Catering the Perfect Picnic: Recipes for 3 workhorse classics reimagined

Photo by Tj Turner

Once upon a time, Americans picnicked in cemeteries. And while the practice of graveside picnicking largely died out about a century ago, picnics seem due for a comeback—the food’s affordable, the opportunity for connection and camaraderie is strong, and no matter what’s happening on the streets, we ultimately have to eat.

A good picnic meal has four points in common:

  1. The food can be prepared in advance, preferably the night before.
  2. The food doesn’t suffer from transport and room-temperature service.
  3. The food feels festive.
  4. The food scales up easily, so it can be made for 4 guests or 40 without any particularly complex math or sourcing challenges.

Note that the fried chicken recipe we’re sharing here calls for a kitchen unitasker, a deep fryer. If you don’t already own one of these wonderful beasts, invest in it. From falafel to doughnuts to croquettes to several dozen other delightful dishes, this device will be a kitchen workhorse that you’ll treasure.

The Recipes

Crunchy Fried Chicken // Photo by Tj Turner

Crunchy Fried Chicken

There are a few solid reasons that fried chicken is the perennial picnic all-star: it tastes great cold, you can eat it with your hands, and you can make it the night before. The effort that goes into frying up a batch is repaid with interest: you can scale up to whatever quantity makes sense without much additional work, and it keeps in the fridge for days.

The buttermilk-in-the-flour breading method of this recipe lends itself to that much sought-after perfect exterior. We’ve tried a number of different ways to make this dish, and this was the champ for a craveably crunchy, textured coating.

The breading spices listed here are recommendations only. I’ve doubled these spices before. I’ve omitted spices. I’ve added others on a whim. The impact on the final flavor is subtle, so feel free to lean into whatever appeals to you (thyme and other garden herbs, or spicy cayenne, or even something surprising like cumin) without fear of messing anything up. The tender, juicy chicken and crispy-crunchy exterior are going to do 95% of the work here, and the rest is essentially light styling.

As far as cook time: this recipe is organized around big thighs and wings (etc.) and the time can drop considerably if you’re doing something like frying smaller pieces of breast meat. I generally go for 4–6 minutes a side initially, then take a piece out and temp it and/or slice into it to see what’s going on. For smaller breast pieces, about 10 minutes can yield a moist, perfectly cooked piece of fried chicken.

The good news is that even a dried-out interior will taste good the next day, what with the crispy, beautifully flavored coating.

Ingredients

2 cups plus 6 tablespoons buttermilk
2 tablespoons salt
1 whole chicken (About 3½ pounds) cut into 8 pieces or about 1½–3 pounds of breast meat only, cut into 2–3” strips or chunks
3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon herbs de Provence, oregano, or other dried herbs
2 teaspoons salt
4–5 cups vegetable oil, shortening, or peanut oil to fry with

Directions

Whisk together 2 cups of buttermilk and the 2 tablespoons of salt, then add chicken pieces. Stir to coat and refrigerate for an hour (and not much longer, as it can get overly salty.)

Heat fryer to 360 degrees.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and spices in a large bowl. Add remaining 6 tablespoons of buttermilk and rub into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse sand.

Set up a line: the marinated chicken in a bowl, the bowl of seasoned flour, a wire grid over a sheet pan, the frier, and a plate lined with paper towels.

Coat the chicken in seasoned flour, and place on the pan. Fry as many pieces as your frier can comfortably handle—usually 3 to 6, depending on size. Go for 4–6 minutes per side for smaller pieces of chicken, 6–8 for larger, and check for doneness to dial in your timing. After frying, move chicken to a paper towel-lined plate.

The Norton Palmer

The Norton Palmer recipe by James Norton // Photo by Tj Turner

After many summers of experimentation, I’ve closed in on what may be the perfect warm-weather beverage. It’s non-alcoholic but satisfyingly rich in flavor. It takes a shot of bourbon beautifully but tastes just as good or better just riding on an ice cube or consumed right out of an insulated thermos.

This drink is an improvement on a traditional Arnie Palmer, that famous iced tea / lemonade hybrid. This particular version introduces orange and lime juice to the mix; the orange juice serves as an earthy citrus bridge between the tea and the lemon juice, and the lime juice brightens up the overall flavor profile.

If you don’t have all three citrus fruits on hand, I made this beverage for years with just the lemons and the oranges, with great results; the addition of limes came during a brief household lemon shortage, and we liked the new fruit so much that we invited it to stay for the long haul.

Method

Mix the strained juice from 2 oranges, 2 limes, 2 lemons with about 5 cups of water.

Brew 3 cups of black tea (I use Lipton loose leaf bought at an Indian grocery store) and pour it over 1 cup of sugar, and then stir until the sugar is dissolved. Cool the tea for about 20 minutes and then stir it into a pitcher with the juice and water. 

Refrigerate. Serve over ice, bourbon optional.

Japanese Potato Salad

Japanese style potato salad // Photo by Tj Turner

Mustard powder, cucumber slices, and scallions give this potato salad a complexity and delicacy that many of its cousins lack—this is a punchy, creamy, soothing, lively concoction that makes a beautiful side dish for nearly any meal. But for the purposes of a picnic, it’s just about perfect: it looks lovely, it complements the fried chicken (or whatever you main happens to be) and it’s acceptable to traditionalists and relentless gourmets alike.

You can typically pick up Kewpie mayo and mustard powder at most Asian markets; Ha Tien and United Noodles are two of my go-tos.

Ingredients

1½ pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
Kosher salt
½ Persian cucumber, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
6 tablespoons Japanese mayo (Kewpie is typically available), substitute standard mayo if need be
½ teaspoon Japanese hot mustard powder
¼ red onion, thinly sliced
2 soft boiled eggs, chopped
1 scallion, chopped

Directions

Place potatoes in a large pot and cover with an inch or more of cold water. Season generously with salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook until potatoes are easily pierced by a fork, 10–15 minutes. Drain potatoes and transfer to a large bowl to cool.

Place cucumber slices in a bowl and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon of salt. Mix well and let stand for 10 minutes. Drain water and squeeze cucumbers gently with paper towels to remove excess liquid.

Blend rice vinegar, mayo, and mustard powder in a small bowl.

Mash potatoes with a masher or large fork, keeping some lumps. Add cucumbers, onions, eggs, scallions, and mayo mixture. Mix well and season to taste with salt.

For eggs: Bring water to boil in a pot, boil two eggs for 9 minutes, then shock with cold water and peel. Yolk should be solid but quite soft.