Favorite foods on national holidays must strum the heartstrings, but we’re all for a twist or two to keep the tune fresh. Potato salad, for example, needs to hit creamy, starchy, comforting notes, but why not update by ditching the mayo and swathing the spuds in a combo of nutty crème fraîche, tangy buttermilk, and a handful of fresh herbs? Baked beans are a favorite gooey treat—made more interesting with a trio of legumes for fun colors and textures; a hit of smoked paprika deepens the bacon-y flavor throughout every bite. Standard coleslaw is a crunchy must-have, and something spectacular happens when you opt for a fresh lime dressing and load in lots of jalapeño peppers and cilantro. For something sweet, we have shortbread-crusted cheesecake bars made zippy with real, fresh cherries. The following recipes are all designed to be made ahead and are perfectly portable—ideal for toting or setting out at your own patriotic bash.
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Rules for Picnic Packing
If you’re taking one of these dishes to a picnic or party, follow a few rules for safety.
Prep less than 1 day from picnic so food tastes fresh.
Transport on ice. Except for the baked beans, all of the recipes should be chilled and packed in a cooler with ice or ice packs to keep them cold while they travel.
Heat just before taking. Baked beans can be cooked the day before. Reheat just before heading out; wrap the hot container in a towel, and tote carefully to the picnic.
Serve—then stow. Once folks have gone through the line and served themselves, put chilled dishes back in the cooler to keep them cold. Anyone who wants seconds can dig back into the cooler.
Use the two-hour/one-hour rule. Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours (or one hour if it’s a hot day over 90 degrees).
Toss the leftovers. The food will have been handled a lot, and possibly will have been sitting out for a while. Prep less than 1 day from picnic so food tastes fresh.
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Marinated Shrimp Salad
Offer this garlicky salad as a main-dish option, or set it out for a starter snack. You can reserve some of the feathery fennel fronds for a pretty garnish. Be careful not to overcook the shrimp—you want them just barely done so they won’t become tough as they marinate.
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This classic Middle Eastern salad, chock-full of herbs and spiked with lemon, is a perfect make-ahead and portable option.
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Lemony Cucumber Salad
Don’t forget that something fresh, vibrant, and crunchy is often missing from potluck gatherings; this easy salad will get gobbled up quickly because it satisfies on those levels.
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This citrusy take on coleslaw is fresh and pleasantly spicy, an ideal side dish or burger or brat topping. Leave the seeds in more peppers for added fire, or seed all of them for a milder dish.
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Creamy Buttermilk-Potato Salad
Crème fraîche is a thickened cream product with a mildly tangy, nutty flavor; you’ll often find it in tubs near the gourmet cheeses. If you can’t find it, you can substitute full-fat sour cream. Be careful to cook the potatoes only until just tender and no more; that way, they’ll hold their shape.
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Smoky Three-Bean Bake
Three kinds of beans take the classic dish from ho-hum to fun, with different shapes and pleasing textures—from the al dente bite of chickpeas to the creaminess of Great Northern beans. If you happen to use hot smoked paprika, you can omit the ground red pepper.
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Fresh Cherry Cheesecake Bars
With their combo of shortbread-like crust, creamy cheesecake, and fresh summer cherry goodness, these bars will make you the hit of the picnic.