Get out of the kitchen: How to turn a picnic into an alfresco feast

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With a fire, a sturdy pot and a bit of creativity, it's amazing what you can cook outdoors.

Given the recent swell of warm weather that we've been enjoying, chances are that you might have taken a few of your meals outdoors. Whether it's a leisurely picnic at the weekend or an evening supper in the garden, there's certainly something special about dining outside.

But as our window of opportunity for eating al fresco is rather limited in this country, it could be said that we never quite get to grips with catering for meal times in the open air. Soggy sandwiches in the park or a few burnt sausages on the barbecue are all too often the result of a British attempt at venturing into the great outdoors.

However, the television chef and food writer Phil Vickery is determined to make us realise the potential that cooking outside has to offer. A long-time fan of moving meals out of the dining room and into open spaces, Vickery has written a book, The Great Outdoors Cookbook. With chapters dedicated to barbecuing, cooking on wood fires, picnics, Dutch ovens and creating feasts on simple gas-stove burners, it's the ultimate guide to cooking outside for any occasion. Whether you're camping with the family, planning a birthday picnic or want to throw a dinner party in the garden, there are more than 140 recipes to inspire you to get adventurous.

To prove not only how fun it is to cook outdoors but also how simple it can be, Vickery has invited me out to the country to show me first hand the joys of creating a meal in the open air. In fact, Vickery is so convinced of the benefits of eating outside that he quickly informs me that he even braves it during the winter months. "I do this all year round," he enthuses. "It's really great to do with the family, they love it. We come in the winter, light a fire and cook bacon and eggs. It's just nice being outside. I try to get out as much as I can. It can be hard to move kids away from the television but they find cooking outdoors an exciting thing to do."

Because I want to be shown how to prepare a hearty meal with minimum equipment and ingredients, I have asked to be shown how to cook three full dishes from the book: polpettine with tomato, black olive and basil sauce; a courgette, pea and parmesan pilaff; and sautéed chicken with lime, peppers, mango and coriander.

The polpettini, or mini meatballs, are to be cooked in a Dutch oven, a method that dates back hundreds of years. "When the Dutch went to America they took this with them," Vickery explains, holding up a nondescript large cooking pot with a lid. "The point was they could cook in it, bake in it, anything. It was a one-pot cooking utensil that could hang above a fire or, because it has three short legs on its base, it can actually sit just above the fire."

While safety should be a primary concern, don't be afraid about lighting a small fire in your garden. After digging a shallow hole, you place the coals in and light it. Vickery recommends surrounding the fire with brick to set the parameters and so you can keep the set-up there all summer, should you want to.

"People are really starting to pick up on this way of cooking," claims Vickery. "It's getting quite trendy. For instance, when I first started this book about 10 years ago, you could buy maybe one of these things on the internet; now you can buy 20 or 30. And they're incredibly cheap. They'll only set you back about £20."

Once the fire is going and the Dutch oven has heated up, it is just like cooking on a hob in the kitchen, adding the ingredients in the correct order until there is nothing to do but wait for it to simmer, and stir it occasionally. Only it's much more exciting than cooking in the kitchen. It feels adventurous. Once everything is in, you can put coals on the deep-rimmed lid, thereby heating the dish from the top as well and creating an oven effect.

"I love this way of cooking," Vickery continues. "I'd sooner do this than a barbecue. There's something quite earthy about it and you'll get some of the smoke in the flavour of the food, which really adds to it."

For this type of cooking, preparation really is key. Every ingredient has been measured out beforehand and carefully packaged up, so once the fire is going and the pot has heated up, it's just a case of throwing everything in. Perhaps cooking a full meal outside really is simpler than I anticipated.

"It takes a bit of organising," warns Vickery. "Get as much done as you can before you go. Then when you're where you need to be, you're physically cooking, you're not preparing." Obviously sometimes this is easier said than done but a little planning goes a long way in outdoor-cooking situations.

Next, Vickery wants to show me that cooking on a one-ring gas-stove burner needn't mean merely warming up a tin of baked beans. We are going to cook a chicken dish (chicken!) on it and then the vegetarian pilaff. Again, it is just like cooking on a stove at home, but the beauty of these one-pot dishes is that they are quick, so you won't spend an inordinate amount of time hunched over a stove, protecting the flame from the wind.

The recipes are straightforward, cheap and because they are all one-pot dishes, really rather idiot-proof. Vickery purposefully uses the minimum number of ingredients to make things easier, without sacrificing nutrition or flavour. "I came out of Michelin-starred cooking about 10 years ago because it just didn't excite me anymore," explains Vickery. "It was full of people with expense accounts who didn't appreciate what you were doing. It didn't fulfil me. I wrote an article about how chefs were cooking what they thought they should be cooking, not what they wanted to cook themselves. Now I like to do the food that I want to do and this is exactly what I want to do. Minimum of fuss, great ingredients, not mucked about with. I like to keep it dead simple. I love doing one-pot meals. It just has to look colourful and it's got to taste great."

Once you have the equipment – which can easily be found in camping stores or over the internet – and the know-how to get a fire going safely, there's nothing stopping you from experimenting with any number of recipes. The book also shows you other methods of cooking outdoors, including, somewhat surprisingly, extolling the virtues of disposable barbecues, which Vickery claims you can use in a similar fashion to a hob. "Oh absolutely – they give off enough heat and you can buy them anywhere," he says.

So why not delight your friends by giving a dinner party in the garden, with the whole meal produced in a Dutch oven? Or get the children interested in preparing meals by heading to the woods?

Because as much as we Brits like to moan about the weather, we still get ample opportunity to take things al fresco, and you might surprise yourself with what you can rustle up on an open fire. And, most importantly, as Vickery's father would often say to his mother: "Doesn't food just taste better outside?"

"The Great Outdoors Cookbook" by Phil Vickery is published on 26 May by Kyle Books, RRP £18.99. To order this book at the special price of £14.99 (including P&P), go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk or call 0843 060 0030.

Sautéed chicken with lime, peppers, mango & coriander

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10–15 minutes

Ingredients:

Serves 4

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 chicken thighs, boned
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoon mango chutney
4 tablespoon chopped coriander
280g jar chargrilled red and yellow peppers, well drained and chopped
Juice of 2 large limes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Natural yogurt and flour tortillas, to serve

Method:

Heat the oil in a non-stick medium frying pan over a high heat.

Meanwhile, cut the thigh meat, including the skin, into 2cm pieces. Place in the hot pan and season well with salt and pepper. Cook over a high heat, stirring occasionally, until the chicken starts to take on a little colour.

Add the onion and cook for 6–7 minutes, or until the chicken is just cooked through. Add the mango chutney, coriander, peppers and lime juice and stir well. Serve with yogurt and flour tortillas.

Polpettini with tomato, black olive & basil sauce

Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 20–25 minutes

Ingredients:

Serves 4

For the polpettini

600g turkey mince
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove
1 medium egg
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

1 small onion, finely chopped
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
150g pitted black olives
3 teaspoons sugar
Dash of any vinegar
1 vegetable stock cube
4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Pitta bread, to serve

Method:

Mix the mince with the onion, the garlic, egg, lemon zest and juices and seasoning. Form the mixture into small balls, each the size of a walnut. Heat the base of the Dutch oven. Add the onion, tomatoes, olives, sugar, vinegar and a dash of water. Crumble in the stock cube and bring to the boil. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the meatballs, and coat in the sauce. Cover with the Dutch oven lid, pile on a few coals and gently simmer for a further 15 minutes.

Stir in the basil, season again to taste, and serve with torn pitta bread.

Courgette, pea and parmesan pilaff

Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

Serves 2

4 small sachets of mayonnaise (or 4 tablespoon of oil)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 mugfuls of basmati (or 2 mugfuls long-grain rice)
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoon cumin seeds
Small glass of white wine (optional)
1 vegetarian stock cube
1 small courgette, cut into 1cm cubes
220g can chickpeas, drained
Handful of frozen peas, defrosted
4 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
Handful of grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Heat the mayonnaise or oil in a medium saucepan, with a tight-fitting lid. Add the onion, turmeric and cumin seeds and cook for 3–4 minutes until the onion are soft. Add the rice, wine (if using), crumbled stock cube, 4 mugfuls of water, the courgette, chickpeas, frozen peas and coriander. Season well with salt and pepper, and then bring to the boil, while stirring.

Cover the pan with the lid, turn the heat right down, and cook for roughly 15 minutes, or until the rice is cooked and the water absorbed. You will be amazed at how little heat is required, if you have a tight-fitting lid.

Once cooked, remove the lid and fluff up with a spoon or fork, stir in the parmesan and serve.

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