I love to eat outside whenever possible, even on a sunny winter day. But when warm summer weather hits, outdoor dining is a definite preference, whether it’s a formal sit-down dinner or a casual picnic.
Picnics are wonderful, no matter the kind, and the key to success is keeping them simple. You don’t even need to grill, or rely exclusively on hot dogs and burgers: In fact, a meatless, or nearly meatless, main can be lovely.
A big vegetable salad is the answer (a green salad less so, though not impossible). For protein and substance, look to beans and other legumes. I’m an unabashed devotee of beans, and a purist to the extent that I prefer to cook my beans from scratch.
Although canned beans are convenient, I don’t mind waiting the hour or so that most dried beans take to cook, or planning so that I have beans ready and waiting in the fridge. For flavor, it is worth the effort.
If you really can’t fathom cooking your own beans, try lentils, which are relatively quick to cook by comparison, ready in 30 minutes or less. For a lentil salad, cooking from scratch is the only choice. (I don’t know anyone who opens a can of lentils unless he is craving a quick bowl of soup.)
Lentil salads are always seasonal. In cooler months, I like to serve the dressed lentils warm. For summer, lentils make a perfect base for a colorful room temperature salad that leans Mediterranean, with elements found in many a Greek salad, such as tomatoes, peppers and feta. Anchovy fillets, good tuna and hard-cooked eggs contribute southern French or Italian sensibilities.
A big platter of this summery lentil salad makes a fine meal, suitable for a picnic or a perfect no-fuss make-ahead supper.