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What’s the difference between a backyard barbecue and an al fresco dinner? Plenty. The one thing they have in common is that they both take place outdoors. Otherwise, a cookout can’t hold a candelabra to a dinner under the sun or stars.

Adding a touch of sophistication to an outdoor meal doesn’t take a lot of heavy lifting — in the kitchen or the patio. Outdoor dinners are meant to have a fun, relaxed vibe, so don’t worry too much about bringing out your best china and creating an elaborate tablescape for the occasion. Instead, go for a “casual chic” decor, using items you already own wherever you can. Mismatched plates, glasses, chairs, etc. are perfectly fine to use, a touch of fresh flowers or herbs from your garden, candles nestled in jars and napkins wrapped with twine.

If you’re really worried about uniformity, then simply use a colorful bouquet as the centerpiece to tie all of the colors together, or use a place setting to act as the common thread throughout the table.

Just as with the decor, try to keep the food menu as low maintenance as possible. The last thing you want is having to go between the kitchen and your garden/patio all night long or you won’t get to enjoy your own dinner.

Opt for food items that can either be prepared in advance or cooked on a grill near your table. Dishes that can be served at room temperature (i.e. quiches, pasta salads, gourmet sandwiches, etc.) are also ideal, as you won’t have to worry about keeping them warm/cold outside. Including store-bought items is another great way to reduce cooking stress and if you’re hosting several guests, you could also serve everything buffet-style so that everyone helps themselves.

My al fresco dinner menu for two consisted of:

Homemade pimento cheese spread served in individual crocks with breadsticks

Chilled avocado soup with a dollop of creme fraiche

A constructed salad in a cucumber form with bacon, lettuce and blue cheese

Smoked salmon and dill tart

Fresh green beans and radishes

Lemon ricotta bars with fresh blueberries

I made everything from scratch in the morning so that when it was time for dinner all I needed was a hand to transport the dinner from kitchen to garden. We started the evening with a glass of sparking vodka lavender lemonade wine before moving on to rose and white wine. The chilled soup was an ideal start for the balmy night and the salad was crisp and clean. A light main course of salmon tart, alongside braised green beans and radishes, left plenty of room for the lemony dessert (served with some limoncello, of course).

Lighting, music and comfort

This is really the fun part as you can illuminate in so many pretty ways. I had some red kerosene lanterns that I placed throughout the garden and perched on a ladder. Candles, candles and more candles always add a touch of sophistication, whether nestled in jars or, if you want to be fancy, bring out the crystal candle holders for tapers or a candelabra. String lights are always pretty and if you have an electrical source nearby, you can weave the lights through the trees. For my simple dinner I opted for the tea lights in jars that gave off a nice glow into the evening. And if you have any sparklers left from the 4th celebration, place them in strategic spots throughout and light up the night.

We prefer to have music playing while we dine — whether outside or in. But this evening was perfect for enjoying the birdsong in the background. and it’s another detail that will help you create the right atmosphere for your party.

If the night promises to be chilly, have light jackets or sweaters available, conversely small fans and plenty of ice water for those hot summer nights. And finally, keep mosquitoes away by burning citronella candles or sticks and also have insect repellent on hand for your guests.

From the table setting through to the music and food menu, it’s easy, fun and low-stress to host an al fresco dinner at home, whether it’s just the two of you for a romantic meal or a party for your friends.

Kate Lawson is The Detroit News retired food writer.

katecook@comcast.net

Lavender Thyme Lemonade

Recipe adapted from Saveur

Lavender-Thyme Simple Syrup

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup dried lavender

1 bunch thyme

Sparkling Vodka Lemonade

4 cups sparkling lemon soda

1 cup vodka

1/2 cup lemon juice

Thinly-sliced lemon wheels, for garnish

Make the lavender-thyme syrup: Boil sugar and / cup water in a 2-quart saucepan until sugar is dissolved. Add lavender and thyme; let herb syrup cool completely.

Strain syrup into a pitcher filled with ice. Stir in soda, vodka, and lemon juice; garnish with sliced lemons. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 254 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 43 g carbohydrates; 40 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 16 mg sodium; 0.2 g protein; 0.2 g fiber.

Spicy Bell Pepper Pimento Cheese

Recipe adapted from Southern Living

1 1/4 cups mayonnaise

1/2 (12-ounces) jar roasted red bell peppers, drained and chopped

2 teaspoons finely grated onion

2 teaspoons coarse-ground mustard

1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper

2 (10-ounce) blocks sharp white Cheddar cheese, shredded

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Assorted crackers

Stir together mayonnaise and next 4 ingredients until well blended; stir in cheese and black pepper to taste. Serve with assorted crackers. Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container up to 4 days. Serve in individual cups garnished with breadsticks and a cracker. Makes 16 servings.

Per serving (without crackers/breadsticks): 266 calories; 25 g fat (9 g saturated fat; 85 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 44 mg cholesterol; 390 mg sodium; 9 g protein; 0.2 g fiber.

Bacon-Blue Cheese Salad with White Wine Vinaigrette

Recipe adapted from “Southern Living”

2 tablespoons chopped pecans

2 medium cucumbers, peeled

3 cups mixed baby greens

2 cooked thick-cut bacon slices, halved

1/3 cup shredded or matchstick carrots

1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

White Wine Vinaigrette(see recipe)

Place chopped pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes or until lightly toasted, stirring occasionally. Let cool 30 minutes or until completely cool.

Using a Y-shaped vegetable peeler, cut cucumbers lengthwise into very thin strips just until seeds are visible. Discard cucumber core.

Shape largest cucumber slices into 4 (2 1/2- to 2 3/4-inch-wide) rings. Wrap evenly with remaining cucumber slices. Stand rings upright on 4 serving plates.

Fill each cucumber ring evenly with mixed greens, next 3 ingredients, and toasted pecans. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle each salad with 1 tablespoon White Wine Vinaigrette, and serve with remaining vinaigrette. Serves 4.

White Wine Vinaigrette

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1/3 cup white wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon white sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pinch ground black pepper

Place the oil, vinegar, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper into a jar with a tight fitting lid. Close the lid, and shake vigorously to blend. Use right away, or store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Per serving: 279 calories; 25 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 81 percent calories from fat); 9 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 11 mg cholesterol; 525 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Chilled Avocado Soup

Recipe adapted from Epicurious.

2 ripe medium avocados, halved, pitted

3/4 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup plain yogurt

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped seeded jalepeño chili

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 cup (about) canned low-salt chicken broth

Chopped red onion

Scrape avocados from skin into processor. Add buttermilk and yogurt; purée until smooth. Mix in lime juice, jalepeño and chili powder. With machine running, blend in 1/2 cup broth. Season with salt and pepper. Chill soup until cold. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and keep chilled.)

Thin soup with more broth, if desired. Spoon into bowls. Sprinkle with onion. Serves 4.

Per serving: 220 calories; 17 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 63 percent calories from fat); 15 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 4 mg cholesterol; 204 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 7 g fiber.

Smoked Salmon and Dill Tart

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

5 frozen phyllo pastry sheets, thawed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

4 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3 large eggs

1 cup half and half

1 cup whipping cream

6 ounces smoked salmon, chopped

4 green onions, chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried dillweed

Dill sprigs

Generously butter 9 1/2-inch-diameter deep-dish pie plate. Place 1 phyllo sheet on work surface (cover remaining pieces with plastic wrap, then with clean damp towel.) Brush phyllo sheet with butter and fold in half lengthwise. Brush folded surface with butter. Cut in half crosswise. Place 1 phyllo rectangle, buttered side down, in prepared pie plate, covering bottom and letting pastry overhang 1 section of edge by 1/2 inch. Brush top of phyllo in pie plate with butter. Place second phyllo rectangle in pie plate, covering bottom and letting pastry overhang another section of edge by 1/2 inch; brush with butter. Repeat process with remaining 4 phyllo sheets, making certain entire surface of edge is covered to form crust. Fold overhang under to form crust edge flush with edge of pie plate. Brush crust edges with butter. (Can be prepared 4 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk yolks and mustard in medium bowl to blend. Beat in eggs, half and half, cream, salmon, onions and chopped dill. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into prepared crust. Bake until center is set, about 50 minutes. Transfer to rack. Cool Garnish with dill sprigs and serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 301 calories; 24 g fat (14 g saturated fat; 72 percent calories from fat); 9 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 231 mg cholesterol; 334 mg sodium; 10 g protein; 0.4 g fiber.

Green Beans and Radishes Braised in Orange Juice

Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Times

Cooked radishes have a mild rutabaga or turnip flavor that complements the sweetness of green beans and orange juice.

4 large shallots, peeled

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups halved radishes

1 pound green beans, trimmed and halved (4 cups)

3/4 cup fresh orange juice

Leave root ends of shallots intact, and thinly slice lengthwise.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots and radishes, and sauté 5 minutes, or until shallots begin to brown. Add green beans, and sauté 3 minutes more. Add orange juice, and season with salt and pepper, if desired. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and simmer 6 to 7 minutes, or until green beans are tender. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

Per serving: 73 calories; 4 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat; 49 percent calories from fat); 10 g carbohydrates; 6 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 31 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Lemon Ricotta Bars

Recipe adapted from Food52.com

Crust

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon lemon zest

3/4 teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1-inch pieces, slightly softened, plus extra for greasing pan

Lemon-Ricotta filling

8 ounces (1 cup) fresh whole milk Ricotta, drained

4 large eggs, beaten

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons lemon zest

2/3 cup lemon juice from 3 to 4 large lemons, strained

1/4 teaspoon salt

To make the crust: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.

Using a pastry brush, lightly butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and line with one sheet parchment paper. Butter paper, then lay second sheet crosswise over it.

Pulse flour, confectioner’s sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest and salt in food processor.

Add butter and process to blend; then pulse until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse meal.

Sprinkle mixture into lined pan and, press firmly with fingers into even layer over entire pan bottom and about 1/2-inch up sides.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes, and then bake until light golden brown, about 20 minutes.

To make the filling: Whisk ricotta, eggs, sugar, and flour in medium bowl, then stir in lemon zest, juice, and salt to blend well.

Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Stir filling mixture before pouring into warm crust.

Bake until filling feels firm when touched lightly, about 30 minutes.

Transfer pan to wire rack; cool to room temperature, at least 2 hours.

Transfer to cutting board, fold paper down, and cut into bars, wiping knife or pizza cutter clean between cuts.

Dust with confectioner’s sugar. Makes 18 2-inch squares.

Per serving: 241 calories; 11 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 41 percent calories from fat); 32 g carbohydrates; 20 g sugar; 69 mg cholesterol; 158 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 0.5 g fiber.

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