Feasting Al Fresco: Plan an Unforgettable Picnic

By Claudia Schou   |   August 16, 2022
Santa Barbara Picnic Co.’s Nicole Leza creates elegant and chic picnic settings (photo by Amber Dolyak)

Picture yourself on a cool summer evening sitting on a Mexican blanket listening to the sound of waves rushing across the sand. There’s a divine spread laid out, guests are lounging on oversized pillows and nibbling on homespun delicacies such as shredded chicken and bean taquitos and grapefruit, avocado, and walnut salad. There are a few quarts of McConnell’s ice cream – honey and cornbread cookies and salted pretzel crunch – in the cooler and a Thermos filled with fresh lime margaritas.

Picnics are moveable feasts imprinted in our memory of quality time spent alone or with family and friends. Whether you’ve found your perfect spot on the beach, backyard, public park, or along the side of a road, gathering in nature to enjoy food and drink is the perfect way to spend your summer. 

Simple, savory, and sweet is the way to go. Whole loaf of freshly baked bread, Kosher salt, canned sardines, marinated or dry olives, meats, cheeses, raw vegetables with dressing, tomatoes, avocados, and tangy fresh fruits are just a few items that come to mind. Bring a bag filled with fresh dill, basil, and cilantro – the herbier the plates, the better.

Toss it all in a bag with utensils and a cutting board before heading out the door. And don’t forget the cocktail cooler! Just make sure drinks are allowed at your selected location.

For outdoor dining inspiration we reached out to two authorities on picnicking. Special event planner Nicole Leza and author Julie Pointer Adams generously provided some expert tips and suggestions. 

Santa Barbara Picnic Co.

Nicole Leza creates elegant and chic picnic settings practically anywhere for her clients. She launched Santa Barbara Picnic Co. in 2018 as a boutique event business, specializing in luxury picnics. Leza creates outdoor moods and themes for every occasion. From laid back, bohemian-style gatherings to extravagant outdoor celebrations, she helps set the scene in some of the most stunning locations around town. The MJ recently caught up with Leza to discuss her personal preferences. 

Q. Why did you found the company?

A. The beautiful parks and beaches around Santa Barbara are what really inspired me to start a picnic business. Since graduating from UCSB in 2016, my favorite pastime was exploring the mountains and beaches, and spending time at the Mission Rose Garden picnicking with friends. I became inspired to host and elevate my picnics with friends and started to incorporate pretty patterned blankets, rattan picnic baskets, crates, vintage glassware, flowers from the farmers market, etc. I would get more creative with my picnics and started to really curate each picnic experience.

I have always had a keen interest in design and loved being a part of events. I had my “Aha!” moment when I realized that I could create these beautiful, elevated picnic experiences for others to enjoy at my favorite places around Santa Barbara. I was able to combine my passion for design, events, and the outdoors into a quintessential Santa Barbara activity. Most people visiting or living in Santa Barbara like to spend time outdoors gathering with friends and loved ones, and it felt so natural to offer a picnic experience for locals or visitors to experience the beautiful parks of Santa Barbara in a different, unique way.

What are some of your favorite picnic menu items?

I love to keep picnic food pretty simple. Crisp rosé paired with a cheese and charcuterie platter and lots of fresh fruits, jams, and crackers is always a staple. I also love picking up sushi for my picnics. 

What are your favorite picnic memories?

My best picnic memories are made in discovering new scenic places. I always try to make time to pack a picnic wherever I travel and visit. I think picnics are a great way to truly get to experience a new place, because you get to detach from technology, ground yourself, and get to be in tune with the surroundings.

One of my favorite memories was a few months before I launched my business. My friends and I hiked Figueroa Mountain during the wildflower bloom. I packed my favorite patterned picnic blanket and linen napkins, a wooden board, and snacks to make a charcuterie board. It was a long, steep hike, but the views at the top were well worth it. It felt so rewarding to picnic amongst the wild poppies and admire the views from the top of the mountain.

Visit santabarbarapicnicco.com for inquiries and more information.

Summer Dining, Al Fresco 

Al Fresco offers some delicious recipes and inspired outdoor dining

Julie Pointer Adams is a photographer and writer based in Santa Barbara, where she lives with her husband and son. She grew up swimming in the Pacific and roaming the forests of Eastern Canada, igniting a persistent desire to connect with nature in all aspects of her everyday life, at work, and at home. In her new book, Al Fresco: Inspired Ideas for Outdoor Living, from Artisan Books ($35), she introduces readers to the concept of living life entwined with nature, where gathering with friends and family in the open air is key to meaningful experiences and joyful memories.

It’s a guide filled with stunning photography, tips for entertaining, unique ways to spend time outdoors, and delightfully simple recipes. It gathers interviews with creative types of all ages – artists, designers, potters, photographers, chefs, business owners – who share their personal philosophies and outdoor rituals. Picnic locales in Montecito and Santa Barbara are featured in the book.

Through interviews, essays, and inspiring lists, Pointer Adams demonstrates that being close to nature doesn’t require a wealth of resources or a perfect location. 

Q. What are the key takeaways from this book?

A. I hope to remind readers of the free gift of the natural world, and what a healing balm it can be to enjoy it in the company of others. Whether city, suburban, or rural dwellers, we can all find opportunities to be outside more often in ways that feed and fuel our souls. Sharing food together shouldn’t simply be left for exceptional occasions, but can become a part of our weekly or even daily routines. Getting in the habit of gathering for meals or snacks outdoors makes it feel like less of a hurdle and more of an easy, everyday joy.

What are your favorite rituals around food and eating with others? 

Honestly, just the act of eating with others is always a welcome ritual – no need for anything fancy. Especially after a long season of spending time largely away from people – because of the pandemic – the simple act of breaking bread together feels like a rich reward at any time of day. I find that food – no matter when, where, or how – invites us into a special kind of communion together, where guards are let down and people have the chance to be at their best together. For me, any time that happens seems like a small miracle.

What is your personal favorite meal/activity to share with loved ones outdoors? 

For me there’s nothing better than gathering with friends at the beach or on a wide-open field or lawn for a picnic and time to lounge and play together. Moments spent in the company of loved ones with no agenda, no fuss, and no pretense is my idea of heaven.

Do you have any role models whose relationships to nature you find inspiring? 

Mary Oliver, the poet, has long been my beacon for the way she lived in, observed, and deeply loved the world of nature. But my relationship to nature was first nurtured by my parents, which I’m forever grateful for. They have always been amazing stewards of the natural world, and have taught me to respect and cherish every part of it.

High Summer Crab Cakes

High Summer Crab Cakes

Excerpted from Al Fresco by Julie Pointer Adams (Artisan Books) Copyright 2022

Serves 4: Serve this with a salsa of some type, such as black bean and peach.


1 pound (455 g) lump crabmeat, picked over for shells and cartilage
1/2 cup (110 g) chopped onions or scallions
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1/3 cup (80 ml) mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream or crème fraîche
1/3 cup (35 g) breadcrumbs, plus an additional 1 cup (100 g) for breading the cakes
1/2 cup (25 g) chopped herbs, such as parsley, chervil, or basil, or a combination
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed
Nasturtium leaves for garnish (optional)


Roasted Squash with Pesto

Place the crabmeat, onions, garlic, mayonnaise, mustard, paprika, heavy cream, 1/3 cup (35 g) bread crumbs, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl and mix with your hands or a large wooden spoon.

With your hands, form the mixture into 8 patties (about 1/2 cup/110 g each). Spread the remaining 1 cup (100 g) breadcrumbs on a sheet of wax paper. Gently place each patty on the crumbs, turning to coat on both sides, and transfer to another sheet of wax paper.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add 4 of the patties to the pan and cook until browned on the first side, about 5 minutes. Carefully turn the patties over with two spatulas and cook on the other side until browned, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a platter and keep warm while you cook the remaining 4 patties, adding more butter and olive oil to the pan if necessary.

Garnish the crab cakes with nasturtium leaves, if you have them, and serve.  


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