Bless Your Spoon: Winter picnics in the great outdoors

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 13, 2022

By Stephanie Williams Dean

There’s every good reason to enjoy the season — outdoors.

Years ago, my quest was to discover more reasons to love winter – I discovered many. When I decided to fully embrace the chilly season, I found few reasons not to relish it aside from it being quite frosty.

With icy droplets clinging to red winterberries, the blanket-like warmth of ground-covering snow, sounds from a single bird’s song in the woods, the absolute quietness of a forest with exception of a twig snapping here and there, and magnificent views of tall, green conifers that dot the landscape, winter is nothing less than gorgeous. But you’ll never see it if you don’t go outdoors.

The new year is a time for rethinking, a year to embrace new activities. So why not relish the small, pop-up, impromptu, winter picnic — one that follows an invigorating hike in the woods.

I enjoy parks not only for picnic shelters but the lovely trails. On Jan. 1, most state parks, including North Carolina, host what’s called a First Day Hike. The purpose of the ranger-guided hike is to get folks out in the great outdoors — to hopefully start the year off on a good foot.

Find a place that inspires you. Walk and be surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation. Enjoy the solitude and quietness of the woods. Bundle up warmly — cover your head, hands and feet for warmth. If you’re just beginning to venture out in winter, start with a short and easy hike. Hike back, locate a table, and take delight in your picnic. But most importantly, surround yourself with beauty that’s unique to winter.

The easiest way is to keep picnic supplies organized and ready at all times, and don’t forget tablecloths. I keep supplies in my car. Picnics are something you’ll want to do often in the new year. You’ll need a strong, wicker basket preferably with a couple of wine/water bottle holders on one side and room for food on the other. For a gourmet picnic, prepare foods ahead. Prep time depends on where you’re going.

Bundle up in layers for a pop-up picnic at the beach — don’t miss the ocean anytime. For picnics, pre-prepared finger foods work best or use wooden picks — consider ease of transport, using containers with lids. A combination of cheese, fruit, nuts, fresh seafood and wine makes for delicious picnic fare. Many of today’s recipes are make-ahead and easy to tote.   

More favorite picnic sites include park shelters and wineries, places where there are beautiful views of winter landscapes. For an impromptu excursion, run to the grocery for quick, pick-up of whatever foods you need. With table surfaces, you can assemble sandwiches and other foods and serve — voila! It’s not necessary to make everything ahead.

Don’t wait for warmer weather to get started. Resolve today to have a year full of fun, nature, and good food — all in the great outdoors.

Herbed Garlic Nuts

• 1 cup toasted pecans

• 1 cup toasted cashews

• Extra virgin olive oil

• 8 thinly sliced, large cloves garlic

• 8 6-inch fresh rosemary sprigs

• ½ cup packed fresh sage leaves

• 1 cup roasted almonds

• 1 cup shelled pistachios

• Kosher salt and pepper

On a rimmed baking sheet, spread out the pecans and cashews. Toast in a 350-degree oven for 8-10 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool. Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat ¼-inch of olive oil. Add garlic cloves and cook while stirring for 5 minutes or until golden. Transfer garlic to paper towel to drain. Add rosemary and sage to skillet and cook for 1 minute. Transfer to paper towel to drain. Reserve 2 Tbsp. of the oil from skillet. To the remaining oil, add toasted pecans and cashews, pistachios and almonds, making sure they are coated well in oil. Cook on medium while stirring for 2 minutes. Salt and pepper, to taste. Stir in garlic and chopped herbs.

Smoked Salmon on Cocktail Bread

• 2 small cocktail-size pumpernickel/rye bread

• Softened cream cheese

• Chopped red onion

• Drained capers

• Dash of freshly ground black pepper

• 2 lb. pre-sliced smoked salmon

• Chopped parsley sprigs

In a bowl, add some cream cheese, red onion, capers, and salt and pepper until spreadable consistency. You can use whatever amounts you choose based on your taste. On a bread slice, spread with cream cheese mixture and top with a slice of smoked salmon and press down into cream cheese. Place parsley sprig on top for color.  Serve open-faced.

Egg and Shrimp Filled Endive

• 6 finely chopped hard-boiled eggs

• 4 Tbsp. premium mayonnaise

• 2½ Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard

• ½ tsp. celery salt

• 6 heads Belgian endive

• 5 oz. small cooked shrimp

• Paprika

In a bowl, combine chopped eggs, mayo, mustard and salt. Mix well. Prepare endive by discarding root ends of endive. In separate leaves, add a Tbsp. of egg salad to wide end of each endive leaf. Top with a small shrimp and press into the egg salad to secure. Sprinkle with paprika.

Crudites with Oriental Dip

• ¼ cup sour cream

• ½ cup premium mayonnaise

• 1 tsp. sugar

• 1 Tbsp. sesame oil

• 1 Tbsp. rice vinegar

• 2 Tbsp. soy sauce

• ½ tsp. dry mustard

• 1½ tsp. peeled, minced fresh ginger

• Dash of cayenne pepper

• Cut up raw carrots, broccoli, peppers, etc.

In a bowl, combine sour cream, mayo, sugar, oil, vinegar and soy. Mix well. Fold in mustard, ginger, and pepper. Mix well. Serve with selection of your favorite cut-up veggies.

Seared Scallops on Skewer

• 2 Tbsp. extra virgin oil

• 2 Tbsp. softened, salted butter

• 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

• 1 Tbsp. chopped onion

• ½ tsp. chopped lemon zest

• 1 Tbsp. chopped chives

• 1 Tbsp. chopped parsley

• 20 medium sea scallops

• Salt and pepper

In a skillet, heat oil and butter over high heat. Add lemon juice, onion, and zest and toss. Season scallops with salt and pepper. Add the scallops, and sauté 2 minutes per side until opaque in center. Transfer to a bowl. Add chives and parsley and toss to coat. Thread 1 scallop on wooden picks.

Mushrooms Stuffed with Swiss and Greens

• 20 2-inch white or cremini mushrooms

• 3 Tbsp. softened, salted butter

• 1 cup chopped onion

• 10 oz. thawed, chopped spinach

• ½ cup grated Swiss cheese

• Grated Parmesan cheese

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Remove mushroom stems and chop. In a skillet, melt butter. Sauté stems and onion until tender. Cook spinach, drain and squeeze until dry. Add to the mushroom-onions mixture. Mix well. Add Swiss cheese while stirring until melted. Remove from heat. Fill mushroom caps with mixture. Sprinkle tops with Parmesan cheese. Salt and pepper. Bake in a 300-degree oven in a butter greased baking dish for 20 minutes.

Cheese Quesadillas

• 1 tsp. Wesson vegetable oil, plus

• 8 6-inch tortillas

• 1 cup shredded Monterey jack cheese

• Chopped veggies (optional)

• Chopped seafood (optional)

In a non-stick skillet, heat 1 tsp. oil over medium heat, making sure to cover skillet surface. Add a tortilla. Sprinkle tortilla with ½ cup cheese, veggies, or seafood.  Place another tortilla on top and compact by pressing down with metal spatula. Cook for 2 minutes on each side until cheese melts and tortilla is light and golden on both sides. Transfer to a platter. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. Add more oil by teaspoon when necessary. Cut into quarters.

Crab and Avocado Sandwiches

• 6 oz. cooked, drained crabmeat

• 2 chopped scallions

• 2 Tbsp. premium mayonnaise

• 1 peeled, halved large avocado

• 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

• 4 Tbsp. softened salted butter

• 8 slices whole-grain bread

• 2 Tbsp. premium mayonnaise

In a bowl, combine crabmeat with chopped scallions. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add 2 Tbsp. of mayonnaise. Cut avocado into slices and brush with lemon juice to prevent discoloring. Butter one side of all bread slices. Divide the crabmeat between four slices. Spread mixture to the corners of the bread. Cover crab mixture with sliced avocado. Spread mayonnaise over top of avocado slices. Cover with bread to make a sandwich, pressing firmly together. Remove the crusts and cut sandwiches diagonally into quarters.

Nutty Cheese Wafers

• 8 oz. grated white cheddar cheese

• 4 oz. grated sharp cheddar cheese

• 4 oz. grated Swiss cheese

• 2 sticks softened, salted butter

• 2 cups all-purpose flour

• ¼ tsp. red pepper

• 1 cup Rice Krispies

• 1 cup chopped pecans

In a mixer bowl, combine all cheese with softened butter. Mix well. Blend in flour, salt, and red pepper. Mix well. Fold in cereal and pecans. Mix well. Form into 1-inch balls. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press down with fork in a criss-cross pattern. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until golden.

Seafood Pinwheels

• 1 unsliced loaf of wheat bread

• 1 grated lemon rind

• 6 Tbsp. softened, salted butter

• 1 Tbsp. fresh chopped dill

• 8 oz. sushi-grade tuna

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• Fresh dill

Slice the bread lengthwise into 8 thin slices. Remove crusts. Grate lemon rind finely and add rind and dill to the softened butter. Mix well. Spread each slice of bread with the flavored butter and arrange tuna on top. Be sure to leave a strip of buttered bread at one short end. Salt and pepper.  Starting at the tuna-covered short end toward you, roll up bread carefully and tightly in a jelly-roll fashion. With the buttered end, make sure that bread sticks together at the end. Wrap in plastic and chill for 2 hours. Using sharp knife, cut roll into ½-inch slices. Garnish each slice with a little dill.

Brown Sugar-Bacon Wrapped Shrimp

• 1 cup soy sauce

• 3 Tbsp. sherry

• 20 cooked, shelled large shrimp

• ½ cup brown sugar

• ½ lb. halved, bacon strips

In a bowl, combine soy and sherry. Add shrimp and marinate for 1 hour in refrigerator. Remove shrimp from marinade and sprinkle each with brown sugar. Wrap each shrimp with half of a bacon strip. Secure with toothpick. Broil in oven until bacon is crispy.

Crab and Spinach Balls

• 3 beaten eggs

• 1 small can drained, chopped crab/shrimp

• 10 oz. thawed, drained frozen spinach

• 1½ cups dry, herbed bread crumbs

• ½ cup grated sharp cheddar

• ½ chopped onion

• 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

• ¼ tsp. freshly grated black pepper

• ¼ tsp. thyme

In a mixer bowl, beat eggs. Chop seafood of choice, reserve the liquid and set it aside. To eggs, add seafood, squeezed dry spinach, bread crumbs, chopped grated cheddar cheese, onion, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and thyme. If too wet add more bread crumbs. If too dry, add a little liquid from drained seafood. Roll into 1-inch balls and place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.

Crab and Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms

• 12 2-inch white or cremini mushrooms

• ¼ cup salted butter

• ¼ cup chopped green onion

• Chopped mushroom stems

• 2 oz. crumbled blue cheese

• 7½ oz. drained crabmeat

• 1/3 cup bread crumbs

• 1/3 cup grated, fresh parmesan cheese

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper

• Chopped parsley

Remove and chop mushroom stems. In a skillet, melt butter. Sauté chopped mushroom stems and onions for 3 minutes or until soft. Remove from heat. To the onions, add cheese, crab, and salt and pepper, to taste. Fill caps with mixture. Combine bread crumbs with Parmesan cheese and sprinkle on tops. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Marinated Shrimp

• ½ grated, medium onion

• 2 cups premium mayonnaise

• 1 juiced lemon

• Salt and pepper, to taste

• ½ tsp. fresh chopped dill

• 1½ lb. cooked, peeled, large shrimp

• Chopped parsley

In a bowl, add grated onion, mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt, pepper and dill. Mix well. Stir in the shrimp and allow to marinate while covered for 24 hours in the refrigerator, occasionally stirring. Spoon out with a slotted spoon and into a container. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley. Use wooden picks to secure.

Marinated Carrot Sticks

• 8 small carrots

• 3 Tbsp. Wesson vegetable oil

• 3 Tbsp. vinegar

• 3 crushed cloves garlic

• ¾ tsp. seasoning salt

• ¼ tsp. salt

• ¼ cup minced parsley

Slice carrots into 4-inch strips. Place in large jar, add marinade and cover tightly. Refrigerate overnight. Remove carrots with slotted spoon to drain well. Place in a covered container. You can save the marinade, and continue to add to it.