Dining Al Fresco to Beat the Heat

When mid-summer rolls around, the temperatures in Colorado can soar to uncomfortable highs, leaving residents feeling wilted and lethargic. The last thing you feel like doing when the heat becomes oppressive is turning on your oven or slaving over your stove to prepare a meal for family or friends. Luckily, in Colorado we enjoy lower temperatures in the evenings—which are also relatively free of bugs—making our state the perfect place for outdoor dining.

    Although escaping the heat of the kitchen might be your primary motivation for dining outdoors, those who take advantage of the opportunity to take it to the patio know that al fresco dining provides an ambience unlike any other. Dining outdoors allows us to enjoy not only the food and companionship of our friends and family, but also the beauty that surrounds us in our gardens and yards. You can take advantage of that when setting the table for your meal by using brightly colored linens that will offset any flowers nearby. Or choose a neutral tablecloth and fill the table with small jars or vases of flowers clipped from your yard. Setting the table with quality tableware will make the evening feel special, but for a more casual affair—and if you’re planning on including young children—go ahead and use paper plates and tablecloths, opting for something brightly colored and fun for the occasion. If the sun hasn’t set yet, make sure to offer shade to your guests. And if it’s after dusk, use lots of votive candles to provide mood lighting.

    As you select foods for your feast, think room temperature. Many foods taste just as good or even better at room temperature than they do when served piping hot—salmon and beef are two perfect examples, and since both can be prepared on the grill, you can leave the heat of your kitchen behind. Lighter fare is also more welcome in the summer. Salads, vegetables and fish all leave us satiated without feeling over-stuffed, and that helps us stay comfortable in the heat. Also, fresh vegetables just taste better when they are in season, so take advantage of what’s being harvested right here in Colorado.

    When planning your al fresco menu, keep it simple. Choose dishes that can be prepared in advance or quickly to avoid running back and forth to the kitchen. Focus on just a few dishes to create a meal so the cook can also enjoy the evening. And don’t forget cool beverages—chilled white and rose wines, iced tea and lemonade, and summer favorites such as margaritas and mojitos are all fun and refreshing during the summer.

    Here are three dishes that can be quickly prepared, paired with a nice chilled beverage, and enjoyed at room temperature for a simple yet delicious al fresco dinner. Take advantage of our summer weather and dine outside while you can!

Heirloom Tomato Salad
Serves 6

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, variety of colors (although any tomatoes will do)
1 large red onion, sliced thinly
2 cups croutons, garlic
8 ounces crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese

Combine vinegar, mustard, oil, salt and pepper in a small covered container and shake well to combine. Cut tomatoes into wedges and combine with onion, croutons and cheese. Add desired amount of dressing and toss to combine. Allow to sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes for flavors to meld before serving.

Tarragon Potato Salad
Serves 4

2 pounds new potatoes, red or white variety
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 shallot, minced
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste

Scrub potatoes and cut into one-inch wedges or cubes. Cover with cold water in a large pot and bring to a boil; cook just until potatoes can be pierced with the tip of a knife, about 15 minutes. Drain and place in refrigerator to cool slightly. Mix together mayonnaise, vinegar, shallot, mustard, and celery salt. When potatoes have cooled slightly, toss potatoes gently with dressing, then add tarragon and toss to combine. Salt and pepper to taste, then refrigerate until cool or serve immediately.

Salmon with Herbs
Serves 4

2 pounds salmon fillets, skin removed
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tablespoons melted butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste

Lay two sheets of aluminum foil large enough to wrap the salmon filets on top of each other. Place salmon filets on top of the foil and squeeze juice from the lemon over the top. Drizzle melted butter or olive oil over fish, then sprinkle liberally with the fresh herbs. Season with salt and pepper, and then wrap salmon completely in the foil, sealing the edge tightly with a double fold.

Place foil-wrapped salmon on a medium heat grill and cook for about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand another 10 minutes before opening the foil. Serve immediately, at room temperature, or refrigerate and serve chilled.

About the author: Michele Morris leads cooking dinner parties and teaches private and group cooking classes for both kids and adults. For more great recipes, cooking tips, and resources, visit her website cookingwithmichele.com.

Categories: Entertaining, Landscaping & Gardening, Recipes