Dining al fresco adds atmosphere to meals

Wednesday, June 5, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- Summer is upon us, and that means it's time to introduce new ingredients to your menus. But don't stop at seasonal fruits and vegetables. This time of year, make meals sensational by also adding fresh air and sunshine, when you can.

Dining al fresco, as the Italians say, adds much more than atmosphere to a meal. The combination of good food, a gentle breeze, birdsong and the scent of the outdoors can turn a simple meal into a multi-sensory experience.

For a great outdoor meal that is easy to throw together, try stuffed picnic loaf, a thick crusty bread filled with roasted vegetables, followed by a refreshing Indonesian chili fruit salad.

Stuffed Picnic Loaf

(Preparation 40 minutes, chill overnight)

1 round loaf of bread, about 9 inches around and 4 inches high

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons pesto

2 large red onions

2 large red bell peppers

2 large zucchini

8 ounces soft goat cheese, diced

12 large basil leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cut a large circle out of the top of the loaf of bread. Set this circle aside to use later as the lid of the loaf. Carefully scoop out most of the bread, leaving behind the crusty shell.

In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon olive oil and the pesto. Spread half of this mixture around the inside of the bread shell and on the inside of the lid. Set aside.

Cut the onions into thin wedges and brush with a bit of the remaining olive oil. Grill for 10 minutes on both sides, or until very tender. Set aside to cool.

Cook the peppers the same way for about 15 minutes, or until blackened all over. Place the peppers in a paper bag and let cool. Peel away skin then cut into quarters and discard seeds. Set aside.

Cut the zucchini lengthwise into 1-inch slices. Brush the slices with oil and grill as above for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until lightly charred and softened. Set aside to cool.

Arrange the vegetables in layers inside the loaf, with the goat cheese and remaining pesto in the middle. Sprinkle with any remaining oil, top with basil leaves, salt and pepper, and replace the lid.

Wrap the entire loaf in plastic wrap and set on a plate. Top with a cutting board or another plate. Place a heavy can or jar on top of this and refrigerate this way overnight.

To serve, cut into wedges.

Indonesian Chili Fruit Salad

(Preparation 30 minutes)

1/4 cup dark palm sugar or brown sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons water

1 to 2 red chili peppers, such as serrano, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 ripe pineapple

1 ripe papaya or mango

1 pomelo or pink grapefruit

2 large bananas

2 green apples

To make the dressing, combine the sugar, lemon juice, soy sauce and water in a small saucepan and heat over a low flame until the sugar has dissolved, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the chilies and let cool.

Peel and core the pineapple, then cut it into bite-sized chunks. Peel, seed and dice the papaya or mango. Peel the pomelo or grapefruit, cut out the segments and then slice each segment in half. Peel and slice the bananas. Peel, core and dice the apples.

Arrange all the fruit in a large bowl and toss with the dressing. Chill for about 15 minutes before serving.

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