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Picnics Can Be Movable Feasts

One of the best lunches I ever had was also one of the simplest: fresh bread, the sharpest of sharp local cheddars, pistachio nuts from a trip to Greece, washed down with lukewarm water. It was almost too windy to eat, and my parents and I had hiked for miles, only to sit on the ground.

On a breezy afternoon on a California hillside, we were without complaint. We nibbled and talked of things large and small, the breeze ruffling the dry grass and the Pacific Ocean spread out before us like a shining flag.

Who needs a quiet table in the corner? No matter where you eat, memorable meals are always possible. If you dine outside, those possibilities are almost limitless.

I do love a picnic. I love thinking about where I'll be going and what would culinarily best fit the setting. For example, a beach ramble always calls for a cheese and avocado sandwich with just a smear of mustard, an apple tucked in my pocket for later. An afternoon under the redwoods, on the other hand, would probably be better suited to a more elaborate spread of pasta salad, homemade lemon cake and a bottle of champagne. I once put together a Mother's Day outdoor feast of from-scratch macaroons, crab salad sandwiches and a red plum and pear fruit salad.

While it's true you can make a meal out of nearly anything — a bit of bread and cheese, a handful of cherry tomatoes, sparkling juice, a peach cut into long, dripping slices — dining en plein air doesn't mean you have to stick with the standard soggy potato salads and deviled eggs so endemic to childhood picnics.

No, I think of picnic fare as the ultimate takeout food.

Some of the easiest foods to bring outside are also some of the most portable: bread or crackers, cheese, hummus, olives packed up in a little container, fruit. They can augment more substantial dishes. I always select recipes that will taste better the next day and are served cold or at room temperature so I won't have to bother with actually cooking anything on site.

If I'm incorporating a hike, I bring foods that don't have to be eaten at a table — lentils, in individual serving containers, are a delicious and nourishing choice — and that are hardy enough to survive a few hours in a backpack. If I'm really pressed for time, I pick through my cupboards for cookies or nuts that will survive the journey; I like variety, and sometimes a sandwich just doesn't do the trick.

Of course, it's essential to remember all the little things for your meal as well — napkins, plates (if necessary), utensils, cups, etc. — so you're not left passing around a bottle of lemonade among your companions and hoping no one has a cold.

I tried to come up with dishes here that are sturdy, packable and that can be made in advance. I've also tried to omit dairy so if they're left out of the fridge for a few hours they'll still taste just fine — the flavors, in fact, will probably have better settled when eaten at room temperature.

These are dishes that can be made as part of a larger feast, but each can stand on its own. The spring rolls in particular are a complete (if light) and compact meal. The desserts are small enough to be eaten in a few bites, which somehow feels just right when eating outside. Mostly, I like to keep things simple but not boring.

There are so many worthy options: a couscous salad with chickpeas and cucumber, quinoa and white beans, beets roasted and tossed with dill and lemon juice, sauteed portabello mushrooms marinated in garlic-infused olive oil, a corn and tomato salad, mini angel food cakes with fresh strawberries. It would be difficult to choose just a few. Fortunate, then, that summer stretches out long and languid before us, with lots of time for picnicking.

That windy afternoon picnic high above the ocean was one of my best in recent memory. After eating, we packed up the pistachio shells we'd piled alongside the trail and brushed off the crumbs, congratulating ourselves for lugging in such a good lunch.

Next time, I said, we should bring some roasted-pepper hummus for sandwiches, and maybe some chocolate cake, and an orange or two ...

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Nicole Spiridakis