Food & Drink

Take picnic food up a notch by adding Parisian flair

Tote your Ham and leek quiche to your picnic in the same pan you baked it in.
Tote your Ham and leek quiche to your picnic in the same pan you baked it in. Special to the Star-Telegram

A lifelong picnic-phobe, I went to my first tailgate party last year — on opening night at the Santa Fe Opera — and it changed how I saw this whole eating-outdoors-away-from-home business. We had Champagne and hors d’oeuvres, then moved on to an enormous salad and a turkey that was stuffed with homemade sausage. For dessert, we had lemon bars. We sat in fold-out chairs around a table with a proper tablecloth, napkins, and china and toasted to our good fortune in glass — not plastic — flutes. It was brilliant.

This was not a Tupperware mishmash of mayo-less dishes (the only requirement, it seemed) from the picnics of my youth. This was an event, and the food was the star. Inspired, I started to think about a menu of things that can eaten warm or cold, and wouldn’t diminish with a little time out of the fridge or the oven.

I thought about the Parisian approach to the picnic, meaning not a downgrade of food that you’d normally serve, but a selection of items easy to tote. So I came up with these picnic-worthy recipes: a Ham and leek quiche, a French classic for lunches and picnics; homemade tapenade, good for spreading on crackers, bread, or sandwiches or added to pasta, and so much better than anything you can buy; Asparagus and dill salad, great for outdoor parties or, closer to home, to accompany anything you might be grilling; and Pickled mushrooms, because they’re interesting and unexpected. What would a picnic be without pickles? (Sad, that’s what.)

The recipes don't take too much time to prepare, because when you want to picnic, it’s often last-minute. And the food is light rather than heavy, and easy to eat .

This spring, I’ll be packing my wicker basket and looking for the nearest patch of grassy lawn or a parking lot with a view, because it’s picnic season again and I don’t want to miss it.

Ellise Pierce is the author of "Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking With a French Accent" (Running Press). Read her blog (, and follow her on Twitter (@cowgirlchef) and Instagram (cowgirlchef)

Ham and leek quiche

Makes 6 servings

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 leeks, thinly sliced (white part only)

  • Sea salt and pepper

  • 1 cup cubed ham

  • 1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

  • 1 Whole wheat-oatmeal tart crust, prebaked (recipe follows)

  • 1/2 cup half-and-half

  • 1/2 cup whole milk

  • 4 eggs

1. Heat oven to 375°F.

2. Put the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook the leeks with sea salt and pepper to taste until lightly browned, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Put the leeks, along with the ham and Gruyere in the bottom of the prebaked tart shell.

4. Whisk together the half-and-half, milk, and eggs, along with a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Pour into the tart pan and bake for 30 minutes or until set.


Makes 1

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour

  • 1/4 cup oatmeal (quick)

  • 1 teaspoon sea salt

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1/2 cup ice water

1. Line the bottom of an 11-inch tart pan with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, oatmeal, and sea salt. Add the oil and honey and mix by hand with a wooden spoon. Add water, and mix just until the dough comes together in a ball.

3. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface, lay it into the tart pan, and trim the edges by rolling your pin over the top. Prick the bottom with a fork and refrigerate for an hour, or pop in the freezer for 30 minutes (my favorite method, because it's faster), until the dough is nice and firm.

4. Heat over to 375 degrees. Line the frozen crust with parchment and fill it with pie weights or dry beans, making sure to push them tightly into the edges, where shrinkage can occur. Put the tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the weights and parchment, and bake for 10 more minutes, so the bottom cooks through. Let it cool off a bit before you fill it.

Cowgirl tip: Make savory crackers with your leftover bits of dough. Just spread the pieces out on a cookie sheet — making sure to tear them into pieces approximately the same size so they'll cook evenly — sprinkle with sea salt, pepper and whatever fresh herbs you've got on hand, lightly press or roll into the dough, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the pieces begin to look crispy. This dough is nutty and slightly sweet; the little crackers remind me of Wheat Thins.


Makes about 1 cup

Adapted from a recipe by Alain Ducasse.

  • 1 garlic clove, minced

  • 5 large basil leaves

  • 1 teaspoon of capers

  • 1 anchovy filet (or 1 teaspoon of paste)

  • 5 ounces black olives, such as Nicoise or Kalamata

  • 1/3 cup olive oil

Put everything in a food processor and pulse until combined yet still somewhat chunky. Store in a jar in the fridge. Serve as an appetizer with toast or crackers.

Asparagus and dill salad

Makes 4 servings

  • 1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed and cut into 3-inch pieces

  • Sea salt and pepper

  • Champagne vinaigrette (recipe follows)

  • Dill for serving

  • Parmesan for serving

1. Put about 1 inch of water in a large saucepan. Add the asparagus, and turn the heat to medium-high. Let cook until the asparagus is firm but can be easily pierced with a fork. Pour the asparagus into a colander and cover with ice.

2. Assemble your salad. Divide the asparagus among 4 salad plates. Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with Champagne vinaigrette. Add bits of dill and curls of Parmesan.


Makes 3/4 cup

  • 1/4 cup Champagne vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon chopped shallot

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • Sea salt and pepper to taste

  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Put the first four ingredients in a jam jar and give it a good shake, or whisk them together in a bowl. Add about half of the olive oil, shake, taste, and if you need more, keep adding until it tastes balanced (not too vinegary and not too oily). Taste for seasonings. Will keep in the fridge for a week.

Pickled mushrooms

Makes 10 to 12 servings

Adapted from a recipe in Elle à Table.

  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar

  • 1 cup white wine, such as a Vouvray

  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns

  • 1 teaspoon coriander seed

  • 3 brines fresh thyme

  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

  • 1 serrano chile, thinly sliced

  • 1.8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced

1. Put the white wine vinegar, white wine, brown sugar, pink peppercorns, and coriander seeds in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When it comes to a boil, remove from the heat and pour the liquid in a bowl to cool.

2. Put the thyme, red onion, serrano, and mushrooms in another bowl. When the cooked liquid has cooled to room temperature, pour it into the other bowl and add just enough water to cover. Seal the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. For a picnic, keep in an airtight jar.

Fireworks finale at the Concerts in the Garden at the Botanic Gardens