Ah, the great American . A lovely, checkered blanket with a basket of fried chicken, potato salad, some lovely and perfect . Bliss.
Picnics and summer are synonymous, and in Arizona they're also synonymous with Arizona's weather which is HOT - really hot. - 110 degrees hot! So when everyone else is packing up cute little wicker baskets to head out to the "sweltering" 90 degree heat at the shore, we have a lot more to worry about - like both food preservation and our very survival. Yet, we Arizonans are a tough bunch and we still head out. Whether it's a Fourth of July picnic in a park or a hike up north, we love eating outside. And, with the price of gasoline climbing hourly, we're taking more of what the experts are calling "stay-cations." We're staying close to home and if we're going do that, why not have a picnic?
Sadly, the romantic wicker basket is out - and today's picnic is more likely to be built around a much more utilitarian tool - the cooler.
And here's your first tip. Take two of them. Take one for the food and another dedicated to drinks. The reasoning here is that the kids (and everyone else for that matter!) will be opening and closing the drink cooler constantly, and consequently letting the cold out of the cooler if you use a single cooler for both food and drink. Sure, drinks don't spoil - but all your wonderful salads and meats can - and a single cooler strategy might replace the joy of your picnic with a lovely case of post-picnic food poisoning, Yikes!
Here are some additional tips you may want to consider before heading out with the family and your favorite foods packed up.
First, separate anything raw from anything ready-to-eat. That means any meat product that isn't cooked, steaks, hotdogs; hamburgers should go into a separate compartment from your salads, fruit, etc. That prevents any possibility of cross-contamination due to leakage.
I recently purchased one of those handy rolling coolers from my local warehouse store that had a separate compartment in the front. That's perfect. Or, just separate the two types of food, again, into a separate cooler.
I'm giving up my age here, but when I was growing up, there used to be a phone number you could call to get the time and temperature. Those two things, time and temperature, are critical when it comes to food safety and outdoor eating.
Keep this in mind: When the temperature is over 80 degrees, leave food out of the cooler for no longer than one, hour. If it's below 80 degrees, it's a two-hour maximum exposure time.
Now, here comes the temperature golden rule. There's a food danger temperature zone. You must keep cold food cold and hot foods hot. Perishable foods should NEVER fall outside a temperature range bordered by 40 degrees on the high end for cold foods, and 140 degrees at the low end for foods to be served hot.
That's the magic range - 40 to 140. If your food gets inside those limits for much longer than the time it takes to serve and eat it - you're potentially in trouble since bacteria starts to multiply rapidly. If you are in doubt, grab a simple food thermometer to do a quick check.
The final safety tip involves what I like to call the "mayo myth." I remember to this day my mother telling me to never eat the potato salad or deviled eggs at my cousin's picnic. Not that she didn't trust my aunt; she just truly believed that mayonnaise was the culprit of every food-borne illness known to man. And, if my aunt had the culinary chops to actually make her own mayo, that may have been true. She didn't. But anyone who uses a store-bought, commercial mayonnaise need not worry. Mayo got the bad rap when people made their own concoction and used non-pasteurized eggs. Today's mayo is made with pasteurized eggs and lots of vinegar, which is an acid that kills bacteria. That's why it's in the non-refrigerated section of the store. So, keep your prepared food cold, but go ahead and enjoy the potato salad all you want.
What to Bring Of course, you need the food, but you'll also need to put at least a little thought into what else to bring. Here's what I learned:
Take something to sit on. Those inexpensive beach mats are fantastic on grass, too. I just bought one at Target for $2.50. A simple plastic tablecloth works great too. Pack it and if there's a table you can use it there. If there isn't turn it so the plastic side lies on the grass and you reduce the chance of getting soiled or wet.
A couple of towels packed into your arsenal can also be rolled up to work as pillows if the lazy bug hits you. Then, they can be used to clean up or dry off the rambunctious 10 year-old who " accidentally" found himself waist-deep in the creek.
Purchase some of those flexible cutting boards. I found a package of four for about $5. They can be rolled up inside a napkin or bandana and used as a placemat or even a plate. Very handy to have when you have to slice and dice something, too.
Here's a quick list picnic must haves:
There are a lot of cute, inexpensive non-disposable, washable plastic dishware items out there. Take them home and wash them. Consider them as a way to reduce landfill waste.
Wet wipes or a spray bottle with water and a couple of teaspoons of bleach to sanitize surfaces and hands.
Save and take those extra packets of restaurant or drive through ketchup, mustard or mayo for sandwiches.
Don't forget first aid and sunscreen and bug spray. I know it seems obvious, but they make so many little travel sizes now, it's worth picking those up and keeping them in the side pocket of your picnic cooler so you can forget about it.
Trash bags, towels, easy to stash toys, a deck of cards and plenty of water are a must. If you freeze the bottles of water overnight, they can help cool your food and as they melt provide a wonderful supply of ice cold water.
And if the Arizona weather is really hot, consider picking up some of those neck wraps that when soaked in water, expand into a cooling scarf that can be wrapped around your neck or wrist to cool your body temperature. Kafka makes them in Phoenix, so they're home grown and cost $10 at REI stores or online.
Take food covers for your picnic buffet table. They make really cute screened food covers that are worth picking up especially when they go on clearance after the summer season. But, the important thing here is to keep the food covered. You don't want critters landing on your delicious food and contaminating it.
An Easy Grilling Tip Many times we want to serve baked beans or something else that needs to be heated in a pot. Here's a fun tip. Take some heavy-duty aluminum foil and plop it into the type of pan that you would cook the item in on the stove. Mold it into the same shape and fold over the top to create a sturdy lip. Now you've got a "pan shaped" foil bucket that can be put directly on the grill for re-heating. Scorched foil is no big deal. Scorched pans in my kitchen, apr¨s-picnic make me want to cry.
Picnics can be big family affairs or simple impromptu lunches on a creek. Both create wonderful memories and what I've learned through this is to simply think about the meal and keep it easy. Even a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich somehow tastes like a gourmet treat with the right scenery and the right company. And, by that I mean a blanket in the backyard with Grandma, all the way to the edge of the Grand Canyon with the entire family.
Live and learn!