7d265ec96155fec2d67f8c660a3b9a6c-2In the villages of India, like the one where I grew up, country folks do not need to plan to go out and eat in the open air. During the busy sowing and harvesting seasons, farmers bring their meals to the fields out of necessity. Fresh foods such as corn on the cob are included in their meals directly from the fields, way before they get to the market in town. Among my fondest childhood memories is the sight of corn cooking on an open fire in a green field. The smell of the smoke from the fire blended perfectly with the aroma of the cooking corn. Lightly charred, the ear of corn would be rubbed with lemon juice, a little bit of salt, and cayenne powder.

In contrast, the city people of India have to make special plans to go on a picnic. Whether it’s a company event, a Sunday outing with the family, or a national holiday, city folks love to get away from the crowded streets and go to the many parks and reservoirs to party and eat outdoors. Cooking is usually done early in the morning in a cooperative effort by women of an extended family, relatives, or even neighbors wishing to picnic together. Some food preparation may even be done a day or two in advance to ensure variety in the menu.

Summer weather in California can be unpredictable for planning outdoor events, especially in coastal areas due to the usual foggy or cold days. But we take comfort in knowing that it may be a scorching 90 degrees somewhere else. Despite the fog, summer months can be ideal for picnics, and a planned picnic can be exciting, nutritious, and easy to prepare.

Here are some tips to make your picnic more enjoyable and successful, along with recipes for an Indian picnic menu.

(1) Pick a spot that is away from heavy wind. (2) Bring a blanket and a ground cloth and necessary utensils. (3) Bring a ball or Frisbee, or plan some outdoor activity to warm up everyone and to keep the kids busy. (4) Plan a varied menu which contains colorful and hearty dishes, and includes plenty of beverages such as juice, soda, water, and of course, a thermos of chai. (5) Do not forget to take garbage bags. Leave the site clean for the next group.

Here is a menu for an Indian picnic that includes favorites that I used to eat with family and friends back home: stuffed okra, vegetable biriani, peach chutney, cucumber raita, papadams, and masala chai.

Also be sure to bring a sampling of fresh fruit, including melon; cold cuts such as grilled tofu and sliced cheeses; and other deli condiments such as olives and salsa that complement an Indian menu.

STUFFED OKRA

1 pound fresh okra
½ cup chick-pea or garbanzo flour
½ teaspoon each coriander, cumin, and cayenne powders
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon salt
4 to 5 tablespoons oil
½ teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
2 tablespoons yogurt or lemon juice
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon salt

First, wash the okra and wipe the surface of each with a moist towel. Then pat them dry with a dry towel. Cut the tops off and set them aside. Make a stuffing by mixing the garbanzo flour, powdered spices, garlic, and salt in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons (or a bit more) of the oil and blend until the mixture is flaky and moist. Make a lengthwise slit down through the center of each okra pod to form a little “pocket” for stuffing. Fill each okra pod by inserting your thumb in the slit to hold it open while stuffing with the other hand. Do not overstuff the pods or they will break in half. Set the stuffed okras aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a heavy skillet and add the mustard seeds. When the seeds start to pop, add the stuffed okras and sauté gently over low heat, turning them from side to side to cook the entire surface. After about 10 minutes, add the yogurt or lemon juice, turmeric, and salt. Stir-fry for 7 to 10 minutes or longer until all the liquid is absorbed and the okra is brown and somewhat wrinkled.

Pack loosely in a covered container for the picnic.

RICE AND VEGETABLE BIRIANI

This substantial dish, a meal-in-a-pot, is a colorful addition to any picnic. It tastes great served at room temperature or cold, and can be prepared hours or even a day ahead.

1 cup each eggplant, carrot, bell pepper, and cauliflower cut into ½” pieces
1 cup peas, freshly shelled or frozen and thawed
2 tablespoons oil or butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, minced after removing seeds
1 large tomato, cut into small chunks
4 to 6 whole cardamom pods
4 to 6 whole cloves
1 large cinnamon stick, cut into small pieces
2 cups uncooked basmati rice
4 cups water
1 to 1½ teaspoons salt
juice of one lemon

Prepare the vegetables as listed and set them aside. Heat the oil or butter in a saucepan, add the onion and pepper, and stir-fry for several minutes. Then add the tomato and continue to sauté for a few minutes until the ingredients soften to form a sauce. Add the cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon and stir-fry for a few minutes to blend them in. Then add the rice. Sauté only for a minute or two more until the rice is well-coated with the sauce. Then add the vegetables and stir-fry all the ingredients together for a few more minutes. Add the water and salt, and mix all the ingredients thoroughly but gently. Heat the mixture uncovered, over a moderate flame, until it starts to simmer. Cover, lower the heat, and cook covered for 15 to 20 minutes.

Uncover the pot to check if the biriani is done. If the rice does not feel soft when pinched, cook for an additional five minutes, adding a few tablespoons of water if necessary to prevent burning. When done, the rice should be fluffy and the vegetables cooked but not mushy.

Leave the cooked biriani covered for a few minutes. Then transfer to a wide bowl with a lid. Sprinkle freshly squeezed lemon juice on top and pack it in the picnic basket. Biriani can keep at room temperature for several hours without refrigeration.

FRESH PEACH CHUTNEY

2 cups fresh peaches, rinsed
1 tablespoon shredded fresh ginger
½ cup chopped cilantro leaves
½ to 1 teaspoon salt
1 jalapeño pepper, minced after removing seeds
freshly squeezed juice of one lime

Cut the peaches in small pieces and put them in a bowl. Combine all other ingredients except for the peaches in the jar of a blender and puree. Add this mixture to the peaches, mix well, cover, and chill for at least 30 minutes before packing for the picnic.

CUCUMBER RAITA

(cucumber yogurt salad)

2 cups plain yogurt thoroughly blended with ½ cup water; or 1 cup plain yogurt blended with 1½ cups buttermilk
1 large or 2 small cucumbers
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon good quality mustard (such as Mendocino mustard available in health food stores)
½ teaspoon cumin powder
2 teaspoons minced cilantro
a few sprigs of uncut cilantro for garnish
a few pinches of cayenne powder

7d265ec96155fec2d67f8c660a3b9a6c-3Add the salt, mustard, cumin, and minced cilantro to the yogurt or buttermilk mixture. Beat well. Peel and slice the cucumbers and then cut them into small chunks, reserving about 10 rounds for garnish. Add cucumber chunks to the yogurt mixture and transfer to a serving bowl. Decorate with the cucumber circles, a few pinches of cayenne, and the sprigs of cilantro. Chill until ready to pack for the picnic.

PAPADAMS

These crispy, salty, chip-like crackers are almost always bought dry in packages, even in traditional households in India. Making papadam from scratch is very time-consuming and done by skilled people, although modern appliances now make this process simpler. The very stiff, glutinous dough is made from lentils and rice, then rolled very, very thin and dried thoroughly before storing. Packaged papadams are readily available in ethnic food markets and health food stores. However, unlike a bag of potato chips, packs of papadams are not ready to eat. They have to be roasted or fried first. Here are two methods of preparing packaged papadams.

(1) Roasted Papadams. Heat a heavy skillet thoroughly. Separate the packaged papadams carefully and, one at a time, press each one onto the hot skillet, using an oven glove or a tea towel. Turn it quickly! It only takes a couple of seconds to toast it to a brown color. If a few blisters appear, this is okay. Press the blistery side down and cook the other side just as quickly. Pack the roasted papadams carefully in your picnic basket.

(2) Fried Papadams. Heat a cup of oil in a skillet and fry the papadams, one at a time, turning quickly. Remove from the pan with metal tongs and place on a paper towel to drain.

Do not reuse the oil after frying papadams.

MASALA CHAI

4 cups water
2 cups milk or soy milk

a combination of: two whole cloves, one cinnamon stick, and a few cardamom pods, coarsely ground together; or several pinches of ground cardamom and cinnamon plus a pinch of ground clove

2 to 4 heaping teaspoons of good quality loose black tea. Combine a strong tea such as the India Black Mumari with flavorful tea leaves such as Darjeeling

1 tablespoon (or to taste) sugar or honey

Heat the water and soy milk together in a saucepan. Add the spices. Allow the mixture to come to a full boil. Turn off the heat when the liquid begins to rise. Add the tea leaves, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and allow the tea to steep for five minutes. Strain and add the sweetener of your choice before pouring into the thermos.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is a manager of Other Avenues, a health-food store. Serena Sacharoff is a chef, illustrator, and art student. Visit Shanta’s Vegetarian Ethnic Kitchen
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