Keep Date Night Alive With Our Al Fresco Dining Checklist

You have the time, why not make it special?


Alex Detmar and her boyfriend Matthew Bowman dine in their backyard (Photo by John Anderson)

Self-care can be difficult in this climate of change and insecurity. My prescription to anyone who wants to beat the rumination and get away from devices is to get in the habit of dining outside – whether it's in your front yard, a borrowed green space, or a nearby city park. Maybe it's just a fried egg with toast and coffee, or a cheese and natural wine hangout (distanced or remote); maybe it's a full-on feast. Creating space and time for an event can be a therapeutic way to mentally shift gears, make a gesture to a partner, or simply to enjoy, rather than loathe, the passage of time during quarantine. Adapt these tips to your space and have a ball!

Plan Ahead – Or Don't

Do you love logistics? Look to your favorite Bon Appétit content or old family cookbooks for inspiration. See what's in season locally, arrange for contactless pickup, and put real time aside to tinker in the kitchen. Call or DM a cook friend. Now is a great time to follow the people who make your restaurant food on Instagram and reach out for tips to recreate your old favorites, be it a salad or mole enchiladas. If you prefer just to eat and vibe, set a nice scene, navigate drink options, and arrange for pick-up or delivery of your meal. Outdoor eating is for everyone.

Make Something From Scratch

If you already cook, you know what to do: Plan according to budget and how much time you want to sink into a single meal (for me, it could be 15 minutes or four-plus hours of prep). Remember that a combo of leftovers, fresh items, and takeout can be maximized for Ultimate Picnic Status.

We’re going to be dining at home for a while, so consider our online Chronicle Cooking section an ally in this venture.

If you don't already cook, consider starting with just one item to integrate into a takeout spread. Try a marinated cuke salad to bolster takeout sushi and sake. Focaccia to accompany Italian options. A bowl of pico de gallo to devour alongside goods from the neighborhood taqueria. A bitter salad to prime the palate for pizza and natural wine. Deviled eggs or cold potato salad to set the scene for a sandwich party with local charcuterie.

Pro tip: Challenge yourself with an unfamiliar product. For me, that's been radicchio, specialty beans, fennel stems, and escarole. Look to chef and farmer IG accounts for insider scoop on how to honor seasonal products. Julia Sherman (@saladforpresident) has been doing fun and accessible features on simple, veg-forward dishes lately.

Even the most bare-bones kitchen can become a site of empowerment, big flavor, and pride in your creation. Do you own a bowl, spoon, fridge, knife, some oil, and an onion? Then you're off to a great start! Now is THE time to start small, and build your kitchen up bit by bit. We're going to be dining at home for a while, so consider our online Chronicle Cooking section an ally in this venture.

Dip Into Something Easy

Dips are in. Have they ever been out? If you struggle with appetite (too big or too little), dips are there for you: approachable, tasty as hell, yet healthy-ish depending on how you mix it up. They portion easily for safe sharing and don't really spoil. Even legume-wary folks can't resist this stuff. Check out dip recipes on Chronicle Cooking, all using accessible ingredients, or start with this lovely beet dip, as a snack, sandwich spread, care package for neighbor, or budget-safe antidote to midnight munchies:

1) Roast two clean, red beets wrapped in foil at 400 F for about 45 minutes. Cool, peel, and chop.

2) Blend one can drained pinto or garbanzo beans with the juice of two lemons, or your favorite vinegar, and about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil.

3) Add beets, two cloves raw garlic, and as much oil is needed for the mixture to blend.

4) Once smooth, season with plenty of salt, cracked pepper, and a pinch of your favorite spice (cumin, smoked paprika, sumac, etc.).

5) If you want to get fancy, throw in a touch of chili oil, sauerkraut juice, aminos, Bulgarian yogurt, etc. Even with just the basic ingredients, it'll be great.

6) Garnish with extra oil, something green and leafy, or toasted ground nuts of your choice. Serve with crudites or tortilla chips. Smear into a salad bowl for a pop of color underneath your greens, use as an avocado toast spread, or add a large dollop on top of a quinoa bowl.

Support Local

One small silver lining of the pandemic disruption is the abundance of local specialty products now available. Many restaurants have transformed into daytime specialty groceries peddling house-made delicacies far beyond jam and pickles. (Of course we love H-E-B, but these smaller establishments might not exist without our continued support.) I recommend the following as a start to your delectable citywide treasure hunt, all online-order-pick-up-contactless options: Look to Emmer & Rye for the certifiable foodie rarities including fresh pasta. If you don't usually buy from a butcher, Dai Due is an ethical treasure trove of grill-friendly tasties, plus unique fixings like venison salami, new gluten-free bread loaves, and more. Nixta Taqueria is peddling their tasty tortillas. Salt & Time, in addition to house bread, butchery, and charcuterie programs, is now a hub for other restaurants/farms, featuring Texas cheeses, farm produce, and snacks from Suerte (who just debuted a taqueria, by the way), L'oca d'Oro, and Bufalina. Thai Fresh has fresh, hard-to-find herbs, the pandemically elusive tofu hookup, and house-made curry bases to simmer proteins and veggies. Barton Springs Mill offers just about any kind of baking ingredients you could dream up.

Get Your Drink On

A French press or iced tea pitcher is ideal for breakfast or hot afternoon yard-dwelling and a great opportunity to shop local, but the world of booze is an equally important arena. Wine/natural wine options have never been more affordable or varied around town. The Austin Shaker does curbside orders for mescal and home-bartender needs. Craft breweries are selling to-go beer, and Michelada season is upon us. For prepared drinks, Little Brother Bar, Nickel City, Mi Madre's, and Pool Burger have great options. Hotel Vegas has a fun weekend to-go program with rotating frozen drink kits and Sunday brunch cocktail kits to complement their food truck offerings. Pro tip: If you want to support your favorite out-of-work bartenders on the sly, reach out to those delivering batches with scratch-made ingredients. Chaotic times, chaotic measures.

Set Yourself Up For Success, then Set a Mood

I love a good sheet on the ground for a quick stint, but a quilt or thick blanket is your move to ride out a food coma with a view of the clouds or stars – plus it serves as a great photo background. Chairs on the periphery are a must for non-finger foods, or a post-meal book. If you want to commit to a whole day of al fresco dining, pitch a small tent for naps or move a small couch outside. A camp coffee table will elevate the experience and keep beverages safe. Consider the Zen practice of arranging wildflowers in a wine bottle. Fluff some pillows. Make napkin origami. Hey, we've got the time, right?

Glass prayer candles are an outdoor must and will make you feel beautiful, important, and most of all, like an accomplished yard diner. Donning something besides pajamas and a dirty apron earns bonus points! What are we doing besides eating? Consider a puzzle on a cutting board, a small stack of books, or a makeshift phone stand to share your meal remotely. To keep bugs at bay, I light cedar incense, but choose something you like that won't clash with the spread. Last but not least, the right playlist will transport you out of the "stuck at home" mindset.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

picnic dining, dining al fresco, Chronicle Cooking

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