Food basket

As four-season creatures, we eagerly await this time of year, when the days are luxuriously languid and mostly spent outdoors. With the arrival of summer solstice on June 20, it’s finally time to literally feel the grass beneath our feet and eat with our hands in our outdoor living rooms. Except — enter record-scratching sound effect — this year is unlike any other, as the coronavirus pandemic marches on and continues to upend every aspect of our daily lives.

How then, do we endeavor to pack a moveable feast by the river’s edge or the county park in an era of social distancing? As a commenter posted on my Facebook page, “Now isn’t the time for shared food.” Even with lawn chairs six feet apart, how can we eat al fresco and ensure that this year’s midsummer night is a dream — and not a nightmare?

For my mom’s birthday a few weeks ago, I was the self-designated server, an idea that worked for three of us. However, for a larger party of eight or 10, I would be less confident. A friend recently asked for my take on guests bringing their own cutlery and serving ware. Frankly, I’m dubious, envisioning logistical headaches, especially for standard picnic fare served family style, such as pasta salad, slaw and cut-up watermelon.

Instead, I’m setting my sights on individualized portions done in advance at home. The way I see it, if we want to eat together but separate, let’s make sandwiches. It need not be the same ol’ ham and cheese (unless, of course, that’s what makes you happy). Outdoor feasting has likely never been so complicated, but it’s still possible. Here are some ideas to get you on your way.

Go long

From hero to hoagie, submarine to bánh mì, a long sandwich roll is the vehicle for myriad fillings and flavor combinations. Here are just a few:

  • Bánh mì aka a Vietnamese hoagie, this one made with pan-fried salt-and-pepper tofu, a quick carrot pickle and a spicy “mayo” made with peanut butter, on a soft French-style loaf. (Get the details in the recipe on page B4.)
  • Meatloaf is arguably much tastier out of the refrigerator than out of the oven. Try pairing cold meatloaf with dill pickles or sweet pickle relish and/or horseradish and/or mayonnaise with your favorite crisp lettuce, on a hoagie roll.
  • Slice zucchini into 4-inch “planks,” marinate and grill (or pan-grill). Lay on one side of a garlic-rubbed toasted baguette, smear olive tapenade, pesto or sundried tomatoes, then finish with soft goat cheese and mixed greens.

Wrapped and stuffed

Unleavened flatbreads such as tortillas, lavash and paratha make terrific portable containers and are an invitation to get creative. With leavened pita bread, you can pry open the edges of the top half and make an edible pouch, filling it with any number of savory goodies. Some ideas for consideration:

  • A salad of romaine lettuce (romaine is sturdy and holds up during transport) with a Caesar-style dressing (and yes, croutons are allowed!) with feta, oregano and/or olives. Feel free to add grilled chicken or sliced London broil.
  • Go the way of a burrito with seasoned black beans or pinto beans, drained of liquid, paired with rice, sliced avocado and/or pico de gallo. Meaty add-ons include grilled shrimp or leftover rotisserie chicken or some shredded pork.
  • Roasted rounds of eggplant plus hummus or tahini sauce is a light but flavorful approach, packed with roasted peppers, cucumbers, radishes, fresh mint and/or parsley. Don’t forget a squeeze of lemon at the end.
  • Egg salad or tuna salad, surrounded with crisp lettuce to act as a buffer between bread and filling, minimizing sogginess; consider adding a smashed (and cooled) boiled potato for texture and as an additional filling mop.

Think small

The slider bun and its marginally larger cousins, the potato roll and the English muffin, make up a mighty crew of itty-bitty bread cushions. The CQ (cushion quotient) is high, creating an adhesive effect, which is especially useful when eating with your hands. Whether it’s a burger or a butter-lined tea sandwich, everything on an itty-bitty bun feels like a tidy and most precious parcel.

Some ideas:

  • Sliced radishes, cucumbers or Hakurei turnips with fresh dill and/or mint, butter and coarse salt.
  • Avocado, turkey and bacon and/or brie or your favorite blue cheese.
  • Falafel or salmon croquettes or crab cakes and a smidge of hot sauce or tzatziki.
  • Eat-down-the-fridge frittata cut into squares.
  • Grated zucchini and corn patties (recipe details follow).

PB & BÁNH MÌ WITH CRISPY SALT-AND-PEPPER TOFU

Makes 5 to 6 servings.

CRISPY SALT-AND-PEPPER TOFU

Ingredients:

  • 1 (14-ounce) package fresh extra-firm tofu
  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions:

To press and drain the tofu, remove from the package, discard the water and place on a dinner plate. Set a small plate on top, then weigh down with a heavy object (such as a can of beans or jar of jam) to press and release the water. Let sit for about 15 minutes. Drain the residual water.

Lay the tofu flat on a cutting board. Halve on the diagonal so that you have two right-angle triangles. Lay each triangle on its longest side so that the right angle is at the top, like a mountain peak. Cut lengthwise into four identical triangles about 1/2-inch thick (You will end up with a total of 8). Now lay each triangle down flat and cut crosswise into two smaller triangles for a grand total of 16 pieces. Arrange the tofu on a tray or large plate.

In a small bowl, whisk the oil, salt and pepper with a fork until the salt is nearly dissolved. Generously brush the tofu on both sides with the seasoned oil.

Heat a 10- or 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until nearly smoking hot. Cook the tofu in batches for 3 to 5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and crispy, adjusting the heat as needed to prevent burning. The tofu is best eaten the day it is made, though it will keep for 1 to 2 days in the refrigerator; reheat in a dry skillet.

PICKLED CARROTS AND “MAYO”

Ingredients:

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 3-inch matchsticks (2 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
  • 8 to 9 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup all-natural creamy peanut butter
  • 1 teaspoon Sriracha chili sauce or your favorite hot sauce
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (about 1 lime)
  • 5 (4- to 5-inch-long) soft hoagie rolls or 1 (2-foot-long) soft-crusted French-style loaf
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled and sliced into rounds
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, washed and dried
  • Optional garnish: 1 medium jalapeno, sliced into rounds

Directions:

Thinly slice the garlic and place in a medium bowl, along with the carrot matchsticks.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, 4 tablespoons of the water, the salt and sugar, and bring to a boil, until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Pour the brine over the carrot mixture and let steep for about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the peanut butter “mayo”: Place the peanut butter in a small bowl and stir vigorously until somewhat whipped in appearance. Stir in the Sriracha, lime juice and 4 tablespoons of the water. The mixture will thicken and seize and maybe even look as if its curdling before it loosens up and returns to its naturally creamy state. The mouthfeel will be quite voluptuous. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon of water if the sauce is thicker than you’d like.

Assembly:

Slice the bread in half lengthwise. Gently remove some of the bread innards to create a nest for the sandwich fillings. Generously spread the “mayo” on both sides of the bread (you have extra). Line the cucumber slices on one side, followed by the tofu, fitting snugly along the length of the bread. Remove some of the carrots from the brine and place on top of the tofu, followed by the cilantro. If using the chile pepper, arrange on top.

Place the other bread half on top and press down to glue. Cut into slices and wrap individually in both parchment paper and aluminum foil.

ZUCCHINI-CORN PATTIES

Excerpted from “PNW Veg” by Kim O’Donnel.

Makes about 7 patties.

The patties can be made in advance and kept refrigerated until you’re ready to pack a picnic. They transport well in parchment paper sleeves and they are just the right size to be bookended by an English muffin.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups grated zucchini (from 2 medium)
  • 1/2 cup very finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup sweet corn kernels (from 1 medium ear)
  • 1/2 cup medium-grind cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh leafy herbs (parsley, cilantro, basil or mint)
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • A few dashes hot sauce
  • 1/4 cup neutral oil

Directions:

Place the grated zucchini in a strainer set over a bowl and let it drain for at least 15 minutes. Zucchini has a high water content and when grated will accumulate pretty quickly. Using your hands, squeeze as much water out of the zucchini as possible. Transfer to a large bowl.

Place the onion in a small bowl to sit and drain similarly. Pour off any liquid.

Add the onion to the zucchini, along with corn, cornmeal, flour, herbs, salt and pepper. Gently stir to combine. Add the egg, yogurt, mustard, a few squeezes of the lemon and hot sauce, stirring until wll mixed.

Using a 1/4-cup measure, shape the batter into patties and arrange on a plate. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes to set up.

Heat a 10- or 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, tilting the pan to coat. Gently place the patties into the hot oil in small batches (don’t crowd the pan) and fry the first side until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Turn onto the second side and cook for an additional 2 or 3 minutes, or until firm and slightly dry. If the patties need a little extra time, cover the skillet and remove from the heat for a few minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature.