Parties, Picnics and Potlucks

by Nancy Steinkoenig

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Whether you attend a family reunion or just go to the park with your friends, it's good to go armed with dollar stretcher strategies. Summer brings a lot of opportunities for outdoor parties, so I thought I'd throw in my two cents' worth of picnic tips.

Taking food outdoors in the summertime requires ice to keep cold things cold. If you have freezer space, start stockpiling ice cubes. I first tried this as a tightwad idea, but there were several unexpected bonuses. I got 6 extra plastic ice cube trays, and then I froze and dumped cubes into one gallon ziploc bags. In four days, I had enough homemade ice to pack a large cooler. We left on a camping trip on Thursday morning. High temperatures stayed in the 90s for the duration of the trip. We used ice in drinks, kept our food cold, and drank the water as it melted. The ice melted in the bags and the food didn't get waterlogged! Also, we used melted ice to make tea from instant tea as we needed it. It was much cheaper than canned soda and it weighed a heck of a lot less! And it lasted until Sunday, over 72 hours. We had used a lot of ice, so we bought an eight-pound bag late Saturday afternoon. By Sunday morning, the store-bought ice was completely melted, but we still had some of the homemade ice. Now, what do you think is better? Store-bought at $1 a bag, or homemade for basically free? As an added bonus, keeping your freezer full (even if it is only ice) keeps the compressor from running constantly. You save energy, save money, and you hardly ever run out of ice.

To organize outdoor eating, recycle a child's lunch box into a picnic basket accessory. Use additional small plastic containers in the lunch box to store packets of salt, pepper, sugar or other sweetener, as well as individual serving sizes of mustard and ketchup left over from prior forays into the fast food world. I also used a round cylinder Crystal Lite container to hold plastic "silverware." It fit perfectly in the lunch box. Don't forget to add a film canister to hold wooden "strike anywhere" matches to light the grill. Paper napkins complete the kit. It saves time to keep it packed, because you only have to grab one thing and put it in the picnic basket with the food, rather than searching for all the condiments and utensils.

What kind of food is less likely to spoil in hot weather? Traditional potato salad and coleslaw use mayonnaise, which can produce salmonella if left out too long. My two favorite cold salads make a large quantity, keep well, and I don't have to heat up the stove. They are both ideal for family reunions, church suppers, or for every day use. I mix the ingredients in a rectangular Rubbermaid container that fits into a cooler as easy as it goes on the refrigerator shelf. The number 7 container holds a total of 17 cups, but neither of these recipes fills it completely. You need a little room to mix the salad together.

Three Bean Salad

This salad is tastier and more colorful than any three bean salad you have ever eaten. It has more to offer nutritionally that the sticky sweet and oily kind. It's easy to make and great to keep on hand for quick meals when it is too hot to cook. If you subscribe to the theory of food combining to make complete protein from vegetable sources, this salad fits the bill!

2 cans cut green beans, drained
1 can cut yellow wax beans, drained
1 can white shoepeg corn, drained
1 can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 - 3/4 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 - 3/4 cup red bell pepper, chopped (or substitute canned pimentos)
1/2 - 3/4 cup red onion, chopped (or sliced green onions)
3/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup sugar
salt & pepper to taste

Dump drained canned vegetables in refrigerator container. Add chopped fresh vegetables. Shake remaining ingredients in a pint jar with tight fitting lid. Pour dressing over salad and seal with lid. Refrigerate several hours. Shake container every hour or so or stir thoroughly to blend flavors. Makes 12-16 servings.

This salad will keep for a week in the refrigerator, but it doesn't usually last that long at my house! It usually tastes better the second day, as all the flavors have time to blend better. The olive oil, if divided into 12 servings, equals less than 5 grams of fat per serving.

Black eyed Pea Salad

I tasted something like this at a deli salad bar and nearly drove myself crazy trying to duplicate it at home. I finally figured out that the secret ingredient was balsamic vinegar. It may seem prohibitively expensive to you, but I bought the store brand and a bottle has lasted over a year. You might want to see if you could borrow a small amount from someone. I complained about the price to one of my co-workers and she gave me an almost full bottle. She had bought it to see what the gourmet cooking shows were talking about, but had not quite figured out what to use it for. The Frugal Gourmet devoted an entire show to balsamic vinegar one time, so he and I at least agree that the flavor is worth the investment. If you want to leave it out, it will still be a great salad, but this is the recipe that we love. The Cajun seasoning used in the recipe is Spice Time brand, 99 cents for 5 1/2 ounces, bought at a discount store.

We revisited the same deli several months later, and found the black eyed pea salad to be kind of bland. My recipe turned out better than the original I was trying to copy! It is high fiber, high protein, low fat and delicious.

3 cans black eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 can whole kernel yellow corn, drained
1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup red onion, chopped
2/3 cup cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 to 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning

Assemble and refrigerate just as in Three Bean Salad directions above. Makes 8-10 servings.

Summer is the best time to enjoy these salads because red and green bell peppers are in plentiful supply and cheaper. To cut costs even further, grow your own. According to the USDA, a 1/4 cup of chopped green pepper delivers 37% of the RDA for adults. (As a comparison, 1/4 cup of orange juice delivers 40% of the RDA for adults.) Add those fresh peppers to your daily diet for pizazz and good health. Bon Appetit!

Nancy has contributed other articles to the Dollar Stretcher. She's also written "The Pantry Game" and "How to Reduce Your Grocery Bill". You might want to check them out.

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