Top tips for al fresco dining and picnics

Here in the UK, August is often the best month for outdoor living, as the weather is generally more reliable. The earth has warmed up and the warmth of the sun seems to comfortably embrace you. August is also the time to enjoy the last days of lovely weather, and what better way than to enjoy a great meal alfresco.

If you ask me, August is the perfect time for alfresco dining and picnics. In June, the pollen count is high, and all too often it’s really quite chilly. There is often a warm sun, but the ground is still cool. July alternates between blisteringly hot and pouring rain. In the UK, the 15th of July is known as St Swithin’s day, and there is a saying that “if on St Swithin’s day it doth rain, for 40 days it will remain”. I’m not sure about the 40 days, but in England rain in mid-July does seem to set the tone for the rest of the month.
So now is the time to pack that picnic basket and head out. Read through my tips below to make sure you are all set to enjoy your next meal in the great outdoors.

Alfresco & picnic food

I find that the best picnic foods are both robust and easy to eat with your fingers, mini quiches and frittatas work well, as do hearty lentil and grain-based salads. Keep things interesting and fresh with flavourful leafy salads, good quality tomatoes and a zesty dressing that packs a punch.
When barbecuing think beyond the usual chicken pieces, sausages and burgers. Mix things up with a selection of meat on kebabs and interesting prepare-ahead marinades. Wow your guests with larger cuts of slow-cooked meat on the grill – in recent years we have had great success cooking large cuts of beef as well as a leg of lamb.
Keep it seasonal for puddings and desserts: a fruity tray bake, Pavlova or homemade ice cream are both popular and impressive, especially when served with cream and fresh berries. In the evening, we like to gather around the barbecue and toast marshmallows to make s’mores – make sure you have plenty for second helpings.

Picnic tips

There’s nothing worse than leaking plastic containers. Invest in good quality ones, the kind with clips and a seal. The best never leak, even if you fill them with oily dressing and leave them upside down. Pack salads with the heavy ingredients at the bottom, and to avoid a sad, soggy salad and pack the dressing in a separate container.You can never have too many ice packs and bottle chillers to keep things cool. I always keep at least one of each in the fridge. For a budget ice pack, fill an empty water bottle with tap water and freeze. Once it has done its job you can throw it away so there’s less stuff to carry home.

Traditional wicker picnic hampers look great, but are heavy, bulky and difficult to transport. I like a structured bag to keep everything upright and organised. I always bring a sharp knife wrapped in a tea towel as well as several empty plastic bags for rubbish and dirty plates. You can buy very attractive, non-breakable and dishwasher-proof picnic-ware these days. I like a set that looks nice. Just because you’re eating outdoors, doesn’t mean you need to eat from cheap plastic plates.

We’ve have had great success with both citronella candles and wasp traps when it comes to these unwanted picnic guests. To make a wasp trap, pour a little beer into an empty jam jar, add a few drops of dishwashing liquid, cover the lid with plastic film, leaving a 1cm gap for the wasps to crawl in. It’s remarkably effective. Take care when disposing of the dead wasps as they can still sting when dead. We also find keeping food covered as much as possible helps deter the wasps, you can buy attractive silicone bowl covers which are ideal for alfresco dining.

BBQ Bliss!
If you are barbecuing, remember the basics of food safety: keep cooked and raw meat separate; make sure everything is properly cooked, especially chicken; and keep some sanitation gel handy if you’re away from the tap. If you’re barbecuing for a crowd, it can be easier to cook everything in the oven, and then finish on the grill. Experiment by using the barbecue like a stovetop and cooking in a heavy cast iron gratin dish or pan. If you have a gas barbecue, remove the grill and put the pan on the bars above the burners.

Enjoy your outdoor meals this late summer!

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