Alfresco Dining

Words and Images Fiona Hugues

In Italian, the expression al fresco usually refers to spending time in jail, and to be perfectly honest there’s always a few types about that aren’t as keen as I to dine outdoors on a balmy day. Unfortunately, the karma wrapped around their dire party pooping attitude almost immediately summons giant clouds of pint sized Dracula-esque ravishing mosquitos and aerial assaults of dive-bombing blowflies whenever, wherever they are reluctantly seated. However, I’m rather persuasive when it comes to the importance of gathering together these days, so I make it an act of course to have citronella candles burning and bug spray at the ready so said reluctants are less likely to abstain in joining me for fabulous feasting outdoors. (Throw rugs and a firepit are a good idea too if dining late into the evening, as undoubtedly they’ll whinge about getting cold too.)

Gratefully, most of my invited kindred folk are delighted to dine with me ‘aperto’, as Italians prefer to call it (translated to ‘in the open air’) and these recipes are a few of my staples for sharing on those lovely days when you’re deliciously loitering outdoors with friends, bon vivant style drinking and eating simply when the desire takes your fancy. They’re all relatively quick to prepare, so in the morning when the weather looks good, there’s nothing to stop you seizing the best part of the day with the people you love (and not so much).

Panzanella All-In-One on Stracciatella

I frigging love panzanella, that oily vinegar soaked sourdough gets me every time. I could eat it daily in the summer when tomatoes are great, and it is first on my list to make when friends come to visit, as she’s simple to prepare, likeable, great on her own and even better with a grilled protein of any kind. But here’s the thing – it’s a pretty straight forward boring recipe that probably many of you would know, so I’ve removed the mundane expected and given it a bit of a swank up by nestling it on a bed of creamy stracciatella and punching it out with a vibrant basil oil. The real update is in slightly charring your sourdough in the style of a woodfired al forno, which adds glorious bitter caramel notes. I mimic this by whacking slices in the toaster for a little too long and breaking them into bite-sized bits.

I small red onion, finely sliced
a medley of ripe tomatoes, around 3 cups (I used 4 large heirloom and a bunch of various cherries)
¼ cup or more of sherry vinegar
3-4 slices day-old sourdough bread, sliced and heavily toasted, broken into bite-sized bits
a tiny bit of crushed garlic
1 packed cup fresh basil, with a few pretty leaves reserved
½ cup extra virgin olive oil, with extra to drizzle
½-1 tbsp of chardonnay or white wine vinegar
a handful of olives (I used small green Spanish ones)
1 x 200g pot of stracciatella (or use a whole burrata or a mozzarella ball torn and drizzled with a little fresh cream)
flaky sea salt & fresh ground pepper

Slice your red onion and let it sit in a bowl of cold water for a bit – this softens the sharpness.

So here’s the swanky trick I learnt from a chef friend. Take your largest reddest tomato and, using an old style cheese grater, grate the flesh into a bowl. This leaves behind the skin to get rid of and gives you a crimson slop of the most wonderful thing to make your bread saucy. Add to this the sherry vinegar and a decent sprinkle of salt. Have a taste, adjust seasoning then proceed to throw in your medley of chopped tomatoes. Give it a toss, add your almost burnt bread bits and toss again to get everything to really know each other. Set aside, and while this sits, make the basil oil.

Place the basil leaves, oil, a smidgen of crushed garlic, a touch of chardonnay vinegar in a blender and blitz until it’s smooth and bright green. Taste and adjust seasoning. It will keep in the fridge for a week.

When ready to serve – throw the olives and drained onions in with your tomato bread mixture, drizzle over a little olive oil and toss to combine. Arrange the stracciatella on a serving platter and then plonk on the tomato mixture. Drizzle the lot in basil oil and throw over the pretty basil leaves to decorate. Add some olive oil and another shower of seasoning if you’re that way inclined, like me, and serve immediately.


(A rude sounding Salty Summer Tart)

Sometimes I’m sure my Frenchman would rather stab a fork in his own eye than eat a slice of my traditional pissaladière, a rather rudely sounding pizza-like tart native to France. It’s the anchovies. He detests them even though they melt to a wondrous gentle umami taste. If only I could convince him to indulge in such a delightful pie. The sweet onions and creamy olives are a good balance of flavours and it’s a great salty thing to have with a glass of something cold and lovely. C’est la vie, more for me.


3 tbsp butter
8 medium brown onions, peeled and cut into wedges
¼ cup capers, drained
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1–2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 packet ready rolled flaky pastry (I used Paneton, available from Vetro and La Cave)
1 beaten egg for egg wash
flaky sea salt & fresh ground pepper
1 tin anchovies, around 18 (use the best you can get your hands on. I used Ortiz)
approx. ½ cup olives, pitted (I used a mix of kalamata and green Nocellara Sicilian. Smash them with the bottom of a heavy glass to easily remove the pits)

In a fry pan over medium heat add the butter, onions, capers and garlic. Season well and sauté until softened and slightly caramelised, around 20 minutes. When they are almost done, throw in the vinegar and fresh thyme. Toss and set aside to cool slightly.

Preheat your oven to 180°C fan bake. Lay your pastry on a lined baking tray and prick the bottom with a fork, leaving a clear inch around the outside to make your edge. Brush the edge with beaten egg.

Spread the onion mix onto the pricked area and then lay the anchovies in lines (traditional criss-cross or whatever takes your fancy) followed by the olives.

Bake in the oven until puffed and golden, around 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Herby Cucumber, Grape and Avocado Salad

Continuing culinary aversions and detesting certain ingredients, fruit in salad is not done easily either by a fickle few, and I think I’ve mentioned it before. Despite the unwillingness the sweet crunchy pop of fruit with vinegary veg is what I do more often than not. This time cool cucumbers and creamy avocados are met with sharp shallots and sweet green grapes, which when showered in herbs and grassy olive oil is simply sensationally summer in a bowl.

2 shallots, finely sliced
¼ cup good white wine vinegar (chardonnay if you have it)
1 tsp sugar
1 large avocado, chopped
1 cup or so of green grapes, some halved
3–4 Lebanese cucumbers, chopped
1 medium telegraph cucumber, seeded and haphazardly chopped
extra virgin olive oil (use your best)
⅓ cup fresh dill, roughly chopped
fresh mint leaves, some chopped some whole
flaky sea salt & fresh ground pepper

Place the sliced shallots in a small bowl, sprinkle over the sugar and the vinegar. Microwave on high for one minute and set aside to cool.

Combine all the other ingredients, throw in the cooled shallots and toss. Drizzle decently with good olive oil and season well. Serve on its own with crusty bread or alongside BBQ meats. Adding crumbled chèvre, ricotta or fromage fraise is also a smashing time.

One Hour Sweet Summer Galette

This is one of the quickest, easiest summertime sweet things to prepare and it always looks divine. I religiously keep frozen pastry in the freezer for moments like these when there’s a glut of fruit. Use whatever fruit you have heaps of. I used nectarines and cherries but apples, berries, rhubarb and stonefruit all work well. Mix it up and get creative.

6–7 nectarines, pitted and sliced
handful of cherries
1 tbsp cornflour
approx. 1 cup golden caster sugar
½ cup whole roasted almonds (or peeled roasted hazelnuts])
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 sweet shortcrust pastry sheet (I used Paneton)
1 beaten egg for egg wash
2 tbsp butter

Preheat the oven to 190°C.

Add the sliced nectarines to a bowl and sprinkle over the cornflour and three tablespoons of the sugar. Toss to coat.

In a processor add the almonds, 2 tablespoons of the sugar and cinnamon and blitz to make a breadcrumb type consistency.

Lay the pastry on a lined baking tray and trim to make a rough circle the size of a large diner plate. (I freeze the excess pastry to make smaller ones later.)

Leaving a clear 1 inch edge around the outside, sprinkle the nut mixture onto the pastry.

Arrange the chopped nectarines and tuck the cherries on top.

Fold the edge of the pastry border over, crimping around the outside.

Brush the edge of the pastry with egg wash and dot the butter over the top of the fruit. Sprinkle the whole lot with the remaining sugar and bake for 30 minutes or until the pastry is cooked.

Serve on its own, or with clotted cream or vanilla ice cream.


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