We only get a small slice of summer here in the Northeast, so we New Englanders must savor every bite of it. While travel options may be limited, there’s nothing like packing a basket, hopping in the car, and spreading out a blanket in one of our state’s pastoral locations to enjoy a home-cooked meal in the open air. We tapped local experts for their go-to elements to create the perfect picnic, even if it’s in your own backyard.

EAT

“When I am packing a picnic, I have some rules,” explains Phoebe Cole-Smith, farmer/chef at Weston’s Dirt Road Farm. Along with the farm, Cole-Smith runs a locally sourced catering business called Picnic, so it’s safe to say she’s the unequivocal expert on the subject. “Stuff should be easily eaten by hand or with either a fork or spoon — you never want to have to cut things up in your lap.”

Her go-to recipes? A hearty sandwich, crafted on a crusty baguette that won’t get soggy. She loves a French staple, the pan bagnat. “It’s a meal in a sandwich and it’s packable and holds up well,” she says. To go with it, she loves homemade pickles, deviled eggs, and some kind of handheld bar or pie for dessert.

Of course, it’s all about the presentation. “Everything has to be in cute little vehicles — you don’t want to have the ziplock bag,” she says. “It’s a whole experience. Make the aesthetics what you think a picnic should look like.”

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Phoebe Cole-Smith’s pan bagnat

Serves 4-6

  • 4-6 canned anchovy filets, salt-cured or packed in oil, rinsed and filleted if necessary
  • 3 large 7-minute boiled eggs, sliced 
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Zest and juice of one large lemon
  • 1½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 large garlic clove or 2 small ones
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 2 roasted and peeled red or yellow bell peppers, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 large ripe beefsteak tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled if necessary, thinly sliced
  • Pitted black olives (preferably Niçoise), chopped
  • 1 small handful fresh torn basil leaves
  • 1 large handful rocket (arugula) leaves
  • Salsa verde (optional)
  • 3 5-oz. cans or jars imported tuna packed in olive oil, drained 
  • 1 sturdy rustic batard, baguette or boule
  • Note: If fresh ripe tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are not available, use canned artichokes in olive oil, drained, and canned roasted peppers in oil, drained, instead. Fresh olive oil-poached wild albacore, broken into rough chunks, can also be substituted for tuna.

1. In a food processor, blend the anchovies with garlic, lemon, lemon zest and vinegar until smooth, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

2. Slice the bread in half lengthwise (tearing out the insides if extremely thick and dense, to use for breadcrumbs). Pour or spread half the dressing evenly on both sides of the bread.

3. Place layers of egg, tomato, roasted pepper, chopped olive, onion, cucumber and greens onto one bread half. Top the layers with the tuna, drizzling with salsa verde and remaining dressing, and place the other half of the bread on top.

4. Wrap firmly in plastic wrap or wax paper, lay the wrapped sandwich on a cutting board or sheet pan, and place something heavy such as a cast-iron skillet on top to press the bread halves together, forcing the juices into the bread, for a minimum of 45 minutes up to 4 hours.

5. Cut into individual sandwiches and wrap each sandwich separately before packing into your picnic basket. If possible, do not refrigerate before serving. Serve at room temperature.

DRINK

Cole-Smith loves a bottle of cold rosé, or “there’s nothing like fresh lemonade.” One Part Co. founders Anna and Andrew Hellman couldn’t agree more. Their Norwalk-based company offers all-natural infusion blends ($12, onepartco.com) and DIY kits to craft bar-worthy cocktails at home. “My mother’s family is from Virginia, so I have a bit of a soft spot in my heart for front-porch sweet tea and lemonade,” Andrew says. One Part Co.’s easy homemade lemonade can be mixed in a mason jar, tossed in your picnic basket, and infused with your favorite spirit — if the mood strikes.

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Marrakech lemonade (left) and One Part Co's John Every Daly

One Part Co.’s Marrakech lemonade

  • 2 ounces Marrakech-infused vodka
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ounce simple syrup
  • 1 ounce water

Combine all ingredients in a shaker (or mason jar) with ice. Shake and serve over ice. Garnish with sliced strawberry.

One Part Co.’s John Every Daly

  • 2 ounces smoky infused bourbon
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ounce simple syrup
  • ½ ounce water

Combine all ingredients in a shaker (or mason jar) with ice. Shake and serve over ice. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

WANDER

“Picking the spot is crucial,” Cole-Smith says. “That’s the fun part, too. I’ve driven for miles out of the way (and my husband and kids crazy). But they’re always happy in the end.” If you prefer to have a plan, these scenic Connecticut locales offer picturesque picnic grounds, and they’re open amid the pandemic. Some have limited capacity and facilities, so confirm the details before you leave and try to arrive early.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison

The state’s largest shoreline park offers more than 2 miles of beach to post up a picnic by the water, and slide in for a dip when you need to cool off.

Gouveia Vineyards, Wallingford

This picturesque winery welcomes you to bring your own food to enjoy a meal on the patio or grounds, and you can purchase a bottle of locally grown vino.

Sleeping Giant State Park, Hamden

Want to enjoy a meal from above? Two miles of mountaintop resemble a sleeping giant, making a mark on the Connecticut skyline.

Squantz Pond State Park, New Fairfield

Overlooking pastoral wooded slopes and cool, blue water, Squantz Pond offers the best of both worlds. Enjoy a waterfront picnic, then work off the pie with a hike.

Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam

While the castle itself might not be open, you can still enjoy historic views from the park’s many picnic spots. Post up next to the circa-1919 William Gillette mansion to dine like royalty.

THE GOODS

The locally sourced ingredients our experts never picnic without.

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If cooking isn’t your forte, bread and cheese is always a good idea. This mango-wood and white-enamel cheese knife set from Bungalow in Westport elevates the experience. $48, bungalowdecor.com

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Cole-Smith loves a crusty bread that holds up well. Her favorite is from Idyllwild Bread, a micro-bakery in Westchester which sells its products in Ridgefield markets. Starting at $8, idyllwildbread.com

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Worried about soggy bread? Cole-Smith says a smear of butter will do the trick. Better yet, flavored compound butter from Bennet’s Butter Co., made in Westport. $6.99, available at Balducci’s Westport and state Big Y locations, bennettsbutter.com

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Every picnic needs a sturdy blanket to sprawl out on. The Connecticut Blanket is 100 percent wool, crafted from the fleeces of sheep owned by members of the Connecticut Sheep Breeders Association. Starting at $75, available at farms across the state, ctsheep.org/the-connecticut-blanket.html

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As fresh as homemade, Jane’s Good Food Just Dills Pickles are available at farmers markets across Connecticut. Kirby cucumbers are brined into a dill pickle, then sweetened up with 14 different spices. janesgoodfood.com for locations

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A true picnic experience requires a classic basket. Our New Hampshire neighbors to the north have an array of timeless styles, as well as efficient insulated baskets, like this personal cooler with leather straps. $89, peterborobasket.com

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Your beautiful bottle of rosé deserves an equally chic wine opener. These corkscrews from Litchfield’s Milton Market are made from ebony, ram’s horn, juniper wood, and black horn. $190, miltonmarketct.com

This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.