Look, we want to put together an impeccably Instagrammable picnic, too, but sometimes it’s just too much dang work. Turns out our favorite food thinkers agree!
Bon Appetit senior staff writer Alex Beggs joins us to talk about her favorite summer recipes and the ideal sandwich-to-swimsuit ratio. Then, we catch up with New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao, who tells us why the best picnics might just be the least photogenic ones. (She’s also launching a weekly newsletter devoted to vegetarian recipes next week!)
One key consensus: You’ll need wine. Lots of wine.
For all your meal-prep needs, here are the recipes mentioned in today’s episode:
Transcript (edited for clarity):
GRETA JOHNSEN: From WBEZ Chicago, this is Nerdette. I’m Greta Johnsen. We are deep in the dog days of summer, which means we thought it would be a great time to kick back, chill out, completely ignore what’s going on in the outside world, and ask some food nerds about what makes the perfect picnic. How much effort should we really be putting into the food that accompanies us during what is also very important lounging time? New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao has a pretty great answer.
TEJAL RAO: You don’t want fishy juice on your picnic blanket, you want to be able to read and nap…
GRETA: True wisdom, y’all. We’ll hear from her later in the show. But first up with her own mind-blowing picnic advice is Alex Beggs. She’s a senior staff writer at Bon Appetit. Hey Alex!
ALEX: Hi. Thanks for having me.
GRETA: How strongly do you feel about bon appetit versus “bone” appetit?
ALEX: Oh, that’s a great question. I have heard my own people call it “bon appetit,” and I always call it “bone appetit,” so it just feels, like, how much Julia Child have you watched? Maybe you go full “bone,” but that’s up to you.
GRETA: [laughs] Okay, so picnics. Do you consider yourself to be a big picnic person?
ALEX: Well, when you asked me about this I was like, “Am I gonna pretend that I actually cook things to bring to the picnic?” Because I don’t. I’m actually in Traverse City, Michigan right now, and we went to the beach yesterday. So gorg. And there’s this Italian market called Folgarelli’s. To me the ideal beach picnic is, like, you’re eating the biggest possible sandwich in the smallest possible bathing suit. And so, you know, you get like these huge Italian sandwiches at Folgarelli’s, maybe a can of wine or whatever, and a bag of kettle chips. To me, that’s the picnic. But then I came prepared with all these Bon Appetit recipes to be like, you can make this ahead and you could do that… But for me it’s all about the ginormous sandwich made by someone else’s hands.
GRETA: So on the spectrum big sandwich, tiny swimsuit and then, you know, photoshoot ready spreads for picnics, I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle there. Like, I haven’t bought a picnic basket or melamine plates, but I’m definitely thinking about it. So I want to make some stuff. I just don’t want to make a photoshoot out of it.
ALEX: Well, if you did want to make a photo shoot, we had a recipe this month: cheesy tomato hand pies. It’s basically just puff pastry, and you fill it with cheese and cherry tomatoes and bake it up.
GRETA: Like a pizza pop tart.
ALEX: Yes. It’s kind of like a fancy hot pocket. But they’re cute. And you can do an egg wash on it. So it looks very professional. That would be very cute in a picnic basket lined with gingham fabric and whatnot. So definitely, that one’s easier than it sounds. I think sometimes anything pie related, people are like, “Ah!”, but you buy the puff pastry ahead of time.
GRETA: That sounds pretty easy.
ALEX: Yeah. And they’re good room temperature. It’s kind of like somewhere between pie and pizza.
GRETA: I really like that spectrum. Really anything along there. I’m into it. [laughter]
ALEX: But you know, it’s now corn season in the wonderful Midwest. So last week I made a recipe from this cool barbecue place in Atlanta, B’s Cracklin’. And it’s a grilled corn salad with hot honey vinaigrette. Which is, again, simpler than it sounds. It’s literally like sriracha, honey and vinegar. And you can chop up some avocado to cool down the heat. That one also gets better as it sits. So you can take that in your cute little picnic basket. I ate it as salsa, you can eat it as salad, you could mix it into other things you’re making. So don’t sleep on that recipe.
GRETA: That sounds really good.
ALEX: And then if you grew up with very gloopy, mayonnaise-y pasta salad, I think you should keep making that. That’s never going to get old. My mother-in-law adds green bell pepper, celery, but every year I feel like she’s adding something new to it. And this year, it was green olives. And we were like, how many green olives? How should we chop them? We really talked about this at length, and that one’s still good to me. I feel like next year there’s going to be lucky charms or sprinkles or something. We’ve run out of things to add.
GRETA: When you said new stuff, I was thinking like fresh dill or—
ALEX: Oh, no, no, no, no. [laughs] More more shelf stable things.
GRETA:I think it sounds good. Yeah, I’m intrigued. So what about a drink pairing they might recommend for any of these?
ALEX: I don’t know if this makes me sound like I have a drinking problem, but yesterday at the beach I brought a mason jar of Campari, a couple bottles of club soda and pre-cut limes. So like, that was my prep ahead and I just had Campari and soda. I was like, This is the perfect beach drink. You could make it more complicated; you could bring sparkling rose and that like San Pellegrino lemon soda and make sort of a spritz. I think that’s kind of fun and festive. But even that is maybe one too many steps for me. So I’ve been doing Campari and soda. I really like I don’t know if you’ve had the canned wine spritzers — Ramona? There’s a blood orange one.
GRETA: I’m all about the canned wine situations. I am just basic enough to be super into that. [laughs]
ALEX: Yeah, and then, you know, I still have like a beer in the summer, too.. Bells Brewery has a new one called No Yeah. Which is a joke on that Midwestern niceness, but it’s nice. It’s like four something percent ABV, so low alcohol. It kind of reminds me of Oberon without like, a lot of orange. So that one’s nice and easy drinking. Oh, and also $5 vinho verde from from Trader Joe’s! There’s always this $5 vinho verde that when it’s cold enough tastes really refreshing.
GRETA: Oh, I’m for sure not gonna say no to a $5 vinho verde. That sounds like a great recommendation. Alex, thank you. This was super fun!
ALEX: Yeah, thanks for having me.
GRETA: In just a minute, Tejal Rao chimes in with what she thinks the most important part of a picnic is.
TEJAL RAO: I don’t have any special materials other than my insulated water bottle that holds a bottle of wine. Very important tool!
GRETA: Here’s a hot tip: 750 milliliters is just a smidge over 25 ounces. You’re welcome in advance.
GRETA: We are back with more summer recipe ideas and picnic opinions, this time from the spectacular Tejal Rao. She is the California restaurant critic for the New York Times and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine. Hi, Tejal!
TEJAL: Hi Greta! Thanks so much for having me.
GRETA: Oh my gosh, thank you. I’m so excited. So, before this segment, we checked in with Alex Beggs from Bon Appetit about her picnic game. And she is, like, almost a picnic denier. She really likes to go to the beach, wear a tiny swimsuit, and get a giant deli sandwich and call it a day. For you, what is the ideal picnic? How much effort are you putting into it?
TEJAL: Okay, so there was a time when I put in a lot of effort and I had this idealized vision of what a picnic should be like. And I would get up early the morning of and I would bake biscuits and fry chicken cutlets and make sandwiches with hot honey. And then I would wrap each one individually in parchment paper.
TEJAL: But I’m very lazy now. And while I still want that, I want someone else to do it. [laughs] And so I’ll tell you about my new thing, which still involves some effort, just not quite that much. I open a chilled bottle of wine, and I pour it into a clean insulated water bottle that keeps the wine cold. That way, you don’t have to worry about where the corkscrew is. I live in Los Angeles and it’s very hot. I’ll do this even if I’m just going in the backyard for a couple of hours. Oh, and then a really nice loaf of bread and some butter. I like to take boquerones, which are pickled white anchovies, just the filets, but they’re held in a mix of olive oil and vinegar. And whenever I open the container, I make a huge mess. And you don’t want fishy juice on your picnic blanket. You want to be able to read, take a nap… So, I open the boquerones in advance at home, drain them, and put them into a little deli container so that there won’t be a mess. And then you just kind of butter the bread, lay the boquerones on there. No fishy juice. Or, if you don’t like boquerones, I just think fish is like the perfect thing to take, like fancy fish in olive oil, sardines and olive oil, or any marinated fish and tomato sauce. Oh, and Ritz crackers and then a jar of smoked oysters and a bottle of hot sauce. That is like the perfect meal.
GRETA: Wow, that sounds delicious. That reminds me: I went to the beach over the weekend and we got some smoked sablefish. And even just that with crackers was delicious.
TEJAL: So good. And you can technically have that for dinner anytime you want. But somehow I don’t think of it unless I’m going on a picnic.
GRETA: So your level of effort is essentially, like, prep some stuff, but don’t actually cook anything.
TEJAL: Pretty much. I mean, I do like to make fruit chaat, but again, I don’t know if that counts as cooking. Chaat masala is this Indian spice mixture. It brings all the flavor to the fruit, and you can make your own if you mix chili powder, pepper, amchoor, which is dried green mango… So it’s kind of sweet and sour and salty, but I just buy a brand called Shan, which has like cinnamon, dried ginger, cardamom… You dress cut fruit with it and chill it. And it’s like the perfect thing when it’s very hot because it’s hydrating and sweet and salty. I love it with watermelon. But right now it’s really good with nectarines and peaches too.
GRETA: That sounds great. But yeah, that’s still mostly just, like, cutting up fruit.
TEJAL: [laughing[ Yeah, definitely.
GRETA: I’ve been considering becoming the person with the picnic basket and the cute melamine set. Where are you on that spectrum of like, you know, Instagram picnicking?
TEJAL: I mean, I don’t have any special materials other than my insulated water bottle that holds a bottle of wine. Very important tool! But I use tote bags. I usually will throw down a large beach towel or something. I don’t work very hard at styling it. Which… I think that’s fine. I mean, I guess it depends if you want to be able to post a really beautiful picnic photo. Maybe, you know, it’s lovely to have a basket, or it’s convenient to have a basket. But, like I said, I’m too lazy.
GRETA: No, I think I’m with you. I mean, I don’t know, I like so much more the idea of sharing any sort of meal where you’re actually having too much fun to take any pictures, you know? And the food is so good that you’re, like, just focused on that and and the rest doesn’t matter. I think that’s actually a real win, you know?
TEJAL: Absolutely. Yeah. I love it when that happens. And then you sort of wish you’d taken a picture, but it’s too late.
GRETA: Exactly. It’s like when I bring my knitting to a party, and then I have too much fun to actually knit and I’m like, “That’s a win, Greta!” [laughter] So is there anything that you would turn your oven on for?
TEJAL: So I’ve been really into this dish called pan con tomate, which is a Spanish dish where you grate tomatoes directly on grilled bread, which is delicious. I grate tomato on a box grater, then I pour it over fried cheese. I will turn the stove on to fry pieces of paneer until they’re a little bit crispy. And then pour the tomato mixture on top, and that travels really well.
GRETA: Okay, so the box grater tomato thing… that sounds super messy!
TEJAL: It’s a little messy.
GRETA: But it pairs really well with fish juice? [laughter]
TEJAL: It’s less messy than fish juice. Just set up your grater on a large plate or a bowl and everything kind of falls in there. Don’t do it directly on, like, a cutting board or something.
GRETA: And is there a specific kind of tomato that works better? Because some tomatoes, if they’re super ripe, I just picture them sort of like disintegrating on contact.
TEJAL: Well, that’s sort of ideal for the tomato to kind of completely fall apart. A beefsteak tomato is really nice, anything big and ripe. You put your palm flat against the grater. So you get all the meat of the tomato except for that thin skin.
GRETA: So it’s salt, pepper, olive oil, and then like goopy tomato globs on fried cheese with bread.
TEJAL: You can have it with bread or without bread, with cheese or without cheese. If the tomato is good, it’s so good you could just drink it, you know.
GRETA: That sounds really delicious. That kind of reminds me of a recipe that my mom told me about. Originally, I was sort of like, “I don’t know if that would be good.” But of course it’s delicious. I think it’s America’s Test Kitchen. It’s like a tomato gratin… gratin… [with exaggerated French accent] gra-TAHN, where you chop up bread chunks, and then saute some tomato with a bunch of garlic and olive oil and salt and pepper. Then, throw some cheese on there and do some fresh basil once it’s out of the oven. It’s sort of like a virtuous pizza. It’s amazing. You do need to use the oven for it, which is kind of a bummer these days, but it’s such a great way to use tomatoes at the height of their glory, I think which is such a great thing to do this time of year, you know?
TEJAL: Yeah, absolutely. That sounds delicious.
GRETA: Yeah. So you mentioned peaches and nectarines, you mentioned tomatoes… What do you think otherwise are the stars of the season that are worth going to the store and getting, then orienting the rest of your meal around?
TEJAL: Oh, gosh… I feel like eggplant, corn… Definitely stone fruit where I am right now. And melons, like cantaloupes, figs. It’s so lazy, but you can if you get really nice fruit like cantaloupes or figs, or, you know, you just just cut them up and then make a plate with like, really nice ham and some cheese and some bread, like you really don’t have to turn the oven on. Unless you really want to.
GRETA: Oh, that sounds so glorious. So I don’t know, I feel like part of the conversation with you know, things that are local and seasonal kind of falls into conversations around sustainability, which I think are especially important these days, given climate change, given how weird the weather has been throughout the US in the summer and for any number of years… How much more do you think about that than you would otherwise? I mean, especially given the wildfires in California where you are?
TEJAL: Yeah, I mean, it’s always either in the back of my mind, or the front of my mind. Even if you’re sort of walking around the farmer’s market, preparing for a picnic, like, how could you not be thinking about it? I think this is a very small thing, but something you can do is just try different varieties from different farmers. Expand your ideas of whatever fruits and vegetables you’re buying so that you’re supporting a really diverse range of fruits and vegetables.
GRETA: I like that. So as opposed to thinking, “well, I found this one stand that I really like, I’m just gonna get everything here,” just trying to mix it up from there.
TEJAL: Yeah, or like, you hear about one cult variety of tomato or something that will catch on. And that’s great. But it’s really important to try lots of different things and for us to be growing lots of different things.
GRETA: That’s interesting, because it makes sense from an ecological point of view, but also just from a deliciousness point of view, too, right? Like, what a great moral prerogative to just, like, try as much different great stuff as possible. I love that. Tejal, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.
TEJAL: Thanks. Yeah, this was really fun.
GRETA: We just breezed through approximately one million delicious and extremely low stress recipe ideas. We don’t want you to stress if you didn’t get a chance to write them all down, either. They are in this week’s newsletter and we’re going to make a little Twitter thread with links to all of them too. We are on Twitter and Instagram @nerdettepodcast. And just so you know, I actually put a fair amount of recipes in the newsletter on a regular basis, along with book recommendations and all kinds of other good stuff. So that might be a pretty sweet resource for you. You can sign up at WBEZ.org/nerdette, and you can always email us: We’re firstname.lastname@example.org The show was produced by me and Hannah Edgar, with help from Isabel Carter. Our executive producer is Brendan Banaszak. We will see you next Friday.