Quintessential picnic food: Baba ganoush, couscous salad, and Shoko

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After a depressing spring it is finally picnic season. With 4th of July, the mother of all picnic dates right around the corner, my thoughts turn to easy, blanket-worthy meals I can make while feverishly stuffing towels and bug spray into a beach bag. The quintessential picnic foods must be simple, easy to eat while sitting uncomfortably on a hard surface, and most importantly, fun.

We often have impromptu picnic dates with friends, especially considering the unpredictable weather lately, so I have created a go-to list of effortless lunches I can throw together in just a few minutes. These meals always include cut veggies and hummus, lots of cold water, and of course, dessert.

I prefer to pack homemade treats like freshly baked pitas and couscous salad (recipe below), but on days when I am really pressed for time, my plan includes a pit stop at my favorite local haunts for some baba ganoush or hummus. The best baba ganoush on my side of town is at Mim’s Café on Cleveland Avenue. Their version is light and creamy—absolutely divine. If your favorite picnic grounds sit on the other side of the river, stop by Little Tel Aviv by Lake Calhoun for truly authentic Israeli pickles and olives to complete your feast.

No summer meal is complete, though, without a cool, sinful dessert. Whether your brood is snuggled together on a colorful blanket or crowded on a curb waiting for the parade to start, nothing says “summer” more than an icy treat. While sugary popsicles are always a popular choice, they tend not to travel well. Enter Shoko Be’Sakit. In the kibbutz where my Savta lived, we waited all year for the Shavuot celebration because it always included a frosty bag of chocolate milk called Shoko. It may sound strange, but I crave it to this day, and no Land O’Lakes chocolate milk has come close to recreating this childhood memory. In Israel we didn’t bother with tiny straws, we just clipped the corner and sucked the little bag dry. Since I cannot recreate the experience for my daughter here, I make the next best thing: frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity in New York City. Pack it up in sippy cups and keep it on ice for a special treat. Bomb pops can’t compare.

Cous Cous Salad (Ptitim)

This isn’t a recipe, per se, as much as a list of suggested ways of serving this versatile staple from Israel. The little wheat-based balls take on the flavor you add to them, so they can be made to suite any mood. I prefer to stick with the Mediterranean theme, but you can add Thai basil, soy sauce, and peanuts for an Asian flavor, or black olives, lime zest and cilantro for a Mexican touch.

For my fave combo, I cook the Israeli Couscous according to the package, then add feta cheese, kalamata olives, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, fresh herbs such as parsley and mint, and a Greek vinaigrette. Letting it sit overnight marries the flavors beautifully, but I usually get too impatient and finish half of it the same day.

Greek Vinaigrette

3 tbls extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbls lemon juice

1 tsp red wine vinegar (I like more)

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Red pepper flakes to taste

Shake all ingredients together in a tightly sealed mason jar. Done.

Frozen Hot Chocolate

6 half-ounce pieces of a variety of your favorite chocolates

2 teaspoons your favorite store bought hot chocolate mix

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 cups milk

3 cups ice

Chop the chocolate into small pieces and place it in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, stirring occasionally until melted. Add the cocoa and sugar, stirring constantly until thoroughly blended. Remove from heat and slowly add 1/2 cup of the milk and stir until smooth. Cool to room temperature.

In a blender place the remaining cup of milk, the room temperature chocolate mixture, and the ice. Blend on high speed until smooth and the consistency of a frozen daiquiri.