Go forth with food on July 4th

Celebrate picnic freedom with meal that travels

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We're firmly in favor of summer picnics — especially for the Fourth of July, when an invite to watch the fireworks from a hillside means BYO.

But who wants to haul around a feast that's barely moveable? At best, you should make foods that don't need a load of ice to keep them chilly. Optimum flavor should peak at "room temperature." (Read: They can sit for an hour or two alfresco.) A touch of Southern might be nice, with some calories magically eliminated.

We knew right where to turn: Virginia Willis, a chef and cookbook author who knows how to celebrate her Georgia roots on a plate. Her holiday menu is the kind of easy, enlightened Southern cooking she offers through her blog. And because she knows how to deliver on camera as well, Willis has distilled five basics into a picnic primer video. As she would say, Happy Fourth, y'all.

Lightened-Up Pimento Cheese

Makes about 4 cups.

The “pate of the South,” pimento cheese is the epitome of a summer picnic treat. Everyone has a slightly different recipe, but the primary ingredients are the same. Don’t be tempted to use pre-grated cheese; the result won’t be creamy enough. Try this slathered on a celery stick, on bread or crackers, or straight from the bowl on a spoon. From chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis.

8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

8 ounces low-fat cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

About ½ small-to-medium sweet onion, preferably Vidalia, grated (about ⅓ cup)

2 tablespoons regular or low-fat mayonnaise

2 tablespoons low-fat Greek-style yogurt

One 4-ounce jar pimentos, drained and finely chopped

Dash hot pepper sauce

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the cheese, onion, mayonnaise and yogurt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add the pimentos and hot sauce, and stir to evenly distribute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Note: The pimento cheese can be made a day in advance.

NUTRITION Per 2-tablespoon serving (using low-fat mayonnaise): 50 calories, 4 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 115 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar.

Oven-Fried Chicken on a Stick

4 to 6 servings.

Fried chicken is a picnic classic. This version is easy to prepare and a bit better for you. You’ll need a dozen 12-inch bamboo skewers, preferably flat-sided. For a dipping sauce, try store-bought honey mustard, honey or hot sauce. From chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis.

For the brine and chicken:

2 tablespoons coarse salt

1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

2 teaspoons powdered mustard

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 cups low-fat buttermilk

3 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (tenderloins removed), each cut lengthwise into 4 strips (1 1/2 to 2 pounds total)

For the coating:

1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs

1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

1 teaspoon powdered mustard

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 large egg, plus 1 large egg white

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

For the brine and chicken: Combine the salt, paprika, powdered mustard, onion powder and garlic powder in a large, nonreactive (stainless steel, glass or plastic) bowl. Add the buttermilk and whisk until the salt is completely dissolved and the spices are evenly dispersed. Add the pieces of chicken breast, making sure they are submerged. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes; do not brine any longer or the chicken will be too salty.

For the coating: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, then set a large wire rack on the foil. Spray the rack with nonstick cooking oil spray.

Meanwhile, combine the panko, paprika, powdered mustard, onion powder and garlic powder in a shallow dish. Add the oil and toss well to coat.

Whisk together the egg, egg white and mustard in a separate shallow dish, until smooth. (This takes a few seconds, but make sure it’s nice and smooth.) Season both mixtures with pepper to taste.

Working with one piece at a time, remove the chicken from the brine and shake off any excess liquid. Discard the brine. Insert a skewer into each piece of chicken. Dip the chicken into the egg mixture, coating both sides. Place in the panko mixture, sprinkling with crumbs to cover, and press so the coating adheres; turn the chicken over and repeat the process. Place the coated breasts on the rack set on the baking sheet. Bake, turning halfway through cooking, until the chicken is golden brown and the juices run clear, 20 to 25 minutes.

Note: The chicken needs to marinate in its brine for 30 minutes. The chicken on a stick can be made up to 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated.

NUTRITION Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.

Roasted Green Bean and Potato Salad

4 to 6 servings.

The combination of green beans and potatoes is a Southern classic, but it’s normally served warm, with ham hock or bacon. This lightened-up picnic salad is bright with flavor. The green beans turn slightly sweet, and the lemon juice adds a little zip. From chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis.

Canola oil, for the baking sheet, plus 2 tablespoons for the vegetables

1 pound (about 5 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick on the diagonal

10 ounces haricots verts or tender young green beans, ends trimmed

1 medium onion, preferably Vidalia, thinly sliced

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons honey

Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup)

1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Brush a rimmed baking sheet generously with the oil and transfer it to the oven; preheat to 400 degrees.

Combine the potatoes, green beans and onion in a large bowl. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat the vegetables with the oil, then transfer them to the heated baking sheet and spread evenly. Roast, stirring occasionally, for 35 to 45 minutes or until the vegetables are charred and browned.

While the roasted vegetables are still warm, drizzle them with the honey and lemon juice, sprinkle with the parsley and toss to coat. Taste, and add salt and/or pepper as needed. Serve at room temperature, or, preferably, refrigerate until chilled. If you are serving the salad cold, taste for seasoning just before serving, because chilling dulls the flavor.

Note: The salad can be made a day in advance, covered and refrigerated. It is best served cold.

NUTRITION Per serving (based on 6): 156 calories, 3 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 45 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar.

Individual Fruit Cobblers

Makes 12 cobblers.

This is Virginia Willis’ version of a dessert made by her mother and grandmother. It’s called a batter cobbler: You don’t make a separate top crust, because the batter rises up and makes one for you. It’s particularly picnic-friendly because it is baked and toted in a standard muffin tin.

5 1/3 tablespoons (1/3 cup) unsalted butter

3/4 cup flour

3/4 cup low-fat milk

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup fresh blueberries (may substitute blackberries, raspberries or chopped peaches)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Melt the butter in a large glass measuring cup in a microwave oven set on MEDIUM. Use a pastry brush to generously brush the wells of a standard 12-cup muffin tin with some of the butter. Transfer the muffin tin to the oven to preheat while you make the batter, about 5 minutes.

Combine the flour, milk, sugar, baking powder, salt and vanilla extract in the measuring cup with the remaining butter (you should have at least 1/4 cup of it).

Remove the muffin pan from the oven. (If the butter has browned a bit, consider that a blessing.) Divide the batter evenly among the wells, filling each one no more than halfway full. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of berries into each well.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the batter has risen up and around the fruit and is a light golden brown. Transfer the muffin tin to a cooling rack.

To serve, run a spoon around the edge of each well. Scoop out the individual cobblers and transfer to individual plates. (Invert them if you want to display the fruit that has sunk to the bottom.) Serve warm or at room temperature, plain or garnished with cream or low-fat yogurt.

Note: Willis prefers to make these a day in advance. They can also be baked, cooled and served on the same day.

92 calories, 6 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 185 mg sodium, 9 g carbohydrates, 1g dietary fiber, n/a sugar, 1 g protein.