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Picnic update: Fill that basket with fireworks

Times Staff Writers

SOUTHERN fried chicken, coleslaw, biscuits and ham, brownies -- it’s the iconic July 4th picnic, so popular (once upon a time) that it became a cliche of the culture, pictured in classic cartoons, nostalgic children’s books -- and, of course, in ads for takeout versions of these all-American dishes.

But don’t relegate this menu of deeply delicious, eminently packable and wonderfully satisfying foods to history. A few smart cooking techniques and updated ingredients can bring the joys of a homemade picnic back to the holiday -- and out to the beach, park or mountainside.

The beautifully puffed-up golden brown crust of the double-dipped fried chicken is made with buttermilk. It’s so special that our recipe calls for cutting the chicken into 12 pieces rather than the usual six or eight. Not only is it easier to evenly fry the smaller pieces, they’re also more finger-friendly and there’s crisp crust in each bite.

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Made ahead of time

Soaking THE pieces overnight in brine makes them juicy and tender when fried. And, of course, the whole process, from brining to frying, can be accomplished ahead of time so when it’s time to party you can simply pack your picnic and head out the door.

Bring along lemon wedges and hot sauce, so each picnicker can add a quick squeeze of brightness and a drizzle of spice.

Times readers so love making coleslaw that the Food section often receives requests for recipes. All styles -- sweet and creamy, crisp and spicy, nutty and tangy -- have their fans.

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So this recipe has been designed as a flexible master version with variations. Three kinds of cabbage -- red and green for body and color, savoy for a light surprise and contrast -- along with chopped onion and cilantro form the slaw. You decide, by selecting dressing add-ins, whether to make your slaw a California-herbal version with fresh tarragon, a nutty Asian-inspired style with toasted sesame seeds, or one spiced with celery and mustard seeds.

Feeding a crowd? Order a country ham online (see accompanying box) and bring along some biscuits. Presto! Impromptu sandwiches (yes, of course you’ll want to put coleslaw on that ham slice) are on hand throughout the afternoon’s softball game.

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Rich and citrusy

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The combination of orange and chocolate in our “midnight chocolate” (that’s how dark they are) brownies is not only festive but also, as befits a historic commemoration like the Fourth, a reminder of our region’s past, when H.L. Mencken observed, “The whole place stank of orange blossoms.”

Sweet citrusy notes from orange liqueur and peel sparkle in the deliciously dense combination of bittersweet chocolate, dark cocoa and mini dark-chocolate chips.

Line the pan with foil so the brownies can be easily lifted out and cut them into the smaller bite-sized portions so many people appreciate these days. You’ll get 25 instead of a dozen -- enough to carry you through to fireworks time.

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food@ latimes.com

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And there’s always a country ham

PINK, smoky, deeply flavorful ham -- a few slices sandwiched in a biscuit make for summer-in-the-sun picnic deliciousness. Of course, we’re talking ham of the dry-cured country variety -- cured, dried, aged, then smoked (not soaked in brine).

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It’s salty, pungent stuff, best enjoyed when sliced thinly (say, three-sixteenths-inch to one-fourth-inch thick).

A whole country ham traditionally comes uncooked, wrapped in a muslin sack and looking like something from an archaeological dig (it’s covered in surface mold that has to be removed).

Before serving, it needs long soaking and simmering. But ham houses also sell cooked hams (half hams, center portions, etc.).

And though Smithfield is known for its hams, there are great country hams from outside Virginia. Here are some reliable sources. Check websites for prices and delivery information.

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Meacham Hams (Kentucky), (800) 552-3190, www.meachamhams.com

S. Wallace Edwards & Sons (Virginia), (800) 222-4267, virginiatraditions.com

Burgers’ Smokehouse (Missouri), (800) 345-5185, www.smokehouse.com

Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams (Tennessee), online orders only, bentonshams.com

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-- Betty Hallock

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Buttermilk fried chicken

Total time: 55 minutes, plus overnight brining and drying time

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Servings: 4 to 6

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane. Serve the chicken with lemon wedges and a drizzle of hot sauce.

1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds

1/3 cup kosher salt

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3 cloves crushed garlic

6 sprigs thyme

6 sprigs rosemary

1 cup buttermilk

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2 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika

Canola oil

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1. Place the chicken on a cutting board with the back facing up. Using a sturdy pair of kitchen shears, remove the backbone from the body. Halve the chicken lengthwise with a sturdy chef’s knife, cutting through the sternum. Remove the thighs and drumsticks at the joints, as well as the wings. Cut each breast crosswise into thirds. You will have 12 pieces, not including the back (the back can be discarded or prepared with the rest of the chicken). Set aside.

2. In a large resealable plastic bag, or in a large nonreactive container, combine the salt with 2 quarts water, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Stir in the garlic, thyme and rosemary, then add the chicken pieces, making sure they are completely submerged. Seal the bag or cover the container tightly, and refrigerate overnight.

3. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Place the buttermilk in a medium bowl. In a large, shallow baking dish, combine the flour, cayenne pepper and Hungarian paprika.

4. Dip the chicken, one piece at a time, in the buttermilk. Shake off the excess buttermilk and dredge in the flour mixture, coating the piece completely. Repeat once more with the buttermilk and flour for a double coating of batter. Repeat with all of the pieces, placing the dredged pieces on a wire rack. Allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour to dry completely.

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5. Heat one-half inch of oil in a large, heavy-bottom skillet over medium-high heat until a thermometer inserted reads 325 degrees. Fry the chicken, a few pieces at a time, until they are a rich, golden brown on each side, about 15 minutes total. The meat should be firm; a thermometer inserted should read 160 degrees. Remove the fried chicken to a paper-towel-lined pan or plate.

5. If not serving immediately, allow the chicken to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold. Pack in an air-tight container before transporting.

Each of 6 servings: 640 calories; 45 grams protein; 34 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 34 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 160 mg. cholesterol; 775 mg. sodium.

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Midnight chocolate brownie bites

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: Makes 25 brownies

Note: From Times test kitchen director Donna Deane

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1/2 cup (1 stick) butter plus more to butter the dish

1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

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1 tablespoon Grand Marnier

1 1/2 teaspoons lightly packed grated orange peel

2 eggs

1/4 cup best-quality cocoa

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1/4 cup flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch-square baking dish with aluminum foil, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of the foil.

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2. Melt the butter and bittersweet chocolate in a medium metal bowl set over simmering water until the mixture is smooth. Stir in the brown sugar until dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and Grand Marnier, then the grated orange peel.

3. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time, until completely blended and the mixture is shiny and smooth; the mixture will be thickened at this point.

4. Sift together the cocoa, flour and salt, then stir the flour mixture into the batter until blended. Fold in the mini chocolate chips.

5. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until puffed and almost set. Do not overbake. Cool while still in the pan, on a wire rack.

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6. Lift the brownies out of the pan, using the foil as a handle, and invert the brownies onto the cooling rack. Gently peel off the foil, then return the brownies to their original position. Cool completely. Cut into 25 squares, trimming off the edges if desired.

Each serving: 134 calories; 2 grams protein; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 27 mg. cholesterol; 21 mg. sodium.

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Three-cabbage coleslaw

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Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: From Donna Deane

1 cup (loosely packed) shredded red cabbage

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3 cups (loosely packed) shredded green cabbage

3 cups (loosely packed) shredded savoy cabbage

1/2 cup green pepper, cut into small dice

1/4 cup chopped green onion

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1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon leaves

3 tablespoons best-quality olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

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1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cracked black pepper

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1. In a large bowl, toss together the red, green and savoy cabbage. Add the green pepper, green onion, cilantro and tarragon. Toss with the oil, vinegar and lemon juice.

2. Sprinkle with the sugar, salt and a few grinds of pepper. Toss. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate until ready to serve or transport.

Each of 6 servings: 90 calories; 2 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 214 mg. sodium.

Slaw variations

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For three-cabbage Asian coleslaw: Omit the tarragon, and instead toss in 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds and one-eighth teaspoon sesame oil. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of toasted sliced almonds.

For three-cabbage summer coleslaw: Omit the tarragon, and instead toss in one-half teaspoon celery seed and one-half teaspoon mustard seed along with an additional one-half teaspoon sugar.


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