Oh, the joys of a summer picnic in San Francisco! The five o’clock winds whirling away the paper napkins, leather-jacketed guests huddled around the grill for warmth, tippy paper plates piled with rapidly cooling veggie dogs…need I go on?
If you’ve lived in San Francisco through more than one ostensible summer—those months between Memorial Day and Labor Day when Walnut Creek swelters while we shiver—you’ve been to a picnic like this, in Golden Gate Park or in an Inner Richmond backyard, where the hosts have high hopes that end with everyone back inside, squeezed into the kitchen drinking Trumer Pils by the stove.
Still, it’s not always like that. There are always a few blissful 80+ degree days, where Dolores Park becomes a shirtless, sundressed parking lot and even Baker Beach is warm enough to lure full-body sunseekers to its clothing-optional end. Or there’s a speedy BART ride to that place across the bridge called the East Bay, with its sunny skies, warmer temps, and many, many parks, where most of your home-buying friends live now, anyway. And away from the ocean, the inner reaches of Marin, along with Napa and Sonoma, offer reliably toasty summer weather.
So, no excuse not to pack up the picnic basket this weekend. Picnics and barbecues, by their nature, are expandable, pot-lucky affairs. Some hosts do their duty by laying out chips, guacamole, baby carrots and beer, leaving it up to the guests to bring their own sausages, steaks, or salmon for the grill—a recession-wise move when local wild salmon runs $20/lb or more. Jealously guarding your own little slab of protein from the grazing hordes can feel a little greedy, but hopefully, some generous soul will have had the foresight to throw down a few extra sausages, skewers, or veggie burgers for their six-pack-toting friends who forgot to hit Bi-Rite on the way.
Tables are inevitably cluttered with salads and dips, plastic tubs or bowls of thrown-together, easily-transportable stuff that no one really loves but everyone eats: potato salads, pasta salads, hummus, salsa, quinoa-and-bean things. Personally, I’ve received modest but heartfelt acclaim over the years for my potato salad, which is neither truffled or lobstered, but simply made from scratch rather than being bought by the pound at Safeway.
The trick to good potato salad is a two-step dressing process, and most importantly, making it the day before. Potatoes are stolid things, and they need some time to jazz themselves up. Sitting on BART for 30 minutes nestled up against a cold pack won’t do it. Give your potatoes a full 24 hours in the fridge to soak up their dressing, and you’ll have something worth eating. Otherwise, you’ll have OK salad followed by really spectacular leftovers.
The method is more important than the exact measurements, which will vary depending on your taste and how many potatoes you have lying around. Waxy potatoes, like the commonly found round, red-skinned ones, will give you a neater salad, since they tend to keep their shape better when boiled. Once your potatoes are boiled tender (but before they start collapsing and exploding), drain them and let them cool just to the point where you can handle them without burning your fingers. Peel and cut into just-a-little-bigger-than-bite-size chunks. Toss with some minced shallot, a bit of freshly minced garlic, a generous dose of white-wine or rice vinegar, and plenty of salt and pepper. Turn them around in this; they should be well moistened but not sitting in a puddle. Cover and put this away at room temperature for an hour or two, or in the fridge if you need to leave it longer than that.
Once your potatoes have soaked up a little tang, you can decide which way you want the dressing to go: a mustardy, olive oil-based vinaigrette, with the crunch of whole-grain mustard and perhaps a little diced red onion for color, or the all-American mayonnaise-y way, with lots of good mayonnaise whisked with a little milk or sour cream to lighten it, plus a dab of mustard and a good squirt of fresh lemon juice, tossed with the potatoes to coat with some finely chopped celery and scallion. Whichever you choose, toss it well and put it back into the fridge to mellow. Taste for seasoning before serving; potatoes can usually stand a lot of salt and pepper, and the French-style salad always benefits from a generous handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley thrown in at the very end.
Then there are deviled eggs, which everyone loves but not enough people make. The reason? Most likely, the unhappy memory of trying to transport a plateful of the slippery little devils on the N-Judah, arriving with all the tasty yellow filling smooshed into the plastic wrap. For the classic cut-in-half eggs filled with a swirl in the shape of fancy cake icing, you really need one of those made-for-the-purpose plates dimpled with little egg-shaped indentations. Which you’ll use maybe 3 times a year, which is why so few of us have them.
Not to worry, though. There’s another way to make deviled eggs that neatly sidesteps the need for specialty plateware. So, boil your eggs the way you do, keeping in mind, my chicken-keeping friends, that backyard-fresh eggs will be much harder to peel, leaving you with something like a pock-marked chunk of moon rock. It will be much easier to separate white from shell if you use a stash that’s been waiting in the fridge for a week.
Anyway, peel your eggs. Now, standing the egg upright on its narrower end, slice a little bit off its round bottom, so it has a nice flat surface to sit on. Now slice off the top, about a third of the way down. Scoop or pop out the yolk, and drop it into a bowl. (Generally, as an egg ages, its yolk sinks closer to the wider end.)
Once your whites de-yolked, consider your flavorings. Everyone loves a plain deviled egg, the yolks mixed up with mayo, a pinch of dry mustard, a wee bit of paprika, perhaps a drop or two of lemon juice. Which means, of course, that you probably can’t wait to mix it up and put in curry or wasabi or smoked paprika. All of which are fine, as long as you don’t go nuts and overwhelm the nice rich egginess of the basic product.
Lately, I’ve become particularly enamored of deviled eggs sassed up with the salty, umami-laden punch of anchovy. Spanish boquerones, marinated white anchovies, are expensive and gorgeous, but whole salt-packed regular ones work quite well, too. (Fancy Italian delis often have a large open can of the salt-packed ones around, and will scoop out as many as you need. Rinse off the extra salt before using; some soaking may necessary if they still seem excessively salty.) There’s also the funkier, fishier canned versions, as well as anchovy paste in a tube.
Anyway, as in Caesar salad, the anchovy is just there to enhance the final product and give it that more-ish edge, not to scream ANCHOVY ANCHOVY ANCHOVY!!! So, mash your little fishy in, just a bit more than you think you should use, forking it together with your cooked egg yolks into a crumbly paste. Moisten with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, a glug of olive oil, and enough mayonnaise to bind it. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
If you have a pastry bag, pop in the tip of your choice (use one with a wide opening), and scoop your egg filling into the bag. (You can also use a small resealable plastic bag, scooping in the filling, pushing it into one corner, then snipping off the point of that corner with a pair of scissors. Voila! Instant pastry bag.) Twist the top shut and start shooting the rows of hard-boiled whites full of your deviled-egg mixture. (You’ll get the most impressive results if you do this on site, rather than trying to travel with them once they’re finished.) Keep chilled until ready to serve.