Living

Amanda De Jager Friedman: Return of alfresco dining

Foodies, it's time to celebrate!

Alfresco dining -- literally translated as fresh air dining -- is upon us in full bloom, as reflected by the budding basil plants, ambitious bumblebees, and young tomato plants, just beginning to blush with ripening fruit.

The summer's evening weather couldn't provide a more perfect atmosphere for dining and relaxing.

Whether you're lounging in a drugstore-bought lawn chair and rockin' out to a boom box, or enjoying fine wines in your deluxe patio kitchen, outdoor dining is an inherent element of the California lifestyle.

Alfresco dining has long been inspired by the Europeans.

In the cities of Spain, residents and tourists nibble tapas on rooftop terraces. In Paris, they literally move their kitchen tables to the sidewalks to enjoy drinking wine late into the evening. The Dutch begin their alfresco dining early in the day, with a strong cup of coffee and a pastry in the morning sunshine.

As a consumer, one can shell out dime after dollar at high-end houseware stores in an effort to create the perfect alfresco experience. But here's a little secret: If you've got a table and chairs (or even just chairs and an upside down milk crate, darn it), you can be an alfresco aficionado. Want to give it a shot?

Here are my five (unofficial) recommendations for California-style alfresco dining:

1. Play some music. There must be some background music to get the mood right before the sun goes down. An iPod dock with a custom playlist, a local radio station, or even your Uncle Cletus playing Hank Williams covers on his acoustic guitar will get everyone hootin' and cacklin' right off the bat.

2. Light up. Dig out some old strands of Christmas lights, find a few citronella candles, or buy some of those funky-cool paper lanterns. Soft outdoor lighting really creates an atmosphere, and the more you plan to dine outside, the more effort it's worth. Fishing string is a great tool for hanging lights from hard to reach places.

3. Take care of your lawn and garden. It is so much easier to relax when you can enjoy the aesthetics of a well manicured lawn. It doesn't mean your yard must be elaborate -- just neat. As far as I'm concerned, few things are more gratifying than an alfresco dinner following an afternoon of backyard elbow grease!

4. Simple food. Keep your meals easy and light. Use the freshest ingredients you can find, local are even better. Make the meal about the ingredients, not a rigid recipe. If you are using the BBQ, serve straight from the grill to eliminate extra dishes and hassle. Keep the drinks and plates you'll need outside so you don't have to go back and forth often.

5. Enjoy the process. Cooking and entertaining should be more therapeutic than arduous. Don't worry about having everything perfect before guests arrive. Take advantage of the long summer nights by slowing down and cooking together, laughing at one another, and showing off your stellar bocce ball skills.

These tips in mind, it should be simple as a summer breeze to get your alfresco dining season on a roll. Your backyard will be so much fun. Before you know it the whole neighborhood will be clamoring to get into your back gate, armed with all kinds of cool things from the grocery store's seasonal sale section: spray fans, potato chips, pool floaties and boxed wine.

Mozzarella tomato stacks with basil vinaigrette

6 vine ripened USA grown tomatoes

2 8-12oz balls of fresh mozzarella (fresh mozzarella is soft to the touch, very white in color, and is usually found in the gourmet cheese section of the market. Do not use low moisture or part-skim mozzarella)

6 small portabella mushrooms, stems removed (sometimes called baby bellas)

3 cups fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 cup good olive oil

1 cup balsamic vinegar

3 cloves of garlic

Salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

To be done ahead of time -- pour balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Stirring occasionally, allow balsamic vinegar to reduce by at least half, until it begins to thicken slightly, or about 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Meanwhile, add basil leaves, white wine vinegar, Dijon, olive oil, and a pinch of salt together in a blender. Blend until thoroughly combined. Both the balsamic reduction and the basil vinaigrette can be made a day ahead and stored in the fridge.

Slice tomatoes and mozzarella with a very sharp serrated knife into even 3/4 inch thick slices. You will need 12 slices of each.

Preheat grill to medium heat. Coat mushrooms in olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place mushrooms on hot grill with the stem side down. Grill on this side for about 5 minutes.

Flip mushrooms over, and place one slice of mozzarella inside of each mushroom cap. Close the grill lid for 3-4 minutes, allowing mozzarella to melt. This will create an even base for the stacks, and will impart a bit of a smoky flavor to the cheese.

Remove mushrooms to a platter using a metal spatula. Top each mushroom with a tomato slice, then another mozzarella slice, and finally the last tomato slice.

Pour the basil vinaigrette over the stacks, and, using a small spoon, drizzle a bit of balsamic reduction around the plate. Serve, alfresco of course, with a barely chilled bottle of your favorite red table wine.

Serves 6 as a side dish and 3-4 as a main course.

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