Old picnic favorites can have new flair

Picnics aren’t confined to spring and high summer. The coming Labor Day weekend gives you three days worth of reasons to enjoy a meal outdoors.

And what about packing a picnic later this month when you head to the mountains to pick up some fresh Georgia apples? And don’t forget the greatest fall picnic tradition of all – the tailgate.

Martha McMillin of the now-shuttered The Preserving Place in Westside remembers when any Sunday afternoon in most any season was reason enough for the family to pack a picnic basket and take to the road.

“I grew up in northern Spartanburg County, South Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachians. The family tradition started with my grandfather. He’d come downstairs on a Sunday afternoon and say, ‘Who wants to go for a ride?’ and we’d all pile in the car. When you live in the country, that’s an adventure.”

McMillin’s parents augmented the tradition by adding a packed picnic basket for their excursions. Deviled eggs, pimento cheese sandwiches and homemade fried chicken made on Saturday and served at room temperature on Sunday were a given. There might be boiled fresh corn, buttered and wrapped in foil, which would stay warm until the family arrived at a picnic site. There’d be a jug of sweet tea or bottles of Coca-Cola, and for dessert, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and slices of watermelon.

“To this day, when you say ‘picnic’ to me, I think ‘deviled eggs.’ Mom would pack her deviled eggs in a regular Tupperware container lined with wax paper but she was always envious of her cousin’s special Tupperware with the little indentations for the eggs.”

The family’s ace in the hole was what McMillin calls the family’s “magic” picnic table. It folded flat to fit in the trunk of the car, then assembled to form a table and bench. “You could have a picnic anywhere. You didn’t have to depend on finding a table where you wanted to picnic. My mother says that not long after my parents married, they were at a family reunion in another cousin’s backyard. The family had one of those tables and she told my dad, ‘We’re not leaving town until we go to the furniture store and buy our own picnic table.’ ” The new husband made his wife happy by buying a picnic table that very day.

On the rare occasion when the family didn’t pack a picnic basket, they’d be headed to Sunday night supper at a mountain inn like the 1906 Pine Crest Inn in Tryon, N.C., or the Lake Lanier Tea House in Landrum, S.C. “That tea house was one of my favorite places in the world. There was a stone terrace that overlooked the lake and Japanese paper lanterns hung in the trees. It was just magical.”

When asked to dream up a menu that would recreate those wonderful memories, McMillin was game to put a twist on the family’s traditional menu.

“You could still take warm corn but these days I’d sprinkle it with Magic Unicorn salt from Beautiful Briny Sea, or tuck in a basil sprig or fresh mint before wrapping each cob in foil.”

She offered the recipe for her favorite deviled eggs and turned the family’s pimento cheese sandwiches gourmet by serving dressed-up pimento cheese on biscuits topped with savory-sweet tomato jam. She and chef Sarah Dodge dreamed up a spoonable dessert that travels in its own little Mason jar, and McMillin offered a suggestion for a twist on the classic combination of melon and prosciutto.

“So many people like cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto, but what about using watermelon-rind pickles instead? I love our Preserving Place Aunt Joyce’s Watermelon Rind Pickles drained and then wrapped with a little piece of prosciutto. They take just minutes to make and then you pack them in a little container and tuck it into your cooler. They travel perfectly.”

Inspired to create your own set of memories by adding a picnic or two to your life? As McMillin says, “There’s nothing like packing a picnic and setting off to eat outdoors. It’s like a little vacation.”

The word “picnic” itself means something that’s easy and pleasant. Try these delicious recipes from The Preserving Place the next time you want an easy and pleasant meal outdoors. Add your favorite store-bought fried chicken, and biscuits, homemade or not, and you’re ready to enjoy a beautiful day.

Classic Deviled Eggs

Isn’t there a law that says no Southern picnic is complete without a platter of deviled eggs? Certainly for Martha McMillin’s family picnics, a Tupperware container of deviled eggs was essential. “For transporting the eggs, my mother would place a layer of waxed paper in the bottom of a large Tupperware container, place eggs on top and then fold back the waxed paper to gently cover the deviled eggs. You can do a second layer if you do not mind the eggs getting a bit messy. Be sure to transport the eggs in a cooler filled with ice.”

McMillin and chef Sarah Dodge “dolled up” this very traditional recipe with the shop’s bread-and-butter pickle relish and gourmet paprika. “This relish is sweet and tangy and a nice change from standard sweet pickle relish. And instead of sprinkling the eggs with paprika, which most often doesn’t do anything but add a little color, we like using the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Paprika we carry. It’s paprika with a punch.”

Don’t forget to take: the smoked paprika and the rest of the jar of relish so you can garnish the eggs when you get to your picnic site. A nice-to-have is a platter for the eggs.

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Pimento Cheese and Biscuits

Martha McMillin, owner of Preserving Place in Westside, remembers pimento cheese sandwiches as an essential component of the family picnics of her childhood. Here, she and chef Sarah Dodge, have collaborated to take pimento cheese to the next level.

They've found that biscuits – homemade or not – filled with pimento cheese and topped with tomato jam just put any old pimento cheese sandwich to shame. If you want to make homemade biscuits, we suggest this recipe from JCT Kitchen. http://www.ajc.com/news/lifestyles/food-cooking/jct-kitchens-biscuits-rise-tall-and-flaky/nqnJk/

The pimento cheese recipe is from Dodge, Preserving Place’s former culinary school manager. She teaches this recipe in her “South in My Belly Breakfast” class, and word is that the class can never get enough of this pimento cheese on toast or anything else they can get their hands on.

McMillin and Dodge go one step further by topping the cheese-filled biscuits with their Lemon Tomato Jam. “It’s so good with pimento cheese and really highlights the cheese in a way that’s surprising,” said McMillin.

Dodge likes Cabot cheddar in this recipe but says the most critical element is not the brand but using a sharp cheddar you like. She also uses their house-made ATL-1 Steak Sauce. You may substitute Worcestershire or another steak sauce if you wish.

Don’t forget to take: If your guests will assemble the biscuits at the picnic, take the biscuits in the pan they were baked in, take a knife to cut them open, a spreader for the pimento cheese and a spoon for the jam.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

This dessert was created by chef Sarah Dodge as a dessert for Octopus Bar in East Atlanta Village. She’s a huge fan of buttermilk, and buttermilk makes a light tangy panna cotta that harmonizes beautifully with the fruits of summer. Serving it in small Mason jars is the way to get a spoonable dessert to a picnic in great shape. The jars will stack easily in your cooler, and you just screw on the lids when you’re done to take them back home to the dishwasher.

Don’t forget: spoons for your guests and a delicious jam to spoon on top. At Preserving Place, they particularly like their Tipsy Vanilla Blueberry Jam with this.