Much of the allure of a summer potluck picnic is its inimitable ease — it requires next to no preparation, just some sort of barrier between you and the ground (and even that’s optional if you aren’t particularly bothered by ants in your pants), a simple shareable spread, an oversupply of canned rosé (also optional… but is it though?). No meal could be less physically fussy, or more psychologically rewarding.
But what if you want to be fussy? What if you just can’t help yourself, be it your fiercely competitive nature or a surprise Muscovy duck breast sale or a deep-seated need to gain your fellow picnickers’ approval via gourmet grandstanding: What if you just like doing things the hard way? One of my favorite fussy picnic dishes of all time came to the party courtesy of cookbook author (and former Eater editor) Danielle Centoni, who arrived at our potluck picnic lugging a Le Creuset Dutch oven (the schlepping of which was in and of itself an exemplary feat of fussiness), in which she’d poached an entire side of salmon, to be served with a creamy summer-herb packed green goddess dressing. This unexpected luxury brought the badminton back-and-forth and rosé glass re-upping to a standstill, and rightfully so.
Nothing evokes potluck picnic joy quite like a little culinary extravagance. The fact that nobody at our picnic expected anyone to come bearing an entire side of poached salmon made it all the more thrilling. There’s a reason surprise and delight makes for an effective marketing strategy; once the bug bites stop itching and the sunburns fade, the echo of a deliciously excessive picnic entree lives forever.
If you’re aiming for fussy, but not enameled-cast-iron-poached-fish-fussy, roast a whole chicken and plate it over a couscous salad studded with dried fruit, pistachios, and preserved lemon (sub in a whole roasted head of cauliflower if your group leans herbivorous, and serve a lemony yogurt-tahini sauce alongside). Slice a tender grilled flank steak, arrange it on a platter, and blanket it in garlicky chimichurri, spicy grilled corn salsa, or sweet cherry tomatoes halved and tossed with fresh cilantro, avocado, thinly sliced green onions, and lime juice. Soak a pork shoulder in a citrus and cumin mojo marinade, then slow roast it, shred, and serve with Cuban-style black beans and rice (or, swap the pork shoulder for tenderloin, chicken, or shrimp skewers, and grill at the picnic).
Sometimes the ultimate fussy flex isn’t so much a dish as an experience: Prep an entire bo ssäm setup, pack all the components in airtight containers, then elaborately arrange on the picnic table. Have access to a fire pit or grill? Grill or pan-fry salmon or cod filets, chop a quick cucumber mango salsa and blend a batch of avocado salsa, then set out stacks of fresh corn tortillas (should you happen to have a grill and comal pan handy, make the tortillas to order). Cook a savory sofrito, pack the Bomba rice, stock, seasonings, and vegetables and protein of choice, plus your 32-inch paella pan (serves 40, and I can personally vouch for this). Perhaps the fussiest of all picnic mains is an authentic bring-a-shovel-style New England clambake, the work for which almost always pays off in indelible summer memories (both fond, and those involving unexpected burn bans, whiny pit diggers, and rubbery shellfish).
Bringing the picnic to an ecstatic halt is about admitting that you are that person, and that going above and beyond in life and picnic mains makes you happy, or at the very least, fills some kind of hole in your soul. You like big braised pork butts with all the carnitas fixings at a picnic, and you cannot lie. Spreading picnic joy via a gin tonic-splashed paella party is who you are, and everyone there will be better off for it, especially when dessert rolls around and you pull out a bit of bonus content in the form of a seven-layer stone fruit trifle (just kidding… or not).
Jen Stevenson is a food writer, cookbook author, and picnic enthusiast in Portland, Oregon.
Tatiana Chamorro is an illustrator, part-time bird watcher, occasional guitar player, plant parent, and a knitter of a quarter of a scarf, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley.