From the Kitchen – Easy al Fresco

by Joan Saunders | photos by Kathryn Alvarez Photography – 

One of the wonderful things about this time of year is being able to relax at the beach, in the garden or at the park while spending time with family and friends. I find that in July the days just stretch out so gloriously, and I know that I need to take advantage of our warm West Coast weather before it slides away. The summer months, of course, inevitably include picnics.

Creating a lunch or dinner that can be enjoyed al fresco needn’t be difficult. It’s a fabulous opportunity to enjoy seasonally-inspired food and the bounty around us. The berries are ripening in waves, and fresh vegetables can be picked up at local markets and roadside stands. What I love to do is combine the elements of a meal into one option, so a savoury bread is a perfect choice. Laced with herbs and protein, this loaf is so simple and very transportable to wherever you choose to wander.

And watermelon salad? Not only is it gorgeous: it’s also so flavourful. Feta, mint and avocado are perfect companions to juicy watermelon and the lime in the dressing brings the mixture to life.

There are a few secrets to picking the best watermelon. You want to find one that’s symmetrical, not oddly shaped; as well, a melon that feels heavier than it looks is juicy and mature. Surprisingly, it should have a dull, dark skin. If the skin looks pale or shiny, it’s not quite there yet. And yes, go ahead and tap on the watermelon. A ripe and ready melon should resonate with a deeper sound.

Packing a picnic doesn’t have to be complicated. If you want to add more protein to the spread, throw in some ready-made quiches or sausage rolls. If you have a larger group to feed, add more salads – maybe Greek or potato. Just make sure you have a way to keep everything cool and that it can all be easily bundled up to take with you.

Of course, if you’re at home in the garden or on the deck, your options expand. Augment the menu with tomato bruschetta, cheese and olives. Gather inspiration from the vegetables at the market and see where that takes you. With some cookies or biscotti, fresh fruit and ice cream, you’ll be ready to sit back, relax and enjoy the very best that summer has to offer.

Savoury Ham, Thyme & Cheese Bread
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted then cooled
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped ham
4 tbsp thinly sliced green onions (can omit if you don’t like them)
1 1/2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 cups grated Gruyère or sharp cheddar cheese
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk

Heat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan; set aside until needed.

In large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda. Stir in chopped ham, green onions (if using), thyme and 1 ¾ cups of grated cheese. Reserve rest of cheese to use as topping.

In separate bowl, mix together melted butter, eggs, buttermilk. Add wet mixture to flour mixture; stir well to combine. Batter will be very thick.

Put batter in prepared loaf pan; spread it out evenly, smoothing out top. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top. Bake until top springs back when lightly pressed and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, 50-55 minutes.

Put pan on cooling rack for about 10 minutes. Then remove loaf from pan; let cool completely on rack.

A Taste of Summer Salad

2 tbsp olive oil
3 1/2 tbsp lime juice
1 garlic clove, minced fine
1/4 tsp sea salt

5 cups cubed, seedless watermelon (or use a melon baller to get fancy)
1 1/4 cups diced English cucumber
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 avocado, peeled, cubed
1/3 cup torn fresh mint or basil leaves (your choice)
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and thinly sliced (optional if you don’t like heat)
sea salt, pepper as desired

Dressing: in small bowl whisk together olive oil, lime juice, garlic, salt.

Arrange watermelon, cucumber, red onion on large platter. Drizzle with half the dressing. Top with feta, avocado, mint, jalapeno pepper (if using); drizzle with remaining dressing. Season to taste with salt, pepper.

If you are transporting this, keep dressing separate and put all the salad ingredients in an unbreakable container. Dress salad just before serving.

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