Elegant Backyard Picnic Ideas
Sharing a delicious meal al fresco doesn’t require leaving your home. With warmer weather comes the desire to explore outside and a backyard picnic can be just the ticket for the whole family. But we’re not talking about ordinary paper plates and plastic cutlery barbecue — we’re elevating the leisurely backyard meal and taking the dining room outdoors to create an elegant experience, in true Sonoma style. Think beautiful tableware, linens and décor. Here’s how to transform your front or backyard into a pastoral picnic oasis.
The Elegant Backyard Picnic: The Centerpiece
The show begins with a natural centerpiece made from greenery and flowers foraged near the picnic site if possible. When I set out in search of materials to adorn the tables for Jordan events and personal dining experiences, my plan is simple: no plan. It could be succulents, fresh herbs, tree branches or any flowers you have growing in or around your home. Sometimes you just need to see what’s available in a different light. With an open mind, you might be surprised at what seems every day is actually pretty special.
Once I’ve collected my materials, I think about how to arrange them into a unique table runner or centerpiece. I separate the greenery into individual piles, then do the same with the flowers and other plants. I like to trim the items in each stack into uniform pieces, then layer them together to highlight different textures and colors. Half of the exercise is figuring out what looks right and not getting too crazy. You don’t want the florals to compete with the culinary focal points of the meal.
I use green floral wire to secure each piece as I go along, tucking smaller bits and pieces into the bundles to fill them in and camouflage the wire. The goal is to make them look pretty, but natural. I avoid forming an assembly line where the bunches are all exactly the same, but do like them to be fairly uniform.
Here are two links to my foraged centerpiece videos to get the ideas flowing:
Setting the Table
Creating the alfresco tablescape isn’t about silver candelabras and pricey stemware. It’s about making everyone feel comfortable and enhancing the natural beauty of the surroundings. I prefer muted, neutral colors for outdoor settings, and natural materials such as linen and wood mixed with rustic metal elements that you likely already have for your exterior furniture. Places are set with stemless wine glasses or short tumblers, real flatware, ceramic dinner plates and soft linen napkins. Hurricane lanterns and string lights complete the tablescape for sunset picnics. I think if you enjoy what you’re looking at, the food and wine taste even better.
Elevating Backyard Picnic Fare
Food is an equally important consideration for an inspired picnic, and that’s where my husband, Todd, Jordan Winery’s Executive Chef, comes in. The fare may be as simple as laying out a curated array of sublime cheeses and artisan salumi, he says, or something a bit more elaborate. Because Todd loves to incorporate local foods into his dishes, he’ll often include delicacies such as forged wild mushrooms, freshly caught Sonoma Dungeness crabs, and rillettes and charcuterie made from Sonoma heritage pork. “Make use of what’s around you,” he says. “Don’t just go to the grocery store for your ingredients. See if you can hit a nearby farmer’s market to pick up things like local meats, fresh produce and olives.”
Ingredients such as nuts and olives can be transformed in simple ways to create unique and delicious snacks. “You can take something familiar and put a new spin on it,” he says. “For nuts, you can toss them in your own favorite spices or buy something like a Yemeni spice blend,” Todd says. “Then mix in some egg whites to adhere the spices to the nuts and bake them.”
Buttery olives take on a bright new dimension when marinated in Meyer lemon zest, fennel pollen, crushed coriander seeds and Jordan Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Vegetable and seafood dishes get an upgrade with a dollop of good caviar. Even humble crudité are elevated when the vegetables are paired with an unexpected dip, such as a Greek Goddess Dip or Greek Taramosalata, a silky blend of fish roe, lemon juice and olive oil.
Along with several side dishes and small bites, Todd typically prepares a show-stopping main dish for our elegant backyard picnics. Recently, he prepared sous vide rack of lamb to pair with Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon. Just before serving, he arranged the cold lamb on a bed of freekeh—a young green wheat that’s been toasted and cracked—and topped it with a sprinkle of dukkah Egyptian spice blend, thyme sprigs and raspberry vinaigrette. He accompanied the lamb with fire-roasted cipollini onions, fermented and marinated in shoyu. It’s wonderful to be married to a chef.
To celebrate the seasonal abundance of your area, prepare main dishes that reflect where you live. We live near the ocean, so, in warmer winter months and in spring, we enjoy fresh Dungeness crab, Sonoma Coast abalone poke, salmon rillettes, lobster salad and West Coast Kumamoto oysters. For dessert, we dipped citrus-infused madeleine cookies into honey and dried citrus-fennel powder.
For a summer backyard picnic, he celebrated the bounty of the land with a more meat-based menu. Along with being famous for grapevines, Sonoma wine country is known for its livestock farms, so Todd served homemade pork rillettes and pâté, along with a charcuterie board of local specialties from Journeyman Meat Co., such as the Parmesan Porcini salame, made by Jordan’s neighbor just across the Russian River. Because some of the country’s best cheesemakers can be found near the Sonoma-Marin border, he also included an array of local cheeses.
The bounty of Jordan’s garden and the wealth of fresh produce available in Sonoma County inspire him to create picnic-friendly dishes such as vegetable terrine and pickled vegetables— served in glass jars that show off the vibrant hues of the dishes, so beautiful they almost look like table décor. To end the feast on a sweet note, Todd sets out tiny jars of easy, homemade chocolate mousse, topped with fresh berries from the Jordan garden.
Perfect Backyard Picnic Wines
Beautiful wines are another way to elevate a picnic at any time of year. I love serving Jordan wines because of their structure and balanced acidity. A vibrant, mineral-kissed Jordan Chardonnay is wonderful with seafood dishes such as his Dungeness crab and abalone salads, and the silky-smooth Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is a terrific match for rack of lamb, charcuterie and other red meats, as well as earthy vegetable dishes––an excellent complement to cabernet’s subtle toasted oak nuances.
While many people choose wines to match the food they’re serving, it’s sometimes fun to take the opposite approach. For the Jordan Luxury Estate Tour and Tasting among the vines at the winery, Todd started with the Jordan Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, then selected local cheeses to pair with them. A few of his favorites include the Cypress Grove Midnight Moon and Humboldt Fog cheeses, as well as Bellwether Farms San Andreas and French Comté.
The subtle tang of Todd’s pickled vegetables and vegetable terrine highlight the bright acidity of a young Jordan Chardonnay, and his savory pork rillettes, made with fresh thyme, rosemary and dried cherries, accent cabernet’s earth, spice and fruit notes.
“With all the incredible food and wine we have at our disposal here in Sonoma County, it’s hard to go wrong,” Todd says. “We live in a backyard picnic paradise.” I hope you enjoy some alfresco wining and dining at your home soon.