" of picnics at Backroads in a recent blog post got me thinking about the "how..." I certainly wasn't born knowing how to create a bountiful spread for 20+ people in the middle of nowhere, and our guests are always curious where this seemingly magical skill comes from when they roll up to an overflowing lunch table.
So here are a few tips and tricks I use when creating some of my favorite dishes. Try them the next time you're tasked with pleasing a throng of long-lost relatives or picky eaters and bring some Backroads organization, aesthetics and deliciousness to the table!
Put it on display: Bright colors, fun patterns or unique shapes for serving dishes instantly liven up presentation. "Elevate" your meal by setting dishes out at different heights; it adds to the appearance of your spread and creates room on crowded tables. A box of soda or a pile of paper plates can be covered in clean dish towels and used as pedestals.
Garnish: Kale or collard greens "class up" a plain platter - lay the greens down first, then display your food on top. Add a handful of berries to just about any dish and suddenly you have a fresh, colorful palette. Add different tastes, textures and colors that complement the main ingredient - like nuts and dried fruit on a cheese board or cherry tomatoes and lemon wedges on a salmon platter.
RECIPE IDEA: BACKROADS CHEESE BOARD
3-4 local cheeses of differing hard, soft and flavor varieties
Almonds, pistachios and/or cashews
Berries or dried fruit like apricots and cherries
Baguette slices and/or quality crackers
1-2 apples, sliced
Arrange cheeses on nice wooden cutting board. Cut labels out of packaging and press to cutting board so they stick next to their respective cheeses. Slice hard cheeses into different shapes (diagonals, squares, sticks) and rounds or softs into wedges to make serving easier. Arrange piles of apple slices, nuts, berries and/or dried fruit between cheeses (abundance is good!). Crackers and bread slices can also be piled onto cutting board if large enough; otherwise, serve on the side. Add a small cheese knife for serving.
Speed up clean up: Use tinfoil to wrap a tray before covering with garnish so you can unwrap and toss the remnants of a particularly messy dish easily, especially if transporting the serving dish home before washing. Clean dish towels can be used in bowls full of chips or popcorn or cookies to the same end: drape across the bowl to dress up the dish AND help funnel leftovers back into bags or boxes afterward.
RECIPE IDEA: BACKROADS TUNA SALAD
2 large cans tuna, drained
1 bunch green onion, chopped
1 apple, diced
½ bunch parsley, chopped
1-2 stalks celery, chopped
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
Fresh dill, to taste
Dijon mustard, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine tuna, onion, apple, parsley and celery. Mix dill, mustard, lemon juice, salt and pepper into Greek yogurt, then add to first ingredients. Serve in foil-lined bowl with kale for garnish.
Accommodate everyone: Gluten-free? Nut allergy? Vegan? Lactose intolerant? I've seen it all when it comes to dietary restrictions. Simple solutions make most dishes accessible to everyone. Let folks dress their own salads with oil and vinegar. Serve nuts and/or cheeses for green and pasta salads on the side. Hard veggies with hummus satisfy everyone's needs. Buy rice- or corn-based crackers, chips and tortillas to keep a meal gluten-free. Substitute quinoa for couscous for gluten-free grain salads. Use oil instead of butter, yogurt or mayo to make anything vegan. Garbanzo beans or edamame can go into all sorts of dishes to add vegan-approved protein. Separating utensils and cutting boards can help alleviate allergen cross-contamination. Keep dessert simple: try dark chocolate with strawberries or coconut macaroons and sorbet.
RECIPE IDEA: ARUGULA SALAD WITH EDAMAME AND AVOCADO
1 large box arugula
4-5 avocados (you can never have too many!)
1 pint blueberries
1 tub (about ½ cup) precooked, shelled edamame
Crumbled cheese (goat or feta are my favorites)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Oil and vinegar or lemon juice
Dump arugula in large bowl. Add avocado chunks, blueberries, edamame and cheese on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve alongside quality olive oil and apple cider vinegar or fresh lemon juice. My secret ingredients? A drizzle of pure maple syrup and a dusting of nutritional yeast.
Remember: Have fun with your preparations. There's no "right" way to do most meals; stay creative! When possible, use fresh, local, quality ingredients. Don't forget plates, napkins, salt, pepper, condiments and serving utensils.
And for a final "pro tip:" Try setting out a bouquet of fresh flowers on any table... it's my favorite garnish of all. Now get out there and crush those holiday potlucks or summer picnics!