What's in Your Basket?

Pamela Waterman helps us pack the perfect summer picnic basket.

Fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, hot dogs, zzz . . . If boredom with the old picnic standbys is making you a basket case, all it takes is a little culinary creativity to blanket your blanket with flavors that will turn those z's into zest and zing.

As our yogi of the pic-a-nic basket, we turned to Pamela Waterman, executive chef at Park City Diner, part of the Thornburg Station complex alongside the busy Towpath Trail in Valley View. She devised two different picnic menus for us; one a bit upscale, the other more casual.

Waterman says she based her menus around themes to help unify their components.

First, there's the Elegant Basket:

Heirloom-tomato gazpacho with Parmesan-walnut crackers
Chicken breasts stuffed with fresh Buffalo mozzarella, roasted peppers and spinach
Grilled garden veggies tossed in balsamic
Stone-fruit cake

She envisions this meal on a nicer tablecloth, perhaps spread on the lawn at Blossom Music Center for "a nice Vivaldi concert" or other classical European music.

"I personally love heirloom tomatoes," she says. "They're available at markets and have beautiful colors." The chilled soup can be carried in a canteen and all the other items are designed to travel well and be good at room temperature.

For a somewhat more relaxed event — "a Willie Nelson concert kind of thing," Waterman suggests — she created the Country Basket:

Sweet and spicy nut nibbles
Roasted confetti corn salad
Cola-soaked pig roast
Peach Chutney
Black bean and hearts of palm salad
Watermelon cooler

The cola gives the pork "a caramelly sweetness," according to Waterman. And the black bean and hearts of palm salad can lend a Caribbean touch to the meal.

With a 7-year-old daughter, Waterman admits that her own picnics these days are even more casual, running to "the PB&J route." While we assume most readers will already have a reliable recipe to cover that, here are Waterman's directions for putting together her baskets on your own.

The Elegant Basket

Heirloom-tomato gazpacho (serves four)

3 pound, ripe heirloom tomatoes such as Brandywine, Amish Paste, Mr. Stripy, Green Zebra, Purple Prince and/or Black Krimson, seeded and diced small

1/2 English cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced small

1/2 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced small

1/2 yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced small

1 clove, garlic

2 tablespoons, chopped red onion

1 tablespoon, red-wine vinegar

1/2 cup, extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Place half the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers with all of the garlic, onion and vinegar in a blender and blend until smooth. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Place the soup into a bowl and stir in the reserved diced vegetables. Season to taste. Chill well before serving and pack the gazpacho in a thermos if taking it to a picnic.

Note: Heirloom tomatoes make a flavorful and colorful soup. They tend to be lower in acid and have thinner skins than hybrid tomatoes. Heirlooms can be found at some of the area's local farmers' markets.

Parmesan-walnut crackers (yields 24)

1 ounce, butter

1 cup, grated Parmesan

1/2 cup, all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons, toasted, finely chopped walnuts

1/2 teaspoon, salt

Cream the butter and cheese together in a bowl. Stir in flour, nuts and salt. Spoon the mixture onto the bottom quarter of a rectangular piece of plastic wrap or parchment. Roll into a log. Refrigerate until firm, at least three hours. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove the log from its wrapping and slice 1/4-inch thick. Place on an ungreased sheet tray and bake for 5 minutes or until golden. Cool and store airtight for up to a week, or freeze.

Chicken breasts stuffed with fresh Buffalo mozzarella, spinach and peppers (serves four)

4 6-ounce chicken breasts, boneless, skinless and pounded thin

6 ounces, fresh young spinach

2 teaspoons, olive oil

4 ounces, fresh Buffalo mozzarella, diced

1/2 cup, roasted, julienned red peppers (about half a small jar)

salt and pepper

1/2 cup, white wine

1/2 cup, chicken broth or water

1 sprig, fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add oil and spinach. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until the spinach is just wilted. Remove the spinach from the pan and cool. Add cheese and peppers to the cooled spinach and toss to combine. Place chicken breasts vertically on a cutting board, skin-side down with the smallest part closest to you. Spoon half of the spinach mixture on the bottom half of each breast. Roll the breasts up to form a tight roll. Season each roll with salt and pepper. Place the rolls in a small baking dish. Drizzle with wine, stock or water and finish with a sprig of thyme. Cover the dish with foil. Bake for 25 minutes or until rolls are fully cooked. Remove from the pan and chill for at least three hours before slicing.

Grilled garden vegetables (serves four)

4 baby sunburst squash, cut in half

4 baby pattypans, cut in half

1 bunch, asparagus, trimmed

1 Japanese eggplant, cut on bias, 1/2 inch thick

1/2 cup, olive oil

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon, balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon, chopped mint

1 teaspoon, chopped basil

Toss the prepared vegetables in oil, salt and pepper. Grill over high heat until just tender. Toss with the remaining ingredients while still warm. Serve at room temperature. If baby squash are unavailable in your area, substitute regular zucchini and yellow squash. Other vegetables good for grilling include fennel (anise), mushrooms, peppers (red, yellow or Hungarian hots for a kick) or blanched slices of red potato. If a grill is not available, the vegetables can be roasted in a 450-degree oven until tender.

Stone-fruit cake

1 tablespoon, butter

1 tablespoon, flour

1 1/2 cups, peeled, pitted and diced stone fruit (peaches, apricots, nectarines and/or plums)

1 tablespoon, orange juice

1 tablespoon, orange zest

6 eggs

1 cup, sugar

1 teaspoon, cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon, nutmeg

1 1/2 cups, chopped almonds

1 cup, graham-cracker crumbs

1 1/2, teaspoon, baking powder

1/2 teaspoon, salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch cake pan. Toss the fruit, orange juice and zest together, then set aside. Beat the eggs, sugar and spices together until thick and pale. Combine nuts, graham crumbs, baking powder and salt together, then fold into the egg mixture. Do not overmix. Gently fold in fruit. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until set. Remove from pan and cool on a rack.

The Country Basket

Sweet and spicy nut nibbles

2 pounds, shelled nuts (pecans, peanuts, walnuts, cashews, almonds and/or filberts)

1 egg white

1 1/2 tablespoon, water

2/3 cup, granulated sugar

1 teaspoon, salt

a pinch, cayenne

1/2 teaspoon, black pepper

1/2 teaspoon, paprika

1/2 teaspoon, granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon, onion powder

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Whip the egg white and water until frothy. Add sugar and spices. Toss with nuts to coat. Spread nuts on a cookie sheet. Bake for 40 minutes, turning occasionally, until nuts are crisp. Cool and store airtight.

Roasted confetti corn salad (serves four)

2 ears, corn in husk

3 scallions

2 Hungarian hot peppers or banana peppers

2 tablespoons, olive oil

1 cup, cabbage, shredded

1 tablespoon, sugar

1 tablespoon, apple-cider vinegar

a pinch, celery seed

salt and pepper to taste

Soak the ears of corn in water for one hour. Place on a medium grill and roast until the corn is tender. Shuck corncobs and cut roasted corn off the cob. Place the corn in a bowl. Toss the scallions and red pepper in oil and grill until tender and slightly charred. Chop scallions and julienne peppers. Add to corn. Add remaining ingredients and toss well to combine. Let marinate at least half an hour before serving. Serve at room temperature.

Cola-soaked pig roast (serves four)

For the marinade:

2 cups, Coke or other cola

2 cups, cider vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons, dried oregano leaves

2 tablespoons, cumin

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1/2 onion, diced

1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon, cayenne pepper

1 1/2 to 2 pounds, pork loin

salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients for the marinade. Pour over the pork loin. Cover and refrigerate for six hours. If liquid does not cover pork, turn occasionally. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Pour the marinade off the pork and reserve the marinade. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Place the pork on the rack in a roasting pan and roast, basting with marinade during the cooking process. Roast to desired temperature. Remove from the oven and rest for 15 minutes. Slice thin. Serve at room temperature.

Peach chutney

1 pound, fresh peaches, stone removed,

medium diced

1/2 cup, chopped red onions

2 tablespoons, golden raisins

1/2 cup, cider vinegar

1/2 cup, sugar

1 teaspoon, chopped ginger

1 teaspoon, chopped garlic

a pinch, red-pepper flakes

1 clove

Combine all ingredients in a small, heavy-bottomed pot. Simmer slowly until the chutney is thick. Stir often to prevent scorching. Remove from heat and cool.

Black bean and hearts of palm salad

8 ounces, black beans, soaked in water for 12 hours

1 small carrot, washed and trimmed

1/2 onion, peeled

1 stalk of celery, cut in half

1 teaspoon, salt

2 hearts of palm, sliced 1/2 inch thick

1/2 cup, diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon, chopped cilantro

juice and zest of one lime

2 tablespoons, olive oil

Drain the beans and put in a pot with the carrot, onions and celery. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Skim, then lower heat. Add salt and continue cooking until the beans are tender. Strain. Toss warm beans with the remaining ingredients and cool. Serve at room temperature.

Watermelon cooler

1 small watermelon, rind removed, white outer meat removed and seeds removed.

1 quart, ripe strawberries, washed and hulled

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons, cornstarch

2 tablespoons, lemon juice

a pinch, salt

Puree the watermelon in a blender in batches. Place strawberries and sugar in a small pot and bring to a simmer, stirring to melt the sugar. Remove 1/2 cup of watermelon purée from the blender and mix with the cornstarch. Add the cornstarch mixture to the hot strawberry mixture. Continue cooking for two minutes. Blend the strawberry sauce with the watermelon purée. Add lemon juice and chill.

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