How to Build the Perfect Picnic Menu at Trader Joe’s

Chef Lucas Sin shares how he creates the perfect picnic at one reliable grocery store

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I grew up hiking and camping in Hong Kong, but I actually hate hiking: I don’t see the pleasure. What I do see the pleasure in is cracking open food at the top of a mountain. When it comes to picnics, there are a couple of rules. It has to be shelf-stable, because you don’t want your food going bad. It has to be really compact; you don’t want the picnic to take up too much space — or weigh too much — in your pack. And the eating needs to be very clean and easy, which makes the cleanup easy. There’s no cooking involved. 

The best picnic is one where you’re either building sandwiches or tearing off pieces of bread and eating them with really delicious stuff that is ready to go. The best types of bread are focaccia and baguette, because of how compact they are; I wouldn’t pack a ciabatta or anything puffy that takes up too much space. (The other bread I’ll sometimes bring, if I really want to save space, is pita.) For the picnic itself, it’s always something along the lines of cheese, meat, olives, and mustard, and it just so happens that Trader Joe’s has a lot of this compact, ready-to-go stuff that’s perfect for a camping picnic. Here’s my approach:

My favorite thing to eat on a picnic is Spanish canned sardines. There’s a stigma around canned seafood, but when seafood is canned at its freshest and marinated in olive oil, black peppercorns, bay leaves, and all these delicious things, then it can be better than fresh. There are also, obviously, fancier ones, but you’ll find delicious canned seafood at Trader Joe’s. There’s a brand called Cabo de Penas, which is really quite cheap, and you can get sardines in olive oil — I think that’s the best entry-level Spanish sardine. The oil that’s left inside of the tin is what you’ll be dipping crusty bread into for the rest of the picnic. 

In terms of meat, any hard cured sausage is going to be shelf-stable for at least the duration of your hike or your picnic. The one I like is made by Columbus, which is a conventional brand sold at Trader Joe’s; their salame secchi, which comes with two links, is super, super funky. I remember smuggling sausages back from Barcelona and doing side-by-side tasting with conventional sausage, and this is as delicious. The sausage is hard, so you have to bring a knife, and then just shave off little corners from it.

While you’re at Trader Joe’s, the bagged olives called Just a Handful of Olives Pitted Salted Manzanilla Olives are outstanding. You can also bring a handful of nuts, or just pick out whatever nuts are in your trail mix. Another thing to get from Trader Joe’s are the “tapas style” grilled artichoke hearts. They also do roasted vegetables swimming in garlicky, herby oil, packed in one of those vacuum-sealed plastic trays. If you get one of those trays as a starting point, that itself is the charcuterie board on which you put all of your meat and stuff. 

Then, for cheese, any hard cheese will do. I really like aged and hard goat cheeses — something a little different. I also really like cheddar: a really high-quality Wisconsin cheddar is always delicious and nutty. Between the good bread, good cheese, canned seafood, olives, and nuts, you have a super gourmet, deconstructed charcuterie board.

Whenever I go up into the mountains, if I take a train or stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts, I’ll pick up mustard, mayonnaise, and jam packets; those little black pepper sachets; and Sriracha condiment packets. Starbucks has really good mayonnaise and mustard packets. My girlfriend makes fun of me because I take them everywhere I go, but they’re perfect for a picnic. 

When I get to the picnic site, I just sit on whatever log or big rocks are there, kind of roughing it. I don’t bring a picnic blanket. The key is finding a spot that has a nice view, and that doesn’t have a lot of wind. This is usually the only food that I’ll bring on a multi-day camping trip that’s not dehydrated. Everything else is ready-to-go meals, or it’s food that I’ve dehydrated myself, like jerky. This picnic always feels like a luxury.

Lucas Sin, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, is the chef of Nice Day Chinese and Junzi Kitchen in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut.

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