Katy Hofstede-Smith imparts her top tips for making the most of al fresco dining this summer…
Summer is all about making the most of being outside and enjoying whatever good weather we are blessed with. For a country with so few sunny summer days – last year’s scorcher excluded – we tend to get stuck into any opportunities for al fresco dining that are going!
Nowadays, outdoor dining is less about prawn sandwiches and a bag of crisps and more of an exciting affair. But what to pack and how to transport it depends entirely on what you are doing and where…
If you are attending something relatively formal, such as the races or outdoor proms, then ‘more is more’ is your maxim. As these events usually allow for back-of-car-dining or some form of transport; pack a table, folding chairs, silverware and anything else required to make it truly fabulous. These events lend themselves to more ‘classic’ dishes but that shouldn’t stop you adding a few interesting twists. Cold Poached Salmon with a Gin & Cucumber Dressing is a solid choice, as is a Green Vegetable Medley; made by simply mixing together asparagus, peas, cucumber, spring onion and mint with a pesto dressing. I would complement these dishes with freshly baked focaccia or rolls, as well as warm new potatoes with herby butter. Follow all of this with individual Eton Mess puddings, heavy with berries and washed down with cold sparkling wine or Cucumber & Mint Water.
For a relaxed beach or countryside picnic you need to think more carefully about what to carry. Some old woolen blankets make the best picnic rugs and you can add some large cushions for extra comfort. Food can be more relaxed but try to do something different to make it more interesting. Instead of a picnic pie, try adding a Moroccan twist to proceedings with a chicken pastilla (a delicious pastry, flavoured with cinnamon and encased in icing sugar dusted filo). This is an interesting change to the more traditional pie varieties, but it travels equally well. Other great dish ideas include: Beetroot Dip with Crudités or Mini Boiled Quails’ Eggs, peeled at home and dipped in to a flavoured salt. Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls filled with prawns, rice noodles and fresh vegetable ribbons and herbs can be made quickly at home and are fantastic on a hot summer day, served with a spicy dipping sauce. Finish the meal off with some fun and slightly retro layered jellies. These are easy to transport and look great; especially if you make a large one and turn it out onto a board when you arrive.
For many al fresco dinners, it can be fun to get creative and theme your menus. I like to make an Indian feast with tikka flavoured meats, Spiced Roasted Cauliflower Salad, some flat breads, crunchy spiced vegetable salads and Indian dips. For dessert, I recommend something simple but tasty, like Indian rice pudding with dried fruits or a spiced set milk pudding. Middle Eastern dishes lend themselves fabulously to this type of catering as well. The cuisine typically features lots of dips, salads, cheeses, flatbreads and cooked kebabs to choose from. A selection of baklava, served with some hot mint tea, is a fantastic way to end a feast before returning to the outdoor entertainment.
Transporting your food and drink doesn’t have to be difficult. There are lots of beautiful picnic boxes and containers available these days which can double up as serve ware. Alternatively, look for unusual ideas such as tiffin boxes for an Indian feast. To keep things cool during transportation try copious amounts of cool blocks alongside frozen bottles of water and premade cordials. Not only will these chill your food but they will also melt during the day and provide perfectly chilled drinks. To transport hot dishes, use thermos flasks and plan your dishes carefully to ensure that your ingredients will fit. Alternatively, depending on where you are going you could bring a portable barbeque with you (preferably a gas version rather than a disposable). Plan to cook simple meat dishes in situ and make sure that everything is prepared in advance so it’s just a matter of assembling and cooking your meal.