Summer entertaining…aahhhh. It conjures up images of fresh organic greens picked just minutes ago, prepared simply yet knowingly. Strawberries that taste like candy. Corn so fresh it barely needs boiling water. A whole fish stuffed with herbs and lemon and grilled to perfection, all presented on gorgeous and colorful platters in a setting that screams casual and carefree summer. Oh, you are so happy and proud to treat your guests to this bounty, and your guests, well, they ooh and aah about how awesome it looks – and tastes – as you demurely say thank you and offer that, well, it was nothing….
Well, of course, it was not “nothing!” Anyone who has ever given a “casual” summer dinner, trying their best to pull off the table setting and menu items that assault you this time of year from cooking shows and magazines can tell you that summer entertaining, like winter, spring and fall entertaining, can definitely be some work. Yes, summer has the potential to be easier – it can have more choices in terms of venues – backyard barbeque, picnic area, and campground, and my favorite, the beach. Plus, there are lots of recipes that can be prepared quickly, with little, or sometimes no cooking. But shopping – and cooking – still takes time. True, you are probably not braising short ribs for six hours in the summer, nor are you allowing a hearty pot of minestrone soup to simmer on the stove, but preparing all this light and casual summer fare is still a chore.
At this juncture, I must make a huge confession. As I whine about the stress and time commitment of summer entertaining, I must come clean: I LOVE to cook. LOVE. It is my passion. I have worked in a restaurant kitchen. I have gone to cooking school. For me, a “perfect” day means bringing delicious meals and beloved family and friends to my table. But in the summer, especially, I guess other things call.
Take this weekend for instance. Today, Saturday, is my husband’s birthday – Happy Birthday John – and we are planning a “casual” dinner for eight at our beachside cabana. So what am I doing on this glorious summer morning? Am I riding my bike on my favorite 25 mile route? No. Am I on the golf course with my husband? No. Am I taking a walk to the water with my daughter who happens to be here for the weekend? No! Instead, I’m shopping at the Farmer’s Market (which OK, I do enjoy), shredding cabbage, charring corn, whisking dressings and organizing the tote bags and coolers that I will lug up to the beach later this afternoon.
There, I will unpack it all, light a grill, set out chairs and small tables for hors d’oeuvres, making it look “just so.” I will also set up the bar, carry a big cooler filled with ice from the ice maker across the parking lot and grab my big and colorful platters upon which I will — in an hour or so — pile my perfectly grilled lobsters. At this point, I will be in a full body sweat, hunkered down in a small cabana with minimal ventilation, so I will pull my hair that I had previously meticulously straightened back in a pony tail and say the heck with it.
But then, about an hour before our guests arrive, my mood will shift. I will set up a round table and eight chairs on the sand right in front of our cabana. I will prepare the table with a long white tablecloth, matching plates, acrylic though lovely wine glasses and champagne flutes, candles and gorgeous hydrangeas that I will place in a glass pitcher I keep in the cabana just for these evenings. And you know what? It will look just like it does in those magazines and I will feel proud. When our guests arrive, and they see the simple yet elegant table framed against the sand and water a mere 25 feet away, they will smile and be impressed and will immediately be happy to be at such a special evening.
The setting will naturally cause them to anticipate an equally beautiful, yet simply prepared summer bounty. And I will deliver. They will feast on grilled lobsters, a tasty charred corn salad with ultra ripe tomatoes and just picked basil, and a homemade cole slaw. They will drink champagne and white wine lovingly chosen just for the occasion. The meal will be presented buffet-style in my newly renovated cabana – all clean and white with subtle splashes of color and a wall to wall countertop perfect for buffet serving. Come to think of it, I will have achieved just what I set out to do. I will have gathered dear friends around my beautiful table for a special night. The food will be wonderful, and if all goes right, the evening memorable. For my husband alone, of course, it will all be worth the effort. For the smiles and accolades of my guests, too. I will feel accomplished. I will love it. Yes, it was a lot of work, but in a heartbeat, I would do it again.