FRESH AIR AND fresh food: Mix them together and you have a recipe for an elegant and memorable outdoor dining experience. Caterers know that creating a menu that will enhance an outdoor setting can present a number of challenges, but the result can be a spectacular marriage of the palate and the picturesque. In this month's column, two top caterers discuss points to ponder when planning a picnic menu.

AL FRESCO AFFAIR

When it comes to choosing innovative menus for picnics, clients are open to experimenting with new flavors. “People in general are becoming very aware of the foods around the globe, and the fun I have is incorporating the different styles into my menus to produce a Canadian West Coast flair,” says Alexandra Berlingette, president of 24 Carrot Catering in Nanaimo, British Columbia, who has created menus for summertime company picnics, family reunions and wedding weekends.

Requests for vegetarian recipes are on the rise, Berlingette adds, noting that she created one completely vegetarian picnic menu for a wedding last year and has two booked so far in 2004.

However, meat isn't completely off the menu: “For informal outdoor menus, I am doing a lot of barbecues,” she says. Her most requested is the “Memphis BBQ” grill, which includes sausages from a local smokehouse, chicken skewers, and ribs basted with her homemade smoky barbecue sauce.

At Matawan, N.J.-based Merri-Makers Catering and Special Events, “The trend in catering is leaning toward an la carte look, so when we show up at an event we try to serve our product straight from the grill to your plate,” notes Laura Daly, vice president of corporate sales. As for client requests, right now “people are looking for fun and unique food stations,” she says. “They like to see action and the quality of the raw product, not to mention the wonderful smell that comes off of a flaming barbecue.” Some of the company's more popular stations include the Jersey Shore clambake, the Caribbean pig spit and a stand serving grilled corn on the cob with lime basil butter.

Clients are also expressing an interest in exploring organic food. For one picnic attended by 2,000 employees of a large publishing group, Merri-Makers planned an extensive, 90 percent organic menu, compromising only on items where organic options did not exist. Guests feasted on grilled marinated organic chicken breast with yogurt and Asian spices, organic beef burgers served with classic fixings, and organic summer vegetables with fresh herbs in a roasted garlic mayonnaise — one of many selections from the organic wrap and salad stand. The organic menu even extended to the beverages, with guests selecting from an array of organic beers, wines and sodas, in addition to more conventional offerings such as freshly squeezed lemonade and iced tea laced with fresh mint sprigs.

ON LOCATION

Creating a successful outdoor picnic menu requires keeping a number of things in mind, Berlingette says. Location is a key factor to consider, as the menu can change based on the remoteness of the locale and whether guests will be sitting at picnic tables or lounging on blankets. In many cases, picnic food has to be transported to the event site and therefore needs to include items that will benefit from standing before service. “Pick salads that will travel well and improve with a little marinating,” Berlingette recommends, adding that sandwiches should be made using rustic, hearty breads that won't go soggy, such as sourdough, focaccia or baguettes.

Often, picnic menus take inspiration from the outdoor settings themselves. Recently, 24 Carrot Catering provided the food for a Scottish-themed summer wedding held on Gambier Island, British Columbia. Some 100 guests were carried by boat to the island and treated to an elegant lunchtime menu that played off the surrounding ocean by featuring a number of seafood recipes. Guests sat on tartan blankets and dined from picnic baskets filled with dishes such as cold poached salmon with a grapefruit and blueberry salsa, cold cracked crab, and prawns marinated with lemon, bay leaf, paprika and thyme. Salad choices included potato salad niçoise made with red potatoes, roasted red peppers, capers, green beans and olives marinated in balsamic vinaigrette, and a salad of marinated asparagus in Dijon balsamic vinaigrette. Afterwards, a late afternoon tea featuring Drambuie, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and a simple dessert of strawberry shortcake with whipped crème fraîche wrapped up the meal.

HOT SPOTS

Of course, one of the most important things to keep in mind when creating a menu for an outdoor picnic is the weather. “If it is a very hot time of year, then great care must be taken in keeping the food cool and not using foods that are extremely vulnerable to spoilage,” Berlingette says. “If it's hot, stay away from cheese. It's just too difficult, and there is nothing worse than sweaty cheese!”

Great food is always important to the success of a picnic, but several products are lifesavers when it comes to al fresco dining. When asked what products she finds essential, Berlingette's answer is simple: “Tupperware!” She also recommends having plenty of freezer packs on hand to ensure that food stays cool. Daly notes that front-load insulated food carriers are invaluable for keeping food hot, and umbrellas and canopies are a necessity for providing shade on warm, sunny days.

RESOURCES

24 Carrot Catering, 250/754-0075; Merri-Makers Catering & Special Events, 732/583-9200