Tips for Outdoor Dining at Home
Spring is officially here (although you wouldn’t know it in Chicago – snow yesterday!). And nothing shows the spring has arrived like seeing people pull out their grills, restaurants pull out their patio furniture, and grocery stores pulling out the backyard barbecue supplies.
To top off our week celebrating “al fresco” dining, here are some of our tips for enjoying outdoor dining at home. Sure, it’s easier to pop around to your local restaurant and let them do the work. And we’re certainly fans of that as well! But it’s fun to practice all the new recipes you’ve learned on a cooking vacation by serving them up to your family and friends at home.
Rule #1: prep ahead of time.
And I mean prep all of it. The food, of course. Prepare as much of that ahead as possible. It’s fine to have two or three items that need to be prepared “a la minute” during your event, but try to have most of it either ready to serve or ready to heat and serve. But there is plenty to prep ahead of time besides the food. Prep the garbage cans (one for recycling, one for compost if you do it). Prep the drink station (or two if you’re having a lot of guests).
Rule #2: think about your materials
Paper napkins, plates, and cups might make cleanup easy, but they blow around like crazy at the slightest breeze and let’s face it: not the most environmentally conscious choice. So forego the plastic for some ceramic plates (or even glass plates if they are sturdy enough). Stemware may be risky, depending on how hard a surface your guests will be negotiating, but instead of plastic cups try sturdy mason jars. And instead of fighting the blowing paper table cloth and napkins, use real cloth, just like you would inside.
Rule #3: be ready to handle the elements.
By elements I mean not only rain, wind, and sun, but also mosquitos. Make sure you have shady seating areas. If that’s not possible? A bottle of sunscreen or a couple of sun hats can help keep your guests happy. Buggy night? Have a bottle of bug spray nearby (but not by the serving stations). Here’s a nice tip: a box fan can help keep guests cool but will also help keep mosquitoes away. Be ready for the sun to go down by having candles, torches, or garden lights at the ready. You won’t want to go searching for them in the dark!
Rule #4: make do with what you have.
If you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor kitchen, yay you! But most of us have to make do. No outdoor sink? Have a plastic wash basin at hand filled with soapy water. Don’t have a large seating area? Blankets and pillows are a perfectly good option. Don’t have big enough table for the food? Serve it indoors buffet-style. This has the added advantage of protecting the food from the flies and the heat.
There are other rules that I live by: don’t prepare dessert, for example. That might be because my kids inevitably want ‘smores or ice cream cones. (OK, I make my own ice cream, so I guess that counts as making dessert.) But usually by the time dessert rolls around during an outdoor dinner, people are happy for something simple.
What about you? Do you like dining “al fresco” at home? Did you enjoy dining al fresco at one of our cooking vacations? Any tips you’d like to share?
By Peg Kern
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