Assembling an inviting hamper; Picnic baskets with pizzazz

Warm summer breezes inspire images of picnics by the sea, suppers on the lawn before an open-air concert, rousing family gatherings, and backyard buffets.

Perhaps the day calls for an English-style country picnic with all the trappings, a romantic picnic a deux, or a curbside box lunch while watching a parade or a marathon race. Whatever the occasion, keeping an equipped picnic basket always on hand eliminates the hunt-and-gather step and makes spontaneous outings easier.

A hardwood splint basket with a hinged lid is the traditional choice, but not the only one. The wicker hampers reminiscent of Edwardian days that come outfitted with flatware, dishes, and other accessories are expensive ($150 to $ 185 for a small basket), and the accessories are often of surprisingly poor quality. You can assemble a functional and attractive picnic hamper yourself for much less.

Potential picnic baskets come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be found in import shops, specialty stores, flea markets, antique shops, and the home furnishings areas of department stores. Decorative baskets already at home can also serve as temporary hampers.

A square pie basket with a removable interior rack designed to hold a 9-inch pie level is a good size for one- or two-person meals. Mushroom baskets found at produce centers have a convenient handle and are ideal for lunches. Small baskets, often available in nested sets, are good for serving finger foods and are easy for children to carry.

Alternatives to baskets include canvas totes, backpacks, and fishing creels available at sporting goods stores.

Once the hamper is chosen, it can be set up with a tablecloth, napkins, and dishes coordinated around a favorite color. Add thick plastic, airtight containers with colorful lids and thermal containers to match. A printed flat sheet, an old quilted bedspread, a large fabric remnant, or a painter's dropcloth are possible choices for a tablecloth or ground cloth.

Picnic settings can range from paper plates to silver and crystal. Brightly colored, break-resistant, plastic dishes that stack easily and compactly are a good choice. Inexpensive stemware or glasses teamed with earthenware plates set the mood for more elegant picnics without risking your best china.

Picnics with a theme can often be achieved with a minimum of props. A Mexican atmosphere, for example, can start with a combination of red, white, and green for the plates, napkins, and tablecloth. Add a few colorful streamers, bright flowers, and perhaps a pinata to complete the effect. A Persian meal might be served on brass trays laid out on a paisley fabric remnant. Similar touches can be devised for a Viking smorgasbord, an Italian feast, a festive Hawaiian luau, or a French''dejeuner sur l'herbe.''m

Paper plates are best saved for large gatherings, children's picnics, or day hikes where weight is a factor. If paper is used, the sturdier plates with molded segments are the most serviceable, since they won't wilt under heavy or hot foods.

Throwaway lightweight plastic flatware is often frustrating to use - the knives don't cut, the tines break off, and the spoons melt in the soup. Heavier plastic flatware usually holds up much better, but an inexpensive set of stainless steel flatware will be much appreciated by picnic guests. Stainless steel utensils with plastic handles in vivid colors to match napkins and other accessories are a colorful addition to any basket. To keep things organized, flatware can be wrapped in dish towels and secured with ribbons or stored in cylindrical tennis ball or potato chip cans.

A roomy basket lined with fabric or a colorful tablecloth to fold over the contents makes an enticing picnic hamper. But it is not suited for carrying food that needs to be kept hot or cold. Baskets are best for carrying utensils, place settings, serving equipment, napkins, and foods that don't need insulation.

To keep perishables hot or cold, there are a variety of insulated chests, refrigerator bags, and containers on the market.

Coolers made of lightweight plastic have largely replaced the enameled steel cases, although these sturdier versions are still available and are a good choice for heavy loads or large amounts of food. Newer, lightweight chests sometimes come with convenient features such as detachable lids that double as beverage trays, removable food trays, and cutting boards. Lightweight foam chests may be adequate for infrequent use and short jaunts.

Refrigerator bags keep food either hot or cold. These lightweight, waterproof bags are made of vinyl insulated with fiber glass and close with a zipper. Refrigerator bags generally keep cold foods cold six to eight hours and warm foods warm four to six hours.

To carry salad greens or other chilled foods in a basket, line a round basket with a heavy plastic garbage bag and put a layer of cracked ice on the bottom. Insert the food container, pack ice around it, and cover tightly. Baskets lined with slabs of polyurethane foam (one inch thick) cut to shape and held in place with glue also help keep food cold.

To carry hot foods, line a basket with layers of newspaper, wrap the food container or casserole in heavy foil, tuck it in the basket, cover it with more newspapers and finally a towel or tablecloth. If the food needs to be reheated, be sure to use a kettle or casserole that won't crack over an open fire.

When packing food, it is a good idea to keep the courses together - appetizers, main dishes, salads, sandwiches, desserts, and fruits - for quick, organized unpacking. Labeling the containers also makes unpacking easier and allows food to stay wrapped until needed.

While picnic supplies can get quite elaborate, here is a list of the essentials: plates, bowls, glasses or mugs, flatware, serving pieces, tablecloth or ground cloth and napkins, bottle opener, can opener, sharp knife in a protective sheath, Swiss Army knife, small carving board for slicing and sandwichmaking, small airtight plastic food containers, small thermal containers , a large folding water jug, salt and pepper, sugar in packets in a plastic container, condiments in gerry tubes (shaped like large toothpaste tubes; found at sporting-goods stores), plastic bags, paper towels, dish cloths, sponge or washcloth. Optional: a plastic tablecloth to cover foods in case of a storm.

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