Woody Allen once described himself as “at two with nature,” Boy, can I relate. My lack of outdoorsiness is legendary in my family, so much so that my siblings sardonically refer to me as “Deepwoods Dogie,” a variant of my husband’s pet name for me, Dogie.
But Deepwoods Dogie does love herself an outdoor party, when conditions are right. Really, is there anything more glorious than sipping, noshing and gabbing with friends in the splendor of a gorgeous Kansas City evening? Conversely, is there anything worse than going to an outdoor party where you’re miserable because it is too hot, too cold, too windy, too noisy, too wet or too buggy?
All too often, well-meaning hosts will plan outdoor parties and then, when the weather isn’t good, find themselves without a Plan B. I’m sure you can remember at least one occasion when you’ve been invited to some outdoor thing, only to stand wretchedly in the drizzle or extreme heat, while the hostess prattles on about how it isn’t so bad after all.
Some of the best parties I’ve ever been to were actually the deployment of Plan B, events where we’ve all been shuffled inside because the hostess had the good sense to move everyone indoors. When playing host on these occasions, it’s important to remember that if you think your indoor space is too small, it probably isn’t. People like to be at a party where the room is packed. We all like to be where the action is.
Honey, you don’t need fancy
My husband and I live in a modestly sized “Kansas City shirtwaist” home in south Hyde Park. Our crib boasts no landscaped lawns, no sculptured gardens, no teak patio furniture. What we do possess is a shady, back deck with comfortable seating, a good sound system, and easy access to the kitchen. These three elements, I’ve come to realize, are the most important for outdoor entertaining.
Oh, and a good supply of Yard Guard outdoor foggers, the only insect repellent that really works. (I spray it on everything, including the patio furniture, 45 minutes before people arrive. And then I keep some Off! handy for that guest—there is one in every crowd—who is irresistible to mosquitos.) Here are some ideas for super-casual outdoor gatherings.
Recipe for a last-minute outdoor cocktail party
You never need an excuse for a spontaneous outdoor gathering. Simply that the weather is gorgeous is reason enough. Here’s a perfectly respectable drinks party you can pull together quickly, after a day of puttering around your garden: for beverage choices, offer white wine, gin-and-tonics and vodka sodas. For food, put out good cheese and crackers, a bowl or two of nuts and some dried fruit. You are not inviting people for dinner, after all. Your guests can admire your handiwork, have a drink and a snack, and move on for dinner somewhere else. But remain flexible because what might happen is you all sink back in your chairs with your adult beverages, the conversation gets good, and someone allows as how it sure would be easy just to order a couple pizzas. Others might quickly agree and soon you’re on the horn with Minsky’s, and then you’re having a casual, relaxed dinner with friends … and that’s what summer is all about, isn’t it?
Potluck but not really
Here’s a format for a casual summer get-together with good friends. You do a grilled main course, say Mojito chicken, marinated flank steak, or Pacific Rim pork (see recipe for the latter on the opposite page). You ask guests to bring sides, brilliantly coordinated by you to avoid the ingredient overlap that so easily can happen if you just declare it to be potluck. You could ask one friend to bring a ratatouille (Craig Claiborne’s is amazing—Google it) and another to bring their favorite potato salad or fresh corn pudding and perhaps a third to bring a watermelon and feta salad. For dessert I recommend the Barefoot Contessa’s peach-raspberry crisp. (I have recipes—email me at email@example.com)
Other random thoughts about outdoor entertaining
• If you are planning a large, outside spring or summer party and are trying to decide whether or not to rent a tent, rent the tent. Tents have saved a lot of great parties from disaster. And your peace of mind is worth it.
• Lighting is critical. Invest in some sturdy hurricane lanterns, the more the better, in varying sizes, and some fat candles to glow inside them. I love the look of little glimmering lanterns suspended from a pergola, patio umbrella, canopy or overhanging tree. I also like to see flickering tiki torches—although they do nothing whatever to repel insects—and tiny, sparkling fairy lights, but not directly over where people are sitting.
• For a grilling party, choose several make-ahead or store-bought items for sides and starters. Trying to grill meat, vegetables, and bread all at the same time will stress you out and in turn, your guests—even if they love hanging around the grill.
• If younger kids are on the guest list, they will love you for having sidewalk chalk and bubbles.
• If your party is in the hot sun, have a box of sunhats, baseball caps and sunscreen for guests to grab. Add four-star style with an ice bucket of spray-mist water bottles.
• Chill wine in a flash by placing the bottle in a bucket and adding a layer of ice, followed by a layer of salt. Repeat until you almost reach the top. Fill the bucket with cold water to just below the ice line. Your wine will be cold in less than 10 minutes.
• If you want to serve drinks or dinner outside, and you don’t have enough chairs to go around, get creative. Move your sofa outside, scatter a couple of blankets and pillows, or drag out a mattress, cover it with a pretty blanket and pillows, and turn it into a lounge area. Even folding chairs can be dressed up with fun cushions and throws. Attractive folding-chair covers are available online for a song. (Just Google “folding chair covers.”)
I was a proud member of the steering committee for Above and Beyond Parsley, the third cookbook of the Junior League of Kansas City, Missouri. The recipe below is contained therein. For years, I made it for every summer dinner party because it’s so delicious and relatively easy.
A Wicked Good Entrée for Summer Dinner Parties
Pacific Rim Tenderloin Serves 6
1 two-pound pork tenderloin
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons dry sherry
2 tablespoons firmly packed light-brown sugar
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup roasted peanuts, chopped
½ cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup catsup
½ cup pineapple juice
1/4 cup cider vinegar
½ teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup water
For marinade: Combine all ingredients and stir well. Pour into a large, resealable plastic bag and add tenderloin. Seal and refrigerate for eight hours, turning occasionally.
Remove tenderloin from marinade. Grill six inches from hot coals for 30 to 35 minutes, turning often. To serve, slice thinly and garnish with roasted peanuts. Present with warm sauce.
For sauce: in a saucepan combine all ingredients except cornstarch and water. Bring mixture to a boil. Mix cornstarch and water, then add to sauce and stir to thicken. Serve warm.