By Jennifer Olvera | SunTimes.com
Sultry summer days are synonymous with picnics . But the ubiquitous fried chicken and potato salad can come off like a tired, 1950s-era cliche.
It doesn’t have to be that way, say Chicago’s food truck purveyors, masters of the portable meal (city regulations stipulate that they serve packaged, ready-to-eat food — no cooking on the truck). The trick is knowing which ingredients work and why other don’t.
“You have to think in terms of what holds well,” says Joaquin Soler of Brown Bag Lunch Truck, which dishes up three barbecued mains daily for diners on the fly.
Protein-wise, ingredients that are cooked slow and low — short ribs or juicy pork shoulder, for example — are ideal.
“There’s a reason we’re meat-centric,” says Matt Maroni, owner of the Gaztro-Wagon and its storefront counterpart at 5973 N. Clark.
Certain cuts travel better than others. “Something that cooks 4 to 6 minutes on the grill and gets cut up will lose all of its juices,” says Maroni.
“Lean cuts, like pork tenderloin, generally do not work,” agrees chef Cary Taylor of the Southern, 1840 W. North, and the roving Southern Mac, the latter known for its roster of mac ‘n’ cheese.
Maroni favors less-frequented cuts, ones meant for braising. That includes lamb neck and wild boar belly, which he pairs with pickled, braised or starchy vegetables and dried fruits for his signature “naanwiches.”
“You want to hit the five flavors — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami — and choose ingredients that maintain their integrity,” he says.
Sausages, which can be poached and chilled at the peak of flavor and re-warmed, also work well, Taylor says.
Since foodborne illness is a concern with portable food, shelving the mayo is a wise idea.
“Using cultured, pasteurized ingredients, like plain Greek yogurt or sour cream, in place of mayo is a good alternative,” says Maroni. “I generally stay away from anything egg-based.”
Oil and vinegar will boost flavor and lend creaminess when emulsified in a blender with mustard.
Serving seafood has its merits. However, doing so is not without potential pitfalls.
“Nothing is worse than rubbery, overcooked lobster,” says Taylor, noting that shrimp can be problematic as well.
If you opt to use such ingredients, know that they’re best prepared in advance and served chilled (such as Maroni’s lobster salad with potatoes, celery, pickles and onions).
“Both poached and smoked fish are great, too,” he adds.
While vegetables are generally a picnicker’s friend, it’s best to avoid tender greens, which are prone to wilting. If you opt to use them in a salad, though, be sure to dress them right before serving.
Maintaining temperature isn’t always requisite.
Phillip Foss, who runs the three-truck Meatyballs Mobile fleet and earlier this month opened the eight-seat, reservations-only El Ideas, 2419 W. 14th, preps “balls” of meat and serves them between bread in slider or larger “grenade” form.
“They’re picnic-perfect,” Foss says. “I actually love eating many of our balls cold.”
Naturally, there is something to be said for foods eaten out of hand.
“You can take something high-end, like a crab cake, and turn it into a sandwich,” says Heather Behm, co-owner of Evanston’s Hummingbird Kitchen, the only area truck that is able to prepare fare onboard. “My thinking is you should never need a knife.”