Holidays al fresco

by April Lisante
Posted 3/25/21

A few weeks ago in the food column, I talked about how a month of festivities featuring March Madness, Passover and Easter isn’t an excuse to let our guard down with the COVID-19 virus and start partying in big groups.

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Holidays al fresco

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A few weeks ago in the food column, I talked about how a month of festivities featuring March Madness, Passover and Easter isn’t an excuse to let our guard down with the COVID-19 virus and start partying in big groups.

I talked with doctors about ways to stay safe while hosting any type of get-together, from not sharing communal food platters to seating guests in well-ventilated areas.

Passover and Easter are here, and so many families are looking forward to hosting some type of holiday dinner, especially after losing out completely on the celebrations this time last year.

Well, it can be done. One of the simplest ways doctors agree on to stay safe and still have a holiday is to go al fresco.

Take the whole dinner outside, follow some simple guidelines, keep the get-together small, and you won’t have to worry about super-spreader indoor fiascos, experts say.

“If we eat outside I’m going to make a big fuss,” said Anne McNally, an owner at McNally’s Tavern on Germantown Ave. “People have been working from home, not getting dressed up, paper plates, so relaxed. So, I want to put my good dishes out, flowers, good silverware. Make it special.

“I’m going to take extra preparation in setting my table,” McNally said.

Aside from the décor, al fresco dining just takes a little bit of preplanning. One of the first things to keep in mind is temperature, both weather-wise and food-wise. One of the tricks the restaurant pros use when serving outdoors in temperate weather is to list menu items that don’t have to be served piping hot, or even hot at all. Serving an entrée that is chilled or that can be left at room temperature works well when it is headed outside.

Melissa McDevitt, of Seedling and Sage Catering in Glenside, calls these room temperature entrees “ambient style dishes.” Two of her favorites, for example, are a roasted side of salmon and a spiced beef tenderloin. Both can be portioned up and served at leisure.

“With an ambient dish, you can set it and forget it,” McDevitt said.

At Jansen restaurant, where chef David Jansen keeps a year-round tent overlooking bucolic, sunset-drenched surroundings at Germantown Ave. near Cresheim Valley Drive, he tailors food for each season, serving chilled foods when it is warm outside. Manager Zachary Bourne suggests considering a chilled appetizer for the holiday dinner, like a ceviche, or something that doesn’t have to be hot when it comes all the way from your kitchen to the al fresco table. Likewise, keep spring holiday cocktails chilled and refreshing, rather than heavy and boozy, Bourne suggests. The restaurant is known for its shrubs, 18th century drink revivals made with refreshing fruits and liqueurs.

If you do need to keep bread or a similar food warm outside, Bourne says the restaurant swears by hot bread stones in the bottom of baskets. Some stones can stay heated for a couple of hours.

“Bread stones in a cloth in a basket. Those are wonderful for outdoor dining,” Bourne said.

To avoid serving germ-conducive buffet-style meals, plate each guest’s appetizer, salad or entrée. There shouldn’t be any communal dips or family-style meals. One way to get around having to cut quiches, pies, cake and tarts is to make individual sizes in tartlet pans or make muffins instead of bread loaves. Also, tipsters say it helps to prepare individual cups or glasses ahead of time for things like salads, soups or mousses. Consider individual items like deviled eggs, restuffed potatoes or other singletons that don’t need giant communal spoons dipping in and out of the dishes for serving.

If your kitchen isn’t next to your patio, consider bringing all napkins, serving utensils and plates outside to a designated table ahead of time. And if you really don’t feel like pre-plating all the entrees in the kitchen and lugging them outside, consider taking advantage of your barbecue or grill. Grilling tableside skips key germ opportunities by ensuring food immediately and directly goes onto individual plates.

To keep guests comfortable as the sun goes down, firepits or space heaters are no-brainers, but McDevitt suggests getting each guest’s chair ready ahead of time for a potentially chilly evening. If you’ve made the rounds recently in some of Chestnut Hill’s décor stores, throw blankets for outdoor entertaining have their own sections now., and restaurants are selling their own versions for outdoor diners.

“With the weather being unpredictable, layer each person’s chair with a blanket and a pillow,” McDevitt said. And if the firepit light isn’t enough, hanging “Warm market lights make it all glow.”

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