Whatever the location – be it a balcony in your apartment block, a beachside umbrella or a rug under a tree in a park – there is nothing to beat the liberating experience of eating in the open air. I think it’s something to do with the way all one’s senses are sharpened: there’s the warmth of the sun on one’s shoulders, the sound of singing cicadas, the grassy scents of a meadow...it all adds to and intensifies the flavours of the meal itself. I love the informality of it all, and the way that food passed hand to hand from a large platter encourages a sense of sharing and friendship.
Now that I stop to think about it, some of my most memorable eating has been done outdoors. Childhood memories offer up scenes of long, lazy Christmas Day lunches under the grapevine in my parent’s Melbourne garden, or of pre-dawn fishing excursions with my brother off the Bellarine Peninsula, scoffing packets of crisps and soggy sandwiches washed down with hot, sweet tea from a flask – each meal completely perfect in its own way.
Whatever the weather, and wherever the location, a carefully thought out menu is the key to successful outdoor eating. Above all, the food must be easy to transport and easy to eat. And this, as is so often the case with cooking, means planning ahead! Do most of the preparation beforehand, so that any need for on-site slicing and portioning is minimal. And choose finger food, which needs nothing in the way of cutlery or plates as long as there’s a big stack of serviettes (or paper towels, at a pinch).
The dishes I’m suggesting here are inspired by the Persians, who in my opinion are some of the world’s greatest picnickers. They perfectly fulfill the brief of being easy to cook and eat, visually enticing and full of bold flavours. For a central dish, there’s a mound of saffron-yoghurt marinated chicken wing kebabs that you can pre-bake in the oven and eat cold, or grill or barbecue at your destination. Enjoy with cherry tomatoes and flatbreads (warmed on the barbecue too), bundles of fresh herbs, chunks of creamy feta and, instead of salad, offer baby cos lettuce leaves with a tangy and refreshing apple-mint dressing for dipping. Add a piece of cheese if you want, and finish with fresh fruit – watermelon would be my choice, but go with whatever’s best on the day – and perhaps squares of good (shop-bought) chocolate brownies or little meringues as a final sweet treat.
Jooheh Kebab (Saffron-yoghurt marinated chicken wings)
Marinated chicken wings are irresistible whether grilled on the barbecue or baked in the oven to sticky golden goodness. I love the Persian way of spearing them onto skewers, instead of just scattering them randomly over the flames and the long, flat metal variety are perfect for keeping the wings flat for even cooking. The yoghurt in this marinade helps to tenderise the meat, and it adds a faint, but delectable tang. If you don’t feel like firing up the barbecue, the chicken wings can also be baked at 180C for about 20 minutes.
12 free-range chicken wings, tips removed
20 saffron threads (soaked in 2 tbsp boiling water for an hour before use)
1 clove garlic
1 tsp sea salt
3 tbsp olive oil
120g thick natural yoghurt
The juice of 1 lime
Grated zest of ½ an orange
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
FOR THE Kahoo sekanjebeen (Baby cos wedges with apple vinegar-mint dressing)
3 baby cos lettuces
175g caster sugar
80ml apple vinegar
The juice of ½ a lemon
12 sprigs mint
Flatbreads, grilled baby tomatoes, lemon wedges, fresh herbs and feta
1 Begin by making the dressing. Combine the sugar and water in a small heavy-based saucepan over a low heat until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
2 Add the vinegar, lemon juice and mint leaves and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. When cold, fish out the mint leaves, then transfer the dressing to a jar with a lid and refrigerate until required.
3 Cut the chicken wings in half through the joint and put them into a shallow dish.
4 Crush the garlic to a paste with the salt and scrape it into a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil and the yoghurt, saffron liquid, lime juice, orange zest and pepper and mix well. Pour the marinade onto the chicken wings and turn them around in it so they are evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 6 hours. Allow to come to room temperature before cooking.
5 When ready to cook, preheat your barbecue or griller to high. Thread the wing pieces onto metal skewers, allowing 4 per skewer. Grill, turning intermittently so that they colour evenly. As they begin to colour, move them away from the direct heat to prevent them from burning. They will take around 15 to 20 minutes to cook through.
6 Pile all the skewers onto a warm platter and serve with the suggested accompaniments, baby lettuces cut into wedges and a bowl of the kahoo sekanjebeen dressing.