Summer salad picnic splendid way to enjoy outdoors

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Midsummer is a splendid time for a picnic under the trees. Whether planning to bring a movable feast to one of Taos' multitude of outdoor concerts or inviting a few friends over for a backyard get-together, I love the simplicity of eating outdoors. You can keep things effortless and still reap the benefits of breathing in the fresh air and the convivial atmosphere.

For an uncomplicated picnic, I am always drawn to salads, but that's not true for everyone. My husband thinks ribs and bratwursts are appropriate picnic fare. But when the food is something we're carrying in a basket or a backpack, I look for something I can make ahead of time that is easy to serve and easy to eat.

By including salads that feature meats and dried fruits and choosing combinations of more substantial vegetables (such as broccoli) and legumes (like chickpeas), salads can seem more like main dishes. We also get to feel good about eating lighter while pleasing the palate and the eye. And if you happen to have a bigger crowd joining you, it's a cinch to add an additional dish or two to round out your carte du jour.

The gorgeous tomatoes we're seeing right now -- yellow, red, orange, green -- just cry out to be sliced and served just as they are. Arrange the slices in a flat container, drizzle with some balsamic glaze, garnish with avocado and microgreens from the farmers market and you have a colorful centerpiece for your picnic.

To address the need for heartier fare, I can't think of anything easier and more delicious than a pair of chicken salads, one curried and the other featuring cranberries and walnuts. A slight change in ingredients really makes them completely different, so if you have a group to feed, I suggest cooking enough chicken to make both versions. Or choose the one you like best; they're both heavenly. You can complement them nicely with some bakery rolls, croissants or good chewy bread and garnish with lettuce or sprouts. And a beautiful sandwich is sometimes easier to sell to a picky eater than a salad!

A well-seasoned broccoli salad is a great addition, and it also makes an excellent side dish for another meal at home. Not only does broccoli hold up for hours, meaning you can make it well ahead, but the mix in this recipe of broccoli and chickpeas feels substantial. Add some crumbled bacon -- it complements the flavor beautifully. Or keep it vegetarian by sprinkling with some toasted walnuts.

And what about potato salad? My husband thinks no picnic is complete without it. In this case, I favor switching things up a bit with a zesty German version. There's no mayonnaise, just plenty of tangy vinegar-based dressing. And to satisfy the carnivore, sprinkle with crispy diced bacon again! Although I adore traditional potato salad, this version just seems tastier on a hot day - and it fulfills multiple culinary desires.

There is spectacular locally grown ripe fruit available in the market right now. For an uncomplicated and refreshing dessert, I recommend folding together diced peaches, blueberries, cherries and melon. No dressing necessary!

And finally, if you use disposable plates and forks, cleanup is a snap. Even the vessels for transporting and serving could be recycled containers and tubs.

Enjoy your outdoor events, keep it fun and easy for yourself and make everyone happy. For a little gourmet entertaining in the great outdoors, what could be better? 

Avocado and tomato salad with microgreens

I love the simplicity of this fresh salad, especially for a buffet. Feel free to add more ingredients, such as sliced baby radishes, but preserve the lightness and freshness of the main ingredients. A drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar are all you need for a colorful and flavorful counterpoint to the main dish salads below.

2 or more heirloom tomatoes, cut in half and sliced lengthwise

1 or 2 ripe avocados, cut into slices

1 package microgreens, washed and gently patted dry

A good fruity extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Balsamic glaze for drizzling

Coarse salt and pepper from grinder 

To cook the chicken, for the next two recipes, simply place the breasts (about 4 total) in a large saucepan, cover with water and add the following: 1 smashed garlic clove, 1 bay leaf, 1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs (such as parsley), sage, rosemary, thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Allow to cool, remove from broth and dice. Reserve the broth for another use.

Curried chicken salad 

2 cups or so diced cooked chicken breasts (about 2 chicken breast halves)

1 cup red seedless grapes sliced in half

1/2 cup roasted cashews, lightly chopped

2 teaspoons finely chopped shallots

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 1/2 teaspoons curry powder

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Scant 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Toss ingredients together in a medium bowl. Scrape into a serving bowl. Garnish with parsley. Serve with mini croissants, hard rolls or on a bed of lettuce.

This recipe makes four to six servings.

Walnut chicken salad with cranberries

2 cups or so diced cooked chicken breasts (about 2 chicken breast halves)

1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and lightly chopped

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup diced celery

2 teaspoons finely chopped shallots

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, plus more for garnish

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Toss ingredients together in a medium bowl. Scrape into a serving bowl. Garnish with parsley. Serve with mini croissants, hard rolls or on a bed of lettuce.

This recipe makes four to six servings.

Broccoli, bacon and chickpea salad

You can easily adapt this hearty salad for vegetarians. Simply leave out the bacon and sprinkle with 1/4 cup of chopped toasted walnuts instead.

6 cups broccoli florets

15 ounces canned garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained and rinsed

4 slices thick bacon, cooked until crisp and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 scallions, sliced

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

Rinse and drain the broccoli florets. Place in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 2 minutes. Immediately plunge the broccoli into a bowl of ice water until cool. Drain well and dry in a towel. Set aside.

Whisk the mayonnaise, the vinegar, the olive oil, the pepper and the salt together in the bottom of a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss well until lightly coated with the dressing.

May be made ahead of time and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature and toss again before serving.

This recipe makes eight servings.

German potato salad

A nice change from the usual potato salad, this tangy version contains no mayonnaise.

2-3 pounds unpeeled yellow potatoes, such as Yukon Gold

4 strips bacon

5-6 scallions, trimmed and sliced

1/3 cup cider vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon Hungarian paprika

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

Chopped parsley for garnish

Place the potatoes in a pot of salted water so they are submerged by a couple of inches. Bring to a boil, simmer gently uncovered for about 20-25 minutes until tender. Drain and cool slightly. As soon as they are cool enough to touch, peel and slice them. Place the slices in a large mixing bowl.

Cook the bacon in a skillet until crisp. Drain on paper towels. Add the scallions to the fat and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add to the potatoes in the mixing bowl.

In the same skillet, add the cider vinegar, 1/4 cup of water, the sugar, the salt, the paprika and the dry mustard. Whisk well and deglaze the pan. Add a little water if necessary to make a flowable dressing.

Pour the hot dressing from the skillet over the potatoes and toss gently. Pour into a decorative serving bowl. Sprinkle with the bacon and serve warm or at room temperature.

This recipe makes eight servings.

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