Sure, you can eat any old thing outside and call it a picnic. But a great picnic is something else entirely: a celebration of exceptional food and good company, enjoyed in the best possible environment. And I'm hard-pressed to think of a better iteration than a summery, fit-for-a-crowd meal that's a breeze to transport, tastes incredible, and goes perfectly with a pitcher of icy-cool margaritas. Say hello to the Mexican-inspired picnic.
To keep things streamlined, not to mention fun to assemble and easy to customize, this menu is all about tacos. Tacos are a street-food fixture in Mexico, not just because they're delicious, but also because they happen to travel and store particularly well—provided you pack the components properly. In this case, that smart packing comes in the form of a cooler that's used to seal in the heat from a piping-hot container of carnitas, holding the meat at a ready-to-eat temperature while simultaneously keeping any other warm elements—a stack of corn tortillas, charred peppers, and so forth—nice and toasty. Meanwhile, we use a second cooler for our chilled toppings and garnishes—guac and salsa, some queso fresco, a Tupperware container of chopped cilantro and onion, and, of course, the fixin's for those refreshing margaritas.
Almost everything on this menu can be prepped a day in advance, which means that when picnic day rolls around, all you'll need to do is reheat your carnitas, make your guacamole, fill your coolers, and walk out the door. Here are all the recipes you'll need to get 'er done.
The Best Basic Guacamole
For fresh-tasting guac that doesn't turn brown from oxidation, you'll want to make this recipe as close to your anticipated meal time as possible, though a piece of plastic wrap pressed down flush against the surface will give you some extra hours of shelf life. But the real trick to this recipe is salting and then pounding the aromatics—just onion, chili, and cilantro—with a mortar and pestle, coaxing out and developing their flavors before adding them to the avocado. To get a smooth, dippable, but not-too-uniform texture, we use a stiff whisk to mash it all up and then finish it with a squeeze of lime. It may be a simple guacamole, but it's so impressively flavorful, you'll never look to the store-bought stuff again. Oh, and if you really must amp it up with some less traditional ingredients, here are a dozen ways to do it right.
I love the brightly acidic, spicy-hot intensity of no-cook salsas like pico de gallo. But sometimes I crave something a little more nuanced, with a balanced sweetness and a mellower heat. If I'm feeling really lazy, I'll turn to a jar (and, to be fair, there are plenty of decent ones out there), but nothing beats a homemade take—especially when it's our roasted-tomato salsa. Sound like a hassle? What if I told you it's as simple as putting tomatoes, jalapeño, garlic, and onion under a broiler for 20 minutes? Seriously, that's about it—a quick pass in the food processor, a sprinkle of cilantro, and a dash of lime juice, and you've got a great big batch of smoothly spicy-tangy-roasty-sweet salsa that's ideal for loading onto tortilla chips or adding to your tacos.
No-Waste Tacos de Carnitas With Salsa Verde
Great carnitas are a thing of crisp-edged, fat-laden, porky wonder. But traditional carnitas recipes also call for an insane volume of lard in which to cook that delicious pork—something most home cooks don't typically have lying around. Thankfully, it's a challenge that's also easily tackled with the help of science. TL;DR: We tightly pack pork shoulder in a casserole dish to get it to cook in its own fat. After cooking in a low-temperature oven with some orange juice, onion, garlic, and cinnamon, the pork emerges fragrant and fall-apart tender. You could eat it as is, but the final step is crisping the shredded pork under the broiler.
For picnic planners, I'd strongly recommend doing everything except the broiling a day or two ahead of time, and then using the broiler to simultaneously reheat and crisp the pork right before you head out to the park. Pack it into your cooler with a stack of tortillas on top, and seal everything up to keep both items warm until you're ready to eat. Oh, and side benefit: The extra juices from the carnitas even get incorporated into a stovetop salsa verde, which means that no component goes to waste and you walk away with the perfect taco topping.
Mexican Street Corn Salad (Esquites)
Elotes are a fantastic barbecue food, but crema-slathered, chili-spiked, cheese- and lime-topped corn on the cob can be a little arduous to assemble for a picnic. Enter esquites, their off-the-cob counterpart. Quickly searing the kernels in a pan (or grilling corn on the cob before removing the kernels) gives them a pleasant toasty, fire-kissed flavor. The creamy mayonnaise-based dressing cuts through the heat of minced jalapeño and chili powder, rounded out with pungent garlic, zesty scallions, and a generous dose of cilantro. Top the salad with lime juice and Cotija cheese and you're done. It's easy to prep, holds up well in the fridge, and tastes just as delicious as a side salad or a taco filling.
Prepping icy cocktails for drinking on the go may sound tricky, but it's far from impossible. Our large-batch margarita recipe makes 10 to 12 servings, and you can combine all the ingredients in a thermos (minus the ice) before walking out the door. Fill your pitcher with ice, dump in the contents of your thermos, give it a stir, and you're good to go. No pitcher? No problem. Distribute ice into individual disposable cups and go from there...just be sure to give that ice a chance to water down the cocktail base a bit before you chug the whole thing.