Summer is the best time to eat outdoors, and, when eating outside coincides with cooking outdoors, so much the better.
Still, there's prep work to be done inside, and in some cases, as in this menu, you can do the prep, or a large part of it, a day in advance. Then, when you are gathered for the picnic — a meal outdoors is always a kind of picnic, whether eaten at a table or perched on a rock — all you have left to do is light the barbecue.
A salad is important, especially at an outdoor meal; you want something fresh. Though potato salad or fruit salad may come to mind, a crisp green salad never fails to satisfy. And, for this salad, all the fixings can be prepared well before the meal, then carried to the picnic in a cooler.
This one features Little Gem lettuce, a cross between romaine and butter lettuce that has become a popular salad choice — crunchy and bright green with small crinkly leaves. If that's unavailable, look for similar small, sturdy lettuce heads or choose romaine hearts. Wash the leaves and dry them well, roll them in a damp kitchen towel and pop it all into the fridge. The tart, garlicky dressing that accompanies is made with crushed toasted almonds and sherry vinegar, and is best transported in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. (You can mix the dressing in the jar as well.)
For our picnic, fat, fresh wild shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico (and the Atlantic coast off the Carolinas and Georgia) were the most exciting option at my fishmonger's shop. She gets them in weekly, but wild shrimp are also available frozen. (They're preferable to farmed shrimp from Asia and South America for a number of reasons.)
I like the larger ones for grilling, but any size is fine. I don't peel them — I just thread them shells-on onto bamboo skewers and lay them on a hot grill for a few minutes per side. This method not only ensures that the shrimp stay juicy, but it also makes eating them more fun, letting you nibble on the crispy little legs before "undressing" them.
An assortment of grilled vegetables complements the shrimp nicely. For this menu, I chose red onions, cut into wedges and grilled slowly, and tiny potatoes, briefly boiled, then set on the grill to char. Other options could include green onions, zucchini or asparagus.
The shrimp and vegetables all benefit from a dip in a piquant red pepper sauce that takes cues from the Catalan romesco. It's a thick, brick-colored affair, and tastes good with just about anything you can think of, including the chunk of crusty baguette you should use to clean your plate. The sauce comes together quickly in a food processor or blender: Just toss in roasted peppers, toasted almonds, garlic and olive oil. (Or, hand-chop the ingredients for a rough-textured sauce, stirring in the oil at the end.)
Ice cream ends a summer meal on a happy note, and the homemade kind is a treat. I use the type of ice cream machine that, instead of ice, employs a metal cylinder you keep in the freezer, ever at the ready. It takes a mere half-hour to produce a delicious soft-frozen mixture, which then needs a few hours in the freezer to firm up. (Hint: Make it the day before you serve it.) Very popular a few years ago, goat cheese ice cream deserves revisiting. The cheese supplies a lovely tang, somewhat similar to the flavor of cheesecake, but use ricotta instead if you don't care for goat cheese. Crushed fennel seed and lemon zest add interest, and earthy, amber-toned honey is swirled onto the ice cream mixture after it has churned.
Now I ask you, with a menu like this, what's not to love?
Grilled Shrimp Skewers With Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
- For the sauce:
- 2 large red bell peppers
- ¾ cup whole toasted almonds (see note)
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Lemon wedges, for serving
- For the skewers:
- 1 ½ pounds very small potatoes, unpeeled
- 3 medium red onions, unpeeled but quartered
- 1 ½ to 2 pounds fresh or frozen Gulf shrimp
- Extra-virgin olive oil
Prepare a hot charcoal grill. Lay peppers directly on the grill and let them blister, turning frequently until blackened all over, about 8 minutes. Set aside on a plate until cool enough to handle. (Or, roast peppers on the stovetop, directly on the flames of a gas burner.)
Cut peppers in half lengthwise. Cut off stems, scrape away skins and seeds, and discard. Do not rinse; a bit of char is OK. Chop the peppers into 2-inch chunks.
With a food processor or blender, whirl together peppers, almonds, paprika, cayenne and garlic to form a rough paste. Season with salt and pepper. Slowly add olive oil to achieve the consistency of a thick milkshake. Taste, adjust seasoning and transfer to a serving bowl.
In a medium saucepan, boil potatoes in well-salted water until just done, about 10 minutes. Drain.
Place onion pieces on the grill skin-side down. Salt lightly. Cover with lid and cook until onions are soft, about 15 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
Place boiled potatoes on grill and cook until slightly charred, 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
Meanwhile, thread shrimp onto skewers, 4 or 5 shrimp per skewer, without crowding. (If using bamboo skewers, soak them in water to prevent burning.) Brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
Lay skewers on grill over hot coals. Cook for about 3 minutes, then flip and cook until shrimp turn pink and are a bit charred, 3 minutes more.
Arrange shrimp, potatoes and onions on a large platter. Serve with the red pepper sauce and lemon wedges.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: To toast almonds, place them in a pie pan in a single layer, and place it in a 400-degree oven. Shake the pan occasionally and bake until almonds are fragrant, crisp and browned, about 10 minutes. To test, cut an almond in half to see that the interior is light brown.
Little Gems Salad With Garlicky Almond Dressing
- 4 to 6 heads of Little Gem lettuce (more, if very small)
- ¼ cup crushed toasted almonds
- 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and ground black pepper
Remove wilted exterior leaves from each head of lettuce. Cut stems from the lettuce heads, separate leaves and swish in a large basin of cold water, letting any sand or dirt sink to the bottom. Lift the leaves from the water and transfer to a colander. Shake away excess water. Wrap in kitchen towels to dry or use a salad spinner.
Make the dressing: Put almonds, vinegar and garlic in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Put leaves in a wide salad bowl. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Dress lightly just before serving, using 2 or 3 tablespoons of dressing and coating leaves well. Taste and add more dressing as necessary. Store any remaining dressing in refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Goat Cheese Ice Cream With Fennel, Lemon and Honey
- 3 cups whole milk
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds OR ½ teaspoon whole anise seeds
- Pinch of salt
- 4 egg yolks
- 8 ounces plain fresh goat cheese (chevre), crumbled
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 cup blueberries (optional)
Put the milk, sugar, lemon zest, fennel seeds and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to just under a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, then turn heat to low.
Place egg yolks in a small bowl. Slowly whisk 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the yolks to temper them. (This keeps the yolks from curdling.) Whisk yolk mixture back into the remaining milk in the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon, 5 to 8 minutes. Turn off heat and whisk in the goat cheese.
Pour ice cream mixture into a bowl and set in an ice bath until completely cool, about 30 minutes. Or, cool mixture in the refrigerator for several hours.
Churn mixture in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer's instructions, usually about 30 minutes. At this point, the ice cream will still be somewhat soft. Transfer about ½ cup at a time to a storage container, drizzling a little honey over each addition.
Cover container and freeze for at least 4 hours, until firm, before serving. (Freezing the ice cream overnight is recommended.) Serve in bowls with blueberries, if using.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.