Picnic Fare: Fast, Easy, and Elegant Appetizers
[Jump right to the recipe: Filo Cups with Pesto and Artichoke Filling]
It’s been almost exactly one year since the Austin food bloggers got together for our first ever potluck, so it was only fitting that we gathered again this month for our first potluck of 2010. (It really does take us this long to recover from the foodpalooza that is our holiday season.) The food and company were amazing as always. Foodie is the New 40 and Aimee Wenske have some beautiful photographs of the event on the blogs, and as their posts show, we ate very well that day. I enjoyed everything I tasted, but was especially enamored with the Greek Unorthodox Empanadas from first time potluck attendee Girl Gone Grits. I’m a big fan of empanadas as prep-ahead party food, so I expect to see some version of those empanadas on one of my party menus soon.
A Blogger without a Plan
To say that I’m a planner is an understatement. My life –food-related and otherwise – is run out of a series of spreadsheets that range from simply weekly menus to 1500 lines of to-dos for the whole year. When I have a plan I’m comfortable, even if the plan changes along the way. Without a plan, I’m a fish out of water. Imagine my horror when I looked up two days before the potluck and realized I had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what I was going to make. To further complicate matters, I had plans to attend a farm tour the morning of potluck so any and all prep work had to be done the evening before.
After a moment or two of panic, followed by some deep breathing, I realized I was going to have to wing it. After a bit more panic I decided to turn this into what my mother would call a “teachable moment” applied to myself and find out what lessons I could learn when faced with a situation where my traditional planning wasn’t an option. With that in mind, and only an hour or so to select recipes, I went in search of two recipes that fit these criteria:
- Were suitable for a picnic. Picnic-friendly recipes hold well, are portable, and are easy to eat without much cutlery.
- Would travel well. My food wouldn’t just have to get to the potluck, it would have to go the farm tour first, so portability was a must, with some assemble on site acceptable.
- Could be prepped in an hour or less the night before or morning of my potluck. Why an hour? That’s pretty much all the time I had to work with if I was going to get a good night’s sleep.
- Were elegant. I was absolutely unwilling to sacrifice quality because of a lack of time. I was convinced I could put together a lovely dish even with my limited time.
I’m happy to report that I found a lovely collection of recipes during my search and the most difficult part of the hunt was deciding which two recipes to make. I narrowed the selection to:
- Herbed Bocconcini
This recipe comes together in minutes and its perfect for highlighting any herb you like. I used fresh oregano because it’s what I had on hand and added a little lemon zest to balance the richness of the cheese and olive oil. I also used a blood orange olive oil for its unique flavor profile. This recipe is a great one for showcasing high quality cheese and olive oils.
- Filo Cups with Pesto and Artichoke Filling
This was my own creation inspired by Puff Pastry Baskets with Artichoke and Pesto Filling. I seriously considered making this recipe as is, because puff pastry is so easy to work with (see Puff Pastry Perfection below) but decided that I’d be pushing my time limit. Instead, I substituted pre-made mini Filo shells to further reduce the prep time. I also used canned artichoke hearts in the interest of time and am very happy with the results. You’ll find the recipe at the end of the post.
Fast, Cheap, Good – Pick Two
My day job is at a marketing agency and in the creative world we are reminded every day that any given work product can be a combination of two of the following: fast, cheap, and good. As I was exploring recipes that fit my criteria, I discovered that the axiom applies here as well. Fast and elegant recipes have short ingredient lists and rely heavily on the quality of the ingredients to work. The reality is good ingredients aren’t always the least expensive. This doesn’t mean you can’t bargain hunt, but when you are only bringing a few key ingredients to the dish, it’s important to not skimp on quality.
A Collection of Picnic-Friendly, Fast, and Easy Recipes
My recipe search yielded a host of picnic possibilities and I realized that they fell into four categories that are generally really great for any picnic or potluck situation, particularly when you are short on time. As you plan your own picnic or potluck treats, consider these examples of the kinds of recipes you might want to explore. They will help you narrow your search on your favorite recipe sites or blogs.
Cheese, Glorious Cheese
It’s really hard to go wrong with cheese in a picnic or potluck situation because it’s almost universally popular and it can sit out for quite a while. There are so many great cheese available that you can find great quality ingredients to share with your friends and family with relative ease. Some good cheese-centric recipes I came across include:
- Sweet-’n'-Salty Honey Cheese Spread
- Smoky Green Chile-Cheddar Cheese with Avocado-Mango Salsa
- Goat Cheese Bites
Puff Pastry Perfection
If I had to list my top 3 three secret ingredients for entertaining, puff pastry would be one of them. It’s versatile, easy to work with, and oh-so-impressive. It holds up well when you store it in an air tight container, and it works beautifully in both sweet and savory applications. Cheese straws are a go-to technique for many of my entertaining needs because they are easy and let me highlight favorite cheeses. You can make them ahead of time and they pair nicely with wine. Once you’ve made cheese straws by a recipe, you’ll find yourself dreaming up all sorts of ingredient combinations. These three will get you started:
Food on Sticks
Skewers of any sort of food are just plain ol’ fun for any party setting. They rely on great combinations of ingredients and some assembly time, but not much actual cooking. I’ll often enlist the help of my family to make a bunch of skewers once I’ve prepped the ingredients and made a couple of sample skewers. The goodness of skewers is really only limited by your imagination. Here are a few examples to get your creative juices flowing:
- Melon, Mozzarella, and Prosciutto Skewers
- Antipasto Skewers with Pesto Dip
- Mini Caprese Bites
- Mozzarella and Nectarine Skewers With Pesto
Don’t Forget the Veggies
Many potlucks and picnics are heavy on the carbs and proteins, and crudités are often the only option. Consider upping the veggie stakes with one of these recipes:
- Crunchy Zucchini Rounds With Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Goat Cheese
- Chicory “boats” with marinated chestnuts & parma ham
Toasted Bread Rules
When all else fails, break out the crostini. Two or three high-quality ingredients on a piece of toasted bread will cure all potluck and picnic ills. When I go down the crostini path, I do try to surprise people with combinations they might not have seen before. If you have to travel a ways to your party, you may want to prep all of the ingredients ahead of time and plan to assemble the crostini on site. This helps keep them from losing half of their toppings in transit. When you’re looking for your next crostini inspiration, try one of these unexpected but still very easy recipes:
- Crostini with Honey, Gorgonzola, and Figs
- Artichoke Crostini
- Crostini with Mascarpone, Fresh Berries & Drizzled Honey
- Flamed Chorizo
Recipe: Filo Cups with Pesto and Artichoke Filling
- Difficulty: Easy
- Makes: 30 mini cups
- Prep Time: 15 minutes
- 1 c. prepared pesto
- 1 can artichoke hearts in water, drained and finely chopped in a food processor
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 packages mini Filo cups, thawed
- Freshly grated parmesan for garnish
- Combine the pesto and chopped artichoke hearts. Stir to mix well. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Line the cups up on your serving dish and spoon about 1 Tbsp. of the pesto and artichoke mix into each cup.
- Sprinkle each cup with a bit of the parmesan cheese and serve.
Recipe for Success
- My local Central Market makes amazing pesto so if I don’t have time to make my own, I know I have a source. I do however try to freeze extra pesto just for times like this. If you have an extra 15 or 20 minutes, as well as an abundance of basil, then by all means make your own. The pesto is the star player here though, so be sure you buy good pesto.
- A small scoop makes filling the cups with the pesto and artichoke mixture fast and easy.
- I highly recommend transporting the filling and cups separately and then doing final assembly at the picnic site. The filo cups will hold up for about three or four hours before the bottoms get soggy, but they are somewhat fragile, so you’ll have less breakage if you keep them in their packaging until you’re ready to serve them.
- You can make the artichoke and pesto mixture the night before, but be sure to store it in an air-tight container with a thin layer of olive oil on the top to keep the pesto from turning brown.