I love to eat outside whenever possible, even on a sunny winter day. But when warm summer weather hits, outdoor dining is a definite preference, whether it’s a formal sit-down dinner or a casual picnic.
A picnic can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s setting places at a table in the backyard, but it can also be a get-together in the park, where there are picnic tables and grills, or a packed lunch at the beach.
Picnics are wonderful, no matter the kind, and the key to success is keeping them simple. You don’t even need to grill, or rely exclusively on hot dogs and burgers: In fact, a meatless, or nearly meatless, main can be lovely.
A big vegetable salad is the answer (a green salad less so, though not impossible). For protein and substance, look to beans and other legumes. I’m an unabashed devotee of beans.
Although canned beans are convenient, I don’t mind waiting the hour or so that most dried beans take to cook, or planning in advance to have beans ready and waiting in the fridge. For flavor, it is worth the effort.
If you really can’t fathom cooking your own beans, try lentils, which are relatively quick to cook by comparison, ready in 30 minutes or less. For a lentil salad, cooking from scratch is the only choice.
Lentils make a perfect base for a colorful room-temperature salad that leans Mediterranean. A big platter of this summery lentil salad makes a fine meal, suitable for a picnic or a perfect no-fuss make-ahead supper.
Mediterranean Lentil Salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
For the salad:
1 ½ cups small brown or green lentils, such as Castelluccio or Le Puy
1 bay leaf
A few thyme sprigs, tied in a bundle
Salt and pepper
1 ½ pounds tiny new potatoes
12 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved (about 3 cups)
½ small red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in ice water
2 red bell peppers, roasted, skin removed and cut into long, wide strips
8 anchovy fillets (optional)
8 ounces good-quality canned tuna, drained, in large chunks (optional)
4 hard-cooked eggs (nine minutes), halved or quartered
2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint
3 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
Small handful of basil leaves, for garnish
1 cup good-quality black olives, such as niçoise, Kalamata or Moroccan
4 ounces feta, cut in ½-inch slices
For the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, plus more to taste
2 garlic cloves, grated or smashed to a paste (about 1/2 teaspoon)
Salt and pepper
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon crumbled oregano, plus a little more for sprinkling
1. Cook the lentils: Rinse and put in a medium saucepan. Cover with 4 cups water and add bay leaf, thyme sprig and a large pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer gently with lid ajar for 20 to 25 minutes, until lentils are tender. Set pot aside and let cool to room temperature.
2. Put the potatoes in another saucepan, cover with water and add a heaping teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to brisk simmer. Cook about 15 minutes, until cooked through when probed with a paring knife. Drain and set aside. Cut in halves or quarters.
3. While lentils cook, make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, stir together vinegar and garlic. Season with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk in the oil. Taste and adjust. Stir in oregano.
4. Put the cherry tomatoes in a bowl. Drain onion slices, and add to the tomatoes along with roasted pepper strips. Season with salt, then add half the vinaigrette (well-whisked). Toss to coat.
5. To assemble salad, drain lentils and transfer to a large low, wide bowl or platter and let cool for 10 minutes. Add remaining vinaigrette, sprinkle with a little salt and toss gently. Taste and adjust seasoning.
6. Top lentils with tomato-onion-pepper mixture. Arrange anchovy fillets, tuna (if using) and eggs on top. Sprinkle with mint and parsley. Arrange halved or quartered potatoes around the perimeter. Garnish with basil leaves, olives and feta. Sprinkle a pinch of oregano over the salad.