It was almost like a scene from a movie…
The sun was tucking itself behind the row of trees when the guests began to arrive. A smattering of friends, showed up just as I was firing up the grill. For July, the evening air was cooler than usual and the peepers and crickets were already singing, a perfect night for a midsummer garden party. I always love this scene in movies like “Chocolat,” or “Eat, Pray, Love,” where people gather around an outdoor table on a balmy evening surrounded by candles and half empty bottles of wine. You know they are having a good time–good friends, good wine, good conversation. See my recipe below for a DIY outdoor dinner movie scene:
Keep it simple:
The goal for the garden party is to serve as much food as possible from your garden. It is an opportunity to share with your friends. However, growing a garden is not a requirement. It’s cool if you don’t have one; you can attend a local farmer’s market and still get the same result. In my case, I do have a small urban garden out back, and so I put together this menu a few days in advance, once I knew what would be ready in time. I emailed the menu to my guests so they could get excited about the evening to come and in case there were any allergies I would need to consider. If you love to cook, this is a very fun and special way to showcase your culinary talents. Keeping the menu simple allows you to focus on fresh natural (local) foods which look amazing and taste even better.
Midsummer Dinner Party Menu
Fresh Garden Romaine (w/cucumber, tomatoes, snap peas and crumbled feta)
Grilled Atlantic Salmon (w/lemon caper sauce)
Mixed Rice (a la Trader Joe’s)
Garden Fresh Green Beans (w/slivered almonds and dash of chili salt)
Dark Chocolate Mousse (my first)
For this menu, two bottles of Pinot Grigio
Choose a pretty even mix of genders, some coupled and some single for your party. Try to choose people who will have some things in common to talk about. It isn’t imperative that they all run in the same social circle. Having some outsiders can enliven the conversation and allow you to play matchmaker and possibly set the stage for some new friendships. Be sure to only invite as many people as you can comfortably accommodate at an indoor table should you have to move the party inside at the last minute. I like to invite anywhere from about 8-12 people. More than twelve makes the meal prep a little overwhelming. It is also tougher to arrange seating for more than twelve if you have to rush inside if a downpour interrupts the evening. This happens–don’t stress it–it can be one of the most memorable parts of an evening – something people talk about years later.
Prepare early in the day:
Prepare as much of the food as possible in advance so you aren’t working when your guests arrive. In my case, I had everything ready except for the salmon. I think people enjoyed seeing it cook on the grill. Salmon on the grill doesn’t require a lot of fussing, poking or turning, and it pairs well with most vegetables, so is a good choice for a garden party. You’ll want to hang out with your guests and enjoy a glass of wine before dinner, so choose menu items that can be prepped in advance and served either cold or warmed easily. I prepared dessert in the morning and kept it in the refrigerator until the last minute. Have as much of the food and drink set up close by as you can; this will keep you from needing to run back and forth to the kitchen all night. The point of having people over is to enjoy their company, so do everything you can to set yourself up for success where that’s concerned.
This part can be really fun if you are the creative type. Choose a luxurious location on a flat, level surface to set up your table. Drape it with a tablecloth or sheet. This is an easy non-expensive way to make your guests feel special. A tablecloth shouts formal, but in all the right ways. The bright yellow tablecloth in this picture belonged to my mom and I use it often in the summer to serve outdoor meals. But you can use a simple white sheet from Goodwill or a discount store. I prefer fabric over vinyl, especially on a hot (sweaty) evening when people’s arms will rest on the table. String up some white Christmas lights and light candles for the table and surrounding areas. Flowers from the garden gather together as a centerpiece. I got a lot of Oohs and Aahs when people stepped out onto my back porch into this scene for their first glass of wine. See the bubbling fish pond in the background?
During my prep, I invariably notice a thousand things that “aren’t right.” My lawn mower breaks down the day before and the grass looks straggly. The paint on the porch where I set the table is peeling. I should have hired a painter earlier in the spring. The chairs don’t match. Weeds are poking up between the patio stones. There aren’t quite enough green beans for everyone. Let me tell you now, things will invariably go wrong. Don’t let any of them get in the way of having a good time. Your friends won’t even notice. Believe me, they’ll be too impressed by the work you’ve put in to make the evening special for them. The point of a garden party isn’t perfection. Gardens aren’t perfect, and neither are people. Sometimes a garden party is just a way to say, that despite imperfections, we can make a very good time out of any opportunity to be with people we like. In a way, it is a practice in gratitude: a little Thanksgiving in summer.