We have all become rather used to socialising outside. Thanks to the pandemic, for perhaps the first time in our national history, al fresco dining has become the norm well outside of the summer months. We shivered under wraps for the last nine months only to finally be allowed to socialise indoors once more just at the moment when we’re all keen to light up the barbecue and enjoy the warmth outdoors.
Nothing compares to the pleasure of a lunch or dinner en plein air in the summer months. It sharpens the appetite and provides happy opportunities for people or garden watching when the conversation bores. Sometimes you can even get away with taking off your shoes. The appeal lies above all in its novelty. For most of us in Old Blighty there are perhaps just a dozen days or less in a normal year when we manage it, and can pretend for a happy evening we’re a sun-wrinkled, gladder soul from the Mediterranean sitting under a canopy of vines.
To make outdoor eating simple focus your efforts on making things to pick at, and condiments to spoon on top of simply grilled meat or fish. Enter Samir Nosrat’s marinated red peppers, garlicky harissa and charred tomatillo chermoula. Rukmini Iyer’s new book, The Green Barbecue, also has lots of excellent recipes including crispy gnocchi on a stick and chipotle barbecued new potatoes. A tart is a good option for a light lunch, or as the starter for a dinner. Alexandra Dudley makes one with courgette and feta.
Fried seafood, like fritto misto, is the essence of outdoor eating. These prawn and sweetcorn pakoras make for a moreish nibble with a cold Kingfisher beer. Or try this Sicilian sardine escabeche from Thomasina Miers. For the utterly classic, a whole salmon poached in a court bouillon, and served simply with a little cucumber salad and a quivering dollop of homemade mayonnaise is hard to better. Let Marguerite Patten be your guide. You could alternatively bake it in foil, and combine some of the cooked fleshed with avocado to make an accompanying salad.
To finish, there is something rather fun about an ice lolly (like this version with mango, coconut, turmeric and ginger) that can be licked on the move as you take guests on a wander around the garden to show off how well your peonies are doing. This is also the time to enjoy perfectly ripe summer fruit. Ed Smith makes a delightful gooseberry and praline fool and there are a host of other options for these tart green berries on my own recent column. You sometimes see figs growing here in the UK (indeed the largest tree in the land sits in St. James’s Park). But a properly plump and perfumed fig, heavy on the tree, is for me the memory of summer holidays in the Mediterranean. Transport yourself there in spirit with Nigella’s recipe for baked figs with rosewater and orange-flower water. Or, to evoke an Indian summer, try my own recipe for Doon Mess, the perfect end to a languorous dinner party with friends. A moment to savour before autumn comes and the cold London nights draw in.
Eton’s most famous offspring is a joyful mess. The school’s contribution to the culinary world is of course an English summertime classic of strawberries, meringue and whipped cream. It is a fabulous combination as is, but here is my twist named after India’s most esteemed boarding school. Traditional meringue is combined with raspberries, blueberries and a cheat’s version of shrikhand, an Indian hung curd. Making it normally involves hanging yoghurt over muslin overnight but I find using thick Greek yoghurt combined with crème fraiche achieves the same result or better. The Doon Mess was a house favourite at my Anglo-Indian pop-up restaurant in Pimlico: impressive looking and just a little exotic but fabulously easy to make even for large numbers. It is what I imagine the lucky Doonsters tuck into between innings outside the cricket pavilion, flopped onto the grass in the late afternoon sun.
1 pot (500g) full-fat Greek yoghurt (a good quality brand, like Fage)
1 pot (300 ml) crème fraiche
65g sifted icing sugar
A small pinch of saffron strands
½ tablespoon of milk
1 heaped teaspoon ground cardamom
6 pre-bought meringue nests
1 punnet of blueberries
1 punnet of raspberries
A small handful of lightly toasted pistachios, sliced into slivers
A small handful of dried rose petals
- Put the saffron in a little pan with the milk and warm it gently on a low heat for a couple of minutes. (You can do this in a microwave if you prefer – 15 seconds on a low power should be all you need or it will boil over and burn). The aim is just to encourage the saffron to release its flavour and colour. Set aside to cool.
- In a large bowl, fold together the Greek yoghurt and crème fraiche with a spatula or spoon. Add the icing sugar and fold in.
- Then add the saffron with milk and the ground cardamom. You can buy cardamom as a powder (ready to use) or as black seeds (which will need grinding) from ethnic stores and some supermarkets. Alternatively, patiently peel off the green husks from the whole spice and then ground the black seeds inside with a pestle and mortar. Fold the saffron and cardamom into the mixture. Do not overdo it, as it is nice to be able to see the streaks of saffron yellow against the white in the finished dish.
- Pour the yoghurt/crème fraiche mixture back into the pots they came in, and keep in the fridge until ready to use (it will keep happily for a week or more).
- When ready to serve, put a meringue nest onto individual serving plates (little tea saucers work well) – I keep it whole for a more elegant look rather than breaking into pieces as with a traditional mess. Put a generous dollop of the yoghurt mixture on top of each. Scatter over a few blueberries and raspberries (some of them halved) onto each.
- To finish, scatter over the emerald pistachios slivers and a few dried rose petals (or, if you like, some edible flowers – pansies, nasturtiums or violas). Serve straightway.