Backyard Entertaining 101
By Amy Thoma
One of my favorite things to do in the summer is to entertain in my backyard. My house is tiny (less than 1000 square feet) so fitting more than 4-5 people in my dining room results in a very, very crowded party. I like to think of my backyard as another room that’s only open during spring and summer.
Plus, I spend hours perfecting my flower beds, growing veggies and herbs and digging out ugly plants and I’m going to be honest – I like showing off my hard work! So here are my top tips for creating a fun and memorable night in the yard.
- I don’t have a huge table on my patio, nor am I inclined to spend lots of money on furniture I’ll likely destroy after the first rain. So, I bought 2 6-foot folding tables at Costco and 12 cute wooden folding chairs at Cost Plus that I drag out for summer parties. Putting them on my grass gives the night a “dinner in the orchard” kind of feel and leaves my yard open for other activities the rest of the time. Cover them with cute linens (Crate and Barrel is my favorite but Target has great stuff too) and a mess of tea lights and votives and you’re all set!
- Buy some cheap lawn games. Nothing is more fun than a little croquet or bocce ball between appetizers and dinner. Games are also a great way to mix up your guests and get them talking.
- Prepare food that won’t melt! I’ll never forget the time I made some gorgeous cookies that completely melted by 8pm. It’s still hot here at dinner time.
- Keep your drinks in a tub of ice in a galvanized tub from a feed store. Sure, you can buy the same tub for more money at a home decorating store, but the trick here is a feed store. Same cute idea, much cheaper! And buy more ice than you think you’ll need.
- It’s a little cheesy, but white lights in bushes or trees add great atmosphere. I like pretending I’m the star of a romantic comedy at all times and little twinkle lights help set the scene.
- Keep a can of bug spray handy. It doesn’t smell great but mosquito-sensitive guests will appreciate it very much.
Finally – here’s a great summer menu that won’t create tons of dishes or heat up your house.
Mediterranean Couscous Salad
- 1 cup whole wheat couscous (I’m a freak about whole wheat stuff)
- 1 cup grape tomatoes
- 2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- 3 TBSP good quality olive oil
- ¼ cup basil chopped coarsely
- 1/3 cup feta
- kosher salt and pepper to taste
Cook the couscous according to package directions and let it cool. In the meantime combine tomatoes through feta in a bowl and allow to marinate for 20 minutes- half hour. Combine with cooled couscous and serve as a side dish.
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 4 1/2 tablespoons honey
- 6 large garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary or 1 tablespoon dried
- 1/2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 2 1/4-pound flank steak
Mix all ingredients except steak in 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Add steak and turn to coat. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours, turning occasionally.
Prepare barbeque (medium-high heat) or preheat broiler. Remove meat from marinade; discard marinade. Grill steak to desired doneness, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare.
Transfer steak to work surface. Let stand 5 minutes. Cut across grain into thin strips Arrange on platter and serve.
And finally, I can’t believe I’m sharing this recipe because it’s my specialty and I like to keep it a secret, but these chocolate chip cookies are probably the best cookies I’ve ever had or made. Serve them with a little vanilla ice cream and you’ll be good to go. You can find the recipe here.
Chocolate Chip, Walnut, Sea Salt Cookies + Hot Fudge Drizzle
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened (45-60 seconds in the microwave usually does the trick)
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I use Bourbon vanilla extract for an added kick)
- 2 large eggs
- 3-4 cups (36-48 ounces) Semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Trader Joes or Nestle Toll House Chocolate Morsels)
- 2 cups walnut baking pieces (I get these from Trader Joes as well…they have great prices on nuts)
- Sea salt grinder
- Hot fudge of your choice
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a medium-sized bowl. You don’t have to sift the ingredients, but definitely whisk to combine. Beat the softened butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla in a bigger bowl until creamy and all lumps are broken up. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well until combined. Gradually add the flour mixture to the wet mixture, a small bit at a time. Once both mixtures are combined and the batter is smooth, stir in the chocolate chips and walnut pieces. Note: the batter will be really chunky after adding the chocolate chips and nuts.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick “silpat” sheets. Drop generous spoonfuls of batter onto the baking sheet, using your fingers to shape. Keep about 3″ between spoonfuls. You should be able to fit about 12 spoonfuls of batter on each baking sheet. Using a sea salt grinder, grind one “turn” of salt on top of each cookie. It’s up to you if you want more salt, but I’ve found that any more than one turn of the grinder makes the cookies too salty.
Once the salt has been added, dip the tip of a small spoon into the container of hot fudge. I’d recommend doing this over the baking sheet so you don’t have to go far, e.g. not “drizzling” your kitchen floor with hot fudge. Remove the spoon slowly and until the fudge starts to “drizzle” from the tip of the spoon. Drizzle the hot fudge on top of each spoonful of dough. I usually drizzle about 5-10 thin lines of hot fudge on each scoop of dough. Don’t worry if the hot fudge gets on the tray in between each scoop of dough; the cookies will bake and expand over the excess hot fudge drizzle.
Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes or until barely golden brown around the edges. Remove the cookies from the oven and wait about five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack (when warm, the cookies are very delicate). Once the cookies cool, the hot fudge will create a crispy, caramelized crust around the edge of the cookie. But good luck waiting that long.