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July 21, 2005

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A picnic ó itís romance with ants

But the real test of your love and devotion is how you pack that puppy

by Amy Diaz 

The picnic is the ultimate romantic gesture.

It takes all the just-you-and-me vibe of a restaurant and moves it into what for us in New Hampshire this year is the rare jewel that is the sunny day. A blanket on the ground and a few well-chosen goodies and you can have a mini-vacation over lunch or dinner.

Amore, with flies

Key, of course, to the picnic is picking the right time and place to have it.

Obviously, rain is a picnic killer but so is humidity or an abundance of insects of any kind. Pick a location away from standing water to cut down on mosquitoes and try for a day with a light breeze. Also, keep in mind that an afternoon picnic is most charming for its distance from dusk, when all manner of attack-oriented bugs seem to appear. As we head into fall (I know, I hate to bring it up but itís right there), slightly cool weather will provide perfect picnic opportunity; just remember to bring a sweater for you and your fellow picnicker.

Also, should you actually be going for romance, picnics in high-traffic locations (directly next to a playground or ballfield, a park favored by dogs) can make an already coordination-requiring situation an extra difficult balancing act.

Once you pick your spot, make sure you have ground cover. Even if you arenít in flowy, easily stained attire, the whole sitting-on-the-ground scenario is much easier with a blanket. Try for something roughly the size of a full-bed sized comforter (an old comforter is actually my picnic blanket of choice as it allows for just an extra bit of padding).

Now, of course, comes the basket. Personally, Iím more of a milk-crate-having person than a basket owner. So, I improvise. Those canvas tote bags that organizations like to give away during trade shows and pledge drives are actually good picnic companions as they are usually sturdy, large enough to carry a bottle of wine and washable should there be any spills. The sturdy, nylon-handle-having shopping bags stores give out are good for one-time use (though frequently not large enough). In addition to the obvious (backpacks, clean gym bags, small carry-on luggage), try turning food containers into their own, collapsible picnic baskets by tying three Tupperwares together with enough extra string to serve as a handle (think the old shopping boxes or book belt look). Later, when the food is gone and the containers are empty, you can put the smaller ones inside each other and only have to carry one out.

Whatís in your basket?

Pack for convenience.

Hereís the key with picnic eats ó finger foods but not fast foods.

This means that, no matter how much easier it may seem, no stopping at Burger King for your food. Instead, focus on foods, whether homemade or bought at a restaurant or store, that will do well at any temperature.

Pre-cut fruits (packed near ice or cold items) work best when packed dry, thus slowing down the mushing effect. Pack particularly juicy fruits (melons, citrus) apart from more self-contained fruits such as berries, apples and grapes.

Salads are OK, but only if you plan to eat shortly after arriving at the picnic site and only if you can keep the dressing separate until right before eating (otherwise lettuce will wilt). Also, on very hot days, stick to vinaigrettes and light citrus-based dressings as creamy dressings will go bad sooner.

Cheese is an excellent picnic food (especially if the basket also has room for a bottle of chilled white, rose or Rioja wine) but minimize the work. Pre-cut hard cheeses (parmesan, asiago, gouda) and bring soft cheeses that can be enjoyed with just the slice of a cracker (Triscuits are a nice sturdy cutting cracker).

Sandwiches are perfect for picnics because of their hand-held nature. Wrap the sandwich half way in wax or parchment paper to ensure easier, cleaner eating. Go for heartier breads for sandwiches with more toppings and/or toast bread lightly to avoid mushiness from oil, mayonnaise or moisture from vegetables.

Your picnic, their meal

On the other hand, all that preparation might not fit the spontaneous nature of your picnic.

In that case, look for take out.

For the lunchtime picnic (a great way to have a mid-day date that really gets you away from the worries of the office), try subs or wraps (which are usually freshly made and easy to eat sans plate or utensils). To avoid the salad wilt, try a plate of vegetables instead. Most lunch places that sell salads might also be talked into creating a highly totable arrangement of pre-cut vegetables and dip.

Pasta salads are a nice way to get some of the salad flavors without the wilt of lettuce; and soup, well difficult in a bowl, can be a warming delicious and easy -to- eat part of your meal if served in a large coffee cup (which is usually about the size of a small soup cup).

For dinner, just about any restaurant is willing to give you your favorite dishes to go. Keep in mind, of course, that your lap will be your tablecloth so you might want to skip the puttanesca or steak and stick to dishes that only require a fork. A pizza can take up a lot of picnic-blanket land mass but a calzone is compact and just as filling. Or, stick with finger foods and get your favorite restaurant to pack a few of its appetizers. Even in a take-home box, the presentation can be impressive and youíll look like a gourmet even if your kitchen only features delivery menus and ketchup packets.

And donít forget dessert but donít worry about having to overdose on fancy either. Cheesecakes may sweat and ice cream may melt if the wait is long enough but the simple chocolate chip cookies and raspberries or the light sugar wafers with wine will last forever and seem inspired.

After all, everything tastes better outside.

Where to get the goodies

Any major supermarket will offer containers of cut-up fruit, salads and even sandwiches to go. But for something a little extra special head to:

  • Angelaís Pasta & Cheese Shop, 815 Chestnut St., Manchester. Prepackaged entrees, sides and salads are available daily and, bonus, Angelaís even has plastic forks and napkins.

  • Trader Joeís, 440 Middlesex Road, Tynsborough, Mass. Prepackaged Middle Eastern plates (hummus, tabouleh, pita and falafel) make for an exotic treat.

  • Cooking Matters, 135 Main St., Nashua, 880-6200. Chilled soups, available in to-go packaging, are a cool addition to a summer meal (call for availability).

  • Michelleís Bakery, 819 Union St., Manchester. Small and large tortes, slices of cake and other goodies will make for a happy ending to your outing.

  • Kayís Bakery, 443 Lake Ave., Manchester. Have a Greek-themed picnic. Pick up some spanakopeta (spinach and feta pastry) and baklava (nutty, honey-filled pieces of-heaven pastry).

  • Patisserie Bleu, 215 Main St., Nashua. Say it with beautifully crafted, individual-sized chocolate or fruit tortes.

Not your average pic-a-nic basket

The difference between just taking some food outside and a full-fledged picnic is the basket.

A brown paper sack may be charming for elementary schoolers and that Victoriaís Secret bag is, yes, very funny but to do up your picnic right, you really need something a little closer to what Little Red Riding Hood was toting to grandmaís. And while the baskets might look snazzy, their real success is in keeping your picnic fixings from too much jostling.

For the simple, wicker picnic basket of romantic poems and spring days, get ready to shell out some bucks or be prepared to wait for Easter when stores feature baskets aplenty. For a cheap but tidy version of the picnic carryall try the Coleman Multi-Use Basket ($9.99). Itís not tremendously romantic but itís mesh, itís collapsible and itís resilient. And itís likely to fit the rolled up blanket and that bottle of wine.

OK, it looks a little more like luggage than something you take your lunch in but the wicker picnic basket for four from Gift Warehouse ($32.99) comes with sturdy and stylish red plastic cups, plates and utensils and features the very Mary-Anne-from-Gilliganís-Island red gingham lining. Flatter and wider means it makes for a nice eating surface as well, though be careful when you pack to remember that youíll be turning the basket vertical to carry it (no putting heavy stuff near the handle).

Who knew the old-fashioned picnic basket was such a chi-chi item? For the nostalgic, be prepared to shell out $59.99 for the sporty striped picnic basket from Nantucket. Apparently that 1900 look comes with a 2005 price tag, but, hey, you do get the little flaps on either side.

Or you could really pull out all the stops and get the Picnic Time Canterbury Willow Basket for two ($99.99). All-singing, all-dancing, all-thermos-having, this picnic basket might be better outfitted than your kitchen and, with all the straps, expert at keeping all your edibles and utensils in place.

(All prices according to Amazon.com.)