Cooking School

Yum! Dining alfresco

By: Gabrielle Bright

Author: Canadian Living

Cooking School

Yum! Dining alfresco

By: Gabrielle Bright

One of the best ways to enjoy our fabulous Canadian summers is to move the meal outdoors and dine al fresco. Eating outside is one of the hottest summer food trends as stylish and efficient barbeques become like a second kitchen on the back deck and light, spacious coolers make it easy to pack it all up and take the feast on the road.

Casual cocktails
A backyard barbecue is the perfect atmosphere for casual summer entertaining. People love to graze (particularly during hot weather when appetites are diminished), enjoying small tastes of many different foods. Two-bite skewers of chicken, meat or vegetables naturally lend themselves to this type of party, plus, they can be trimmed, marinated and arranged on sticks ahead of time, then grilled fresh and passed when your guests arrive. If made small, they cook quickly and take up little room on the barbecue so several types can be grilled at once.

Since marinated foods taste best when made at least several hours (and usually up to one day) ahead, take advantage and arrange the food on skewers when you marinade so it is ready to use. Store each type of skewer in separate long, covered plastic containers that stack neatly in the refrigerator (and then in an ice-filled cooler beside the barbecue) so they are ready to pull out and use at party time. When grilling, section off the barbecue for each type and don't combine uncooked foods on the same plate.

Be sure to also have several interesting dips with cut vegetables and broken-up flatbread for guests to help themselves while the hot foods are grilling. And, when passing skewered treats, have a glass on the tray for those pesky empty sticks that no one knows what to do with.

For a little added sparkle, serve a round of fruity low-alcohol cocktails at the start of the evening. One special cocktail is all you need to create the mood without setting up a full bar outside. Make your life easy and mix-up a big batch in a pitcher to keep at the bar and pour for guests as they arrive. Don't forget a fun summery garnish -- a few fresh berries, knots of citrus rind or ice cubes with frozen mint make the drink extra special. For tasty make-ahead recipes, check out 14 easy appetizers and pitchers of pleasure.

Dinner on the deck
For a smaller, more intimate affair, set your patio table with proper china (not the plastic stuff), wine glasses, linens and a bouquet of fresh flowers from the garden and enjoy an elegant dinner on the deck. Start with your favourite bottle of well-chilled rosé or Riesling wine, then sit-down for a market-inspired dinner of seasonal produce, such as a beautiful tossed salad, grilled vegetables and a homemade fruit tart for dessert.

The elegance of al fresco dining is not a show-stopping entrée but lots of fresh produce presented with flair -- a slice of Buffalo mozzarella cheese slipped between heritage tomatoes, a drizzle of aged Sherry vinegar over grilled peppers or a bowl of fresh berries sprinkled with chocolate mint. If you have fresh herbs in the garden, play restaurateur and use small bunches to garnish your plates and drinks.

Family-size steaks, pork tenderloins or a whole fish are great choices if you don't mind grilling once your guests have arrived. But, if you prefer to have it all ready ahead, a cold supper of poached chicken or fish may be a better choice. For more ideas, check out our dinner on the deck.

Page 1 of 4 -- Planning for a perfect picnic? Essential tips on page 2

We can't control the weather but we can control the temperature of our food and prevent foodborne illness. Bacteria can grow in the danger zone of 4°C to 60°C (40°F to 140°F) after only two hours so, hot food must be kept hot (above 60°C/140°F) and cold food must be kept cold (below 4°C/40°F) or it can become dangerous. Getting hot food to the picnic site can be difficult, so keep it cold instead and cook (or reheat) once you get there.

If you want to pack up your meal and take it to the great outdoors, here are six tips from Health Canada to keep the food in your cooler safe:

• Transport perishable food in a cooler at or below 4°C (40°F). Since loose ice and bags of ice cubes can melt and transfer contaminants from one food to another, store everything in sealed containers to prevent cross-contamination. Or, use lots of freezer ice packs instead.

• Frozen juice boxes make excellent ice packs for small freezer bags or coolers and the slushy juice can be drunk once it thaws.

• Refrigerate or freeze food the day before you pack it so it's already cold when you put it in the cooler.

• Place your cooler in the coolest part of your vehicle while travelling. On hot days, use the car's air conditioning to help keep the food cool.

• Once you get there, keep the cooler out of the sun and the lid closed. It helps to have two coolers -- one for drinks (since it will be opened more often) and another for food.

• Keep raw and cooked food in separate containers. Pack raw meat and poultry in sealed containers on the bottom of the cooler to keep their juices from dripping onto other food.

• Wash and sanitize your cooler before and after each trip and pack two sets of utensils and two cutting boards -- one set for raw food and the other for ready-to-eat or cooked food.

When is my food ready to eat?
Use a food thermometer to prevent foodborne illness and protect against overcooking. Precook and chill meat at home when possible, and reheat at the picnic site to 74°C (165°F) or cook raw foods to the following internal temperatures:

Beef, veal steaks and roasts: 63°C (145°F) medium-rare; 71°C (160°F) medium; 77°C (170°F) well done

Pork chops, tenderloins, ribs and roasts: 71°C (160°F)

Ground meat (beef, pork, veal and sausages): 71°C (160°F)

Ground chicken, turkey and poultry sausages: 74°C (165°F)

Whole chicken and turkey, breasts, legs, thighs and wings: 85°C (185°F)

For recipes, check out our Midsummer's eve picnic and The perfect picnic menus.

Page 2 of 4 -- Keep cool this summer with the tasty treats on page 3.

As the thermometer rises, we all look for ways to beat the heat. This collection of our favourite hot weather foods is sure to help keep the kitchen (and the chef) stay cool during the dog days of summer.

Barbecuing is not just for weekends anymore. Quick and easy dishes can be made entirely on the grill (especially if you have a side burner for boiling pasta water or blanching vegetables).

For meals in 30 minutes or less, choose thinner cuts of meat such as pork chops, scaloppini or medallions of beef or lamb and serve a simple side like rice or couscous with steamed or grilled vegetables. For more ideas see 5 beat-the-heat barbecues.

Everyone's summer standard -- burgers -- are the most versatile summer food. You can spruce them up for company by using veal or lamb or stuffing them with cheese, mushrooms or caramelized onions. But the standard burger with ketchup and mustard can also be a weeknight dinner lifeline. Though burgers take only minutes to assemble, for even more convenience make big batches on weekends to freeze and have ready in a pinch for a quick mid-week meal. For burger ideas, plain or fancy, see our very best burger recipe collection.

If you want to give the barbecue a break, try a satisfying main-course salad. Summer supper salads or chilled Asian cool noodles are fresh but filling suppers that are even suitable for company, either on their own or as part of a larger menu. Likewise, a sandwich loaded with fresh vegetables, meat and cheese can be the perfect weeknight supper solution. For something special, try a panini -- a grilled Italian sandwich often made on foccacia or panini buns then pressed between hot grill plates. You can make our versions of panini recipes in your panini maker. Or, use a grill pan or the barbeque and press down the sandwich with a heavy frying pan.

Desserts for family and friends can only mean one thing: ice cream. Save the cake and pie baking for cooler weather and whip up some cool and refreshing Ice dreams desserts or Chill out ice-cream sandwiches instead. Made with your favourite flavours of ice cream and other store-bought ingredients, only assembly is required for hot-night desserts or anytime treats.

For more outdoor dining, check out some of our other summer-friendly menus:

Cool cuisine Beat the heat with our summer-perfect dishes.

Come one, come all! Our block party menu for 12 could start an annual neighbourhood tradition.

Patio party Invite guests to sit, share and savour a make-ahead menu that celebrates summer.

Page 3 of 4 -- Eager to get grilling? We have 50 mouth-watering hamburger recipes on page 4!

There's definitely something for every palate in our exhaustive list of bugers and fixings. Explore chicken, beef, bison, pork and veggie options below.

All beef
Mediterranean Burgers
Salsa Burgers
California Roll Burgers with Wasabi Mayonnaise
Tasty Extra-Lean Burgers
Beef Burgers with Basil Mayonnaise
Onion Dijon Burgers
Smoky Barbecue Burgers
Gourmet Gorgonzola Burgers
Meat Loaf Burgers
The Best Beef Burgers
Blockbuster Burger Bites
Deli Beef and Vegetable Sandwich Burger
The Best Beef Burger with Toppings
The Basic Burger
Sausage Burger
Rebel House Buffalo Burger
Green Pepper Burgers
Chili Cheddar Burgers with Salsa
Cheddar Burgers
Hot Asian Burgers
French Onion Burgers
Fajita Burgers
Cheddar Onion Burgers
Horseradish Burgers
Chili Burgers
Great Burgers
The Living Room Restaurant's Alberta Beef Burger
Juicy Herb Burger

Curried Lentil Burgers with Coriander Yogurt
Mushroom Cheddar Vegetarian Burgers
Bison Burgers
Vegetarian Hummus Burgers
Vegetarian Chickpea Burgers
Bulgur and Mushroom Burgers
Chick-pea Burgers
Bean Burgers with Coriander Cream

Salsa Chicken Burgers
Chicken Burgers with Tomato Relish
Lemony Chicken Burgers
The Canuck Cluck Grilled Chicken Burger

Sage Apple Pork Burgers with Caramelized Onions
Caribbean Pork Burgers with Mango Salsa
Green Onion Pork Burgers
Teriyaki Pork Burgers

Rosemary Lamb Burgers with Jalapeño Mayonnaise
Herb and Spice Lamb Burgers

Turkey Burgers with Sautéed Mushrooms
Chipotle Turkey Burgers

Tuna Burgers
Fish Burgers with Light Tartar Sauce

Read more:
The great Canadian grill guide
Rhubarb Lemonade
Lemon Orangade

Check out: Entertaining Food Menus & Collections

Page 4 of 4 -- On page 1, find everything you need to know about laidback, backyard entertaining, including menus and drink recipes.

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Cooking School

Yum! Dining alfresco