Suddenly, the warm weather is upon us. Backyards, gardens and parks are exploding in a riot of pinks, purples, yellows and greens.
This is the perfect time to dine al fresco. To keep it all simple, remember that you don't have to have everything ready before the guests arrive. Welcome them with glasses of wine, then delegate tasks: setting the table, folding napkins, tossing a salad. These ice-breakers allow your company to chat before the meal begins.
In the menu below, substitute with whatever is on sale or in season. For the creamy Pear-Berry Slush, any soft berries, such as blueberries, may be substituted for strawberries. If fresh fruit is expensive, use drained canned peaches.
Soda-Zapped Salmon could become Soda-Zapped Tilapia. Just reduce the microwave cooking time to 5 or 6 minutes; tilapia's much thinner than salmon.
Why soda? My friend and colleague, Shirley Corriher -- research biochemist, food sleuth and author of Cookwise -- explained to me that "club soda is carbon dioxide dissolved in water, which makes carbonic acid. So the soda is a gentle acid that acts as a tenderizer -- a much better idea than a stronger acid, such as vinegar, which can overcook delicate fish."
Serve it with Leafy Green Sauce, a delicious mixture so forgiving that any combination of fresh herbs and soft greens may be used -- lettuce instead of spinach, for example. If you like a strong flavor, increase the basil and reduce the parsley or dill. No matter, it will still have that clean, refreshing taste that goes so well with fish.
Just make sure that all the ingredients are patted or spun dry to avoid making the sauce too liquidy. If this does happen, add another hard-cooked egg. Drizzle leftovers over cooked veggies, use as a dip, or thin down with rice vinegar and olive oil for a thrifty, but tasty, salad dressing.
The Molten Mocha Soufflé was passed on to me by my friend Stacey Sevinor. Besides the rich, dark taste and the spoonable saucy center, the appeal is that the mixture may be prepared up to two days ahead, covered tightly and refrigerated.
Spoon into the ramekins, filling only half-full, pop into a preheated oven as the table outside is being cleared, and then serve. Crowned with whipped cream and a candied violet, this is pretty as a picture.
2 ripe pears, quartered, seeds removed and cut in chunks
2 cups strawberries, halved
1 cup white grape juice
1/4 cup apple juice
11/2 cups half-and-half
1 Tbsp. honey or to taste
2 Tbsps. rum or to taste (optional)
mint sprigs to garnish
In the food processor, place the pears, berries, juices, half-and-half, nutmeg, honey and rum. Process until ingredients are finely chopped and mixture is blended. Add more honey and rum, if desired.
Stir well. Pour into a bowl and chill.
To Serve: Half-fill martini glasses with crushed ice. Pour chilled mixture over top and garnish with a mint sprig.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 176; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 23 g; fat, 6 g; cholesterol, 30 mg; sodium, 32 mg.
6 salmon steaks (4-6 oz. each), about 3/4-inch thick
2 Tbsps. rice vinegar
1/3 cup club soda
1-2 Tbsps. snipped fresh parsley
kosher salt and white pepper
Rinse salmon under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
Arrange in a microwave-safe dish in one layer. Sprinkle lightly with vinegar.
Pour club soda over top. Sprinkle with parsley, salt and pepper.
Cover with wax paper. Can be refrigerated until ready to cook.
Microwave on high for 8 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness. Flakes should be almost opaque when separated with a sharp knife. Let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes.
Serve with Leafy Green Sauce.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 204; protein, 28 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 9 g; cholesterol, 78 mg; sodium, 63 mg.
Leafy Green Sauce
1 medium bunch parsley
1/2 bunch fresh dill
1/2 cup basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup baby spinach leaves, packed
2 green onions, cut in pieces
1 dill pickle, cut in chunks
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered
1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt
2 Tbsps. low-fat mayonnaise
2-3 Tbsps. capers, rinsed
salt and white pepper to taste
Rinse parsley, dill, basil and spinach in cold water. Shake to dry.
Cut about 1 inch off parsley stems.
Place in food processor with all the remaining ingredients, except capers and seasonings. Process until finely chopped.
Transfer to a bowl. Stir in the capers.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Makes about 21/2 cups.
Approximate nutrients per 1/4 cup serving: calories, 25; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 1 g; cholesterol, 43 mg; sodium, 145 mg.
Cumin-Scented Citrus Olives
Can substitute 1 cup of drained canned mandarin orange sections for the orange.
1 large orange
2 cups pitted calamata olives
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup parsley sprigs, packed
red lettuce leaves (garnish)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsps. orange juice
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. (rounded) Dijon mustard
2 tsps. cumin or to taste
Peel orange, removing all bitter white pith. Cut in 1/4-inch thick slices, then cut each slice in quarters. Place in a bowl with the olives, tomatoes and parsley.
In a small bowl, whisk all the dressing ingredients together. Pour over the olive mixture. Stir gently to mix. Chill.
Let stand at room temp for 20 minutes before serving on red-lettuce-lined plates.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 173; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 16 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 303 mg.
Molten Mocha Soufflé
6 Tbsps. unsalted butter at room temperature, cut in pieces
4 oz. semisweet chocolate at room temperature, cut in pieces
1/4 cup sugar
13/4 Tbsps. cornstarch
2 tsps. instant coffee powder
2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
whipped cream, candied violets
Place butter and chocolate in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Cover loosely with wax paper. Microwave on high for 21/2 to 3 minutes, or until butter is melted and chocolate is soft. Stir after 11/2 minutes.
Mix the sugar, cornstarch and coffee powder in a tea cup (if coffee granules, crush to a powder between fingers). Add to the chocolate mixture and mix well.
Let stand about 10 minutes. Whisk in the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 400°. Spray 6 ramekins with nonstick cooking spray.
Spoon mixture in until each ramekin is half full. Place on a baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes.
Top with whipped cream and candied violets, if using. Serve from oven to table.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 283; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 23 g; fat, 20 g; cholesterol, 173 mg; sodium, 25 mg.