Food for the great outdoors


Why does food taste better when it is eaten outside? Like that holiday bottle of rosé, it’s about mood and memory. Here are some summer dishes to be enjoyed en plein air, writes DOMINI KEMP

IF TIME, MONEY AND weather had no bearing, what would be in your favourite picnic basket? For some, a chilled bottle of wine, lovely hunks of bread and cheese and maybe a few grapes or other berries that are somewhere between ripe and ruin would be their ideal picnic. For others, salads such as chicken coronation, potato salad and a Greek salad – hardy and vibrant – are perfect companions. Most agree lemonade would be ideal.

But something as simple as a cheese and ham sandwich and a bag of good crisps, washed down with something fizzy, can taste magnificent when eaten al fresco. There are glory days when an ice-cream is all you need. Why such variation? Probably because eating outdoors is a cognitive thing: memories of childhood days, the feeling of whimsy freeing us from the shackles of our homes – and the kitchen table – all play a part in our enjoyment.

Food doesn’t actually taste better when eaten outside, but our appreciation of it may be different. Think how lovely a glass of chilled rosé can taste when on holiday somewhere sunny. Open up that same bottle on a dreary day in November and you simply won’t have the same enjoyment, even though it is the same bottle of wine. It’s the setting and mood that influence our enjoyment.

But, as we all know, the excitement of a picnic is so often divorced from the reality of soggy food and tepid drinks, leaving a trail of sticky surfaces and intrusive insects. Panic about the sun is swiftly followed by a generous slathering of sun block that inevitably comes into contact with your glass or sandwich, coating each bite and sip of your lunch with a fowl taste that you can’t get rid of. Suddenly, you’re longing to go home.

But, I live in hope that one day I’ll enjoy the perfect picnic that will be bug-free, magically protected against harmful rays, and absolutely delicious. I’ll enjoy a little snooze, a bit of reading, and after second helpings I will nod off again, listening to joyful shrieks of children having independent fun. There will be no dog mess in the park, or too much wind that blows away all our paper napkins. Wasps will be on strike. And the food – naturally – will be loved by all. Until that day happens, try both these recipes. They are pretty hardy – which is what you need for picnics.

The “farmers’ pie” and is a family recipe from Brazil from our friend, Cecilia Quadros. She said all the mothers would make this pie as an easy dish to feed masses of cousins, aunts and uncles on her family farm in Brazil, when everyone was home for holidays. She made it last year and brought it down to Brittas Bay, where it was wolfed down by the Irish counterparts, and I have been gently pestering her for the recipe since then. It is one of those things that you need to make a few times and tweak the topping to suit yourself. It’s almost like a toad-in-the hole, but much lighter.

The aubergine dengaku is lovely served at room temperature. It can burn quite quickly, so do keep an eye on it. You want the filling to be nice and soft, but the topping should be nicely caramelised rather than burnt. Aubergine is a vegetable that tastes quite meaty and can stand sitting out in the heat for an hour or so and still be good to eat.

Farmers’ pie

350ml milk

200ml sunflower oil

3 eggs

50g Parmesan, grated

Salt and pepper

1 tbsp baking powder

200g flour

2 onions, peeled and very finely diced

4 decent-sized tomatoes, diced

50g Cheddar cheese

300g cooked ham, diced

Dried oregano

Small bunch of parsley, roughly chopped

Olive oil

Whisk the milk, sunflower oil, eggs and Parmesan together. Season well. Sieve together or at least mix the flour and baking powder. Add the baking powder and flour to the egg mixture gradually, whisking well, and it will turn into a reasonably thick, but runny batter. Butter and flour a gratin dish, (mine is about 18cm x 30cm), and pour the batter into it.

Mix the onions, tomatoes, cheese, ham and herbs with enough olive oil to moisten well. Season, and then sprinkle this topping on top of the batter. It will sink in parts, but don’t press it down. Bake at 180 degrees/gas 4 for about 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.

Eat this warm or cold. It tastes better eaten on the day it is made, although I got a second day out of it by adding a few more tomatoes and onions and re-baking with some extra cheese, which helped revitalise a piece left in the fridge.

Aubergine dangaku

Serves 6

5 tbsp miso

1 tbsp mirin

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

3 tbsp caster sugar

80g tahini

3 aubergines

Olive oil

Black and white sesame seeds

Preheat an oven to 180 degrees/gas 4. Heat together and whisk the miso, mirin, rice wine vinegar, caster sugar and tahini, until it becomes a nice smooth paste. Take if off the heat.

Cut the aubergines in half, lengthways, and score the skin. Put them on a baking tray and drizzle generously with olive oil, then smear some of the (cooled down) paste on each surface and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if you have them.

Bake for about 30-40 minutes. The aubergine should feel nice and soft and the top should be caramelised. Allow to cool and eat warm or cold.

Domini recommends:Langkawi restaurant on Upper Baggot Street in Dublin. A really old-school restaurant, a bit like the culinary equivalent of the bar in Cheers. Tasty Malaysian food that’s well presented, with great noodle dishes and delicious curries.

Food cooked and styled by Domini Kemp

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