Dining al Fresco

Dining al fresco, better known as “out in the fresh air,” has been standard operating procedure on much of the planet since the days when al fresco was the only ambiance available. In more recent centuries, of course, Europeans have elevated al fresco dining to an art form with their oh-so-chic sidewalk cafes.

Fortunately, this pleasant practice is at last catching on in America, and we’ve finally discovered the joys of outdoor dining without its labor-intensive companion, the barbecue. We’ve found out it’s fun and refreshing to just have a bite or a meal in the sun-or-star shine. And that we needn’t travel to France – or to a restaurant – to enjoy the experience. Whether it’s morning coffee and croissants on the patio, lunch around the pool or a candlelight dinner on a card table set up in the driveway, most of us have the means to enjoy open-air dining.

The main objective of al fresco is pleasure for everyone concerned and that includes the “chef.” For this reason, the menu needs to be a simple and easily moveable feast. A one-dish meal is the best possible choice, keeping one from running in and out of the house a zillion times. Pretty paper tablecloths and plates are a good choice as well, making cleanup as breezy as your surroundings. So don’t fuss unless there’s a super-special reason.

Breakfast (or brunch) is one of the best times to dine out of doors. Most of the bugs are still asleep, the air is the cleanest it will be all day, and it’s just such an invigorating time to be out in the ether. Also, traditional morning dishes with ingredients like egg and cheese are perfect because they hold well and don’t have to be served piping hot.

Every cook has a recipe for an egg dish you make the night before, but you’ll find two more on these pages, one perfect for breakfast and the other made to order for brunch or lunch.

With all the bad rap eggs have gotten the past few years, these two yummy recipes from the American Egg Board take care to make up for the richness of their product by keeping the other ingredients low in fat.

Benedict Strata

  • 1 package (12 ounces) English muffins
  • 6 slices (4 oz) Canadian bacon, chopped
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
  • 3 tablespoons reduced-fat mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 teaspoons grated lemon peel
  • Chives and lemon slices for decoration

Split muffins and cut into cubes. Alternate even layers of muffin cubes and bacon in lightly greased 8″x8″x2″ baking dish. Blend together other ingredients and pour evenly over muffin-bacon mixture. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. Then uncover and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50 to 60 minutes. Garnish with chives and lemon slices if desired.

Veggie Strata

  • 6 slices day-old bread
  • 1 to 2 cups chopped cooked vegetables
  • 1/2 cup shredded low-fat Cheddar cheese
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 can low-fat reduced-sodium condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
  • 1/2 cup non- or low-fat milk
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed basil leaves
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper or to taste

Evenly coat an 8″x8″x2″ (or 2-quart rectangular) baking dish with cooking spray. Cut bread into 1/2″ cubes and place half in baking dish. Evenly sprinkle veggies and cheese over cubes. Sprinkle with remaining cubes. Beat together eggs, soup, milk and seasonings. Pour over bread-vegetable mixture, cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven until knife inserted near center comes out clean and top is golden brown, about 50 to 60 minutes.

For a simpler but mighty zippy egg bake, try this wake up call for the taste buds. Sprinkle 2/3 cup chopped green onion and 1/2 cup seeded and minced jalapeño peppers in an oiled 9″ pie plate. Cover with 1 cup Jarlsberg cheese. Top with 6 beaten eggs (or equivalent egg substitute). Bake at 350( for about 30 minutes or until set. Cool ten minutes, cut into wedges to serve. Keep the number of the fire department handy!

Perfect accompaniments for any of these eggy treats would be crusty bread to tear-not-slice, a pot or thermos of coffee and a bowl of fruit.

If you’re short on time or just want to spend most of it out in the zephyrs, boil eggs to almost-hard, and serve them warm with a basket of muffins, coffee and the best oranges you can buy.

For outdoor lunches or dinners, stick to the same one-dish premise – salads, pasta and the like, with additions such as seafood or chicken. If you have children or if you’re just in the mood, a pot of Sloppy Joes and a huge bowl of buns make for a great do-it-yourself outdoor meal.

For an afternoon treat, brew a pot of your favorite tea and fill those handy little phyllo pastry shells with something delicious be it sweet or savory One great way to serve phyllo is to fill them with a mixture of goat cheese and yogurt.

Please don’t go “argh!” if you find the above too pungent or if you simply have fear of goat cheese because it’s too trendy or sounds yucky. Instead, take a walk on the mild side with a version called Snøfrisk (or “snow fresh” in Norwegian). Available in the deli section, this mixture is 80% alpine and 20% bovine and there’s just enough cows’ cream in it to deliciously smooth out the edges. In fact, it’s so good it should be illegal!

Just melt Snøfrisk with your favorite flavored yogurt, or mix it with plain yogurt and add brown sugar to taste. Top with fresh berries and you have a treat that’s perfect for enjoying al fresco and pretty enough to please Mother Nature. If you can’t find phyllo shells in your market’s freezer, call the Fillo Factory 1-800-OKFILLO for information on availability in your area.

For another afternoon delight, work the following into 8 ounces of low-fat cottage cheese: 1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro or parsley, 1/2 cup bottled salsa (temperature of choice), 1 teaspoon celery seed, 1/4 cup dill pickle relish. When well mixed and mashed, add 1 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese. If you’re into making it beautiful, stuff the final product into a head of cabbage or lettuce that’s has been cleaned, trimmed and hollowed out. Serve with crusty bread, assorted crackers and/or crudités for dipping.

Al fresco is also the perfect place for culinary efforts on the messy side. For instance, it’s a great place to make caramel apples. Just provide a bowl of apples, the necessary sticks and your own favorite coating in a chafing dish or fondue pot (they’re both making a comeback so it’s time to dig them out of that closet in the middle bedroom). Kids will need supervision and help with this project, of course, but it’s also a lot of fun for adults-only.

Also making a comeback are S’mores, a toasted marshmallow and a chocolate square in between two graham crackers. They’re even featuring this original Girl Scout camping treat in restaurants, some of which bring a little brazier of hot coals to your table for toasting your own marshmallows. But you can provide each person with an individual votive candle along with all the ingredients. The toasting takes longer but is safer, and if night has fallen, a twinkly treat for the eye is a bonus.

So here’s to dining out of doors, in the fragrance of the day or evening. It’s a boost to the senses and the spirit to break bread in our natural habitat. If we haven’t made it simple enough for you, try this: A blanket, a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and please pass the thou.

Delver Deeper


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