Dust Off the Picnic Basket for Summer's Start

As the traditional beginning of the season, Memorial Day weekend is a fine time for an outdoor gathering

COOKBOOK author Nathalie Dupree would agree: Nothing heralds summer better than a Memorial Day bash. Whether it's a picnic at the pool, take-out in the park, or a barbecue in your own backyard, the weekend beckons friends, family, and fun.

Ms. Dupree is big on outdoor entertaining. In fact, in her home city of Atlanta, she is well-known for her garden parties with scores of guests and glorious food.

As glamorous as that may sound, Dupree staunchly advocates practicality -- no matter how big the shindig. ''The key to an outdoor party is planning,'' she says simply. But to keep logistical balloons from popping, you must preplan -- sometimes overplan and do some second guessing.

Many people recognize Dupree -- with her sleek blonde hair and smile that beams ''hospitality'' -- from TV.

She recently stopped off in Boston after filming her 300th cooking show. (Her shows air on PBS, the Learning Channel, and the Food Channel.) The winner of the 1994 James Beard award for Americana, Dupree has just come out with her sixth book: ''Everyday Meals From a Well-Stocked Pantry.'' It's geared to people with hectic schedules who can't get to the market as often as they'd like.

With that in mind, we asked Dupree to offer some tips for throwing an outdoor party and to suggest a few dishes. Casual is ''in,'' she says, so get out the checked tablecloths and plasticware, fire up the grill, and invite the neighbors over.

* Invitations. ''I'm a great believer in telephone invitations,'' Dupree says. Give guests some clues, including time frame and activities: ''Noon to 4 p.m.; volleyball and croquet.'' Be prepared for the question: ''Can I bring anything?'' Encourage people to bring desserts. Keep in mind, the bigger the party, the fewer people RSVP.

* Have a plan B. If it rains, will you go inside or set a rain date?

* Menu. Dupree suggests the traditional grilled meat with salad or slaw. If it's pork barbecue, for example, serve slaw; if it's beef, serve potato salad. Then offer extras: ''I love fresh corn on the cob. You can microwave or grill it in the husk.''

* Strategy. Make a chart of your strategy, and post it on your refrigerator. List what you're serving, when you need to get the ingredients, and when the dishes have to be made.

''Determine what you can precook -- especially if you're feeding a big crowd,'' Dupree stresses. Chicken, for example, can be precooked and then reheated on the grill.

Also, list what containers you're planning to serve the food in and put notes on the bottom of containers so that when people stroll into the kitchen on party day asking ''How can I help you?'' you can instruct them to ''find a container, and fill it.''

''Garbage bags are wonderful aids to big picnics,'' Dupree adds. Think of them as gigantic sandwich bags. If you make an enormous batch of pasta salad in vinaigrette or 5 pounds of slaw, you can store it in garbage bags in the refrigerator. But, don't forget to mark the bags.

* Welcoming committee. Figure out who's going to answer the door and who's going to orchestrate parking. Put directions on your answering machine. ''Everyone calls you at the last minute.''

* Plan activities for children. ''Churning ice cream is certainly fun. Make the base in advance.''

The following recipes are from Nathalie Dupree's ''Southern Memories'' (1993) and ''Everyday Meals From a Well-Stocked Pantry'' (207 pp., $20), both published by Clarkson Potter.

Country-Style Barbecued Ribs with Bennie's Disappearing Marinade

Country-style ribs are the blade ends of the pork loin, butterflied. There are approximately 2-1/2 to 3 ribs per pound. This white sauce is named after a friend of Lee Hopper's, a young man who was chef at the Georgia Governor's Mansion and a good friend of mine. It disappears in the cooking, leaving delicious ribs behind.

MARINADE:

1 cup lemon juice

1 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1-1/2 tablespoons onion salt

1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

1-1/2 tablespoons celery salt

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

3 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

5 large garlic cloves

3 pounds country-style back ribs

In a food processor, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, oil, onion salt, pepper, celery salt, marjoram, oregano, thyme, basil, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic; process until well blended.

Pour the marinade over the ribs and marinate several hours or overnight. Heat the grill. Drain the meat, place it on the hot grill, and cook 8 to 10 minutes. Turn and brown the other side 6 to 8 minutes.

Serves 4.

Ribbon Slaw

Cabbage is the ultimate pantry vegetable, as a head will keep in the crisper drawer for as long as six weeks. It can be used so many different ways, like this colorful slaw. There is extra vinegar in this salad, making it safe to tote, but for safety's sake, I'd use store-bought mayonnaise if it's going to sit out for long. This salad is just as good, if not better, the next day.

1 medium head of red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced

1 medium head of green cabbage, cored and thinly sliced

1 to 2 large carrots, peeled and grated

1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut in thin strips (optional)

Dressing:

1 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cabbages, carrots, and green bell pepper (if using), mixing well. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sugar, vinegar, milk, salt, dry mustard, and celery seeds until smooth. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss well to coat. Refrigerate until well chilled or up to 4 days.

Variation: Add sliced red onion and chunks of tart apple.

Serves 6 to 8.

New Potato and Red Onion Salad

In this substantial salad the bright lemon flavor and the subtle taste of fresh herbs mingle beautifully with the more neutrally flavored new potatoes and artichoke hearts. The salad is even better the next day.

For the best taste possible, use tiny red new potatoes and do not overcook them. If you only have larger red potatoes, cut them into quarters after cooking. Canned potatoes can be substituted. They are adequate but not wonderful. Drain, rinse, and add to the artichoke hearts. If oil-packed artichokes are used, use their oil in the vinaigrette, and do not rinse them.

This salad keeps 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. It does not freeze.

2 lbs. new red potatoes, scrubbed

2 10-ounce boxes frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted, or 2 14-ounce cans, drained and rinsed

2 medium red onions, thinly sliced

Lemon vinaigrette (recipe below)

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup shaved imported Parmesan

Place the potatoes in a large pot of salted water, bring to the boil, and cook until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and quarter if large. In a large bowl, toss the potatoes with the artichoke hearts, red onions, and vinaigrette. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with the shaved Parmesan before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

Lemon Vinaigrette

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil

Juice of 1 lemon or 1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the basil, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

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