It’s summertime

So make the party easy

Alec and Laura Johnson, photography by Neal Bruns
Photography by Neal Bruns

There’s nothing like a great party, but the planning and preparation can rob the host of a good time. That’s why some of the best parties of all are the ones that organically spring up at a moment’s notice. Summertime is relaxed and casual – the sun seems to bring that out in us — but don’t be caught unprepared. This season, when friends and neighbors stop by, let formal plans fly out the window for an affair that’s uncomplicated yet still lovely and delicious.

By doing a little pre-work now, you’ll be summer’s most carefree host. Keep your pantry and freezer stocked with a variety of basic supplies, take inventory of your adult beverages and arm yourself with potted herbs, ready to be snipped and served. Every day can be a party. Here’s how to equip yourself for the next spur-of-the-moment shindig.

 

Setup for success

String up some outdoor twinkle lights in your backyard now (we’ll wait), which will set a festive tone. You’ll enjoy them all summer, party or not. A few outdoor poufs and pillows can take the place of seating when you don’t have enough chairs. A picnic blanket or two gives guests even more comfy lounging options.

Tune up

Make like a DJ and build a few playlists in advance with different vibes so you’re prepared no matter the mood. Use a music streaming service like Pandora or Spotify for instant, intuitive playlists based on preferences like genre or favorite artist. Small but mighty speakers that connect with your phone or tablet allow you to take the party (or dance floor) anywhere. Check out colorful speakers, some even water-resistant, at Best Buy.

Pick a palette

Whether you gravitate towards solid pastels, juicy hues or bold prints, gather all supplies in a uniform color palette so decor looks cohesive, not jumbled. Hit up party supply stores like Country Kitchen Sweetart and Party City for paper plates and bowls, fun cocktail and dinner napkins, cups and paper straws in your chosen palette, as well as paper medallions and garlands that can be mixed and matched and hung in seconds. A corresponding tablecloth or runner dresses up even the most humble card table and a pretty pitcher makes even plain water a bit more special. Big box stores like Target and Meijer tend to have loads of stylish yet inexpensive melamine (read: shatterproof) dishware if you’re not into paper plates and bowls. The Monogram Shoppe sells stemless wine glasses in unbreakable acrylic as well as silicone drink markers, coasters and universal lids for pans, pots and beverages that help keep bugs at bay.

Build the buffet

Round up simple white serving pieces in various shapes and sizes, which become the perfect blank slate for colorful foods and coordinate easily with any table decor. Small crafty chalk board signs and colorful chalk markers are handy for letting guests know what’s what on the serving table and can be found at craft stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft. Cake stands make everything seem more deluxe, so put your snacks on a pedestal or two. Country Kitchen Sweetart has a beautiful collection of high-end cake stands in pretty colors. Or, create your own by lofting decorative plates on martini glasses or tumblers. If you’re one who likes to entertain regularly, a personalized acrylic serving tray from The Monogram Shoppe should be on your list. The chic trays are available in a wide selection of cool designs from Lilly Pulitzer and Jonathan Adler and come in two sizes, starting at $79 (delivery takes about two weeks). When not in party service, the tray can be used to corral mail and keys or perfume bottles and jewelry.

Finishing touches

One bouquet of fresh flowers can be split up into numerous bud vases and strewn around the party space. Or go free-form with your botanicals by forgoing vases and instead weaving branches and flowers from your yard throughout the arrangements — it’s casual with a boho-chic twist. If you feel like a little extra DIY, thinly slice up citrus fruit, snip off some small sprigs of fresh herbs and add to mason jars or glass bowls of water and add a floating candle for a summery tablescape.

Create your own “bash in a box”

Stash this season’s supplies in a bin so everything’s in one spot when the moment strikes. When your party is done, clean the pieces and restock the bin so you’re ready for your next pop-up party!

 

Raid the kitchen 

With just a few on-hand staples, you’ll be ready to throw together a delicious spread of heavy appetizers, many of which don’t involve cooking or require utensils. Start by setting out the easiest and quickest elements like bowls of roasted nuts in salty and sweet varieties, a dish of gourmet marinated olives from the olive bar at the grocery store, a few wedges of cheese with a couple of different crackers. Dried fruits like cherries provide flavor and add color to your cheese board.

Once your guests have something to snack on, get creative in the kitchen.

• Using whatever fresh fruit you have on hand, cut said fruit into uniform sizes to thread onto reusable skewers. Squeeze lemon juice onto finished fruit skewers to keep them fresh.

• Drizzle a block of feta cheese with honey, and scatter a handful of walnuts on the plate for garnish. Serve with table water crackers.

• Combine softened goat cheese, zest of one lemon, olive oil, plenty of fresh cracked black pepper and a little sea salt to taste and whip together until blended. This blend can be topped with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes for even more flavor. Ricotta can substitute for the goat cheese. This combo is great for slices of French bread or with store-bought grissini breadsticks.

• Serve deconstructed Greek salad bites by skewering cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cubes and olives, then drizzling with olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper.

• Top dried apricots with goat cheese and Marcona almonds for a beautiful, one-bite appetizer.

• Upgrade home-popped popcorn with olive oil and chili powder or melted butter and cinnamon sugar. Shake all ingredients together in a large plastic baggie, then pour into a serving bowl.

• Make quick and simple Parmesan crisps by spacing out little piles of shredded Parmesan cheese on a baking sheet. Bake for about 5 minutes or until cheese is crisp. Serve with bread or use as garnish for a savory soup or a pasta dish.

• For a chilled fruit soup, combine 2 cups frozen raspberries, 1 cup wine (rose or dry white is best), 1 cup sour cream and 1 cup light brown sugar in a blender and puree. Garnish with a small dollop of whipped cream and a sprig of mint for extra oomph.

• Combine canned Cannellini beans, canned tuna, tomatoes, fresh basil, red onion, olive oil, red wine vinegar, sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste for a protein-packed salad.

• Using any small pasta, make a cold side dish or hot main by mixing in ready-made sun-dried tomato or basil pesto, tubes of which can be found at Fresh Market. Sprinkle with feta cheese or shredded Parmesan, pine nuts and/or chopped cherry tomatoes.

• When the time comes for dessert, ice cream sandwiches get a fun little upgrade when the sides are pressed into a dish of jimmies or sprinkles.

• Keep a few cylinders of ready-made dough on hand for the next best thing to homemade cookies.

• Plain vanilla ice cream is elevated with any number of unique pantry additions. Try dried fruits, chopped nuts with ground cinnamon, lemon curd or peach preserves, caramel corn, warmed honey, crumbled bacon, candied orange peel or crystallized ginger.

Delicious drinks

• At any given moment, make sure you have at least one bottle each of red and white wine and a few varieties of craft beer. This way, you’ll have something to offer, even if you don’t have a fully stocked liquor cabinet.

• Prep for punch and cocktails by adding fruits like blueberries or raspberries when making ice cubes. Fun in a cup!

• Combine clear citrus sodas with prepared canned lemonade from your freezer for a quick punch, then add sliced citrus fruit and your pre-made fruity ice. Set out a bottle of infused citrus vodka (either store bought or homemade well in advance) and you’ve got a couple of party-ready bevvies for littles (lemonade only, please!) and adults alike. To infuse: combine 2 to 3 cups of your favorite vodka with 2 cups of washed and chopped fresh fruit or whole berries (make sure the fruit is fully covered by the liquid; add more vodka if necessary) in a canning jar out of direct sunlight for at least three or four days, shaking the jar every day to mix. When the taste is to your liking, strain the mixture into a clean bottle or another canning jar, discarding the strained fruit.

• Infused waters really elevate your beverage game. Herbs and fruits in a multitude of combos make for refreshing options that feel more festive, especially should you find yourself without lemonade and the like. You’ll find affordable infusing pitchers at stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond or Target.

 

Grocery list 

Pantry
Sun-dried tomatoes, jarred and packed in oil
Sun-dried tomato paste, in tube
Basil pesto, in tube
Nuts, almonds, cashews, Marcona almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, some with interesting flavors like barbecue or wasabi
Dried fruits like apricots, cherries, cranberries
Grissini, thin Italian breadsticks
Honey, local is best
Canned Cannellini beans
Canned tuna
Popcorn kernels or stove-top Jiffy-Pop
Small pasta, like cavatappi, elbow, farfalle (bow-tie), orecchiette
Lemon curd
Fruit preserves
Candied orange peel
Crystallized ginger
Clear citrus sodas or club soda
Sprinkles and jimmies
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt
Black pepper

Fresh Produce
Cucumber
Tomatoes, any and all varieties
Fresh herbs, like basil, oregano, mint, parsley – potted for longevity
Red onion
Lemons (have at least 3 large ones on hand at all times)
Cantaloupe
Honeydew melon
Strawberries
Grapes
Blueberries
Raspberries
Apples
Pineapple

Fridge and Freezer
Marinated olives, best from fresh olive bar at grocery
Cheese, lots of varieties such as feta, goat, Gouda, blue, Parmesan, ricotta
Sour cream
Frozen raspberries
Canned lemonade or limeade
Pre-made cookie dough
Pre-made bread dough
Whipped cream
Vanilla ice cream
Pre-made ice cream sandwiches
NOTE: The most amazing, authentic Greek feta cheese in town can be found at George’s International Market on Broadway.

First appeared in the June 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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