There’s something about the fresh summer air that gets the appetite going. Whether I’m swimming, gardening or off on an adventure, being outdoors always makes me hungry.
With no timetables or deadlines to worry about, there’s a sense of freedom about when and what we cook and eat. From one day to the next we never know how many people are going to turn up for dinner, or when friends are just going to ‘pop in for a drink’. I always want to feel like the hostess with the mostest and be able to bring out a tasty nibble at the drop of a hat, so over the years I’ve developed a few tricks that mean I’m semi-prepared for any eventuality.
I always try to keep my fridge and pantry stocked with a few nibbles that I can assemble into an antipasto platter at short notice. I’ll keep jars of gherkins, olives and semidried tomatoes in the fridge, plus a few sliced meats and a nice piece of cheese. The following ideas all keep in the fridge for at least a week. Mix and match according to your tastes and what’s on hand:
- Drain a can of artichoke hearts, cut them into quarters and mix through a tablespoon of vinaigrette dressing.
- Place 100-150g button mushrooms in a bowl with 1/4 cup vinaigrette dressing mixed with 1 teaspoon crushed garlic. Leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
- Break feta cheese into bite-sized chunks and mix through 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh herbs such as thyme or rosemary.
- Grill or bake whole red peppers at 250°C until the skins are charred and blistered, then cool in a tightly sealed container or plastic bag. Remove the skins, pith and seeds. Cut into wedges or strips and drizzle with olive oil.
I also like to keep a few dips at hand for easy snacking. Some of my summer favourites are:
If I don’t have time to make my own I’ll cheat by tarting up good-quality storebought dips with a homemade touch:
- To transform hummus, I simply spoon it into a bowl, make an indentation in the top and drizzle in some olive oil, then sprinkle a little smoked paprika over the top.
- Finely chopped tomatoes, chopped coriander and a squeeze of lime juice transform a jar of taco sauce.
- A pottle of sour cream mixed with ground cumin, smoked paprika, chopped mint and a little lemon juice makes a fabulous Moroccan-inspired dip.
And finally, something bread-based is always going to be a good filler – great for those pre-dinner pop-ins as well as when a few extra heads turn up for dinner unexpectedly. I like to keep a stash of pita breads in the freezer, then I just whack them into the toaster before cutting them into wedges and serving with dips.
With lots of entertaining going on at this time of year, I'll often find I have leftover bread that I don't want to waste by throwing it away. So I'll bake a batch of crostini (below) and keep them in an airtight container in the pantry until I need to whip them out to serve them with dips and toppings. They keep fresh for a couple of weeks, and if they do get a bit stale I just refresh them by popping them into an 180˚C oven for 10 minutes.
Garlic bread is another really simple thing to make if you have some not-quite-fresh bread on hand and lots of hungry mouths to feed – you can use a french loaf, pita breads, foccacia or pizza base. Crush 3-4 cloves garlic to a paste with half a teaspooon of salt and then mix through about 6-7 tbsp softened but not melted butter. If you’re using french bread, cut it into slices without cutting right through the loaf or split it lengthwise. Butter the cut sides generously, then bake at about 200˚C until the butter has melted and the loaf starts to become crispy. For flat breads, simply spread the butter on top and then bake as for a french loaf. You can play around with the flavourings in the butter – try adding pesto instead of garlic, or some curry spices.