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Not Ready to Dine Out? Try Dining Outside

“Remember restaurants?” For the last two months and counting, this sentence has been a mainstay of my conversations with fellow social isolators. If you’d told me last winter that I was going to spend two months confined to my own house and yard, I wouldn’t have named going out to eat as one of the things I’d miss most. But it turns out I do miss it. It’s not just the food — although I miss that more and more, as my cooking skills plateau. It’s the experience I miss, the invented occasion of it all. I miss the dithering over what to eat and where to eat it. I miss the anticipation once the decision has been made. I miss getting dressed up just a little, the making witty small talk with strangers at the bar, the running into friends.

Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, going out to socialize with others over food and drink has become an essential part of living in a civilized society. Whether it’s haute cuisine or diner slop, going out to eat allows us to turn a basic biological need into a ritual of communion with friends, neighbors, even strangers. It’s a low-key way to indulge our vices and at the same time elevate our palates.

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It’s been a long time without this ritual, and I confess that sometimes it comes out ahead of public health in my daydreams about the end of quarantine. But even as restrictions gradually begin to ease up, I’m still not feeling ready to return to my local bar or pizza shop. (It doesn’t help that they’re packed with people just like me, desperate for friendly faces and something new to eat.)

If, like me, you’re getting desperate for the restaurant experience, but you’re not comfortable just yet with full-fledged public dining, allow me to suggest the fix of dining al fresco.

I’m not just talking about eating takeout on your back porch. I’m not even talking about grilling. I’m talking about moving the whole operation outdoors: setting up a camp stove and cooking a proper dinner over an open fire. Hell, why not make it gourmet while you’re at it? This endeavor is all about making cooking interesting again by setting yourself a challenge: To plan and prepare a meal at the height of your abilities, within the unconventional conditions of the outdoors and the limits of your camping gear.

It spikes the mundane act of cooking with a little Top Chef unpredictability. It forces you to think differently about cooking, like solving a puzzle. And it’s an established fact that everything tastes better outside.

Plus, now that restrictions are allowing for small groups to gather, you can feel okay about inviting a friend or two. The outdoors offers the added security of being less hospitable to the airborne virus. That, plus a few other perks like watching the sunset over dessert, and enjoying the wonderful weather before big season is in full swing.

As tired as we all are of quarantine gimmicks, this is one novelty that you’ll likely want to bring along into the new life as we know it. Read our tips for al fresco dining, then round up a couple of healthy friends, order a grocery delivery, and get out there to see what you and your camping gear can do.

Stove

As stated above, the idea here is that you’re going as gourmet as you can with non-gourmet equipment. So back away from the gas grill, the pellet smoker, and the Big Green Egg, and focus instead on how to make your camp stove perform to the top of its ability.

Tupike Stove

Of course, there are camp stoves and then there are camp stoves. I’m fully infatuated with Primus’ Tupike Stove, which is expressly designed for a kitchen-like experience in the great outdoors. But if you’ve historically disdained the trappings of car camping for a backpacker’s spartan setup, bite the bullet already and get yourself a deluxe camp stove like the dual-burner Tupike or even the BioLite BaseCamp Pizza Dome, a marvel of thermoelectric genius with an integrated thermometer and a real ceramic base. Trust us, you’ll use it again — not just for camping, but for beach parties, tailgate sessions, and rustic soirees like the one you’re enjoying now.

Lights

We eat with our eyes first, and you’re going to want good lighting to see your creations. Plus, the right lighting is what turns up the glamour factor on an outdoor meal. Since there’s no packing weight limit, we recommend busting out every option you’ve got, from cafe-style string lights to lanterns to candles in jam jars (here are some of our favorite lights for camping).

Seating

Let’s lay down a universal law: if you don’t have a camp table to pair with your camp chairs, forego the whole setup and opt instead for a blanket on the ground. The reason is obvious: eating over your lap in a camp chair sucks. It’s fine for gobbling hot dogs and s’mores, but it doesn’t lend itself to enjoying a gourmet meal. By comparison, reclining on the ground is a lot more comfortable and lends itself to eating. (Just ask the ancient Romans.)

dining al fresco
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Honestly, you’ll want the blanket anyway if you’re planning on a post-meal hang. Just make sure to lay down a tarp underneath to keep you and your dining companion dry and warm, or use a  that combines both stylish looks and rugged resilience. Elevate the setting by bringing the indoors outside—pile some cushions and a cozy throw or two in the corners of the blanket, to create a more intimate and upscale setting for your fancy meal.

Fire

What’s a camp without a fire? If you’re setting up in a place with a fire pit, you’re way ahead of the game already. But if you’re not, you can approximate the experience with a portable fire pit, which offers the added benefit of keeping the telltale signs off your lawn.

Drinks

Sure, you could just crack open a couple of beers, but why not take the opportunity to do it up a little? Outdoor-friendly mixology is about striking that perfect ratio between convenience and class — you don’t want to haul an entire bar cart outside, but you do want your dining companion to sip the beverage and be impressed with your resourcefulness as represented in the drink.

For those reasons, we suggest classic 2 or 3-ingredient cocktails, such as a Paloma, a whiskey sour, or a Dark and Stormy. With spot-on proportions and a dash of bitters, you’ll enjoy a drink that rivals any from your usual watering hole.

Recipes

Given the personal challenge nature of this endeavor, we hardly need to say that running back inside for ingredients constitutes cheating. So make sure to plan and prepare well, just as you would if you were making this dinner in the wild. Since you’re cooking on a camp stove, you’re going to need to keep things simple. Fortunately, with the weather hovering in spring/summer, there are plenty of options for fresh, ripe flavor. Start with a versatile base like pizza dough, pasta, or a forgiving piece of meat or fish, then layer on flavorful marinades, fresh herbs, and texture ingredients like nuts or raw chopped vegetables. For side dishes, you can grill seasonal vegetables over the stove, or even roast them on skewers over the fire like you would a hot dog, then toss with a great olive oil or your favorite imported cheese. For dessert, opt for a campfire classic like apple or blueberry crisp, or else elevate a classic s’more with artisanal marshmallows and fancy chocolate.

Cleanup

It should go without saying that you save cleanup for the next day. But if you want to make it extra easy on yourself, fill a big tub or plastic bin with warm soapy water outside and put all your pots, pans, dishes and silverware into it when you’re done using them. Not only does soaking your dishes allow you to leave them outside without attracting critters, but tomorrow, you can simply haul the tub back into your kitchen, rinse them down, and load them into the dishwasher.

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