One of the truly great things about the tapestry of American cooking is that it isn't a monochromatic, homogenous cloth woven with one kind of thread, but a vibrantly colorful fabric interwoven with a rich variety of threads from all over the planet.
Though the warp of our culinary tapestry (at least, on the continent) is mostly Anglo, the weave, to name a few of those threads, is Native American, Latin American, African, Asian, Caribbean, European, and Middle Eastern. This means that, when we pack the picnic basket to celebrate the birth of our nation, we've literally got a world of possibilities for filling it.
There is of course nothing at all wrong with our all-American burgers and hot dogs. But it doesn't hurt to remember that there is more to American food. And what better way to be reminded of that diversity than to celebrate the birth of our eclectic nation with an eclectic picnic hamper?
Fill it up with as many elements of our rich culinary tapestry as will fit into it at once. The menu that follows is really just a springboard from which to build a menu that will suit you and your family. I've included elements of Britain, China, France, Italy and Mexico, but you can and should incorporate picnic favorites from your own culture.
And if you should decide that you really can't do without a hot dog or burger or two, no one will complain if you toss them in as well.
The important thing is to have fun while celebrating the diversity that has made our nation such a wonderfully interesting place to live.
Mexican Shrimp Cocktail
This can be served as an appetizer in small plastic cocktail cups or in larger tumblers as a main dish. Tybee seafood diva and good friend Bonnie Gaster likes to pack marinated-shrimp concoctions like this into the picnic basket in individual servings, using half-pint wide-mouth canning jars.
2 pounds medium to large shrimp, in-shell
3 medium ripe tomatoes
1 cup tomato juice
1/2 cup tomato ketchup
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 cup small-diced red onion (about half a large)
1 cup small-diced seedless or English cucumber (about half a medium)
1 small hot chili pepper such as jalapeno, stemmed, seeded, and minced, or to taste
Hot sauce, preferably Mexican-style
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus about 1/4 cup cilantro leaves for garnish
2 ripe medium Haas avocadoes
2-3 limes, cut into wedges
1-2 sleeves saltine crackers, for serving
1. Prepare a basin of ice water. Bring about 3 quarts water to a rolling boil. Add shrimp, stir, and cook until just curled and pink, about 2 minutes or less. Do not let water return to boil. Drain into colander and pour ice water over, tossing to arrest cooking. Drain well, peel, and lightly season with salt. Refrigerate.
2. Over large wire mesh sieve set over mixing bowl, peel tomatoes with serrated vegetable peeler. Halve crosswise, scoop seeds out into sieve. Force juices through sieve and discard seeds and peel. Dice tomato flesh and add to collected juices. Stir in tomato juice, ketchup, and lime juice. Fold in onion, cucumber, hot pepper, and season to taste with salt and hot sauce. Stir in 1/4 cup cilantro.
3. Fold shrimp into sauce, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Keep chilled in picnic basket. Just before serving, halve, pit, and dice avocado and fold into cocktail. Serve garnished with more cilantro and lime wedges with saltine crackers.
Helen Chen's Cold Tossed Noodles in Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
Although this can be made ahead, the noodles will absorb the dressing, so if you're making it more than 1 hour ahead, wait until 15 minutes to an hour before serving to add the vinaigrette. Cold is relative here: serve it at room temperature. Adapted from Helen Chen's book, "Easy Asian Noodles" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/2010).
1/2 pound Chinese wheat or egg noodles or thin spaghetti
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons water
3 teaspoons light (Japanese style) soy sauce
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh gingerroot
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
2 tablespoons torn cilantro leaves, optional
1. Bring 3 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add noodles and cook until slightly more tender than al dente, stirring occasionally, using package directions as rough guide. Drain and rinse under cold running water. Set aside to drain well and cool. Transfer noodles to covered container and toss with sesame oil.
2. Whisk together vinegar, oil, water, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Season with salt and pepper to taste. No less than 15 minutes before serving (or up to 1 hour ahead) pour dressing over noodles and add sesame seeds and scallions. Gently but thoroughly toss until evenly coated. Serve at room temperature.
French Potato Salad
I've shared this simple, elegant salad before, but it's worth repeating. It's my house potato salad, since we all love it. It's so simple to put together, and, like champagne, goes with just about anything.
Within reason, you can liven it up with about 1/4 cup pitted and sliced brine-cured black olives, 2 tablespoons well-drained capers, or even equal parts cooked shrimp to turn it into a main dish. Another handsome addition is half a pound of blanched and halved haricots vert (slender young green beans): toss them in a simple vinaigrette at the last minute and add them just before serving.
2 pounds (about 16-18) small red new potatoes
Dry white vermouth or white wine or chicken broth
Â¼ cup finely chopped shallots or green onions
Red wine vinegar
Best quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1. Slice potatoes Â¼-inch thick. Prepare pan with steaming basket and water and bring to boil. Add potatoes and steam until just tender, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly.
2. Put potatoes in bowl and sprinkle very lightly with vermouth. Add shallots or green onion and toss gently. Let stand a few minutes, until almost cooled.
3. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle lightly with vinegar. Toss. Drizzle lightly with oil and gently toss until glossy but not greasy. Let stand 15-30 minutes, taste, adjust dressing, and toss one last time. Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.
Roast Beef Tenderloin
We get our love of beef from the British colonials. While a whole tenderloin is expensive and luxurious, it'll satisfy the red meat lovers in your crowd with a minimum of waste and fuss, so it's well worth the indulgence. Best of all, it can be roasted or grilled ahead of time, covered and refrigerated, and then served at room temperature.
This can be served plated with the sauce on the side, or you can offer small sandwich rolls and let guests make sandwiches with it, slathering the rolls with the sauce or with prepared English mustard.
Serves About 20
1 whole beef tenderloin, trimmed or 1 butterflied leg of lamb (about 5-6 pounds)
Olive or vegetable oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Fresh Horseradish Sauce (recipe follows)
1. Preheat oven to 550 degrees F. Wipe beef dry and rub all sides with oil. Season with salt and pepper. Put directly on bottom of roasting pan.
2. Roast 15 minutes and turn off oven. Do not open door. Let roast remain in oven 45 minutes longer. Beef should be medium rare. If oven is quick cooling type (with fan), instead of turning off, reduce temperature to 350 and roast 20 minutes or to desired internal temperature (130 degrees in the thickest part for medium-rare, 140 for medium). Remove from oven, cover, and let stand 15-30 minutes before carving.
3. Alternatively, prepare grill with hardwood coals or preheat gas grill. Spread coals to one side or turn one burner off if using gas. Put beef over direct heat, cover, and sear about 4 minutes per side. Move to indirect heat, cover, and cook to desired internal temperature. Remove from grill, cover, and let stand 15-30 minutes before carving. Serve with horseradish sauce.
Fresh Horseradish Sauce
This is a simple and lovely English-style cream horseradish sauce that's beautiful on beef, lamb, or cold roast pork. It's also nice as a dipping sauce for shrimp.
Makes about 2 cups
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup prepared horseradish, or to taste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Pinch dry English mustard (such as Colman's)
1. Lightly whip cream until holding soft peaks.
2. Fold in horseradish, vinegar, mustard, sugar, and salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Macedonia di Frutta
A Macedonia of fruit is nothing more than a mixed fruit salad, supposedly named because of the mixed bag of races and cultures that inhabited ancient Macedonia. Found all around the Mediterranean basin, this one comes from the Italian Riviera. They're perfect for a picnic.
1-2 medium oranges
1 firm, crisp apple such as Winesap, Pink Lady, Fuji or Granny Smith
1 firm but ripe Bosc or Bartlett pear
2 ripe peaches
1/2 cup halved and pitted white grapes
1/2 cup halved and pitted cherries
1/2 cup blackberries
1/2 cup ripe blueberries
1/4 cup rum
1/4 cup Maraschino liqueur or Kirsch
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar
1-2 ripe bananas
1. Juice enough oranges to make Â½ cup juice. Strain into large glass or stainless steel bowl. Zest lemon into bowl and halve and juice into bowl through strainer.
2. Peel, core, and dice apple and pear, adding to juice and tossing well to coat fruit and help prevent discoloration. Peel, pit and dice peaches, add to juice, and toss well.
3. Add grapes, cherries, blackberries, and blueberries and toss well, stirring up from bottom. Add rum, liqueur, and sugar to taste. Gently mix. Allow fruit to stand at room temperature 30 minutes, then taste and adjust sweetness, adding sugar as needed. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or until chilled. Can be made a day ahead. No more than 2 hours before serving, peel and slice bananas and add to salad. Keep cold.