Party Alfresco Style

Rain or shine, entertain outdoors like a pro by following these garden party tips.


Enlarge Image Outdoor entertaining is fun -- when the weather holds.

Why does the word "entertaining" strike fear in the heart of even the bravest would-be host? Maybe because it summons images of scorched chicken, water-spotted goblets, and stiff gatherings.

You can blow old-time entertaining out of the water by moving it outdoors. Entertain in your backyard and suddenly the mood is casual.

Here are some tips to help you plan your outdoor party:

Enlarge Image Flavor a meal for friends with produce from your garden.
  • Don't be wedded to eating on the deck or the patio. Have fun and set up a table or a blanket in the middle of the yard or in a wooded area. Be very spontaneous and very romantic.
  • Invitations or not? Generally, send out invitations only if you're going to invite more than 10 or 12 people. The exception is if the party is very formal or has a special theme that you want clear at the outset. Otherwise, call or invite guests in person.
  • Consider a high-class potluck. Set a theme (such as Tex-Mex, Asian, All-American, etc.) so the food goes together. Then assign each person one dish -- appetizer, salad, side vegetable dish, potato or rice dish, dessert -- and you make the main or most difficult dish.
  • Alcohol can quickly ratchet up the cost of any party. Keep costs down by never saying no to "Can I bring anything?" Instead, answer: "A bottle of white wine [or red, or beer] would be great."
  • If buying wine for a crowd, check the liquor store for its return policy. Some will let you return unopened bottles.
  • If bugs, rain, heat, or cold might be a problem, have a contingency plan to eat at least part of the meal indoors. You can always have appetizers outside before it gets too cool, have or dessert and coffee under the stars after the heat or rain subsides.
  • Put a can or bottle of insect repellent in plain sight so people don't have to ask. And remember that mosquitoes bite more at dusk.
  • You can never have too much ice. Buy three times more than you think you'll need and store it in coolers borrowed from your neighbors.
No Kids Allowed
Enlarge Image Decide ahead of time if you will invite kids to the party.

Will you invite kids to your party or not? It's your decision, but be sure to be specific to prevent misunderstandings. Formal events usually preclude the 14-and-under crowd, but informal events outdoors make little ones easier to handle. Go with what you prefer.

If you're going to have more than two children under age 6, consider hiring a sitter, especially one who will take the kids to the park or organize games in the front yard. That way grown-ups at least have a change to chat.

Before the meal, give kids a paper tablecloth and crayons or nontoxic markers and let them decorate it. Be sure to fill a basket with supplies such as chalk or bubbles for the little ones to make their own fun.

Here's some advice to help you set the perfect outdoor table.

Enlarge Image Create a casual look by stacking dishes on the the table to let guests help themselvess.
  • If the wind keeps whipping the tablecloth, wrap natural-color raffia a few times around pretty stones or heavy seashells. Then attach them to the tablecloth with a thread and needle so they dangle from the corners and edges. You can also attach the weights with wire hangers made for Christmas tree ornaments.
  • Carve holes into apples, pears, or other firm produce for perfect garden-theme candleholders.
  • The bare wood of a picnic table is fine for family, but for guests, try draping a tablecloth or table scarf (see next tip) diagonally so you can see the wood but have the special touch of cloth.
  • No need to spend a fortune on a new tablecloth. Create a fabric scarf in less than 20 minutes by purchasing a pretty piece of fabric and creating a no-sew hem with an iron and fusible interfacing.
  • Buy your paper goods at a party supply warehouse. Prices are as much as half off.
  • Produce can come to the rescue if you don't have much dinnerware -- or even if you do. Serve fruit salads in melon halves; put sherbet or seafood in lemon halves.

Add a touch of elegance to your party with these decorating ideas:

Enlarge Image Use candles to add elegance to a buffet table.
  • Use lavish candles for after-dark dining. Votives can be set in wineglasses, in jars, and in tin cans with holes punched around the sides. You can make wire cradles for jars and suspend them from trees for magical overhead lighting.
  • Flowerpots work everywhere. New, unglazed clay pots in various sizes cost just pennies and are great for holding flatware in a buffet, protecting votive candles from wind, and serving as flower vases (put a jar inside). Large pots can double as garbage cans, and small ones can be receptacles for used swizzle sticks or coffee stirrers.
  • For a no-fuss centerpiece, snatch a pretty pot of annuals from your front step and plunk it on the table. Or create a little hedge down the center of the table with a handful of 4-inch pots.
  • Turn produce into the star of the show. Arrange fruit or vegetables in a large bowl, basket, or even a colander for an understated centerpiece.
  • It's easy to find inspiration for an outdoor party in your backyard. A basket full of pine cones is a pretty touch, or use individual pinecones as natural place card holders. Pick up fallen flowers and float them in shallow clear glass bowls.
  • Christmas tree lights say "celebrate" any time of the year. Haul them out and string them along a fence, around a porch, or through a tree or shrub for whimsical outdoor lighting.
  • Invest in (or grow) a living topiary or two of ivy, rosemary, or another plant. Spruce it up by adding a few pansies or primulas. A local nursery can see you topiaries or tell you how to grow them on your own.
Serving

Serve up party perfection with these tips:

Enlarge Image Fresh produce from your garden adds to any meal.
  • Always follow the two-hour rule. Never serve food that's been out of the refrigerator, off the stove, or out of the oven any longer than two hours. In outdoor temperatures of 70 degrees F or more, cut that to one hour. For safety's sake, follow the old adage of keeping hot food hot and cold food cold.
  • If bees or wasps are a problem, serve all drinks in glasses or clear bottles rather than cans, which can hide a wasp inside the opening. Avoid red or yellow drinks, which attract these pests.
  • When setting out a large spread, protect the food with clean, unused, floating row cover -- normally used to protect tender garden plants from frost. Anchor it on the sides with canned goods. Or try wire domes, sometimes called flywalks, designed to keep insects away from individual dishes; available at culinary stores.
  • Buffet or sit-down meal? Pass the food in bowls family-style or serve individual plates? Buffets work best for groups of 10 or more and if there's a cool, dry place to keep food in good shape. Family-style serving works for informal gatherings of six to ten and in situations where portion control or presentation isn't an issue. Serve individual plates when there are eight or fewer guests, where portion control is important (such as when handing a platter of top-dollar steaks to a teenage boy), or where you want to have stylish presentation.

Grilled Chicken and Vegetable Salad Serve this summer chicken salad with with your favorite bottled salsa or salad dressing.

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Roasted Pepper and Chevre Pizzas To simplify this Greek-flavored pizza, substitute 1-1/2 cups bottled roasted red peppers for the fresh peppers.

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Jalapeno Pie with Red Salsa Serve homemade or bottled salsa with this Mexican quiche.

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Pesto Pasta Salad To simplify this recipe, substitute 1/3 cup purchased pesto and 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar for the homemade pesto.

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Menu Tips

Here are some menu tips that will help make your party go more smoothly.

Enlarge Image Remember, people tend to eat more at parties, so make plenty.

Let simplicity rule. Try to select make-ahead dishes except for whatever you'll grill.

How much to fix? The number of servings listed in recipes is usually too modest, and people tend to eat more at parties. Use the rule of one-and-a-half: Make 50 percent more than you think people will eat. If you have eight guests, make enough for twelve. For large parties, rely on dishes that will freeze well afterward so nothing goes to waste.

Ask people if they have any special food allergies or preferences (vegetarian, kosher, diabetic, etc.) when you invite them. For parties with guests under age 35, offer at least one vegetarian dish. For older crowds, offer at least one low-fat, low-sugar dessert, such as fresh berries with fat-free, sugar-free ice cream or whipped topping on the side.

Children 8 and over usually eat some of what the adults are served, but when plans call for younger children, put out plates of sliced mild cheddar, crackers, and fresh fruit for them to nibble.

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