Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.
Lifestyle Home & Garden home and garden newsletter

Easiest garden party ever

You could always slap peanut butter onto bread and tiptoe out to where the petunias bloom. You could sit there nibbling, watching bumblebees buzz and dart amid the nodding heads.

And, yes, you could call that garden lunch, that most irresistible of urgings in the summertime.

Or, dear friends, you could decidedly turn up the merriment, expand the moment: Invite a swirl of friends. Set a lovely table. Wander through the kitchen garden, whip up a feast from whatever's ripest.

That's the breezy-but-bountiful sort of notion sure to carry you through the harried week, sweeping you toward the weekend's slow-paced respite.

But, of course, that over-packed workweek hardly leaves you time for fussing, for running here and there with a long list of errands and groceries to assemble. And where's the joy in making yourself crazy for a few hours' calm in the garden?

Fret not. We set out to map the makings of a midsummer's luncheon in the garden that fits within the confines of your hectic schedule.

We dialed up London stylist Liz Belton, co-author with Rebecca Tanqueray of "Table Style: 101 creative ideas for elegant and affordable entertaining," (Ryland Peters & Small, $24.95). We chatted about all the ways you might set the stage for a divine-yet-doable garden gathering.

And then, for good measure, we called Anna Last, editor of Everyday Food magazine, for a few menu ideas that won't have you sweatin' in the kitchen while your guests are sipping icy tall ones amid those petunias.

All you'll need is your list of favorite guests. (Don't waste this on second bests.)

The table

Don't bypass the basics. The care and comfort of your guests is Consideration No. 1, says Belton, so make sure you've got that covered, head to bum. You'll want a parasol, or the shade of a mighty tree, to keep the sun from beating down. A length of muslin, tied to a tree branch frame makes for a simple, shady oasis. Be sure to plop a cushion on each of your garden chairs, the better to sit for long hours. And give your glassware a close inspection: With all that sunlight, water spots will command attention and cloud the doings. You'll want to consider pesky insects too, and perhaps light citronella candles, and protect food platters with lids and covers.

Simplicity sets the mood. No need for stiff starched table linens. You might set your plates straight on the table, or toss on a vintage cotton cloth, and pay no mind to whether it's squarely centered. Belton, keen on second-hand wares, is always on the lookout for great fabrics (even vintage clothes) she can cut into napkin squares. In a pinch, pinking shears will give you an instant hem.

Begin with white. Belton is a firm believer that every kitchen cabinet should hold a set of plain white dishes, and they needn't be expensive. "That way it doesn't matter if they get chipped," she says. With all-whites as a base, you can freely collect mismatched glassware and colorful vintage plates. It's best to work with a palette of no more than three colors, or perhaps a range of one, from, say, pale to hot, hot pink.

In the garden, of the garden. You needn't rush off to the flower shop, simply gather what's in bloom all around you. Tuck stems in jars, tumblers, whatever charms you from the cupboard. Plunk pots of herbs into galvanized tubs. Use metal plant markers, often sold a dozen to a pack, as place cards, each one scribbled with the name of one of your guests. At the very last minute, lay a flower head upon each plate. And if you're inclined you might pick up a new trowel and garden fork, they make for smashing garden salad servers.

Texture is everything. "When you sit in front of a computer screen all day, to actually have something you can touch and feel is extraordinary," says Belton, who loves to layer nubby vintage fabrics, galvanized metal tubs and just-picked flowers from the garden.

The food

Cultivate ease. You'll want your foods to be as fresh and height-of-summer as your garden, and you'll want your guests to sit back and while away the summer's afternoon. So set the easy-livin' tempo by composing a menu of do-ahead dishes. And be sure to serve family style, with bountiful bowls spread across your table.

Cook ahead. Being organized is key, says Everyday Food's Last. Once she settles on a main course, say a simple roast chicken, or a barley salad with chicken and corn (you can find recipes at marthastewart.com/everyday-food), she finds three to four sides that she can do ahead. If she spends some time on that main dish, she might make the dessert a simple one, say a lemon-poppy seed cookie, or ice cream cones with grown-up sprinkles (crushed Amaretto cookies, crushed gingersnaps and shaved chocolate, three splendid picks), a finale at once whimsical and oh-so-adult.

Keep starters simple. She'd start with crudites, a bunch of radishes served with good butter and sea salt; blanched green beans or asparagus. A yummy store-bought dip (or pesto mixed with Greek yogurt), and flatbread cut into bite-size bits, would round out the platter. Eight-layer dip, says Last, is "really easy to make, and I've never seen anything devoured so quickly in our test kitchen."

Ditto on the sides. For the sides, she might add a dollop of Greek yogurt, again, to store-bought pesto and toss with warm boiled potatoes, for a simple pesto potato salad. Roasted red peppers with garlic and herbs are a bright colorful option (and Last loves a table rich in garden colors). Grilled or sauteed asparagus, tossed with olive oil and lemon, is another feast for eyes and palate. And especially for a summer garden lunch, she would always toss a large green salad; she muses on arugula with mint and feta, simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, or whatever vinaigrette strikes your fancy.

Don't forget the drinks. Be sure to have a big tub filled with ice and chilled drinks, so guests don't need to keep hopping up from the table. Serve pitchers of summery drinks (prosecco and simple syrup, plopped with berries, or even still water with sprigs of herbs). And tumblers, rather than high-heeled cocktail glasses, make for a more relaxed vibe at the summer table.

bmahany@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading