Repeat after me: I do not have to be Martha Stewart to throw a fabulous outdoor party.
In fact, summer is the perfect time to mix and match what you have to throw a laid-back gathering in your backyard. Paper plates and lace tablecloths, card tables and squirt guns — top it all with good food and a few bunches of fresh flowers, and it’ll be a good time for all!
Here are some ideas to get you started.
An invitation to our house is typically a texted, “Food, drinks, Saturday, dinner-ish. Coming?”
Should you wish to be more formal, however, did you know that you can send objects that weigh 13 ounces or less through the mail? No need for packaging — just stick postage and an address label on it.
So scribble the details of your party on a Frisbee, cheap flip-flop, or sun visor. It’s easy and whimsical all at the same time.
The number of people you choose to invite depends mostly on the flavor of party you desire, but for a larger group, you’ll need to consider the number of seats you have — more on that in a minute — as well as your budget for food and beverages.
Another factor that’s important to remember is our Kansas weather. While there’s some camaraderie in being cozy indoors when a thunderstorm blows in, there’s a fine line between “cozy” and “squished.” Think about how many people you can comfortably seat inside and don’t add more than three or four to that number.
Tables, chairs and plates
This is where mixing and matching can really save you. Because, while you probably don’t have an outdoor table large enough to seat 15, you do probably have a card table. And if you don’t, your boss or your neighbors might.
Take a few of those card tables and place them end to end. Then, cover them with a tablecloth or two — I have a few shabby lace ones that I stole from my grandmother’s basement — and bada-bing you have a table. If you want to make it even prettier, buy a cheap tube of wrapping paper and lay it out as a runner. Or overlap a few place mats down the center, layering until you like the effect.
For chairs, you can always ask your friends to bring lawn chairs, of course, but just as often we pull our dining room chairs outside. Mixed and matched with our lawn furniture, it magically always makes just enough places to sit.
And, of course, it doesn’t feel like summer without flowers. Grab a few inexpensive bouquets at the grocery store and separate them out into small glass jars. If your party is going to go into the evening, mix in a few jars with tea-light candles in the bottom that you can light just before dinner.
As for plates, before our group of friends had children, I used to do outdoor parties with our nice china. It was free, environmentally friendly, and — believe it or not— only one wine glass ever got broken.
I’ve switched to paper these days, but now I use the compostable stuff. Then, when it’s time to clear the table the dishes go straight into the compost pile with no need to even stop in the house first. A stack of clean, white bar towels make festive napkins that won’t leave your guests wanting when they bite into a piece of juicy corn on the cob.
Eats and drinks
If you have nice friends, when you invite them to your party they’ll ask, “Can I bring anything?” Say yes, and have everyone bring a side dish. It may help to coordinate a little so that you don’t end up with, say, three strawberry salads, but mostly let your friends whip-up their favorites.
That leaves you to focus on the mains. As a simple appetizer, I like to wrap slices of cantaloupe in strips of prosciutto. A pile of bratwursts from the Merc — if you call a few days ahead, they’ll be sure and have enough for you — with all the fixings gets the meat taken care of, and grilled corn on the cob is always a summer treat, especially when you dress it up with some homemade garlic lime butter.
The easy choices for desert are s’mores or ice cream. I do a super simple berry frozen yogurt that can be mixed ahead of time and cranked in an ice cream freezer by the men-folk while the kids play after dinner.
For drinks, beverages that come in their own containers are the way to go. Get a big party tub and fill it with ice. Add beer for the grown-ups and juice or milk boxes for the kiddos, and you’re all set. A big jar of lemonade and a couple of bottles of white wine can be nice, too, but if you do that, remember that you’ll need some glasses.
Tunes and games
At one of the coolest summer dinner parties I ever attended, the host pulled out her turntable and played us Cat Stevens records all night. My guests have to settle for Pandora, but making a playlist from a classic era is still a good way to please the masses. Don’t have speakers? Set your phone in a drinking glass to amplify the sound.
Lawn games are always good fun to add to the mix as well, but do consider your crowd. At our last party I pulled out our thrifted croquet set, and the small boys in attendance promptly began swinging the mallets wildly in the air. The squirt guns I plunked down at each kid’s place setting at the table, on the other hand, were a huge hit, as were the glow sticks another mom brought to play with after dark.
Now kick back, fire up the grill, and call your friends up for an awesome party!
Prosciutto and Cantaloupe Bites
4 ounces prosciutto
1/2 large cantaloupe
Cut the cantaloupe in half, and reserve one side for later use. De-seed and cut the peel off the other half, and slice it into small wedges.
Tear or cut the prosciutto into long thin strips. Wrap one strip around each cantaloupe wedge, and arrange on a platter. These are easy enough to toss together right before your guests arrive, and shouldn’t be made much more than an hour ahead as they don’t hold well.
Lime Garlic Butter
1 stick of butter (8 tablespoons), softened
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 clove of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
You can make this compound butter by just tossing all the ingredients in a food processor, but I think it’s just about as easy to do it by hand. To do so, dice the garlic very finely, then crush it together with the salt — with the back of a spoon or with a mortar and pestle — until the garlic turns into a paste.
Then, mash the garlic paste, lime and butter with a fork until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Serve with a stack of grilled corn on the cob.
Triple Berry Frozen Yogurt
2 32-ounce containers Greek yogurt
1 pound strawberries, hulled and chunked
1/2 pint blueberries
1/2 pint raspberries
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons of vodka (optional)
Using a stick blender, upright blender or food processor, puree the berries. Mix the berries, yogurt and sugar until well incorporated. It’s optional, but if you add a few tablespoons of vodka the frozen yogurt will be easier to scoop later. Also, feel free to add more sugar to taste.
Pour the yogurt into the cylinder of your ice cream maker, and proceed according to maker’s directions. Any leftovers can be frozen and enjoyed for at least a few weeks.
— Meryl Carver-Allmond lives in Lawrence and writes about chickens, babies, knitting, gardening, food, photography, and whatever else tickles her fancy on any given day at mybitofearth.net.