Planning an Outdoor Dinner Party

Hosting outdoor parties during the summer months can be successful and enjoyable by sticking to some basic tenents: make ahead, make it simple, make it flavorful, make it colorful.

It’s July, mid-summer: the lush green time of ease and plenty. The sun glints off the water as dusk approaches, that magic hour when the light bounces off the water’s surface. A breeze comes up as I put the finishing touches on the makeshift table placed on the grass in front of our house. This table, made elegant with a few simple touches, was cobbled together from sawhorses and old doors and covered with vintage linens. I set the four handblown cruets down the center of the table, each filled with flowers from the garden. All is perfect for our 30th wedding anniversary party as family and friends gather to help us celebrate.

Hosting outdoor parties during the summer months can be successful and enjoyable by sticking to some basic tenents: make ahead, make it simple, make it flavorful, make it colorful. Summertime entertaining should be easy; plan a menu that can be made ahead of time so that you can be part of the party with your guests.

The setting is key. Don’t stick to the same old patio barbecue; move the party to the lawn, or under a tree; use your imagination. Add colorful linens; red, white and blue is perfect for summer, but bright greens are fun, too. Vintage cloths look good anytime, and you can even use old Indian print bedspreads for a festive, fanciful look.

I’ve planned a menu that you can prepare at least a day ahead (except for the actual cooking of the meat) and brought to room temperature before the guests arrive. Brined meats are perfect summer fare because the meat soaks in a flavorful brining (sugar and salt) solution while you attend to the rest of the menu. Brining is an old technique for preserving foods. It works well in modern times to infuse meats with deep flavor with little fuss from the cook.

The dishes offered here are simple foods with a twist: cilantro and lime juice in the cole slaw, asparagus in the potato salad and salsa made from mangos instead of tomatoes. Check your local farmers’ markets for ingredients.  Add a salad of fresh summer greens and you’re done!

Summer Brined Turkey

1 14-15 pound turkey, giblets discarded, rinsed

1 cup sea salt or kosher salt

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup honey

½ cup white wine vinegar

4 bay leaves

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds

1 tablespoons allspice berries

2 tablespoons black peppercorns

2 onions, peeled and quartered

3 to 4 stalks of celery

3 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly smashed

Oil for roasting pan

Place turkey in a large deep pot that will hold it snugly.

In about a quart of water, combine salt, sugar and honey; stir until dissolved and pour over turkey. Add vinegar, bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce, mustard seeds, allspice berries and peppercorns. Add onions, celery, garlic and enough water to cover turkey. Cover pot and leave in a cool place, like the refrigerator, overnight.

About 4 hours before you want to eat, take turkey out of refrigerator. Remove it from the brine and dry off with paper towels, brushing off spices. Let it come to room temperature in a roasting pan.

Roast in a 350 degree oven for 3 ½ hours or until juices run clear when turkey is pierced with a knife. Or, grill over indirect heat on outdoor grill for about 3 hours or until juices run clear (based on 15 minutes per pound).

Let turkey rest for about 15-20 minutes, tented with aluminum foil, before carving.

Brine-Cured Pork Chips

12 servings

3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup kosher salt

20 black peppercorns

10 juniper berries

5 bay leaves

1/8 cup fennel seeds

1 generous cup mixed fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano), stems included

1 quart boiling water

3 quarts cold water

12 center-cut pork chops

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients, except water, chops and olive oil, in a large non-metal container. Add boiling water and stir to completely dissolve the sugar and salt. Stir in the cold water to cool the brine.

Put the chops into a 2-quart zip-lock bag and add the brine (have someone hold the bag open while you pour). You can also lay the chops out flat in one layer in a non-metal pan and cover them with brine. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate from 12 to 24 hours; more time means more flavor.

Heat a grill or broiler. Drain chops, discard brine and pat dry with paper towels.

Brush chops with olive oil and grill or broil for 5 to 8 minutes per side depending on thickness of the chops. When done, set aside on a platter for about 5 minutes, covered with foil.

Potato Salad with Bacon

Serves 6

3 pounds medium red boiling potatoes, scrubbed well

1 pound medium asparagus, trimmed

6 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 stalks celery, diced into ¼-inch pieces

1 cup finely chopped onion

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

1/3 cup finely chopped sweet gherkin pickles

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

7 tablespoons white vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

11/4 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Cut potatoes in half if large; steam in a vegetable steamer set over boiling water in a 4 to 5 quart pot, covered, until easily pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes. (Don’t overcook or potatoes will fall apart). Transfer to cutting board.

Cook asparagus in a 4- to 5-quart pot of salted water (about 3 teaspoons salt), uncovered, until just tender, about 3 minutes. Transfer with tongs to a bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain and pat dry. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Add to large bowl.

Cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer with slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, reserving drippings in skillet.

When potatoes have cooled, cut into 1/2-inch slices. Add to bowl with asparagus along with bacon, celery, onion, parsley and pickle.

Heat bacon drippings; add oil, then whisk in vinegar, sugar, mustard, salt and pepper and cook, stirring and scraping up brown bits, 30 seconds.  Taste and adjust for seasoning.  Immediately pour hot dressing over potato salad and toss to coat.

Coleslaw with Lime & Cilantro

1 medium cabbage, about 3 pounds, outer leaves and core removed

½ jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 medium red onion, diced

1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 to 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

¼ to 1/3 cup olive oil

11/2 tsp sea salt or kosher salt

Ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of sugar or more to taste

Finely shred cabbage and add to large bowl with  jalapeno, onion and cilantro leaves.

Combine lime juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and sugar. Whisk together and taste, adjusting seasoning. Pour dressing over cabbage mixture and toss to coat. Let slaw sit for 1 hour, tossing occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Mango Salsa

Makes about 7 cups

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

1/3 cup fresh lime juice

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 ½ tablespoons honey

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground

4 large mangoes, ripe or semi- ripe, peeled, pitted and cut into ½-inch cubes

1 small red pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

1 small red onion, peeled and chopped

24 mint leaves, thinly sliced.

Whisk citrus juices, oil, honey, garlic 2 ½ teaspoons salt, cayenne, oregano and cumin together in a large nonreactive (not metal) bowl.  Add mangoes, red pepper, onions and toss well. Adjust seasonings.

Add mint to salsa just before serving and toss well again. You can let salsa rest at room temperature or in the refrigerator before serving.

Great when served with grilled meats.

Watermelon Ice

Makes about 4 ½ cups

My ice cream maker* only accomodates about 3 to 4 cups of liquid.  When making this ice for a crowd, I double the recipe but make one batch at a time.

1 cup water

¾ cup sugar

4 ½ pounds watermelon, pared, seeded

Watermelon spears

Combine water and sugar in small saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves; continue to cook, without stirring, to boiling. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 5 minutes; refrigerate covered until cold, about 1 hour.

Puree seeded watermelon in a food processor or blender; strain (you should have 3 cups of juice); discard fibers. (I sometimes add back some of the pulp to make a richer ice.)  Stir puree into cold syrup.

Freeze in ice cream maker following manufacturer’s instructions. Scoop into airtight container and freeze until ready to use. This ice will freeze very solid.

To serve, take out of freezer about 20 minutes before serving. Scrape with a heavy spoon or ice cream scoop into bowls. Garnish with watermelon spears.

*If you don’t have an ice cream maker, pour mixture into a flat 2-quart serving dish and put into freezer (make sure dish is not tilted). After about 1/2 hour, take a fork and scrape it through the ice mixture. Do this several more times until ice is frozen.


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