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A guide to entertaining outside in winter

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If you have an inviting outdoor area, you probably make the most of it in the summer months. But if you’d like to enjoy your outdoor spaces in winter, you’ll need a few extra comforts to make it warm and inviting for your guests. Here are 5 simple ways to improve your outdoor entertaining experience when the temperature cools and the sun umbrella gets packed away.

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Using a fire pit

Originally an American trend, outdoor fire pits and fireplaces are now popular here in Australia. Unlike a barbeque, they provide a comforting warmth and mesmerising focus that only an open fire can deliver.

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You can build your own fire pit relatively cheaply by digging a hole and lining it with stone pebbles or repurposing an old cut-down drum or metal container. If that’s not your speed, you can also purchase a kit from a hardware store. Alternatively, have a custom fire pit designed and built for you.

Whichever option you choose however, make sure you check your local council’s regulations regarding open fires, as each can have different requirements and some won’t allow you to have a fire in your backyard at all.

Fire pits come in all shapes and sizes, from copper, stainless steel and cast iron bowls to fire tables, chimney style options and gas fuelled units. Regardless of which style you opt for, be sure it is made from appropriate materials that can withstand heat and will properly contain the fire.

Some handy tips to keep in mind when installing a fire pit include;

  • Set it on a natural surface such as concrete, stone, gravel, brick, slate or a fire-resistant composite rather than on a wooden deck, where flying embers could start a fire. If you're building a home and have your heart set on a deck, make sure to consult with a decking professional on what the safest option will be.
  • Ensure it is a good distance from buildings, fences, shrubs and overhanging trees and not too close to your neighbours, where smoke can drift over the boundary.
  • Always extinguish your fire at the end of the night and use sand or dirt to smother it rather than water, which creates clouds of steam, sends ashes flying and makes it much harder to light the next time.

Outdoor furniture

The Australian climate, particularly near the coast, can be harsh on outdoor furniture, so purchasing good quality pieces that can withstand the elements will stand you in good stead for outdoor entertaining in winter.

Wood is often the favoured material for outdoor furniture as it’s easy style, not to mention wood has natural good looks. Prior purchasing, check that the timber furniture you're selecting are made with a type of wood that would withstand the weather and will look good all year round.

Other options man made wicker, which is eco-friendly and would last a lot longer than traditional wicker especially near the coast, anodised powdercoated aluminium, which has a high resistance to salt and humidity, concrete and plastic, which can withstand UV exposure providing you choose the right grade.

Outdoor rugs

Warmth underfoot is also important and an area rug can add an extra element of comfort and style to your outdoor entertainment area. Because it will be exposed to the elements though, you’ll need to look for rugs that offer a combination of durability and aesthetic appeal.

An outdoor rug will endure a fair amount of foot traffic, so it’s best to look for one that will maintain its shape and appearance. Flat weave rugs are a good choice, as they tend to shed less, minimising wear and their tight weave provides stability underfoot. They are also easy to spot clean with mild detergent and water and can even be treated with fabric protector to prevent stains being absorbed into the fibres.

If your rug is to be left outside all year round, it should ideally be weather-resistant. It should be moisture proof with a backing that prevents rainwater from pooling and UV and mildew and mould resistant if you live in a warmer climate.

Gripping power is also important and woven outdoor rugs made from jute or sisal are particularly good, as they are highly durable and cling to debris on shoes and feet, preventing dirt from being tracked into the house.

Warming winter recipes to hit the spot

So now that your outdoor entertaining area is decked out with all the comforts of home, it only remains to serve up a few winter recipes to keep your guests warm on the inside as well. While considering ingredients to fill your belly, remember to use sustainable products in your meals. Feather and Bone, a Marrickville-based butcher, has a lot of great information on how to eat better quality meat while not wasting any animal product. With that in mind, here are six of the most popular dishes when dining outdoors during winter;

  1. Chilli con carne - This is a great dish for using up any odd bits of vegetables you might have left over in the fridge. And it’s not only great comfort food on a chilly winter’s night (pun intended), but easy to make as well. Just heat olive oil in a pan, brown some mince, add onion, chilli and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent. Then stir in tomato paste and add tomatoes, beef stock, beans, oregano and cumin. Simmer for 20 minutes, season with salt and pepper and serve.
  2. Chicken parmigiana - A great pub favourite and perfect winter fare at home as well. To make just preheat your oven, season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper, dip in flour, then egg and coat in breadcrumbs. Saute in a pan of oil until golden brown, top with tomato paste, mozzarella and parmesan and bake in the oven about five to seven minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve.
  3. Madras beef curry - A good curry is one of the most satisfying dishes you can have during winter and this one’s a cinch to make. Heat oil in a pan and add chopped onion, ginger, garlic, chilli, curry powder, turmeric and mustard seeds and fry for one minute. Then add chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, coconut milk and coriander and stir together for one minute. Add the beef, transfer to a slow cooker and cook on low for six hours. Add sugar, yoghurt and cream and serve with basmati rice and naan.
  4. Chicken pesto pasta – Served steaming hot, what could be better on a cold winter’s night? To make the pesto, combine basil, pine nuts, grated parmesan and lemon juice in a processor and add olive oil until well combined. Sauté the chicken until lightly browned, stir though the pesto and cook for a few minutes. Cook some rigatoni and drain into a colander, then add to the pesto and stir well. Season with salt and pepper and serve topped with shaved parmesan.
  5. Chicken and vegetable soup - There’s no better comfort food than a steaming bowl of hearty soup and you can whip up this recipe in no time. Heat oil in a saucepan and add leek, garlic, carrot, celery, zucchini and swede. Cook for two minutes, then add chicken, chicken stock and one cup of cold water. Bring to the boil and then simmer on low for an hour. Remove chicken bones, roughly chop chicken meat, season with salt and pepper and serve in warm bowls.
  6. Creamy potato bake - This is a mouth-watering winter dish that’s easy to prepare and is enough to feed a crowd. Combine cream and milk in a saucepan and cook on low heat for two minutes. Arrange potato slices in a greased ovenproof dish, sprinkle with onion, salt and pepper and some of the cream mixture. Continue layering to the top of the dish. Cover with foil and bake in the oven for one hour, then for a further 30 minutes uncovered until golden brown. Sprinkle with parmesan and serve piping hot.

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