Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dining Alfresco


It's finally the season in Chicago for taking meals in the glorious outdoors;  what we call 'dining alfresco'.  The term is originally thought to be from the Italian and meaning in the cool, fresh open air.  It's a term fondly thought of at least as far back as the late 18th century as noted in Mrs. Eliza Haywood's History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy: "It was good for her ladyship's health to be thus alfresco."   It's good for my health too... mental as much as physical, after a long, cold Chicago winter.

E Phillips Fox - Al Fresco
There is simply nothing so splendid as a bright blue sky, a summer breeze and a glorious garden on a summer afternoon for taking your meal.  The American novelist, Henry James, wrote "Summer afternoon ~ summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”  If you're from the south you may have a different perspective, but up here in the north those glorious summer afternoon meals on a patio, balcony, porch or under the shade of an old tree cannot be beat.

William Logsdail - Venetion Al-Fresco
Of course there are many ways to dine alfresco.  Don't we all enjoy a picnic or even a leisurely meal taken upon the water?  Apparrently the Venetion's do!  While I certainly love both, today I'm talking about simply dining on our garden patio.  When we moved into this home it was new and the builder had not included a garden patio, but only doors that opened onto a lawn.  We had a large paver-stone patio installed, big enough for both an umbrella-covered dining table as well as a lounging area for cocktails, appetizers and to rest and let the food digest after a good summer dinner.  Our garden is secluded and heavily planted, and often after dinner we find our guests enjoy a stroll around grounds in bare feet where toes feel refreshed in the soft green grass and the smell of the rose garden is enchanting.

When preparing these summer meals I prefer the uncomplicated, using fresh ingredients and highlighting their natural flavors.  While my tomatoes are still not ripe (I have three varieties planted), I did find some wonderful specimens at my local Italian grocers.  He also carries a wonderful selection of various types of fresh mozzerlla cheese, and when I combined these with some of my own garden-fresh basil, I had a splendid first course.  I let them warm in the summer sun, then sliced and drizzled them with some good olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of sugar and they were ready to enjoy.  As you can see by the plate here, they were nearly a meal unto themselves!

For the main course, I just grilled up some jumbo shrimp which is really one of the most simple and delicious things you can prepare on the grill.  I skewer them together tightly, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and a little bit of sugar to help with browning.  A few minutes on the grill and a single turn and they are ready to serve.  I  also put a little butter, garlic and white wine in a little pan and let that sauté on the grill.  At the very end I added a bit of fresh basil finely chopped for some more 'summer flavor'.  You can serve the grilled shrimp as is, or you put them over pasta, using the garlic butter for pasta sauce.
Wrapping up the meal, I had previously prepared a custard fruit tart.  If you make custard filling regularly, as I do, you find it is easy and reliable.  Quickly preparing a pastry shell and filling it with your custard provides the base for those fresh early-summer berries.  You can use any soft flavorful fruit, then glaze it with warmed jam or a citrus gelatin.  I made this early in the morning and it stayed cool in the refrigerator until we were ready for dessert.

We enjoy a meal like this with a good rosé wine that serves well cold.  Outdoors in the summer we tend to avoid heavy, warm red wines, but often find many of the whites don't hold up as well to the bolder flavors we serve.  And with our dessert, a nice vintage port followed by a cup of good coffee finishes off the meal.
Claude Monet - Le degeuner sur l'herbe 1865-1866
Whatever you choose to serve on these glorious summer days, I'm sure you'll agree that all of it tastes better when dining alfresco! 
Bon appétit!

1 comment:

  1. I love all of the images you've used in this post, and I agree, fining outside on a lovely day does make everything taste better. To my way of thinking, eating outside on a lovely patio (and not in the bug filled woods!) is the way to go.

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