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Picnics, Cook-Outs & Tailgating

By Lori Grossman

Just hearing the word "picnic" brings back childhood memories. My dad was the ringleader -- or instigator, if you prefer. A New York state native who became a thoroughly transplanted Texan, he loved driving the back roads and discovering the beauty and historic sites of his beloved Texas.

As soon as I was old enough, he taught me how to read a Texas road map and how to locate roadside parks (now listed as "picnic areas"). We'd pick one that looked interesting, and early Saturday morning, we loaded the car with a bag full of non-perishable items and the pale green aluminum cooler stocked with several kinds of soda water, a jar of sweet pickle relish, mustard, hamburger patties, and hot dogs. Once everything was loaded -- including me and my older brother in the back seat -- Dad would head out of San Antonio.

We'd drive home in the afternoon with full stomachs and memories of the scenic beauty we'd seen. If you grew up in Texas, you know what I mean. And if you haven't packed up some picnic supplies and enjoyed one of the numerous picnic areas along Texas roadsides, by all means, do! I guarantee you'll make memories for the rest of your lives.

Just about any fare suitable for a picnics or cook-outs works well for tailgating parties, too. The same kind of advance preparation applies, as are the supplies necessary to transport and keep ingredients cold (or hot). There is something special about food cooked and eaten al fresco. (For those of us not conversant in italian, that translates "in the fresh air".) Outdoor settings definitely sharpen appetites.

You can make many items ahead of time, including the recipes I'm sharing When you need hamburger buns, do you go to the grocery store and grab a package from the shelf? Ever check the ingredients? With all of the chemicals and preservatives, those buns will last longer than you will! If you or any kids in your family have allergies, read those labels. Some companies are finally realizing that we're better off with less junk in our food, so look for labels like: "No Artificial Ingredients or Preservatives" or "All Natural Ingredients." Even better, make your burgers really special by serving these homemade hamburger buns.

Homemade Hamburger Buns

  • 1-3/4 cups warm water (105 to 115°F)
  • 1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 4-1/2 to 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour
  • 1 large egg beaten with 2 teaspoons water (to glaze tops of buns)
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds
Pour 1/2 cup of the warm water into a small bowl. Sprinkle the yeast and 1/2 teaspoon of the sugar over the water. Stir to dissolve and let stand at room temperature until foamy (about 10 minutes).

In a large bowl, using a whisk (or in the work bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment), combine the remaining 1-1/4 cups water, nonfat dry milk, the remaining sugar, salt and butter. Add 2 cups of the flour. Beat hard until creamy (about 1 minute). Add remaining the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the soft dough just clears the sides of the bowl. Switch to a wooden spoon when necessary if mixing by hand.

Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for about 4 minutes. Dust with flour, 1 tablespoon at a time as needed, to make a soft dough. If kneading by machine, switch from the paddle to the dough hook and knead for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed. If desired, transfer dough to a floured surface and knead briefly by hand.

Place dough in a deep, greased container. Turn once to coat the top and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, 1 to 1-1/4 hours.

Gently deflate the dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Grease a baking sheet. Divide dough into 12 equal portions. Shape each into a tight round ball and place seam side down at least 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Use a second baking sheet if necessary rather than crowding the dough. Flatten each dough ball with your palm. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until puffy (about 20 minutes).

About 20 minutes before baking, preheat oven to 350°F. Brush each bun with the egg glaze and sprinkle tops with sesame seeds. Place baking sheet on a rack in the center of the oven and bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until slightly brown and firm to the touch. Transfer buns to a cooling rack. Cool completely before splitting. Makes 12 buns.

Usually, the grill at the roadside park needed a good cleaning, so we brought our own small grill. My brother and I still laugh at Dad's efforts to get a fire going. He tended to use a bit too much lighter fluid, so when he tossed in a match, we'd have to stand well back of the grill – unless we wanted our hair to catch on fire! (Just joking, Dad.) Actually, Dad was a very capable cook. He made sure the rest of us were chowing down on our hot dogs or hamburgers before he'd cook one for himself. He would have loved these.

Hamburgers with Chunky Guacamole Salsa

  • 6 thick slices (about 6 ounces total) bacon
  • 1-1/2 pounds 80% lean ground beef
  • 6 hamburger buns, lightly toasted
  • Salt
  • Vegetable oil for oiling grill rack (if necessary)
  • Chunky Guacamole Salsa (recipe follows)

Chunky Guacamole Salsa

  • 2 ripe avocados, soft but not mushy
  • 2 large ripe plum tomatoes
  • 1 3-inch long jalapeño pepper, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped shallots
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
Halve, seed, and peel the avocados; then cut into 1/2-inch dice. Place in a medium non- reactive bowl (I use glass). Halve the tomatoes, seed them, and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Add to medium bowl along with minced jalapeño.

In a small bowl, mix together the lime juice, shallots, cilantro, cumin and salt. Whisk in the oil. Pour over the avocados and tomatoes and mix gently so the avocados won't be mashed.

Taste and add more salt, if desired. Serve immediately, or cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for up to 1 hour.

Packing for a picnic? Cover and refrigerate the salsa for 4 hours. Transfer to a tightly closed, watertight container and pack in your ice chest or cooler. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.

Home prep for hamburgers: Fry bacon in a medium, heavy skillet over medium heat until crisp and golden. Remove and drain on paper towels. Break each slice in half and wrap bacon in aluminum foil. Shape the ground beef into 6 patties about 1/2-inch thick. Wrap in plastic wrap. Pack bacon and beef patty packages in the ice chest.

When you've reached your destination and are ready to cook, grill the burgers 4 to 5 minutes per side until cooked through (internal temperature should be 160°F. Place the burgers on bottoms of toasted buns. Salt burgers very lightly and top each with 2 halves of bacon. Mound the burgers with desired amount of Chunky Guacamole Salsa and cover with tops of buns. Makes 6 burgers.

If any of these are left after your picnic, they're great for keeping the kids happy on the ride back home.

Mini Chocolate Almond Cupcakes

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing pan
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for flouring pan
  • 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken or cut into small chunks
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee powder or crystals
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup slivered or sliced almonds, finely ground
Arrange an oven rack at center position. Preheat oven to 375°F. Generously butter and flour 3 mini muffin tins and tap out excess flour. (Each pan should have 12 cups about 1-3/4 inches in diameter). If you don't have 3 pans, bake the cupcakes in batches.

Melt chocolate in top of a double boiler (or in a heat-proof bowl) set over but not touching simmering water in a saucepan. Stir until melted and smooth. Stir in coffee powder until dissolved. Remove pan from heat and cool 5 minutes.

With electric mixer on medium-high speed, cream butter in a medium bowl until smooth (about 1 minute). Add sugar gradually, beating until mixture is light and fluffy (3 to 4 minutes). Stop and scrape down sides of bowl if necessary. Lower speed and add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the melted chocolate, ground almonds and flour.

Spoon mixture evenly into prepared cupcake tins. Don't fill more than 3/4 full. Mini cupcake molds vary in size, so depending on your pan(s), you should get 30 to 32 cupcakes. Bake cupcakes until a tester inserted into middle comes out clean (about 15 minutes). Run a knife around inside edges of molds to loosen. Leave cupcakes in molds for 10 to 15 minutes, then unmold. Cool cupcakes and refrigerate.

You can make these up to two days ahead. To take along on your picnic, place cupcakes in large ziplock bags. If there's room on top of the ice in your cooler, lay the bag(s) on top. If not, keep them in a closed paper bag in a shady area of your car.

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