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Pick your picnic: Three baskets to pack for American Stage in the Park

From budget-friendly to fancy, we’ve got ideas for picnic foods.

One of Tampa Bay’s annual traditions, American Stage in the Park, returns this weekend. And with live theater under the stars comes the need for an impressive picnic spread.

Food is a major part of the event, which runs through May 12 in Demens Landing, as folks show up hours early to claim their spots on the grass and unleash a bevy of picnic foods. Keep an eye out for the group that brings a fold-out wooden table and actual wine glasses.

Here are ideas for three different kinds of picnics to pack for this year’s show, Mamma Mia!

The budget basket


Keep your expenses low by packing a basket full of items that deliver on value. This works best in large groups, where four or more people can pitch in to help cover the cost and then split everything.

Bruschetta is an ideal sit-on-the-ground-and-eat-with-your-hands food, and it feels kind of fancy even though it’s basically just tomatoes. If you are feeling extra considerate, make individual bowls for each member of your group, to cut down on tomato juice splashing.

And while pasta salad is a picnic staple, we’re steering clear of mayonnaise and using affordable ricotta cheese and a couple of veggies to round it out.

Buy it

Carrots and cucumbers: You can’t go wrong with a bountiful veggie plate, and these two will get you the biggest bang for your buck.

Popcorn: Buy a bag of your favorite brand, or buy some loose kernels, pop them the night before, then seal the popped corn in zip-top bags. It will keep. Popcorn is a very fibrous food, and it will help fill you up.

Baguettes: We are not above loading up on bread for this budget meal, and a cute baguette is especially picnic-friendly. Slice it before you get to the park so it’s ready to go.

Make it


6 or 7 tomatoes (about 1 ½ pounds)

2 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning

1 teaspoon sea salt, more or less to taste

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more or less to taste

2 baguettes, French bread or similar

Cut the tomatoes into halves or quarters and squeeze out some of the juices and seeds over the sink. Roughly chop the tomatoes, then place them in a large serving bowl.

Add garlic, olive oil, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Stir well. Let sit for at least 30 minutes. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serve with baguette sliced into ½-inch-thick slices.

Serves 4 to 8.

Lemon Ricotta Pasta Salad

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

Juice from 1 lemon

1 teaspoon olive oil



16 ounces penne or farfalle pasta

8 ounces frozen peas

8 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, optional

Combine ricotta, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper in a small bowl and whisk until well combined.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Let cool to room temperature.

Add cooked and cooled pasta, peas and cherry tomatoes to a large bowl. Stir in the ricotta mixture and toss until the pasta and vegetables are coated. Sprinkle with fresh mint. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Source: Adapted from Food52

The elegant basket


If you have the time to put a little extra care into your basket, try these suggestions for a more ornate picnic al fresco. Don’t forget a nice blanket, real flatware, maybe a couple of LED candlesticks. This is a meat-heavy basket, beginning with a simple cheese and charcuterie board. Plus, a decadent chocolate dessert made with the picnic setting in mind.

Buy it

Prosciutto, salami, other meats: Bring along your largest cutting board and the fixings for a large cheese and charcuterie platter. Pick up a variety of meats, about 2 ounces per picnic guest, and at least one condiment you can enjoy with several of them. A grainy mustard, perhaps?

A nice cheese: Go all out on one high-quality cheese you don’t eat all the time, then opt for one or two others that are more traditional.

Blueberries: They’re in season, and they’ll offer something unexpected to your collection of meats and cheese.

Make it

Steak and Blue Cheese Skewers

For the skewers:

24 ounces top sirloin, cut into

1 ½-inch cubes

3 Roma tomatoes, quartered

3 large red onions, quartered

2 tablespoons kosher salt

4 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper

4 teaspoons garlic powder

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the blue cheese dipping sauce:

½ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons milk

2 ounces blue cheese, crumbled

Hot sauce, as needed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

More blue cheese, for serving

Make the skewers: Preheat a grill pan over medium-high heat.

Combine steak, tomatoes and onions in a bowl. Add salt, pepper and garlic powder and toss to coat the steak and veggies with seasonings.

Using 6 to 8 metal skewers, skewer the beef, tomatoes and onions, distributing the ingredients evenly among skewers.

Drizzle skewers with vegetable oil. Grill the skewers until well-marked on all sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side. (Alternatively, you could roast the ingredients on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven until steak is cooked, then thread onto skewers.)

Make the blue cheese dipping sauce: In a mason jar or other container with a lid, mix together the mayonnaise, lemon juice, milk, blue cheese and some hot sauce, salt and pepper. Put on the lid and shake until evenly combined.

Makes 6 to 8.

Chocolate Cheesecakes in a Jar

For the crust:

12 chocolate wafers or cookies

2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon sugar

Dash of salt

For the cheesecake:

⅔ cup bittersweet chocolate, chopped

4 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

⅔ cup sugar

3 eggs

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the chocolate ganache:

⅔ cup heavy cream

⅔ cup bittersweet chocolate chopped or morsels

½ teaspoon sea salt

Make the crust: Crush the wafers into fine crumbs and mix with the melted butter, sugar and salt.

Spray 4 to 6 small jars or glass ramekins with cooking spray and evenly divide the crumb mixture among the jars. Tamp the crust down evenly using a flat-bottomed utensil. Set aside.

Make the cheesecake: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Place the bittersweet chocolate in a small heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Heat until just melted, stirring frequently. Set aside.

In large bowl, beat the mascarpone, cream cheese and sugar until smooth, about 3 minutes.

Add the eggs, one at time, beating well after each addition. Mix in the salt and vanilla.

Make sure the melted chocolate is still runny, but not hot. Slowly add it into the cheesecake mixture while beating. Continue to beat until well blended, about 1 to 2 minutes more.

Evenly divide the cheesecake mixture among the crust-lined jars. Place a paper towel in a baking pan and place the jars in the pan. Carefully pour boiling water into the baking pan, enough to go about halfway up the sides of the jars. Cover the baking pan with foil and poke a few holes in the foil to vent.

Place in the oven and bake until just set, about 20 minutes. Remove the jars with tongs to a rack to cool while you make the ganache.

Make the chocolate ganache: Heat the heavy cream over medium-low heat until just simmering. Add the chopped chocolate and let stand for 2 minutes.

Whisk the chocolate mixture until smooth and shiny. Stir in the salt.

Divide the ganache evenly over the cheesecakes, cover with plastic wrap and place them in the refrigerator to chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.

The themed basket


We lucked out this year. Packing a basket of food that lines up with the park production won’t be hard, given the Mediterranean setting of Mamma Mia!

Dial up the Greek angle by sticking with simple yet high-quality ingredients. Olives, cheeses, classic Greek desserts. Know someone who lives near Tarpon Springs? Have them pick up a box of locally made Greek desserts the day before your show.

Buy it

A jar or two of olives: Any kind you like, though if you want to keep it real authentic, go for kalamatas, which are named after the city of Kalamata in Peloponnese, Greece.

Walnuts: Nuts are used often in Greek cooking, and walnuts in particular mirror the nuts in the dessert baklava.

Crackers and crispy vegetables: You’ll need something with some crunch for the dip recipe below. Carrots, celery, raw cauliflower and your favorite crackers would work great.

Baklava: The delicate dessert made by layering phyllo dough with a sweet mixture of walnuts and spices is not easy to make, but it’s peak Greek, so we recommend picking up a batch at the grocery store (I’ve seen it at Walmart before) or a favorite local bakery.

Make it

Feta Cheese Dip

1 (8-ounce) block of Greek feta, blotted dry

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

Freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon fresh thyme, optional

4 tablespoons Greek yogurt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Find a small oven-to-table dish. Place the feta in the dish and cover with the olive oil. Bake until the cheese is soft and springy to the touch but not melted, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven.

Preheat the broiler. Brush honey over the top of the warm feta. Place feta back in oven and broil until the top of the cheese browns and just starts to bubble. Season to taste with black pepper and thyme. Let feta cool slightly, then stir in Greek yogurt, mixing well until creamy. Serve with crackers and such.

Chicken Gyros With Tzatziki Sauce

¼ cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

¾ teaspoon minced garlic, divided

½ teaspoon ground mustard

½ teaspoon dried oregano

½ pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into ½-inch strips

½ cup chopped peeled cucumber

⅓ cup plain yogurt

¼ teaspoon dill weed

2 whole pita breads

½ small red onion, thinly sliced

In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the lemon juice, oil, ½ teaspoon garlic, mustard and oregano; add chicken. Seal bag and turn to coat; refrigerate for at least 1 hour. In a small bowl, combine the cucumber, yogurt, dill and remaining garlic; cover and refrigerate until serving.

Drain and discard marinade. In a large nonstick skillet, cook and stir the chicken for 7 to 8 minutes or until no longer pink. Spoon onto pita breads. Top with yogurt mixture and onion; fold in half.

Serves 2.

Source: Taste of Home