Family Al Fresco

It’s that time of year. School is finished (or soon to be), the temperature is rising and sleeping in is on every teens agenda. If you have kids at home, a common summertime question is ‘What’s there to eat?’ I might be able to help with that last question with some simple summer meal items.

I recently posted on social media about a family meal we had outside (al fresco: in the open air). I was contacted by a few people asking me to post a more detailed explanation. I promised a blog post about some DIY tablescape hacks that made the evening a little easier and the simple summertime recipes we used to make our family meal a success.

My extended family came to visit us in California. The enormous sacrifice they made – financially and most importantly, timing and scheduling – meant a lot to me. Scott and I wanted to have one evening where we all sat down together around a family table and simply relaxed into an evening of conversation and California weather.

For those of you that are fans of the tv series, Parenthood, you’ll understand my desire to have a Parenthood-style dinner together in our backyard, under the lights and California setting sun.

First of all, I needed a long table.

We took our dining room table out to the patio plus used another dining table we have in the garage that Scott uses as a work table. The work table was a few inches shorter than our dining table so we used wooden blocks to prop it up to be an equal height.

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I was tempted to do a charcuterie board down the center of the ‘long table’ but ultimately decided it was too fussy and one more thing for me to plan out. My goal was for all of us to feel comfortable and laid-back so I nixed the cheese board idea.

Instead, Scott cut me a long piece of 2×4 board, sanded all the edges round and stained it. He coated it in coconut oil to seal in the stain.

I cut rosemary from our large rosemary bush and lavender from the three Spanish lavender bushes we bought in the Fall. They were three small bushes when we purchased them but they have grown SO BIG over the past six months! As an aside – I knew the rosemary would last a long time but I wasn’t sure of the lavender. I cut it all just a few hours before our meal. For awhile, it was sitting in the hot afternoon sun. The rosemary held up great but the lavender got a little wilty looking. By the next day it was shriveled. So make sure to cut the lavender fairly close to the event. This served as a nice centerpiece but also held off any flying insects that don’t particularly care for the smell of the rosemary. Win-win! At the last minute, I grabbed some clementines in our kitchen and haphazardly placed them among the rosemary and lavender for a pop of color. I also cut a small sprig of rosemary to place on the napkin at each place setting. Super easy way to put a finishing touch on the appearance of each setting. If you don’t have a rosemary bush in the backyard, rosemary plants are easy to find at grocery stores and gardening centers. (We use ours for cooking all the time!)

I wanted the table to be somewhat minimal in decoration. Casual and welcoming. Here are a few ways I hacked the table decor…

I am a big fan of this set of three candlesticks from IKEA. I have two sets and use them in different spots in our home. Their stark black added just the right amount of drama to the setting without being fussy or overwhelming.

I am a big fan of linen. I love its look and universal appeal. It’s not faddish or decade-specific, which is just the kind of decor I adore! But if we’re all honest, linen can be expensive, right??

A good rule of thumb for just about every decor situation (and more!) is to mix and match real with fake. I went to Harbor Freight and bought two canvas paint dropcloths. They resemble linen and cost about $15 each. Spilled wine? No problem. Dropped food? It will either wash out or, I have a new dropcloth to use! No fuss. No problem.

I even used another dropcloth I had to sew a basketful of coasters for the table (instructions here.) The trick to using dropcloth for your projects is to wash them first. I generally wash them 2-3 times to soften them up and get the distinctive smell out of them. Once they’re softer, the possibilities are limitless.

I mixed the canvas tablecloths with actual linen napkins from World Market. I used 4 different neutral colors to tie everything together without looking too matchy.

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I have really enjoyed my ‘wonky’ dishes from Magnolia. It seems like not that long ago that we lined up outside Target, waiting for the doors to open on the new Magnolia line, Hearth and Hand. I elbowed and crowded in with other Joanna Gaines style followers. I think I grabbed a 4-plate setting the first day and have been picking up more bowls and serving trays ever since. They’re a little harder to find these days but they pair well with a line of dishes from World Market. Again, mixing and matching takes the exactness out of any task (my biggest design hint.) I love the uneven edges of both lines. They look like they’ve just come off a potter’s wheel. Love it.

The table was set with a mixture of items but they all fell into a neutral palette, therefore pulling them all together cohesively. The neutral foundation allowed the colorful food to stand out and shine.

And speaking of the food…

I had to constantly put before myself the goal of the evening: easy, laid-back, casual. I didn’t want Scott and I to have to spend all our time in the kitchen and not sitting with our family enjoying the evening. The following were some of the recipes we used. Many can be put together in advance.

This Avocado Corn salad is de.li.cious. It tastes like summer. It killed Scott a little to have to buy tomatoes since his aren’t ready yet -ha. (All the recipes are at the end of this post.) I’m of the opinion that putting an avocado with just about anything makes it better. You can use fresh corn on the cob but we opted for frozen sweet corn from Trader Joe’s. The very smell of cucumbers makes me want to rush outside. It is such a fresh summer smell.

I’m sure I will receive a lot of crap for this (probably deservedly so), but……..I don’t care for fresh onions. There. I’ve said it. The color of purple onions would round out this salad nicely and 99.9% of the world will put it in.

This Pecan Apple Slaw is a constant in our refrigerator this season. It’s light and easy to keep in the fridge for those quick food cravings. The juicy Craisins make it almost snack-like.

My sweet 21-year-old niece sent me a thank you text after they left to go back to Kansas City. She ended the text with “…and I neeeeeeed that zucchini boat recipe!” -ha! Again, these are easy to make and a great addition to just about any meal. The recipe came from Ina Garten so you know it’s trustworthy! We’ve made them several times and are always happy with the results. Crunchy and salty – my favorite combination.

The main dish was Caprese Chicken. For an easily prepared dish, it packed a lot of flavor. The key is fresh mozzarella and the balsamic glaze.

To be honest, we were introduced to balsamic glaze by a friend just last year. We’ve been ardent fans ever since. There are soooo many things you can use it on! It’s thicker than regular balsamic and adds the perfect tangy-sweet flavor to side dishes as well as many meats.

Maybe it’s just me, but drinks for a dinner can get a little stressful. Do you offer a million options or do you limit it to just a few? My answer for this very flavor-packed meal was to simply serve water. I used some inexpensive water decanters and placed mint leaves in milk white jars on the table. My neighbor gifted me with a starter lemon mint bush and wowzers has it grown! I can’t use enough mint to keep up. So even if it was just decoration and no one used it, it was worth trimming back my container and it added another natural element to the table.

We ended the evening with a HAPPY BIRTHDUATION cake for the people having birthdays and graduating high school. Had it not been for that, I would have gone with a simple Peanut Butter Pie. It’s another easy recipe you make ahead and is always a crowd pleaser.

And because we’re in California, the evenings can get a little chilly if the conversation lingers long enough. I rolled up some favorite throw blankets, put them into a basket and took it outside. When people started getting cool, they grabbed a blanket and the conversation never even paused. No searching for or asking about a blanket – it was right there at the ready when they needed it. (And bonus: it looked cute while it was waiting to serve!)

I hope these suggestions sparked a few ideas of your own. Gathering family and friends together (no dreaded ‘kids table’ separation!) is always my idea of a perfect evening. Multiple conversations interrupted only slightly by the ‘Could you please pass me the…’ requests is pure joy to me.

Before sharing the recipes with you at the bottom, will you indulge me in a few family shots from our Family Al Fresco evening??

Wishing you a season of good food, simple pleasures and all the bent-in-half-ugly-laughing your soul can take!

Corn Tomato Avocado Salad

INGREDIENTS
corn kernels from 1 large steamed corn on the cobb (1 cup)
5 ounces diced avocado from 1 medium avocado
1.5 cup diced Persian cucumbers (about 3 small)
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2T diced red onion
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt
fresh black pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS
Toss all ingredients together and serve.

Cranberry Pecan Slaw

INGREDIENTS
2) 11oz bagged cole slaw mix
1 large Gala or Honeycrisp apple – chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped pecan

Dressing:
3/4 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup sour cream (can substitute with yogurt)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2% honey
1/2 tsp salt

DIRECTIONS
1. Add slaw mix, apple, cranberries, pecans and onions to a large bowl. Too to mix all ingredients. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, add mayo, sour cream, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Whisk together until smooth. Pour 3/4 of dressing over slaw and toss until mixed well. Add remaining dressing if desired.
3. Serve immediately. Slaw can be stored, covered in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Toss slightly.

Zucchini Boats

INGREDIENTS
3-4 smallish zucchini
2T fresh parsley
2T fresh basil
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
3/4 cup panko
3.5T olive oil

DIRECTIONS
1. Cut the ends off the zucchini
2. Cut in half lengthwise
3. Scoop out center seeds (this is what makes it watery)
4. Put on a sheet pan and brush with oil and salt
5. Turn them over (scooped side down)
6. Cook at 425 degrees for 12 minutes
7. Turn them back over
8. Fill the cavity with panko mixture
9. Put them back in the oven for 8-10 minutes until browned and crisp

Chicken Caprese

INGREDIENTS

1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
1T olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp dry Italian seasoning
4 thick slices of ripe tomato
4 slices of fresh mozzarella cheese
2T balsamic glaze
2T thinly sliced basil

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat a grill over medium heat
2. Drizzle 1T of olive oil over chicken and season to taste with salt and pepper
3. Sprinkle Italian seasoning over the chicken
4. Place the chicken on the grill and cook for 3-5 minutes per side, or until done. Cook time will vary depending on the thickness of the chicken breasts
5. When chicken is done, top with a slice of cheese and cook for one more minute
6. Remove from heat and place chicken on a plate. Top each breast with a slice of tomato, thinly sliced basil and salt and pepper to taste
7. Drizzle with balsamic glaze and serve

Peanut Butter Pie

INSTRUCTIONS
1 graham cracker crust
1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream
1.5 cup creamy PB (or crunchy PB for more crunch)

DIRECTIONS

1. Soften ice cream enough to swirl in PB completely (considerably soft)
2. Mix in PB as evenly as possible
3. Pour into crust and freeze
4. Remove a few minutes before serving for easier cutting

Rosemary and Time

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When we first moved into our California house, there was a VERY overgrown bush tucked in between the oleander and a yet-to-be-determined hedge. It was overgrown and dead in places and clearly hadn’t been manicured or tended to for quite some time.

It was on the backlist of things to get around to.

Any yet, one day as we were clearing out another area of the yard, I wandered over and dug a little closer. As soon as I touched it’s branches I knew it was rosemary. Not the little rosemary we grew in clay pots back in the midwest, but a huge bush of an herb. And ohhhh, did it smell heavenly.

Scott got out his big hedge clippers and we went at it. I hesitated, thinking I should probably google when the best time was to trim back a rosemary bush, but it was in such bad shape we thought ‘what the heck’ – what could we possibly do that’s worse than how it looked now?!

As he cut and discarded, trimmed back and tossed out, I grabbed a few sprigs for myself.

And then I grabbed a few more…

An armload of the rosemary went to a new friend in California and the rest I took into the garage to let dry.

Instead of trimming it all the way down to the ground, we left a little of it to stretch out and breathe some fresh air, now that it was newly free to grow and spread with all the room we’d given it.

One evening we found ourselves in front of the tv to watch a christmas movie so I plopped down on the floor with the dried rosemary stems and stripped the herbs from each stem (insert an achy back but fingers that tingled with the aroma of fresh rosemary oils.)

I made the following recipes I want to share with you. We used our backyard rosemary but you could also use the fresh rosemary you buy at the grocery store or garden center.

  1. Lavender Rosemary Bath Salts (we even used dried lavender from the lavender bushes we planted earlier in the fall)
  2. Lemon and Rosemary Sugar Scrub
  3. Lemon Rosemary Bath Salts
  4. Williams-Sonoma Potpourri
  5. and even though I haven’t made it yet, I’m sharing a recipe for extracting rosemary oil to make essential oils and
  6. Infused-oil Rosemary

Our kitchen has been smelling fab.u.lous lately, I’ll tell you that!

First, this Lemon and Rosemary Sugar Scrub. Oh my! It smells unbelievable! Winter brings dry skin. Elbows, heels, arms and legs. They all suffer from the lack of moisture in the air. The defoliating properties in this sugar scrub are both healthy for your skin as well as a healthy aroma in the shower.

Rosemary oils are an antiseptic. They protect skin cells and are very good for your skin and hair.

Lemon and Rosemary Sugar Scrub

1C extra fine granulated sugar
1/2C grapeseed oil
2T dried rosemary leaves
1 tsp lemon essential oil
1/2 tsp rosemary essential oil
1/2 tsp lemon zest

Combine all ingredients together. If it’s too thick, add more grapeseed oil. Too thin, add more sugar.

Store in an airtight container.

Use within one month.

Williams-Sonoma Potpourri

2C water in a pot

Slice up one lemon – put in pot and bring to a boil

Add a few sprigs of rosemary

1/2 tsp vanilla

Simmer – adding water as needed

Lavender Rosemary Bath Salts

1C Himalayan sea salt
1C Epsom salt
1/2C coarse Kosher salt
10-20 drops lavender essential oil
2T crushed, dried rosemary (pulse in the food processor a few times)
2-3T dried lavender buds

Combine the salts, lavender buds and crushed rosemary

Add the essential oil and mix thoroughly

(You can add purple food coloring…I didn’t.)

Store in an airtight container.

Lavender is a go-to essential oil. It’s a stress reducer (perfect for bathtime, no?) and has anti-inflammatory properties. I usually go through my lavender oil more quickly than others because I use it a lot at night for relaxation and sleep. (Funny sidenote: Scott read somewhere that it causes men to lactate so that’s usually an ongoing joke at night too!) 

And speaking of Scott.

Another ongoing ‘joke’ between us since we first met is our ‘role reversal’ when it comes to bathing. Scott is a hard-core bath taker. (As are his parents before him.) He relaxes and enjoys it and I……well, I…….hate baths. (please don’t hate me!)

I know! I know! Everyone loves to take a bath, right? No. Not me. They make me impatient and the thought of sitting in non-moving water kind of grosses me out. Needless to say, they are NOT relaxing for me.

However! I do really really love soaking my feet in warm water with good stuff dissolved inside. Now THAT is very relaxing and rejuvenating. Plus it’s a good activity while bingeing on Mrs. Maisel.

So we will use these bath salts in different ways – but each enjoying our own version of healthy, indulgent self-care.

Lemon and Rosemary Bath Salts

By the way…we used rosemary and lavender buds from our backyard and (fingers crossed!) eventually we will be able to use the lemons off our lemon trees.)

2C Epsom salts
1/2C baking soda
2-3T fresh dried rosemary, finely chopped
8 drops lemon essential oil
2-3T lemon zest

Combine Epsom salt and baking soda

Add half the essential oil drops, mix, then add the remaining drops

Mix in chopped rosemary and lemon zest.

Store in an airtight container.

The next two rosemary recipes I plan to make next…

Rosemary Essential Oil

Fill a pot with water. Put a bowl (or use a double boiler) on top of the pot of water with 2-3 ounces of dried rosemary leaves.

Cover the leaves with 2C of grapeseed oil

Simmer on low heat for 3 hours

Seal and store in a cool, dark place

Infused Rosemary Oil

1 pint jar

Clean and dry your rosemary – make sure there’s no water on the rosemary

Warm the olive oil on low heat for a few minutes. Make sure you don’t get it hot – that destroys the healthy properties.

Put some rosemary sprigs in the pint jar.

Pour the warm olive oil over the rosemary and fill the jar. The warm oil begins the infusion process with the rosemary. Set aside to cool.

Once cooled, seal the jar and store in a dry, cool, dark place for one week to complete the infusion process. After the week, you can strain out the rosemary or leave it in until you’re ready to cook with it.

The Kitchn has a great recipe for freezing the extra herbs to use later on in cooking and other DIY rosemary projects.

I hope these give you some ideas on how to use fresh rosemary in a variety of ways. I’d love to hear how you use rosemary – or other herbs – and let me know if you use one of these recipes and how it turned out. No time to make the recipes right now? Well by all means – pin it for later, right?!

I love simple DIY projects that merely take – a little rosemary and time…
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