Hot Time, Summer in the City

It’s summertime in K.C., the best time of the year for spending time with friends. Merrily offers ideas for late summer parties that are minimum effort and maximum fun

When Shakespeare scribbled that line about the winter of our discontent being made glorious summer, do you think he was picturing frozen margaritas? Because that’s what I think of when I think of glorious summer. I think of unwinding with friends on a Friday night, yukking it up over a few snacks and a pitcher of frozen ‘ritas.

Hosting a Margarita Night is an easy way for the busy host, hostess or two-headed hosting unit to gather friends on a summer night. It goes like this: call, text or e-mail your posse at some point during the week, with the idea of having margaritas on your deck/terrace/porch/patio/veranda/balcony, and then of proceeding for dinner to one of our area’s many excellent Mexican restaurants. Have that be the plan, anyway. But remain flexible because what might happen is you all sink back in your chairs with your frosty adult beverages, the conversation gets good, and someone allows as how it sure would be easy just to order a couple of pizzas. Others might quickly agree and soon you’re on the horn with Minsky’s. Or you might actually stay on plan and go to the restaurant. Either way, you’ve had a casual, relaxed evening with your friends … and that’s what summer is all about, isn’t it?

I useta could make a blender full of my frozen margaritas in three minutes flat. But alas, Minute Maid inexplicably stopped making their 6 ounce size of limeade, Now it takes four minutes because you have to measure the tequila and tequila mix, instead of being able to use the limeade can for a measuring cup. You can email me for the recipe. While these margaritas are not particularly auténtico, they are tangy, refreshing and concocted from ingredients you can keep on hand at all times for spontaneous gatherings. Or you can be super-lazy (no one will judge you) and buy Costco’s ready-to-drink Golden Margarita Mix. Pour 18 ounces into your blender, fill the remainder of the jar with ice and zizz until slushy. Most people will go for the margaritas, but have some soft drinks, beer and wine on hand—and maybe the makings for gin and tonics—because not everyone fancies a margarita.

Here are some other ideas and bits of advice for stress-free summer entertaining.

First, ambience
You don’t need lavish landscaping or big-ticket lawn furniture to sit outside with friends and have a great conversation, surrounded by candlelight, crickets and soft music. But you do need to make a few modest purchases.

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.

Music is equally as vital to the success of an outdoor party as to an indoor one, but this ingredient often is overlooked. With the availability of Bluetooth speakers, there’s really no excuse not to have tunes outside, even if you are not wired for sound. During Friday night and Saturday night gatherings in summertime, I switch to KCUR FM’s “Fish Fry” show—Chuck Haddix plays perfect party music.

And finally, if you want your summertime party to have legs, pardon the pun, you gotta lose the bugs. We have tried citronella candles as well as bug-zappers and other electronic devices and I prefer outdoor foggers. Honestly, there is nothing more efficient than a good old-fashioned can of Yard Guard. 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 the mosquitos.

Refined potluck
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 (the latter being from Above & Beyond Parsley, but I have recipes for all, which I will send you if you email me). 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) and another to bring their favorite potato salad or fresh corn pudding and perhaps a third to bring a watermelon and feta salad. The Barefoot Contessa’s peach-raspberry crisp would be a perfect dessert.

Farmers market dinner on the buddy system
Do you have a friend you like to hang out in the kitchen with? This is the perfect time of year to plan a dinner party with your BCFF (best cooking friend forever), which you could prepare together following a joint Saturday morning excursion to the city market, where you will find, fresh from the farmers’ trucks, everything you need for an exquisite summer feast: locally raised meats and poultry; all manner of luscious and exotic vegetable and fruit; verdant fresh herbs; just-baked artisanal breads and pies, gorgeous fresh flowers for your table. Go with no particular menu in mind; choose what looks good to both of you. Remember any vegetable is delicious oven-roasted at 400 degrees with olive oil and sea salt, as is almost any fruit when it is sliced or chopped, dusted cut-side-up with sugar, popped into a 450 oven until caramelized, then spritzed with a little orange juice.

Invite some mutual friends to your co-produced dinner, as many as can fit around your table. Trust me, it will be the hottest ticket in town.

Klassy take-out
Did you know Go Chicken Go recently won The Kansas City Star’s fried chicken tournament? I call that grounds for a celebration dinner. There are five locations, so you have one reasonably close to you. Set your table real purdy, then swing by and pick up a 21-piece value meal, which includes three sides. I recommend coleslaw, baked beans and corn on the cob, but get doubles of them. You can serve eight people for under 45 bucks. With that price, you can spring for a good German riesling, excellent with fried chicken.

Crazy-day Quesadillas
Serves four as a light appetizer. Make multiple batches as needed.

4 8-inch flour tortillas (medium sized—not the 12-inch ones)
1/4 cup salsa (approx.) or taco sauce
½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (approx.)
Chopped green onion
Guacamole (optional)
Sour cream (optional)

Place two tortillas side-by-side on a half-sheet or rimmed cookie sheet. Spread each with salsa and green onions. Sprinkle with cheese. Place under broiler for about 2-3 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling. Top with remaining two tortillas and broil an additional 30 seconds or so (to crisp up the top tortillas). Cut into wedges and serve with additional salsa and/or guacamole and/or sour cream.

You can put practically anything inside a quesadilla. Try chopped tomatoes, black olives, cooked ground beef or chicken, cooked shrimp, mild green chiles, black or refried beans.

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