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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Summer's here, officially. You can almost hear the sizzle of burgers being thrown on grills across the country and the pop of millions of beer cans opening. Of course, there's more to summer eating that backyard barbeques.

Food writer and cook Nigella Lawson is a big proponent of elegance. She sees no reason why outdoor parties can't be simple and classy, as well. She joined us from London on a rainy day to offer some tips. Good morning.

Ms. NIGELLA LAWSON (Food Writer, Cook): Good morning to you.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about that word, simple. It seems that most outdoor get-togethers are informal almost by definition. But what would you say is also essential to make it just right?

Ms. LAWSON: Well, I think that there's a certain sort of informality that works. I mean, I always think that you can go one of two ways, really. You can make a virtue of the picnic-type qualities and not have a proper tablecloth, have everything just piled around. Or you can say this is summer, the garden is beautiful. Let's add a little bit of (unintelligible) to the proceedings.

Let's maybe put pink linen on the tables so the green looks greener, little roses in sugar bowls so that they're small and sweet, and that sort of French thing that is a way of being charming about the sunshine and yet, at the same time, not making a bit thing of it.

MONTAGNE: Well, how formal should this informal occasion be?

Ms. LAWSON: Well, I think you can be formal, as long as you're not, in a way, doing with the food or the table linens, the equivalent of going out into harsh sunlight in a tight, black cocktail dress. That somehow looks contrived, and it looks almost dusty. And I also think that it's really about cutting back on the food you do, so the food you make is simple and delicious, but it isn't fancy.

I think that any sort of al-fresco celebration, and especially as - you know, perhaps it is a celebration now and not just a regular lunch - that you can say let's have a cocktail. I don't mean the sort of cocktail that really needs to be drunk in a bar on a leather stool.

MONTAGNE: I gather, though, you also, when it comes to wine, are open to a particular grape that, up until recently, no self-respecting wine drinker would drink.

Ms. LAWSON: Well, I have no worries about pleasing wine purists. In fact, I'm sure it's still sneered at. But for me, summer is rose wine, and I love it. It's a taste of summer.

I tend to prefer it with a bit of club soda in it and ice, which probably is even more shocking for wine drinkers. And - but I have some French friends who always, as they sit - you know, out looking at their lavender, with that beautiful grey stone everywhere - and they have their rosé wine with club soda, and they get a vegetable peeler and shave a bit of orange off to go inside. That is fantastic.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to the food. Actually, with all this thought of cocktails, probably we better get to the food before we…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAWSON: We don't get light-headed.

MONTAGNE: Weaving our way out of this conversation. You know, a lot of people come to a lunch or an afternoon meal out in the sun with the idea that they maybe don't want to have meat or eat the chicken or the steak or whatever's on offer as the main course, but something a bit lighter. What else would you offer?

Ms. LAWSON: I think that's right. I think that's right. I often get some short pasta, which I cook. And then to the last few minutes of its cooking, just steam or pop in some asparagus tips and then just toss the cooked, drained pasta with the asparagus tips, a bit of fresh ricotta and maybe some grated lemon zest. It's very easy to do and has that festivity about it.

It feels celebratory because, after all, asparagus is somehow a special summer food, and yet it's light and just that bit different. So that tends to go down well. And, in fact, it's so simple that you certainly can put it on the table alongside a plain roast chicken if you wanted to.

MONTAGNE: And I'm guessing there'll always be a green salad, or some version of that.

Ms. LAWSON: I think there's always a green salad. I always like a bit of good bread on the table. But I certainly think salad is always fine, and it doesn't have to be a plain green salad. You can add almost anything to it - cut-up radishes, sugar snaps, anything that's in season. And you know, pudding I think is important.

People might say they want to eat a light lunch, but there is something that makes it more of a treat if you have something sweet to end it with. I mean, I think that, without wishing to be - you know, without wishing to be a total imperialist, I think that the English have it. Having strawberries and cream is pretty hard to beat.

MONTAGNE: And I love - you have to know, of course, that when you segue quickly into pudding, that, of course, means dessert to Brits.

Ms. LAWSON: Yes, that's right. It's a very old-fashioned - you're right, and probably only to me, because I still speak like my mother. But nevertheless, you're right - dessert, something sweet. I sometimes do a strawberry meringue layer cake, which is beautiful to look at. It's slightly absurd. It's fat and proud and tall. However, it's almost embarrassingly simple to make. So…

MONTAGNE: When you say it's not such a hard cake to put together, walk us through it.

Ms. LAWSON: Really, all you do is you've got your eggs and your sugar and your butter and your flour. Separate the eggs, beating up all the ingredients as you would normally, but you just put the egg yolks in. So you've got a summer yellow sponge.

It's a small layer. You've got less than two tins, two round - basic, round tins. Whisk the egg whites, and on top of the sponge in the pans, you just layer your egg whites and sugar that you've beaten together. Put a few bits of almonds on top and bake them as you would an ordinary cake, and then simply, when you want to serve it, you put some strawberries and cream on top of one them and then place the second cake on top.

So there it is, this yellow stripe of sponge crowned with meringue and toasted nuts. And yet you haven't done everything in different layers. You've just put everything in the oven together.

MONTAGNE: Nigella, thank you. This sounds like fun. I'm looking forward to doing most or if not all of what you've just suggested.

Ms. LAWSON: I only wish I had some sun. Although I quite like the rain, as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Okay, take care.

Ms. LAWSON: And you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Food writer and cook Nigella Lawson joined us from London. To plan your own garden party, visit npr.org. You'll find those recipes Nigella spoke of, including that strawberry meringue layer cake, sitting slightly absurdly on the grass. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

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