Summer Entertaining: Throwing a BBQ Party for a Crowd

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Summer is the season of relaxed entertaining. Bringing the party outdoors creates a memorable setting with each garden inspiring its own style.  From a suburbian backyard, to a tiny urban terrace to a vast country acreage, the outdoors offers a canvas for creative entertaining. No one throws a better party than my garden club friends.  To highlight garden party guidelines, join me  at our recent garden club social,  held on a member’s gorgeous farm property.

1- Pick a theme imageHaving a theme helps from selecting the invitation, choosing the menu and guiding the decor.  The invitation is the first glimpse your guests will have of your event.  It’s a great way to set the tone of your party.  Even if you are throwing a potluck party, your guests can choose their dish to suit the theme.  Have fun with it!  Being that our event was on a farm, we chose a BBQ theme with a fun invitation to match. Judging from record breaking attendance, everyone loves BBQ!

2-  Move things around: Don’t be afraid to reorganize your outdoor space.  If you’re throwing a large party, use your whole yard.  Create conversation areas.  Establish flow by shifting the usual placement of furniture.  Take advantage of views or shade.  imageYou might even bring some indoor furniture outside. Provide comfortable seating in multiple areas.  Set up different places where guests can set down their plates to eat.  Provide  sit down and stand up options.  We used our host’s regular outdoor table and added a few large round rentals for extra sit down dining  and a few bar height tables for those preferring to stand.imageimage

3-  Lighting: Lighting is one of the most affordable ways to add ambiance to outdoor parties.  Start your event at dusk and watch as the lighting creates a magical glow as the sun goes down.  Engage lanterns, mason jars, strings of lights and candles of all kinds into creating mood lighting.  Think of highlighting paths and social areas such as the bar and food stations with extra lighting.imageimageimageimage For an Oktoberfest event I used glass beer steins as candle holders. Look around and repurpose things you already have on hand as candle holders.  If keeping bugs at bay is a must, add citronella candles and tikki torches to provide lighting and bug control.

4-  Work the Theme: For a cohesive look, let the theme guide the decor. Look around the house for anything that fits the theme and use it to decorate and serve a practical purpose too.  Think outside the box.  An antique farm cart was enlisted to hold ice and chill drinks at our party but  a wheelbarrow could have been a fun option also.   A garden urn could serve as an ice bucket.   Hors d’oeuvres could be staged from a birdbath.  The unexpected provides a surprise element to delight the senses.image For our theme, inexpensive supermarket pots of daisies were wrapped in bandanas or in burlap with red and white gingham ribbon. image imageTables were draped in burlap and makeshift “curtains” were made of the same burlap to create a backdrop to the bar area.  Cheap straw cowboy hats were brilliantly introduced into the decor. imageimage Add suble touches with things you already have around to fit  the theme. Crock vessels held big bouquets of sunflowers throughout.image

5-  Set Up a Drink Station: Setting up a self-serve, well-stocked bar area is essential to a great party.   Having a signature drink, Moscow Mules  in our case, is a fun way to carry the theme into the bar area.  Our signature drink, featured on the invitation, was premixed in large dispensers  with a massive bowl of precut limes waiting for guests to help themselves.  imageThe drink was served in the same Mason jar mugs found on the invitation. They looked fabulous lined up on the bar en masse and became part of the themed décor.  Include non alcoholic options and lots of water.  Guests will consume more drinks in summer to stay hydrated.  Making the bar self serve frees you up for more socializing.  image  A wooden bowl heaping full of peanuts-in-the-shell was perched on a nearby bale of hay for a fun twist on the bar nut bowl.  Food as décor!   imageOther drinks were loaded in that fun  ice filled antique cart. Situate the bar in an area away from the food to encourage guests to move around and mingle.image

6- Themed Food: We hired a fun BBQ food truck to provide the hot foods and made our own appetizers, salads and desserts.  The truck became part of the party décor, right in the middle of the action!  The BBQ truck ignited conversation with many of the guests attempting to wrangle the secret recipes for the rubs that made Captain Dick’s brisket, ribs and chicken so darn good!imageimageimageThe appetizers were set up in a different area from the main food and the bar to encourage flow and mingling.

7-  Music: Don’t forget to add music.  It is a great ambiance mood setter.  For an intimate setting, you might prefer the sounds of nature. image

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Here’s to a fun garden party of your own creation this summer.  Cheers!

Grilled Cornish Game Hens with Chimichurri Sauce

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“Take Monday Off” read the subject line of an email my husband had sent to me on the last day of a beach vacation without him.  Thinking he had forwarded a link to a travel review for a weekend escape in the famous Wall Street Journal column of the same name, I opened the link to find  a dozen close up photographs documenting  the step-by-steps execution of the Williams-Sonoma Grilled Cornish Game Hens with Chimichurri sauce recipe and a note saying “I tried my best.”  Well if that is not love, I don’t know what is!  Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present my guest chef, Chris Hardinger, and his very fine contribution to the blog.  He did say the recipe was a lot of work but this taste tester declares it was worth it!  Delicious, different and company-worthy.  I just might go away more often!

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From Williams-Sonoma with Chris’ own photographs:

Here’s a creative way to use zesty chimichurri sauce in an impressive and unexpected presentation. Cornish hens are flattened and cooked under the pressure of a heavy brick, saving cooking time and creating a gorgeous color and crisp skin. Don’t have bricks lying around? Use a pizza stone, cast-iron pan or other heavy, flameproof pan to weigh down the game hens while they’re cooking.

Grilled Cornish Hens with Chimichurri

For the chimichurri:

1 cup (1 oz./30 g) lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves

1 cup (1 oz./30 g) lightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml) extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup (3 fl. oz./80 ml) fresh lemon juice

2 Tbs. grated lemon zest

2 Tbs. grated orange zest

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 tsp. sea salt

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/4 tsp. ground cumin

3 Cornish hens, about 1 lb. (500 g) each

3 Tbs. honey

Olive oil for brushing

To make the chimichurri, combine the cilantro, parsley, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, zest, garlic, salt, red pepper flakes and cumin in a blender or food processor and process to a smooth puree. Cover and refrigerate.

To prepare the Cornish hens, first trim off and discard the extra fat from the necks and just inside the body cavities. Place 1 hen on a cutting board, breast side down. Using poultry shears, cut through the flesh and bone from the neck end to the tail along each side of the backbone. Remove the backbone completely. Turn the hen breast side up and spread it open. Cut out the breastbone and discard. Cut off the wing tips and any loose skin. Pull down on the legs to lay them flat. Turn the hen over and, using the palms of both hands, press down on the hen to flatten it as much as possible. Repeat with the remaining 2 hens.

Rub the hens all over with the honey and place them in a ceramic or glass baking dish or a large zippered plastic bag. Pour half of the chimichurri over the hens and turn to coat. Cover the dish or seal the bag and marinate the hens in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to overnight, turning several times.

Prepare a medium-hot fire in a gas or charcoal grill. Separately wrap 3 bricks in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Brush the grill rack with oil. Remove the hens from the marinade and place, skin side down, on the rack. Discard the marinade. Position a brick on top of each hen so that it covers as much of the bird as possible. Grill until the skin is golden, 8 to 10 minutes.( Chris said it was more 10-12 minutes)

Wearing oven mitts or grill gloves, remove the bricks. Using metal tongs and a large spatula, carefully turn over the hens. Replace the bricks and continue grilling until the hens are dark golden brown on the second side and cooked through, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into a thigh away from the bone registers 165°F (74°­C), 8 to 10 minutes longer.

If serving more than 3 people, cut the hens in half through the breast. Transfer the hens to a serving platter and brush with some of the reserved chimichurri sauce. Serve immediately. Pour the remaining chimichurri into a small bowl and pass at the table. Serves 3 to 6.

Recipe adapted from Good Food to Share, by Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan

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image imageimage  image  image image imageSharing this with the talented bloggers at Fiesta Friday hosted by Loretta@Safari of the Mind and Caroline@Caroline’s Cooking.

Citrus and Fennel Cured Salmon

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Cured salmon also known as gravlax is a silky smooth salmon cured in a mixture of salt, sugar and spices.  It is Nordic in origin and its preparation goes back to the Middle Ages.  In ancient times the salmon was fermented and salted then buried in sand, hence the name “grava” , to dig.  Essentially the salmon is coated in the brining  mixture then tightly wrapped in plastic film, placed under a weight and refrigerated for 2-3 days(if your fillet is thinner or not very fatty, reduce the curing time).  Salt draws the moisture out of the salmon’s flesh, changing its texture and taste.  The weight helps draw moisture out and infuse flavor into  the fish.  At the end of the curing period, rinse the salmon and slice thinly to enjoy.  The first time you try curing your own salmon, start with a classic mix of seasonings such as lemon and dill.  A current popular trend is to use alcohol, such as whiskey or bourbon, for flavor with the salt/spice mix.  My 3/4 pound salmon fillet was cured in equal parts of kosher salt, granulated sugar(1cup each), a teaspoon of each fennel seeds and peppercorns, the zests of an orange, a lemon and a lime and a handful of chopped lemon balm herb from the garden. Get creative and have fun with different flavor combinations!  Cured salmon can cost up to $25 a pound.  Making your own is far more economical, fresher,  takes only a few minutes of hands-on time and is free of any chemical preservatives.  This was a really fun culinary activity with a delicious final result! image image

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Mixing the brine: 1 cup kosher salt+ 1 cup sugar + zest of 1 lime, 1 orange and 1 lemon + 1 teaspoon fennel seeds + 1 teaspoon peppercorns

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2 wild salmon fillets, skin on, laying on plastic wrap, ready to coat with the brine.

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The salmon fillets fully covered in the brine.

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If using herbs, sprinkle over the brine.

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Flip one fillet over the other, tucking the brine over the sides, then start wrapping the fillets tightly.

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Double wrapped fillets, placed in a glass dish to collect the extruding moisture as the salmon cures.

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Weighing down the salmon during the curing processs.

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Note the loss of moisture after 3 days.

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Just before rinsing off the curing mixture.

The gorgeous gravlax, ready to be savored.

The gorgeous gravlax, ready to be savored.

Not one to jst stop at gravlax on cream cheese and  bagel, I made a salmon fettucine alfredo dish with some of the gravlax!

Not one to just enjoy the classic gravlax on cream cheese and bagel, I made a salmon fettucine  dish with some of the gravlax and all the traditional fixins!

Strawberry~Shortcake Cookies

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If you are looking for a  version of the classic springtime dessert that can travel, these soft cookies are for you!  These not-too-sweet cookies are made with cream and studded with chunks of fresh strawberries in a biscuit-like dough, evoking the famous dessert they are named after.  This portable treat is  more like a scone than a true cookie.

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Strawberry~Shortcake Cookies  Yield about 3 dozen

(adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

2 cups of strawberries, hulled and cut in 1/4- inch dice

1 t lemon juice

1/2 c plus 2 T sugar

2 c flour

2 t baking powder

1/2 t coarse salt

6 T cold butter, cut into small pieces

2/3 c heavy cream

sanding sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 375F

Combine strawberries with the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of sugar.  In a large bowl combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder.  Cut in the butter  until mixture ressembles coarse oatmeal.  Stir in cream until combined and a dough forms.  Drain the strawberries and fold into the dough.

On parchment lined cookie sheets, drop tablespoon-sized dough, spacing evenly. Sprinkle each cookie with some sanding sugar.   Bake in the top half of the oven for about 24 minutes.  Watch closely at the 20 minute mark as I found the bottom can easily burn.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool.  Best eaten same day or by 1 day later.  These cookies are not very sweet so you may choose to increase the sugar quantity by a few additional tablespoons or serve them with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream like you would a scone.

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Sharing this recipe with the talented bloggers at Fiesta Friday hosted by Angie@Fiesta Friday, Quinn@Dad Whats 4 Dinner and Naina@Spice in the City.  Fabulous recipes week after week with enticing photography!

Strawberry~Chèvre Arugula Salad with Orange Poppy Seed Dressing

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One of spring’s greatest joy is the arrival of local strawberries.  Plump, ruby red and oh-so-sweet, they are worth waiting for all year!  One bite and you know this is how strawberries were made to taste!  After eating my fill of luscious berries one-by-one from their slender stems, the windfall of sweet juicy berries begged to be showcased in a recipe where their sweetness could be enjoyed simply.

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I decided on a big layered  salad.  I like to make salads in shallow and wide vessels so the toppings are spread across the whole salad.  Arugula is one of my favorite salad greens but you could substitute spinach or field greens.  I added mint from the garden for a burst of spicyness while creamy goat cheese and toasted pecans introduced some protein and texture.  The dressing is light and citrusy, perfect to highlight the sweetness of the strawberries with the added nice crunch of poppy seeds.  A bright and fresh salad to herald in strawberry season!

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Top the arugula with the strawberry halves.

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Season the strawberries with freshly ground pepper. Layer on the mint, onion slices and chèvre.

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Top with the toasted pecans right before tossing with the dressing.

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STRAWBERRY~CHÈVRE ARUGULA SALAD with ORANGE POPPY SEED DRESSING

9 cups of arugula

1 cup of mint leaves

2 cups of strawberries, hulled and sliced in half

3 thin slices of red onion, the rings cut in half and separated into segments

freshly ground pepper

2 oz of crumbled chèvre

2 oz of toasted pecan halves

Dressing:  (Adapted from Cooking Light)

1/2 cup orange juice, 1/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup of blood orange flavored olive oil (plain is fine), pinch of salt, 1 teaspoon poppy seeds.  In a blender or in a bowl using a whisk, emulsify all the ingredients except the poppy seeds.  Finish by adding the poppy seeds and mix once to distribute.

Assembly:

In a large shallow dish, place the arugula.  Top with the strawberries.  With a few grinds of the peppermill, season the strawberries.  Layer with, in this order, the mint, onion slices, goat cheese and pecans.  Toss with the dressing.  Enjoy the jewels of spring!

Still Life with Strawberries Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1914, Brooklyn Museum

Still Life with Strawberries Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1914, Brooklyn Museum

Deedee’s Best Pulled Pork~ Summer Crockpot Cooking

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“Summertime, and the livn’ is easy.”  Ella Fitzgerald

Even with rising temperatures, don’t put away the crockpot!  More often associated with cold weather cooking, the crockpot is your best summer secret weapon to get dinner on the table while you are out enjoying summer activities.  With the additional bonus of not heating up the kitchen as much as conventional oven cooking, crockpot cooking makes perfect sense in the hot summer months.  If your family mostly grills in the summer, the crockpot can be put into action for sides like baked beans(recipe here).
Whenever I make pulled pork, I scan the refrigerator for sorry looking condiment jars with dredges of their original contents.  Pulled pork is an occasion to clean out the fridge.  Left over pickle juice, peppers, relish, mustards,  sauerkraut, anything goes!  Which is why I never thought I would EVER write a post on pulled pork.  Never two batches the same, no measurements, no recipe, winging-it kind of cooking.  Not blogging material.

When my friend Deedee, a very talented  cook, raved about her recipe for pulled pork (What? A recipe???), I graciously accepted her lovely handwritten recipe card and thought I’d better be on my Sunday best behavior and walk-away-from-the-pickle-juice.  With cinnamon, cumin and chili spices for enticing flavor,  it was very aromatic while cooking.  The cat howled to be let back in, afraid he’d be left out!   Deedee’s pulled pork lived up to its fame and is destined to become a family favorite, unless the fridge needs cleaning out! image

DEEDEE’S BEST PULLED PORK

1 41/2-5 lb, bone-in pork shoulder or butt, fat trimmed

2 large onions, roughly chopped

4 medium cloves of garlic, sliced

1 c chicken stock

1 c apple cider vinegar

2 T brown sugar

1 T chili powder

1 T sea salt

1/2 t ground cumin

1/4 t ground cinnamon

In  a crockpot, place your pork.  Surround and top with the onions, garlic and spices.  Pour on the vinegar and broth.  Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours.  Remove bones and using 2 forks, shred the pork.  Strain some of the excess cooking liquid out.  Serve on Kaiser rolls with a selection of traditional toppings such as:  coleslaw, sauerkraut, shredded brussel sprouts, shredded kale or sautéed mushrooms.

To go Tex Mex:  serve as carnitas on tortilla rounds with chopped tomatoes, avocado, lime wedges, sliced black olives, sour cream, chopped cilantro, salsa and black beans. The Tex Mex version could also be made into very popular rice bowls topped with the shredded pork and all the fixins!  Sides of corn-on-the-cob would be a perfect summer accompaniement with whatvever version you choose to serve.  Any way you go, this is a versatile dish with endless serving possibiliites to feed a crowd. Leftovers freeze well too.  So crank up Ella and get slowcookin’.

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All ingredients in the crock pot

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Fully cooked, just before deboning

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The pork shredded, before skimming off about a cup of cooking liquid.

Ready to dig in!

Ready to dig in!

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Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre- Auguste Renoir, the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1880-1881

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre- Auguste Renoir, the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1880-1881

Taking this big pot of pulled pork to Fiesta Friday, hosted by Angie@Fiesta Friday, Laurie@Ten Times Tea and Jhuls@The Not so Creative Cook.

Raspberry Panna Cotta Cake

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When I left Canada to complete a post-doctoral residency in periodontics, my first birthday away was celebrated with this cake made by my dear friend Sylvie, another French Canadian I had met at The University of Pennsylvania.   The cake was so different than anything I had ever had. The very pretty cake was made of two layers: a creamy panna cotta-like layer dotted with luscious raspberries over  a base layer of moist white cake.  Light and delicious, it was a really special confection that made for a memorable birthday.  Whenever I need a celebratory cake, this recipe is one I turn to again and again.  I like that it can be made in advance.  The cake layer can even be made and frozen for several days right in the springform pan.  The recipe never fails to delight and surprise.  “What is in this?”  Yogurt, cream, very little sugar and gelatin!  Calling it a panna cotta cake is the best descriptive term I have come up with. In French its original name was “Délice aux framboises”.  Oh la la, it sure is! image

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Cake layer: half of a white cake mix

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Raspberries spread over cake layer

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Heating milk, cream and sugar before whisking in the gelatin.

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Yogurt and vanilla added to the milk~cream-sugar~gelatin mixture and poured over the raspberries. Chill for 2 hours or overnight.

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Serving the cake to celebrate a talented young woman’s graduation, I added pink  perennial geranium flowers around the cake.

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Raspberry Panna Cotta Cake

1/2 of a white cake mix, prepared as directed, in a 9″ springform pan, cooled

4 t Knox gelatin(2envelopes)

1/4 c cold water

1/2 c sugar

3/4 c milk

3/4 c half and half cream(use heavy cream if using low fat milk)

2 1/4 c plain whole milk European style yogurt(not Greek)

1 t vanilla

12 oz fresh raspberries(2 containers)

Spread the raspberries over the cake base.  Dissolve gelatin in water.  In a small saucepan heat milk, cream and sugar until sugar is dissolved.  Remove from heat and add gelatin, whisking to mix thoroughly and prevent clumping.  Add yogurt and vanilla.  Mix well.  Pour over the raspberries. Chill at least 2 hours or overnight.  Run knife around sides to loosen and remove sides of pan.  Serves 10.

Bon appétit!

Celebrating with this cake at the Fiesta Friday party co-hosted by Angie@Fiesta Friday, Dini@Giramuk’s Kitchen and Mollie@The Frugal Hausfrau, some of the best food bloggers there are!