Some of my favorite summer memories of all time concentrate around small outdoor music venues — the kind that invite you to pack a picnic and throw out an old quilt and make yourself at home for a couple of hours: WolfTrap in Northern Virginia, Ravinia in the Chicago suburbs, Summer Stage in Central Park. There is something purifying and timeless about listening to live music while out-of-doors, the grass beneath you only lightly disguised by an old picnic blanket, a stray ant making its way across your plate, the sun gradually putting itself to bed without you realizing that you have been staring into the hazy dark for the past hour or two, just listening. And there is an air of festivity, always, and of loose camaraderie with your neighbors, who might share a slice of Bundt cake or lend a bottle opener or sing along out loud with you.
It is also a delightful excuse to prepare picnic food, which is, in my opinion, one of the best dining sub-categories on earth. Think fried chicken and watermelon wedges and macaroni salad. Or ham and gruyere and cornichon on baguette, the sides slathered in European butter, along with some kettle chips and a bag of cherries. Or a spread of cheese and charcuterie with chutneys and mustards to idle over. Food to celebrate with. Food to celebrate, period.
Maybe this weekend you can treat yourself to a small-scale recreation of this kind of magic. If you’re lucky enough to have outdoor space, wipe down the patio furniture or throw a picnic blanket down with some oversized pillows, put out a lantern or string lights, and turn on a favorite album of yours — preferably one recorded live, just for effect. Or set up shop indoors: push your coffee table out of the way, roll out a quilt, and turn on the Taylor Swift concert via Amazon Prime. Either way, use the arrangement as an excuse to open a bottle of rose and eat picnic food. It won’t be The Real Thing, but I have a hunch you’ll get a whiff of its frivolity.
Below, one of my absolute favorite picnic dishes: a steak and penne pasta salad dressed in tangy balsamic vinaigrette. Tastes even better after soaking up the dressing after a couple of hours, and sometimes (can I say it?) best scooped right out of the serving bowl standing in front of the fridge.
Picnic Pasta Salad.
1 steak around 1 lb — I use New York Strip or Bohemian cut for this
1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs — Italian Seasoning or Herbs de Provence work great, but you can also kind of mix and match what you have if you don’t have either of those mixes (crush up dried thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, oregano, tarragon, marjoram together, for example)
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons
1 pound penne pasta
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
1/4 cup chopped parsley leaves
2 cups chopped arugula
Season the steak with salt and freshly ground black pepper, dried herbs, and minced garlic, pressing the latter into the steak on both sides (kind of studding the meat). In a skillet, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Cook steak about 7 minutes per side. Remove the meat from pan and let it rest for 5 minutes. Thinly slice the steak against the grain. Set aside.
Cook pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the starchy pasta water.
In a small bowl or jar (I like to prepare vinaigrettes in jars and shake), whisk together the balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 3/4 cup olive oil. In a large bowl toss the pasta with half of the salad dressing and 1/8-1/2 cup reserved pasta water (eyeball — you don’t want it too watery; this is just meant to help the sauce adhere to the noodle). Add the arugula, fresh herbs, and steak, more dressing, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed.
+I bought a proper picnic blanket when we first moved to New York because we spent so much time in Central Park. It was this exact style from Target, though mine is in a broad blue and white stripe no longer available. It is SO perfect — big, machine-washable, and rolls up into a tidy parcel that can be hung off a stroller hook. Genius!
+I also absolutely love the idea of using a quilt, and have always loved this Roller Rabbit print (more colors/sizes here). (I treasure this baby-sized quilt of theirs for Hill). This Etsy find is a STEAL and I love the print!
+Like the look of these round string lights.
+And this children’s lounge mat!!! AHH! I think I have to buy this for mini.
+This floral dress from the latest GMG collection is so pretty! Currently 15% off with free shipping!
+Love this bamboo butler tray, should your indoor picnic turn into a lets-eat-dinner-on-the-couch tradition. It folds up! And the tray can be removed and used for coffee table styling if not in use! Love all the fun colors.
+Cutest summer hat for a little gal. I am so into these Liberty London-esque florals these days; this (20% off!) is one of my favorite dresses of mini’s right now, and she wears it even on days we won’t be seeing anyone else.
+Speaking of organization: all my favorite org gear. I also was starting to go crazy with the overflow of all of mini’s new craft and activity gear, so I ordered these cubby bins with lids and will be organizing paints in one, crayons/markers/scissors/glue in another, pom-poms and stickers and pipe cleaners in a third, etc. I am so excited to get it all organized and labeled with my handy labelmaker.
+OK, this is brilliant. And $25?! Looks so much more expensive — even Scandi-style — and can be used for so many purposes. Right now, I know my son would LOVE this. His favorite “toy” at the moment is his older sister’s bathroom stool. Loves to climb up it / remove the letters / dump them in the tub / etc.
+Speaking of toys — a roundup of the absolute best toys for children under 3. (Read comments for more ideas! Specifically added Bristle Blocks to my Amazon cart.)
+And speaking of that roundup, I recently added these cars to our stash of PicassoTiles and THEY ARE AMAZING. Emory’s mind was blown. She has been playing a lot with these, building buses that then ferry her Maileg mice around.
+I also underestimated the staying power of kinetic sand. Mini and I play with it at least once a week and I have to say I’m impressed with mini’s growing dexterity while using it. At first, she couldn’t ever use the molds to make things — now she’s building blocks and all kinds of stuff out of them. She also loves to move it into and out of small bowls/scoops, to bury her sea animals in it, etc. Just ordered a second bag of it so we have more to play with.
+Have been wearing this blockprint dress A LOT lately. So comfortable, and just the cheeriest print ever.
+Speaking of blockprint: also really REALLY love this maxi skirt. Would wear over my white Marysia one-piece. (Oh and also — this darling Marysia one-piece is 50% off!! How good is the blue gingham?!)
+And along those lines: P.S.A.: my beloved Frances Valentine caftan is available again!!! I bought this as a present for myself to wear home from the hospital after Hill was born last May. I have to be honest and say it wasn’t the wisest choice for that day because it is not nursing-friendly (womp womp), but I have gotten a ton of mileage out of it since, including on my first excursion out to dinner after he was born. It was loose and easy-fitting and chic. I still wear it constantly.