This past month, my youth heaved a dying breath upon my birthday as I “officially” entered my late twenties—far past the age where a keg and some chips are all that’s required for hosting a party. Restaurants were called, themes were of course considered, but in the end the great party equalizer was decided upon: the barbecue.
Part of a barbecue’s inherent appeal lies in its simplicity; and with dinner parties, it’s splendid when formalities give way to comfortable leisure time with friends. But just because it’s casual doesn’t mean it can’t be—dare I say—elegant. Cast away thoughts of a party subdivided into gender groups: men by the fire, women in the kitchen. Imagine dining outside in the early evening; paper lanterns hang from the trees, a long picnic table is simply draped with linens and topped with cocktails, and in the background you can hear the gentle popping of coals as your meal for the evening slowly cooks.
With a few slight tweaks, even nonchalant affairs such as this one can have a big impact. And it’s nice to think that even “grown-up” affairs can still include a bit of whimsy.
There’s something forgiving about having a meal outside in the evening. Unkept yards seem to transform into lush, overgrown gardens. Voices become slightly subdued and drinks seem to be lingered over longer.
There are, of course, some tricks to be had for dining in the evening alfresco.
My back yard was like Brigadoon; disappearing nightly only to reappear in the morning. Not exactly a perfect location to host a dinner party, it was easily fixed with a few inexpensive tweaks.
String light bulbs were hung from the limbs of the trees, making the picnic table below a magical luminescent island in the midst of the darkness. You can find all sorts of colors and varieties, from mini light-bulb types to colored paper lanterns, at World Market and Home Depot starting from $15. Or you can always go old-school, college dormish and hang Christmas lights. That works, too.
To deter mosquitos I found torches that burned citronella and cedar fuel and placed them around the outlining areas. I like to think it helped. If nothing else, everyone looked fabulous by the candlelight.
Some cheap vanilla tablecloths from the thrift store were bought to drape over my less-than-stellar looking picnic table. I was able to get two for $7 and therefore didn’t feel bad about sacrificing them to the party gods of spilt red wine.
People say barbecue, and I immediately envision a droopy plate with a hot dog on it (which has its time and place). But try out a few of these unexpected dishes that will take guests by surprise. The best part? They can all be easily prepared with a drink in hand.
Grilled Flatbread with Bruschetta
I made the bruschetta in advance the day before, so all that was needed for this item was simply to grill the “flatbread”-an unbaked pizza dough I had bought from Publix’s bakery department. Simply let the dough rest on the counter for an hour before rolling it out into a large circle. Let it relax again for 10 minutes (it will retract and get smaller) and roll it out again. Oil it up really well, season it with some herbs, pepper and salt and take it outside. Lay it on the oiled grates of the hot grill. Don’t touch it for ten minutes, you should easily be able to pick it up and flip it when it’s cooked enough, resulting in slightly charred, crunchy flatbread. Bake on both sides then break up and serve.
Balsamic Bruschetta with Pesto
8 Roma tomatoes diced
1/2 cup of grated parmesan
2 tablespoons garlicky pesto (homemade or store bought)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Mix diced tomatoes, cheese, pesto, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Refrigerate overnight to let flavors meld.
Grilled Oysters with Chimichurri Sauce
Chimichurri is a green sauce used as a marinade and sauce for meats. Historically its name is thought to have derived from che mi salsa—“give me curry.” Its origins lie in Argentina and Uruguay. Through a random set of magical occurrences we discovered it makes a glorious topping for grilled oysters. Not bad for simply dipping bread in, either.
1 bunch flat leaf parsley with stems removed. Rough chopped.
3-4 medium garlic cloves smashed
1 teaspoon oregano
Pinch of chili flakes or cayenne
Juice of a large lemon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
Pulse all ingredients in food processor while slowly adding olive oil until it reaches desired consistency. Balance with a touch of brown sugar or honey if too tart or if garlic is overpowering.
Grilled Pineapple and Pound Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream
All the drama of Pineapple Upside Down Cake, with none of the work. Serve this delight with ice cream and ponder why grilling desserts isn’t more of a thing.
Cut thick slices of pineapple and pound cake. Place on clean grates over medium-hot coals. Cook on either side for two minutes until slightly charred. Place in bowls. Top with ice cream.
There’s something about drinking in your back yard that proclaims, “today I am not working!” Share this euphoric state by mixing up a delicious cocktail or two. While coolers full of wine and beer are always a delightful discovery, cocktails make everything seem extra special.
Buzzed Watermelon Sangria
Sangria was officially introduced to America during the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. This traditional Spanish punch can be made in an infinite number of ways, but this one uses citron vodka instead of the traditional brandy for a little extra kick.
1 large seedless watermelon, cut into cubes
1 bottle of any dry white wine
3 ounce citron vodka
1 1/2 ounce Cointreau or other triple sec
In a blender, puree the watermelon, saving a few cubes for garnish. Run through a fine strainer. Add the wine, citron vodka and Cointreau. Chill. Serve over ice with a few watermelon cubes for garnish.