Simple summer outdoor dining

What a hot, dry summer we've had so far in the UK! While many of us have found it overwhelming, there's no denying one of the joys of the warm weather is eating al fresco in the evening, as the light fades and the heat subsides. Writer and maker Claire Holland, who recently launched her lifestyle blog Paper Thin Moon, shares some simple styling ideas as well as four delicious dishes to serve for a relaxed summer meal.

outdoor summer dining styling and recipes

I often sit in the garden at this time of year and ask myself, what would it be like sitting here on this patch of grass under the apple tree during the winter months.  The truth is, I can’t imagine it.  We live through such long periods of the year when it’s too cold to sit and relax outside that it’s easy to forget how glorious the summer months can be. Walking barefoot on grass, reading beneath the shade of a tree, and the warm glow of the early evening sun on your skin all very quickly become distant memories once winter comes around. If I ever need to remind myself to live in the moment, it’s during the summer months that I find it easiest. It’s the perfect time for slowing down, being with friends and family, celebrating togetherness and good food, and taking in as much sunshine as possible before the autumn leaves begin to fall.

outdoor summer dining styling and recipes

In deepest summer, I try and eat every meal outdoors. When there’s time - usually at the weekends when the days are more lazy and carefree - I like to take the dining table out into the garden and style up our outdoor space for a relaxed summer soiree, creating an atmosphere that’s cosy and a little bit magical. The trick when dining outside in the evening is to keep the colours of your linens and accessories light and bright.  That way, once the sun starts to set you can see what you’re doing more easily as any available light bounces off them. The dusty pink table cloth here is from H&M, and I picked up the faded grey napkins from Closet & Botts. The pale blue side plates are recent buys from the John Lewis “Jaipur” range. The white ones did have a pattern on them when first bought, but over the years it’s been completely faded by the dishwasher, leaving them plain and boring.  I achieved the 'splatter' look by flicking multi-surface gold paint on to them with an old toothbrush.

summer outdoor dining styling and recipes

Soft lighting is what makes a dinner table and, of course, lighting is key when eating outdoors at night. Inside, I always err on the dark side when lighting a room, but it’s disconcerting not to be able to see what you’re eating once the light starts to fade, or the faces of the people sitting opposite you. As soon as the sun starts to set, we switch on the overhead festoon bulbs (ours are the extendable version from Cox & Cox), and light the candles on the table to create a soft, warm glow. Once the moon is high in the sky, the solar lanterns (Ikea finds) hanging from the tree start to come on one by one, adding ambient light and a magical feel.

summer outdoor dining styling and recipes

Flowers are non-negotiable on any dining table as far as I’m concerned. The searing heat and lack of rain has left my garden parched and overgrown. The delphiniums, lupins and foxgloves were over weeks ago, but the climbing roses are starting to bloom for the second time this year, and I added some of those to my arrangements. I also utilised the flowering dill, mint blossom and the small blooms of late flowering purple hydrangeas from my garden, supplementing them with florist-bought waxflower, stocks and alliums, and grasses picked from the hedgerows. 

summer outdoor dining styling and recipes

Naturally, it’s not my favourite time to be in the kitchen but it’s always a joy to celebrate the season with dishes that are perfect for summer dining.  Fresh fig and goats cheese salad, slow roasted tomato and asparagus tart, soft peppers stuffed with fennel, and a chicory and fennel salad served with a zingy anchovy and lemon dressing were the simple dishes on the menu. During this long, hot summer of ours, I’m all about keeping the food fresh and light. Serve with a loaf of rye sourdough, and plenty of chilled Sancerre, and you’ve got a table fit for a feast. 

  Roasted red peppers stuffed with fennel and tomato

RECIPES (all serve 4) 

Roasted red peppers stuffed with fennel and tomato

Ingredients:

  • 4 red peppers
  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 6 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 400g tin of whole plum tomatoes
  • A teaspoon of coriander seeds
  • Half a teaspoon of fennel seeds
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Method: Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 4, 180C. Cut the tops off the fennel and cut the bulbs into quarters and then into eights, being careful to try and keep the layers together as much as possible.  Blanch for five minutes in a pan of boiling water. Set aside to cool. Slice the peppers in half with a sharp knife, cutting through the green ends and leaving them intact (you wont be eating them but it looks nice). Remove the seeds then lay the peppers on a baking tray. Drain the plum tomatoes and divide them equally between the peppers. Toast the seeds for a few minutes in a frying pan over a low heat to help release the flavours, then crush them in a pestle and mortar. Arrange the segments of fennel in the pepper and sprinkle fennel and coriander seed powder over the top and then drizzle with the oil. Season and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for one hour.

  Fig, Prosciutto, and Spinach Salad with Chèvre and Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette

Fig, prosciutto, and spinach salad with chèvre and preserved lemon vinaigrette

Ingredients for the salad: 

  • Pack of baby spinach leaves
  • 70g flaked almonds, toasted
  • 450g fresh figs, quartered
  • 115g fresh cherries
  • 115g blueberries
  • 115g chèvre (hard goats cheese). I used the delicious St Helen’s Farm hard goats cheese.
  • 55g prosciutto, thinly sliced

Ingredients for the dressing: 

  • 1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon peel
  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  •  1 1/4  teaspoons of honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 sea salt

Method: For the preserved lemon vinaigrette, whisk together the lemon rind, oil, vinegar, honey and salt until completely combined. Toss the salad ingredients together in a large bowl. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and toss gently to coat. Serve immediately. {This recipe is from the book “First We Eat” by Eva Cosmos Flores, published by Abrams} 

  Roasted tomato and asparagus tart

Roasted tomato and asparagus tart

Ingredients for the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 100g chilled butter, diced
  • A couple of tablespoons of water
  • A pinch of salt

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 400g cherry tomatoes
  • 400g asparagus
  • A few spring onions or one leek, sliced
  • 3 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons of double cream
  • The zest of half a lemon
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 50g parmesan

Method: Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 1/2, 120C. Sift the flour into a large bowl, add the butter and rub together with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the salt, and water if necessary and mix to a firm dough, firstly with a butter knife and then with your hands. Knead the dough on a floured surface. Put in the fridge to chill while you make the filling.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and arrange on a baking tray. Season and drizzle with olive oil. Bake them in the oven for approximately 50 minutes. Break the hard ends off the asparagus then blanch it in boiling water for 3 or 4 minutes. Plunge the asparagus into a bowl of chilled water, then lift it out and set to one side. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, cream, lemon juice and rind, parmesan and dijon mustard. Season to taste. Take the pastry from the fridge and roll out on a floured surface. Place the pastry in a 25cm tart case, leaving an overhang of approximately 5cm round the edge. Use remnants of the pastry rolled into a small ball to gently pad the rolled out pastry into the corners of the tin. In a separate oven (or once the tomatoes are ready, take them out and turn up the heat) blind bake the pastry case for 20 minutes at gas mark 3, 170C. 

While the pastry is cooking, fry the leeks or spring onions in a tablespoon of olive oil for around five minutes. Add some sprigs of thyme and fry for another five minutes and then take off the heat. Remove the baking beans from the pastry case and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Trim the edges of the pastry case. Put the onions/leeks on the bottom of the pastry case and then arrange the asparagus spears on top. Add the egg and cream mixture carefully and then scatter the tomatoes on top of the mixture (they may sink a little). Bake for another 20 minutes, watching it so that it doesn’t overcook around the edges. Check the tart is ready by poking a wooden or metal skewer into the middle. If the skewer comes out clean, the tart filling is set.

  Chicory & fennel salad with lemon & anchovy dressing

Chicory & fennel salad with lemon & anchovy dressing

Ingredients:

  • 1 bulb of fennel (remove the tops and set aside)
  • 2 heads of red chicory
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
  • The juice and zest of half a lemon
  • 2 cloves of crushed garlic
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Method: Whizz up the oil, vinegar, garlic, lemon and anchovy fillets in a blender. Thinly slice the fennel and chicory and arrange in a bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and decorate with frilly fronds from the fennel tops.

summer outdoor dining styling and recipes

Styling: Claire Holland / Photography: Charlie Bibby: www.paperthinmoon.com

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