Summer is the season of moveable feasts – easy, breezy entertaining is a way of summertime life, and if we can take the party outside, all the better! But keeping food at its most fresh and delicious as you travel from Point A to Point B (and then keeping it tasty when you arrive at your destination) requires a little strategic planning. Here are a few tips we use when we head to summertime picnics and potlucks with food in tow.
Choosing a Container: You have lots of options, but make sure whatever you use is lightweight, unbreakable and disposable – something that you can live without if it doesn’t come home with you. Plastic lidded containers can be found in every grocery store and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They’re sturdy and reusable, perfect for picnics. When travelling, we sometimes make layered salads in individual containers, keeping the dressing separate. At the picnic, drizzle salads with dressing, put the lid back on the container and gently shake it to coat the salad.
Heavy-duty re-sealable plastic bags are great too – we especially like to transport salad makings in them, putting the greens in a gallon-size bag, then tucking smaller bags filled with prepared toppings and vinaigrette inside the bigger bag. At the party, simply place the greens in a big salad bowl, add the toppings and toss with dressing.
Large disposable foil pans make terrific potluck buffet containers for crowd-sized salads. Buy them in bulk at warehouse stores. If you need to keep the salad cold, nestle the pan inside another foil pan with ice in the bottom. For transport, cover the pan with several layers of plastic wrap (encircle the pan with large sheets of plastic instead of putting sheets just over the top). Or invert another pan over the filled pan and use heavy-duty binder clips to attach the pans together.
Menu Planning: While most dishes can be served potluck-style, there are certain recipes that work better than others. Hearty grain salads, like those made with barley or wild rice, are potluck- and picnic-perfect because their texture doesn’t fail, even if refrigeration is limited. Try an all-vegetable salad made with sturdy vegetables, like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and bell peppers – it can handle an outdoor buffet brilliantly.
Salads dressed with vinaigrettes or pesto tend to withstand warmer temperatures better than ones made with mayonnaise-based dressing; to elevate the salad’s flavor and add moisture, toss it with a touch of additional vinaigrette or pesto prior to serving. Leafy greens (especially delicate spring mix) are susceptible to wilting in warm temperatures – serve these salads shortly after putting them together and keep as cool as possible before and during service.
A few notes on food safety: The USDA recommends that foods should not be held at room temperature for more than two hours. Harmful bacteria grows rapidly in temperatures ranging from 40°F. to 140°F. – if the party’s outside and it’s 90 degrees, one hour is all that’s recommended. For safety’s sake, dispose of any foods that have been out for longer than two hours.