A large table, a tablecloth and a handful of appreciative companions to share the indulgence would be my starting points. Menu planning is essential, partly for maximum visual impact and ease of serving. Most of all, you need dishes which will hold their quality throughout a long lunch.
Grand platters and trays filled with colourful ingredients make eye-catching and mouthwatering backdrops for an al fresco afternoon but getting the dish construction right, so food stays fresh looking and appetising, is crucial. Avoid delicate leafy salad, for instance: minutes in vinaigrette is sufficient to render it a soggy, slimy mass. Instead, a bowl of feta, cubes of watermelon, flecks of mint and flaked almonds make a refreshing salad that will pass the test for keeping its looks and its flavours.
Keeping ingredients large, bold and robust also makes it simple for guests to help themselves. Sliced pink beef dappled with piquant salsa verde is a perennial favourite. A poached salmon covered with slivers of cucumber remains as classic as it is stunning. Large red peppers stuffed with golden couscous, perhaps studded with dark raisins, is a personal favourite. Cool, refreshing and lit up with bold colour, this is elegant outdoor dining designed to taste, and look, seductive, long after the dishes have been laid out for your guests.
Platter of calamari, roast red peppers, olives and coriander
3 red peppers
Olive oil, for cooking
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Leaves stripped from 3 or 4 bushy sprigs of thyme
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced as thinly as possible
250g calamari tails, cleaned, rinsed and cut into 3-4mm rings
1 large banana shallot, peeled
2dsstsp black pitted olives
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 large head of little gem lettuce
1dsstsp coriander leaf, chopped
1. With a swivel-head peeler, peel the skin from the peppers then cut each pepper lengthways into four or six, depending on size. Scoop out and discard the white pith and seeds then lay the peppers on a roasting tray. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with the thyme and toss well. Place in the oven at 180C/gas mark 4 and cook for about 15 minutes until soft but still firm, adding the garlic after 5 minutes. Stir the tray several times during cooking so the peppers roast evenly.
2. Meanwhile, rinse the calamari rings in a colander and stand to drain. Season with salt. Once the peppers seem soft, remove the tray from the oven and add the calamari, mixing well. Return the tray to the oven for 10 minutes before removing and allowing to cool. Refrigerate the peppers and calamari for now; you can prepare the dish to this point the day before.
3. To finish and serve, slice the shallot into rings as finely as possible and mix with the olives and lime zest. Squeeze the lime juice over the peppers and calamari. Cut the root off the little gem lettuce, pull the individual leaves apart and add them to the peppers and calamari. Add the olive and shallot mix and toss gently so that all the ingredients begin to combine together. Now sprinkle the chopped coriander over, drizzle a little oil all round and then give the mix a final gentle toss before arranging it neatly on a serving dish.
Salad of grilled aubergine, courgette, tomato and chilli with saffron yogurt dressing
For the dressing:
1 pinch saffron threads
3tbsp hot water
180g Greek yogurt
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Juice of 2 lemons
3-4tbsp olive oil
2 medium aubergines
1 pinch ground cumin
2 green courgettes
1-2 red chillis, according to preference
1dsstsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 handful of toasted pine nuts
1 punnet of cherry tomatoes, cut in halves
1. Make the saffron dressing in advance, since it can be refrigerated for up to three days. Place the saffron threads in a small bowl, cover with the hot water, add a pinch of salt and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Combine this with the remaining ingredients for the dressing, whisk thoroughly then store until needed.
2. Slice the aubergines lengthways into 2cm-thick pieces. Lay them on a baking tray, brush both sides with oil and season with salt and pepper and the ground cumin. Place in the oven at 200C/gas mark 6 for 25-30 minutes, turning once or twice, until soft and brown. These can be cooked a day in advance and refrigerated.
3. Slice the courgettes lengthways, no thicker than 5mm. Brush them on both sides with olive oil and season lightly with salt. In a cast-iron frying pan or a griddle pan, brown them on both sides. The thinness of the courgette slices means they will be done by the time they are browned. Cool on a tray and refrigerate until needed.
4. Cut the chillis in half lengthways, scoop out and discard the seeds, then cut the chillis into small dice and set aside.
5. To serve, remove all the ingredients from the fridge at least 20 minutes before serving. Sprinkle the parsley over the courgettes and aubergines then arrange them in overlapping waves on a large platter. Sprinkle the chillis over the vegetables then scatter on the pine nuts too. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Finally, scatter the cherry tomato halves around the platter, drizzle with the saffron dressing and serve at once.