Eat more plants: Recipes and tips for a plant-based picnic

Now that we're in the yellow phase, social distanced gatherings (up to 25 people) are allowed. Yet, restaurant options remain limited, with a scattering of spots just beginning to open outdoor seating. And in a survey of nearly 2,000 people by Philadelphia's Center City District, only 35% of said they're ready to eat out within the next month, anyway.

What does that mean? Summer 2020 is bound to be the summer of socially distanced picnics.

We've put together some tips for planning a pandemic picnic, with recipes to help you eat more plants this summer. At a time where meatpacking plants are facing issues, and everyone's stress levels are soaring, plants make sense, and they're perfect for picnics, too. Plants give you energy, make you feel better, and keep meals light on the hottest of summer days.

Here's how to whip up a full spread, and do so safely, along with some general advice from chef Rachel Klein of Miss Rachel's Pantry on how to prepare the ultimate packable sandwich.

Inviting friends? Experts agree that hanging with friends outdoors is safer than indoors to help prevent getting or spreading the coronavirus. That said, staying vigilant about maintaining six feet of distance from others outside your household is crucial. (There's even a template to create your own socially distanced picnic blanket, if you possess sewing skills.)

Wearing a mask is also strongly encouraged, an obvious challenge if you're diving into a slice of watermelon. (No, cutting a hole in your mask to eat or drink is not safe, experts warn.) How you handle the mask will be up to you. Either way, hand sanitizer is now a must-add to every picnic basket. Disposable cutlery is also advised if you plan on sharing dishes with others in your crowd. Each person should have their own serving spoon, and refrain from sharing drinks and bites off each other's plates.

Nervous? Yes, there are some new picnic protocols. But there are also many benefits of enjoying a meal outdoors and taking in some fresh air. Some health experts advise to wait to invite anyone outside your household. That's a risk-versus-social-benefit equation you'll need to weigh on your own. Regardless, if you've got roomies or want to dine al fresco with the quarantine love of your life, make this the summer you go all in on picnicking.

How to eat well while at home, with advice in your inbox every Wednesday.

When it comes to creating a relaxing picnic, the key is to prepare the bulk of the food the day before, says chef Rachel Klein. For Klein, this makes sandwiches the ideal picnic choice. Prep the fillings in advance, and you can spend the hours before your picnic gathering other necessary supplies, like a picnic blanket, drinks, games, napkins, and plates.

"The day-of is really just for assembly," says Klein, noting you should put everything together within the hour before you head out.

To craft a memorable sandwich that will hold up, here is Klein's advice:

  • Choose your bread wisely. "Some breads are so chewy, like a grocery store baguette, that you lose the elements of the sandwich when you go to take a bite because it will squeeze out the end," says Klein. Others become soggy within minutes. Klein's top picks: Mighty Bread's ciabatta and Artisan Boulangerie's french baguettes.
  • Stick to fillings that are usually served cold or at room-temp. "A lot of times we think BBQ, but that's the opposite of a picnic in my opinion," says Klein. "I don't like cold BBQ anything." Some of her favorite fillings are salt-roasted beets with chèvre (recipe below), chickpea salad (chickpeas pulsed in a food processor, with carrots, celery, celery seed, dijon mustard, mayo, salt and pepper), and roasted sweet potato and maitake mushrooms paired with caramelized onion, arugula, and horseradish mayo.
  • Add your condiments to your greens to avoid soggy bread. Rather than slathering your bread with mayo or mustard, turn it into a vinaigrette and toss it with your greens. "Sandwich the dressed part between two non-dressed parts, especially if it's going to be a little while until you eat," says Klein.
  • Swap delicate lettuce for sturdier options. If you're not planning on eating within an hour, ditch lettuce for frisée, which will keep its crunch for longer. "You could also do a marinated cucumber, which would take the place of pickles and greens, or shaved Brussels sprouts," says Klein. Klein also suggests experimenting with dressed red or Napa cabbage, and massaged Swiss chard or kale, but advises against spinach, which wilts easily.
  • Add herbs to enhance flavor. "If you're pre-dressing greens, adding basil or dill will brighten up the flavors of your sandwich considerably," says Klein. "Leave basil whole because if you chop it, it'll start to taste bruised, like it's going bad almost."
  • Mealy tomato? Cook it. "Tomatoes can be so good, but they can also be so terrible, and a bad one can ruin a sandwich," notes Klein. If you can't forgo tomatoes but end up with mealy or unripe ones, roast them on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Thinly sliced tomatoes tossed with salt and olive oil need just 10 minutes in an oven set at 375 degrees, says Klein. "Or you can make jam — blanch the tomatoes to take the skin off, or, if you're not picky, keep the skin on, and put them in a sauce pan with sugar, and a tiny bit of salt," says Klein. "Cook it down like you'd cook any kind of fruit jam, adding a splash of vinegar if you want to make it brinier or it feels a bit dry." The jam holds up in the refrigerator for two weeks and works well with salty and savory pairings, like cheddar and fresh basil.
  • Here are some winning vegetarian and vegan recipes for your next pandemic picnic. Some of these may seem complicated, but there are easy cheats that help you cut down on time.

    While this sandwich has a few different steps, most can be completed in advance. Double the recipes to make sandwiches throughout the week. Just don't skip a layer — the complexity of flavors and textures are what make this sandwich Klein's all-time favorite.

    "The sandwich is so great that on the beach last summer, a seagull stole an entire half of a friend's in one fell swoop," she says.

    SAVE TIME: Opt for a store-bought chèvre and/or a pre-made dressing, rather than making the two components yourself.

    (Makes 2 sandwiches) what size?

  • 2 (6-inch-long) ciabatta buns, sliced in half
  • 2 cups frisée, washed and dried thoroughly
  • 4 salt-roasted beets (recipe below; can be prepared up to 3 days in advance)
  • 4 medium onions, caramelized (recipe below; can be prepared up to 3 days in advance, or stored in the freezer and thawed before use)
  • 6-8 ounces vegan chèvre (see recipe below; can be prepared up to two weeks in advance)
  • ½ cup basil dressing (recipe below; can be prepared up to 3 weeks in advance; can substitute with a store-bought vinaigrette and some fresh basil leave)
  • To assemble the sandwich: Just before heading out for your picnic, slice open the ciabatta and slather both sides with chèvre. (The chèvre is easier to spread at room temperature, so take out of the refrigerator before assembling.)

    On the bottom ciabatta slice, pile on the salt-roasted beets.

    In a bowl, toss the frisée with the dressing. Shake off the excess dressing, and place a hearty handful on top of the beets. Top with a layer of caramelized onions. Close the sandwich with the top ciabatta slice and give it a squeeze.

    Wrap in parchment paper, followed by a layer of plastic wrap. Store in a cooler until ready to eat.

    4 medium beets, unpeeled (any variety will work, but use golden or candy stripe beets if you want to avoid pink bread)

    Salt and pepper, to season

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread a ¼-inch layer of sea salt across a baking sheet. Place beets on the baking sheet.

    Bake for 60-75 minutes; test by sticking a knife in the biggest beet and feel for resistance. If the knife goes in easily, your beets are done. Let cool until they're just touchable, then peel. (They're much easier to peel when they're slightly warm.)

    Slice very thinly, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Drizzle lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss well.

    The trick to caramelizing onions: crowd the pan so they release their water slowly. The water will soften the onions as they cook, instead of evaporating right away and allowing the onions to burn.

    4 medium onions, thinly sliced

    A neutral oil, such as sunflower, canola, or safflower oil, to coat pan

    Liberally oil a skillet with a neutral oil over low heat. Once oil is hot, add sliced onions plus 2 to 3 pinches of sea salt. Cook onions, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes, for about an hour.

    SAVE TIME: Swap for store-bought vinaigrette; choose something on the sweeter side.

    (Yields about one cup; leftovers will keep in the refrigerator up to three weeks)

    ½ cup neutral oil, like sunflower oil

    ½ cup white distilled vinegar

    ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon agave nectar

    1 teaspoon ground black pepper

    Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth.

    SAVE TIME: Swap for a store-bought chèvre; for a vegan option, Klein offers vegan cheese through Miss Rachel's Pantry "Meals at Home" pickup/delivery program, or recommends Conscious Culture's Brie or Miyoko's Creamery's Semi-Soft Fig Leaf Wrapped Loire Valley Cheese.

    2 cups raw cashews, soaked overnight in the refrigerator

    3 tablespoons plain coconut- or almond-based yogurt

    ½ teaspoon truffle oil (or high-quality extra virgin olive oil)

    ½ cup refined coconut oil (refined has no coconut taste!) at room temperature

    2 teaspoons nutritional yeast

    2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more to taste, if needed

    Drain and rinse the soaked cashews in a strainer until the water that runs off of them is clear.

    Blend in a high-powered food processor or blender until pulverized, and then add the remaining ingredients. Let the mixture run for at least 5-6 minutes, until it's no longer gritty, scraping down the sides as necessary; the end result should be smooth and thick, like hummus.

    Transfer to a glass or metal bowl and refrigerate for at least three hours, until firm.

    — Courtesy Rachel Klein of Miss Rachel's Pantry

    This fruit-loaded dessert transports easily and highlights some of the season's best flavors. For best results, opt for local berries, says Metropolitan Bakery's James Barrett.

    SAVE TIME: The cashew cream is a luxurious vegan topping, but feel free to swap it for store-bought whipped cream.

    ½ cup strawberries, halved or quartered

    1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

    1 teaspoon orange zest (Barrett recommends swapping in orange flower water)

    FOR THE CRISP TOPPING the crisp topping:

    ¼ cup gluten-free or regular old-fashioned oats

    1 cup macadamia nuts, chopped

    1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

    4 tablespoons pure maple syrup

    2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

    1 Medjool date, pit removed

    2 cups water + ½ cup fresh, cold water

    ⅛ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

    For the filling: Combine berries and agave syrup, in a saucepan over low heat. Stir gently until sweetener is dissolved and berries are warm. Stir in vanilla and orange zest or blossom water. Divide mixture equally between 4 (8-ounce) ramekins.

    For the crisp: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    In a bowl, stir together the oats, macadamia nuts, coconut, oil, vanilla, maple syrup, and cinnamon. Divide equally over fruit.

    Place ramekins on a baking sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until berry juices are bubbling. Let cool; cover with aluminum foil to pack for your picnic.

    For the cashew cream: In a bowl, combine cashews, date, and 2 cups water. Cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

    Drain off excess water. Place soaked cashews, date, and ½-cup fresh, cold water into a blender. Blend on high speed until creamy, scraping down the sides of the blender. This may take 3 to 4 minutes.

    Store cream in a jar in the refrigerator or cooler until ready to use. Once at the picnic, top each crisp with a spoonful of the cream.

    Courtesy James Barrett of Metropolitan Bakery

    Tangy sumac and spicy Aleppo pepper add a complexity of flavors to the classic pairing of mint and watermelon in this refreshing summer salad. Store in the cooler until ready to serve.

    1 small seedless watermelon, chilled and diced into 1-inch cubes

    1 teaspoon ground sumac (if you don't have sumac, add the zest of one lime instead)

    1/2 tablespoon Aleppo pepper (or crushed red pepper flakes, to taste)

    1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

    Arrange watermelon and mint leaves in a serving dish.

    Combine the salt, sumac, and Aleppo pepper in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the watermelon.

    Combine the shallot and lime juice, and add to the salad. Drizzle with honey and olive oil. Serve chilled.

    Courtesy Ellen Yin of High Street on Market, Fork, and a.kitchen + bar

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