Home cooking with Mary Ann Esposito: Basil and Chicken Wraps, Strawberry Ice Box Cake and Potato Salad

Photography by Greg West

Food styling by Leslie Ware

July is national picnic month, and so it should be with the Fourth of July and all. It is so American, a duty of summer, and yet I wonder how many of us know where the idea of picnics originated. The word “picnic” is actually from the French word piquer, which means to pick or poke at food. During the seventeenth cen­tury, the French combined the word with nique, so piquer-nique was then used to indicate a social gathering where everybody contributed some sort of food for the occasion. Sounds very much like a potluck to me.

I define a picnic as a meditative, out-of-doors dining experience somewhere serene-maybe in a quiet woodland or near a slightly babbling brook-where eat­ing and observing nature are uninterrupted by the rhythm of daily life, and where one can get lost in a good book or a good conversation along with enjoying simple, portable foods, such as cheese, fruit, crackers and deviled eggs.

Through the ages, picnics have taken on many forms. There is the casual, spur-of-the-moment picnic spent on a blanket strewn across a turf of grass. Sandwiches from the deli, some chips and pickles-all washed down by cans of soda-seem to fall in this category.

There is the tailgate picnic, tied to the big game (usually football). The trunk of one’s car becomes a dining room, complete with a portable cooler or refrigerator, and a grill for cooking hamburgers, hot dogs and toasting marshmallows.

There is the romantic picnic for two, alone with thoughts, dreams, perhaps a bottle of good red wine and takeout quiche from an upscale deli.

But the family-reunion picnic seems to be the most popular of all. This pic­nic consists of red-checked paper table­cloths draping picnic tables, lawn chairs, Frisbees®, paper plates and lots of pic­nic food-from corn to watermelon, along with a bevy of relatives not seen in ages but who gravitate to this once-a-year renewal of identity.

Whatever form a picnic takes, there are a few tips worth noting when plan­ning one:

1. Select foods that are easily por­table and will not spoil. For example, opt for a marinated salad in place of one with mayonnaise.

2. Keep prepared foods in a cooler or a portable refrigerator.

3. Prepare as many dishes as possible ahead at home, reducing the amount of preparation necessary at the picnic location.

4. Do not let raw meats stand at room temperature at the picnic site. For example, form hamburger patties at home, refrigerate them en route and keep them refrigerated until they are put on the grill. Ditto for chicken, ribs and steak.

5. If you plan to bring hot food-such as a casserole-wrap it well in newspaper to keep it hot.

And what about the rainy day picnic when Mother Nature decides to ruin all your plans? Have an indoor picnic! The following recipes are perfect for that, too.

Basil and Chicken Wrap

Serves 6

The garden is my inspiration for summer picnic foods. Using large lettuce or basil leaves instead of bread for these chicken “wraps” makes for great, guilt-free eating.

2 cups finely minced cooked chicken

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup shredded Swiss cheese

1/4 cup minced red onion

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 tablespoons minced tarragon or parsley

6 large basil or lettuce leaves

12 cherry tomatoes, for garnish

1. Combine all the ingredients, except the basil or lettuce leaves and tomatoes, in a bowl.

2. Divide and spread the mixture on each of the basil or lettuce leaves. Roll up like a wrap. Secure with a couple of cherry tomatoes on a toothpick.

Recipe courtesy of Ciao Italia Pronto!

Aunt Jenny’s Strawberry Ice Box Cake

Serves 8-10

My Aunt Jenny was notorious for cutting cooking corners, while my mother always cooked “from scratch.” At family picnics, this refrigerator “cake” was her standard offering. If you like to cut corners too, make this cake. It is best made when strawberries are in season, and especially if they are small and wild because their flavor is exquisite.

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon strawberry or vanilla extract

2 cups strawberries, cut into small pieces, plus 4 whole berries for garnish

1 package chocolate wafer cookies

Several whole mint sprigs

1. Whip the cream in the bowl of a mixer until it holds soft peaks. Sprinkle in the sugar and whip another few seconds until the cream holds stiff peaks. Fold in the strawberry or vanilla extract. Fold in the strawberries.

2. Spread one side of each of 10 wafer cookies with a small amount of the whipped cream mixture. Stack the wafers and set aside on a dish. Fill in any gaps between the wafers with more cream. Repeat with the remaining wafers until there are 4 stacks.

3. Place two stacks next to each other on a serving platter and then place the remaining two stacks on top. Make sure they touching each other with no gaps. Frost the “cake” generously with the remaining strawberry cream, making sure no gaps remain. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

4. When ready to serve, place the whole strawberries on top of the cake with a few sprigs of mint. Slice to serve.

Recipe courtesy of www.ciaoitalia.com

Potato Salad

Serves 6

Potato salads doused in mayonnaise are a familiar picnic favorite, but here is a healthier version that uses vinegar and olive oil in the dressing.

4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon fine salt

Grinding black pepper

2 large plum tomatoes, thinly sliced

4 large cooked, red-skin potatoes, thinly sliced

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 rib celery, thinly sliced

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced into rounds

2 tablespoons minced chives

1. Whisk the vinegar and oil together in a small bowl. Stir in the salt and pepper, and set aside.

2. Combine the tomatoes, potatoes, onion and celery in a shallow serving bowl. Pour the dressing over the top and toss gently to coat the ingredients. Cover the dish and allow it to marinate several hours at room temperature.

3. Just before serving, garnish with the egg slices and sprinkle the chives over the top.

Recipe courtesy of www.ciaoitalia.com