Recipe Collection: Picnic Time

Spring is in full swing and we’re dusting off our picnic baskets. Here’s a collection of some of our favorite mix and match, make-ahead, portable foods. They travel well, are easy to eat and taste especially good at the beach, under a shady tree, or on your favorite patch of grass. Plan a whole menu or just add a little something new to your family’s tride and true picnic favorites.



Sweet and Savory Muffins


Sweet Stuff

Tips for Expert Picnicking:

  • Make a checklist. There’s a lot to bring, so a list will help you get organized. Don’t worry if you forget something—as long as it’s not the food!
  • Make finger food. The fewer utensils you need, the better. Lay out containers of food on your picnic blanket and call it a “garden buffet” so children can pick and choose what they like. Kids love to just pick up and eat their food.
  • Let the Kids Help. Inviting little ones to help prepare and pack the picnic adds to the fun and will encourage even the pickiest of eaters to dig in when it’s lunchtime. Letting children carry their own food in a backpack offers a lesson in self-sufficiency and independence.
  • Buy food. If you don’t want to wake up and cook before you head out, stop at your favorite deli or supermarket, and pick up your picnic. Purchase prepared sandwiches or wraps, some fruit, cereal bars, nuts and water, and you’re set.
  • Bring plenty of cleanup supplies. You always need more of these than you think you will need. Bring a whole roll of paper towels or several dishcloths and some trusty wet wipes. Also, bring hand sanitizer if you are going to be somewhere you cannot wash hands. And don’t forget extra bags to collect your trash.
  • Bring safety items. Make sure you have a first-aid kit in the car or in your basket/backpack. Scrapes and cuts are inevitable, and it is best to be ready for them. Sunscreen is also essential, as are hats and bug repellant.
  • Bring games or toys. You can spend your time exploring nature, or bring some toys and games along. A travel-size board game or deck of cards will be easy to carry. Or bring a bat and a ball or football for some more active fun.
  • Select an enclosedspace. To reduce your stress level, find a park or area that is enclosed. That way you won’t have to spend your time chasing wandering children.

More great picnic links:

A Taste of New Orleans at Queen’s Louisiana Po-Boy Cafe, A Stylish Excursion to Flora Grubb Gardens, and a Detour to a Mud Pit

In honor of Fat Tuesday next week, we finally got around to taking a family food adventure over to Queen’s Louisiana Po-Boy Cafe, a place that’s been on our list for quite some time. I’m a total sucker for gumbo, po boys and red beans and rice — don’t get me started on beignets and chicory coffee — but real deal versions are tough to find around here. And in my humble opinion, a bowl of bad gumbo is far, far worse than no gumbo at all. There are few yummy New Orleans-inspired places that come to mind, Brenda’s French Soul Food on Polk in the Tenderloin and Cajun Pacific in the Outer Sunset, but neither quite satisfies in terms of that real, authentic flavor.

Queen’s Louisiana has that certain something we’ve been missing. The ambiance is kind of basic in a good way: a few mardi gras masks here, some jazz fest posters there, and a simple, family-friendly vibe. It would be easy to go overboard with the feathers and beads, but they don’t. As far as the menu goes, they’ve got all your classics covered from fried oyster, catfish, and crawfish po boys on soft pillowy rolls, to hush puppies and red beans and rice with andouille sausage. The seafood gumbo is definitely legit and the beignets, while not as puffy as those you get at Cafe du Monde, were tasty and to my son’s delight, appropriately blanketed with powdered sugar. (If you don’t end up with powdered sugar all over yourself, then you can’t really call it a beignet, right?) You can also get other New Orleanian favorites rare in these parts: Zapp’s Potato Chips, Community Coffee (with or without chicory), and Abita beer and rootbeer.

Since Queen’s is on the other side of town from us on San Bruno Avenue in the Portola/Bayview neighborhood, we decided to make a day of it by stopping in at exquisite Flora Grubb Gardens for pre-lunch browsing and coffee, and capping off our excursion with a visit to another  intriguing place we’ve been curious about for a long time, Cayuga Park, which is nestled in a funky spot right next to hwy 280 and has a large collection of topiary and carved totems.

If you ask us, Flora Grubb, about 5 minute drive from Queen’s, is one of the most gorgeous spots in our lovely city. I’m happy to trek over there at the teensiest little nudge. Just wandering through is guaranteed to inspire anyone who loves gardens or gardening and you can pick up some great plants (they have an especially nice selection of succulents and drought tolerant natives). While you’re there, treat yourself to a warming cup of Ritual Coffee, one of our favorite SF artisan roasters. Little ones seem to love Flora Grubb’s fabulous ambiance, innovative landscaping and objects d’arte just as much as us adults and if your kids are anything like my Luca, they will enjoy trying out every one of the cool patio chairs dotted around the shop. This would be near the top of my list of “places to feel like you’re on vacation without leaving home” if I actually had such a list.

I’m sorry to say that the third leg of our inspired little excursion was a bust. Cayuga Park is undergoing a total renovation and is nothing but a big mud pit surrounded by a chain link fence at the moment. But we hear that the totems are safely in storage and will be re-installed when the construction is done. If only we had thought to bring our mud gear we could have had an epic-ly, awesomely messy ending to our adventure. Luckily, I predict a trip back through these parts when the Cayuga Park is back in business to suffer the fate of more beignets, amazing gardens and outdoor art. It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta do it.

Mission Street Food’s Sesame-Avocado Brown Rice

A recent brown rice bowl with green beans, tomatoes, roasted eggplant, cilantro, a poached egg and... of course avocado and toasted sesame seeds.

Before I get get to the awesomely easy and extra delicious Sesame-Avocado Brown Rice, I’ve got to give a shout out to one of the new favorites on my bookshelf, “Mission Street Food: Recipes and ideas from an Improbable Restaurant“, which chronicles the creation of a San Francisco dining hot spot that broke the mold. In it’s all-too-brief run, Mission Street Food provided a showcase for up and coming guest chefs and presented innovative menus around themes such as “homage to Auguste Escoffier”, “new school tapas”, “super bowl party”, “breakfast for dinner”, and “ottoman cuisine” — all served out of a hole in the wall Chinese restaurant, with proceeds benefiting local nonprofits. Mission Street Food evolved into Mission Chinese Food which serves up a menu of tasty “Americanized” takes on dishes like Hainam Chicken Rice, Sizzling Cumin Lamb and Ma Po Tofu. [If you want to check out our visit to Mission Chinese Food earlier this year, click here.] Interwoven into the story of Mission Street Food are recipes, techniques and a whole lot of inspiration. You cannot browse this book without coming away with at least a dozen ideas to incorporate in your own cooking.

Sesame-Avocado Brown Rice was an immediate “must make” and it’s been on our regular rotation for both lunch and dinner ever since. This one is so easy it’s hardly a recipe and the variations are endless. Make the rice, whisk together the 3-ingredient dressing and serve alongside your favorite toppings. Anthony Myint (of the duo behind Mission Street/Chinese Food) suggests sauteed beech mushrooms, blanched broccoli rabe, sliced avocado, bbq-ed unagi. We like everything from green beans to poached or scrambled eggs, chopped raw spinach, roasted chicken, scallions, pickled carrots and sliced radishes. I’ve even gone so far as to add toasted sliced almonds and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

This is a perfect weeknight family meal because you can make most or all of the components in advance, it’s a great canvas for leftovers, and you can serve it hot, room temp or straight from the refrigerator depending on your laziness level. This is also a fantastic recipe to teach to older kids who are starting to learn to cook on their own. Younger kids can get into the action too by designing and assembling their own custom rice bowls and even our bambino loves it because he can nibble along with the family on some of the softer items and try out the tangy-salty flavors of the dressing.

It’s as easy as this:

  • Cook 2 cups of your favorite brown rice
  • Whisk together the dressing: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 3 TBL sesame oil
  • Toss your cooked rice with the dressing, reserving a little of the dressing to serve at the table
  • Fold in some toasted sesame seeds
  • Serve the seasoned rice alongside your favorite toppings. Start with a sliced avocado and go from there.

We like these quick pickled carrots. They are great addition to any rice bowl, Banh Mi-type sandwich, or taco, you name it!

  • Mix 1 cup water, 1 TBL each of rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt.
  • Cut carrots into thin matchstick and let them stand in the pickling mixture for 1 hour or up to several days in the refrigerator.

Luca dreamed up this bacon and eggs version. I like your style, kid.

You'll find ideas and inspiration aplenty in the Mission Street Food cookbook.

If you liked this, you might also like: Japanese Comfort Food: Harumi’s Three Topping Rice, “There’s Nothing to Eat”: Bacon and Egg Rice, Cooking with Mom: Chicken Biryani

East Bay Bliss: Cheese Board Collective, Shattuck Avenue and Tilden Park

Ever have one of those days when you leave the house with no plan and your day just magically falls into place one perfect piece after another? We had one of those, East Bay-style this week. It’s only a short BART ride or drive from home, but Berkeley feels like a world away. Almost like a mini vacation especially when our neighborhood is encased in fog and I know that somewhere out there summer is happening. Swimming, ice cream, shorts? When you put up with foggy, gray summers you can sometimes forget that for most families, that’s just a typical summer day.

You too can experience some summery East Bay bliss:

Pack up your family and throw an ice chest and a few ice packs in your trunk. Grab some swimming gear, some towels, lettuce, celery and maybe a few snacks. Throw a jacket in too, because you just never know!

Head straight for Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective (Shattuck and Vine). We hit it on a weekday and there was ample 2 hour parking in the neighborhood. The Cheese Board has a truly impressive array of cheese and the cheese mongers are very friendly, knowledgeable and can guide you through any of your cheese-related conundrums. Luca, grandma and I focused on cheddars ultimately selecting a fantastic Iowa cheddar with the excellent name Prairie Breeze. (The ice chest in your trunk is mandatory because you can’t come here without picking up at least a little something). The bakery items are worth trying too. We sampled a Parmesan breadstick and a (not at all dry) cornmeal, sour cherry scone. One of the bakers called over to Luca while we were browsing and he got to go in the kitchen and play with a gob of baguette dough. Now that’s kid-friendly!

We only had to stumble next door to find our next adventure at the Cheese Board Pizzeria. They make only one flavor each day and you can get it by the slice, half or whole pie. The crust is just the way we like it — thin and crisp — and we detected a note of sourdough. Yum! On the day of our visit the pizza featured roasted cauliflower, red bell peppers, capers, Mantalban and Mozzarella cheeses. You can check out their website to see the weekly line up and plan your visit accordingly. We grabbed a slice to share and basked in the sun out front listening to a jazz group and doing some quality people watching. They randomly throw in an extra mini piece for some reason, which is just plain cool.

This section of Shattuck Avenue has lots of top notch amenities: Philz Coffee (everyone I know will tell you I live for Philz coffee!), Chez Panisse, a roast chicken place called Poulet, Virginia Bakery, Baubles and Beads (a well stocked bead store that has classes too). Across the street from the Cheese Board you’ll find a small food mall with a patio and mini Japanese-style garden that kids will love. Here you can find hand-pulled noodles and traditional tea tastings at the Imperial Tea Court, Sushi, Mexican fare or a scoop (or two) at Lush Gelato.

Feeling fat and happy, we took the short drive into the hills to Tilden Park to continue our summer fun. There so many activities to choose from, especially in summer when most attractions are open daily (check the websites for hours and entrance fee info). You can ride the 100-year old carousel; take a ride on the Redwood Valley Railway (a scale replica of a narrow gauge steam train of the 1800’s), stroll the Botanical Gardens; hit the playground; feed  Little Farm’s sheep, goats and rabbits the lettuce and celery you brought from home; or take a dip in Lake Anza. The day was so delicious we couldn’t resist a turn on the merry go round, some log rolling on the big lawns and a little splashing in the lake for good measure.

This day was about as perfect as they come and we were truly sad to see it end. Three generations spending a lazy day together and enjoying some of our very favorite things. Three cheers for summer!

Really Refreshing Fresh Lime Soda

Simran and I are addicted to this fresh lime soda. We love it just as much with guacamole and tacos or chana masala as we do with BBQ. It’s simple to make and incredibly refreshing — I’d even say invigorating. I’m picturing myself right now with a tall glass enjoying the upcoming Memorial Day festivities. Perhaps alongside some backyard stomp rocket and Hawaiian-style kalbi ribs on the grill. Good times! This is equally delicious as a kid-friendly refresher or spiked with a little vodka for us bigger kids.

I get my little foodie in on the act whenever possible and this is a perfect recipe for exploring the tastes and smells of exotic ingredients like ginger, dragon fruit, or lemongrass. Let them help you customize the simple syrup that goes into the lime soda base. Hit the farmers’ market or ethnic produce store and go crazy!

Fresh Lime Soda (makes approximately 10 drinks)

  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 10 limes, plus 2 more sliced into wedges for garnish
  • 2 – 1 liter bottles of sparkling water/soda water
  • Ice
  • Optional flavorings (we like cardamon, lemongrass, vanilla or mint, but you can use anything from chiles to dragonfruit to rose petals)

Simple syrup

  1. Combine 1.5 cups water with 1.5 cups sugar  in a saucepan and heat until all the sugar is fully dissolved and syrup is clear.
  2. Use it plain or flavor your simple syrup by steeping chopped/muddled fruits, herbs or spices of your choice for 10 to 15 minutes in the hot syrup. I’ve found that you need to be generous (say a whole bunch of mint per 1.5 cup of sugar) to get the flavors to come through.
  3. Give it a taste when cool enough and adjust your flavorings as needed. You can gently heat the syrup if you add more ingredients to extract more flavor.
  4. Strain the flavored syrup into a jar using a fine mesh strainer. Press out as much liquid as you can. Simple syrup keeps beautifully in the refrigerator, so you can make it well in advance.
Making the Soda
  1. Juice 10 limes. (If scaling this recipe up or down, we found that one lime per drink is a good rule of thumb). Avoid picking limes that are hard, they will be dry with little juice. You can often yeild a little more juice if you briefly microwave the limes for 10 seconds or so.
  2. To make your soda base, start off with a combination of 1 part lime juice to 1 part simple syrup. This will probably be a bit on the sour side, but you can keep adding syrup until you get to your desired level of sweetness. You can make this lime base ahead and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days.
  3. For each drink, combine 3 Tbl of lime soda base to 1 cup of sparkling water. Serve over ice garnished with lime slices. Adults may enjoy a splash of vodka with their lime soda.

If you want to win the kudos and admiration of your friends and family,  bring this to your next BBQ or party. Just transport your lime soda base and sparkling water separately and mix it up when you get there.

Just Banana Ice Cream (1 ingredient, minutes to make, no ice cream maker necessary)

We saw this recently on The Kitchn and wanted to test it for ourselves. I was dubious — could frozen bananas in the food processor be anything but “frozen bananas in the food processor”? Turns out this is surprisingly ice cream-like while being healthy, easy and most importantly, super FUN. This could never replace honest-to-goodness ice cream, but it guiltlessly satisfies a sweet tooth and is a handy dessert to pull out of your pocket when your favorite vegan comes calling.

Just Banana Ice Cream (adapted from, The Kitchn)

  • Slice and freeze ripe bananas 1-2 hours, or until solid. One banana per person is more than enough.You may not believe it, but it tastes quite rich so a small scoop is all you need.
  • Blitz the frozen banana slices in a food processor adding other flavors if you like — maybe a spoon of peanut butter, a drizzle of chocolate sauce or honey or a splash of vanilla. (I think Ria would go for Nutella). Just keep pulsing until the banana starts to look crumbly, then smooth. Test with a spoon to see if it scoops like ice cream. If not, pulse it a little more.
  • You need make this right before you want to eat it and serve it straightaway. It’s not one to make ahead.

Charred Green Garbanzos

We couldn’t resist snatching up a giant bag of green garbanzos (fresh chick peas) when we saw them at our favorite neighborhood produce store. We love canned or dry chick peas in all kinds of soups, stews and salads but fresh chick peas are a totally new one for us. Our haul is enough for a few experiments, and our first was this simple charred green garbanzo snack. After washing the pods and drying them well, I chucked them in a hot, dry skillet and let them toast until they were blackened on one side (2-3 minutes). Then we tossed them with some good olive oil and our favorite sea salt. Eaten like edamame, they are super snack-able with a mild and slightly nutty flavor. Kids who like eating edamame will probably be more than happy to give these a try… and the beans inside also happen to look like tiny green brains which is pretty cool too.

I am thinking about batches flavored up with lime and chili, or perhaps we’ll give them the same treatment as Mythili’s edamame with coconut, cumin and chili. Chances are pretty good I’ll be making another run to grab some more while they’re still in season.