Create the Ultimate Summer Dinner Party (Recipes, Tips and More)

Summer…when everything is ripe.

Need I say more?

It’s the perfect time to have a party. From the minute I could simultaneously walk and hold dolls, I have been known to throw a party. (Shout-out to my first doll, Pretzel, who, as you can see, I named after a food the minute I could talk, and then immediately invited her to an imaginary dinner: so there you have it.) I’ve grown up to be a gal who thinks nothing of dragging my lengthy kitchen table outside, chairs and all, for a real farm-to-table dinner feel.

I will go to great lengths year-round to host a unique and special experience, but in the summer I can truly create a wonderland that rekindles some of that childhood magic.

Once a year I do a festive summer party. There is something about doing it in the summer, pulling everything out of the house and bringing it into the yard and just totally knocking myself out. Summer in Chicago just cries out for this kind of feast. We deserve it.

The trick is to create a menu that is truly spectacular, but that you can do in the days leading up to the party, so that when guests arrive you can enjoy yourself. Taking my time over a few days of preparation, and infusing my food with love, creates a certain magic for a party. There is an alchemy that happens when devotion and intention are put into food.

I love to gather family around to truly celebrate a holiday or special occasion for someone I love, in this case for my niece, Lily. If you have lovely crystal, silver and fine china, by all means, what are you waiting for? And if you don’t, your best friend does–borrow some; be creative! You will transform the event and people will feel all the love and effort that make the event really spectacular.

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In the summer I can truly create a wonderland that rekindles some of that childhood magic

I like to plan the menu around dishes that my special guest loves, choose one item that’s decadent, bubbly and hot, and then build the menu from there. The star of this show would be the much-loved Vidalia Onion Souffle with all the other dishes selected to compliment it.

In the summer, foods that aren’t steaming hot are welcome, plus you can keep the house cool the day of. It’s so much fun to go to the farmers’ market the day before the party and handpick all the perfect in-season, local things–and that way, if you can’t get fava beans, then you can switch it up to something else that looks fantastic. Use a recipe as a guide but no need to get locked into it.

It’s fun to create and experiment and let yourself spontaneously venture into a totally different direction. That’s the beauty of farmers’ markets. Know your crowd and plan a menu that people are going to “get” and to love. This group was more of a vegetable crowd, so rather than make my perfect cast iron steak, a lighter fare of salads, vegetables and a soufflé was the way to go.

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This is no time to use Ritz crackers

It’s important to have an enticing nibble before the buffet opens, so the moment guests arrive offer some homemade dip, crudities, and maybe some nice cheeses. I chose manchego, goat cheese and a lovely soft brie.

TIP: This is no time to use Ritz crackers–go out of your way to serve your cheese with crackers that are unique and interesting.

TIP: When making a spinach dip, don’t puree the spinach. For dip, frozen spinach works best and once you’ve squeezed it, mix the dip ingredients rather than throwing it in the Cuisinart. The larger pieces are so nice and make a real substantial dip look amazing.

After guests were slightly settled, and had moved from greetings to deeper conversation, the buffet was ready. The Onion Souffle was gorgeous, especially for those who’ve never had Thanksgiving at my house. Key to this buffet was the Rice Salad with Fava Beans, Pistachio, and fresh herbs, and who better to look to than Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi, who seem to have invented this compelling way of eating.

What I love about their salad is that if you can’t find one item, you can substitute something else you love–and if all else fails, add in a dried cherry. Although easy and ideal to make the day before, this dish requires a level of commitment that not everyone is up for, but for those of you who are: there is little more thrilling than having conversation cease, then turn into gasps, when people start tasting this salad. Challenge yourself to create this kick-ass dish.

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Key to this buffet was the Rice Salad with Fava Beans, Pistachio, and fresh herbs

I realize I have mentioned I prefer to do my own cooking, but I also know the importance of finding those whose can do something better than I, and such is the case with my much loved local bakery Bittersweet, which has been around for 20 years and was recently nominated for a James Beard award. Just like on the buffet, when doing the dessert, you want a real “wow” piece–and if that’s something you can do yourself, then perfect.

If you have beautiful family platters, this is the time to show them off. I had the baker specially cut the cake to fit perfectly on a cherished silver platter given to my parents as a wedding gift, and then stack it high with an extra layer for a more decadent-looking version of a sheet cake. It required a level of professional skill, time, and expertise that went beyond my very motivated grasp.

I asked for dark brown glaze with pink flowers–as close to lilies as they could get, for our guest, Lily–a custom cake, Teri-style. I had a vision. My vision was pretty darn spectacular: I wanted a show-stopper. And Bittersweet was up to the challenge.

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I love doing my own flowers; and why not, when it’s summer?

Although my guest of honor had requested a cake, she had no idea it would be the co-star in our menu–scattered with pink lilies–or that it would inspire me to fill vases with the most perfect pink peonies I’ve ever seen. Just as my side dishes evolved from the souffle, the color scheme evolved from the lily cake–it was absolutely the “wow” piece of the second half of our evening and made my guest feel honored.

I love doing my own flowers; and why not, when it’s summer? I have a plethora of 6 by 6 glass vases and the trick is to go to a farmer’s market and see what is perfect and fresh. The peonies were perfect, so we bought all of the pink ones. When it comes to flowers, why do the rainbow? I learned a long time ago that monochromatic arrangements are stunning, yet actually easier to do. Even if you end up with all the same flowers, it doesn’t take a professional florist to cut them all the same length and jam them all in a glass cube to create a real look of abundance.

The table was gorgeous. Candles in mason jars were perfectly magical at dusk, and I love to scatter small crystal bits on the tables for extra magic. (Be creative here…dazzle your guests!) We added sweet little French bottles of pink lemonade to the table to incorporate the pink, and, as a person who likes to take things a step further, I wound up with pink champagne, passion iced tea, rose wine and pink sparkling juice: gorgeous. The point isn’t to do pink, as much as it find something that excites your imagination and then run with it in a tasteful, wonderful way (but for Pete’s sake let’s not turn it into a luau).

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The star of this show would be the much-loved Vidalia Onion Souffle

In my years as an event producer hired by customers to make spectacular parties, I was always proud of my work. But when it’s a labor of love for a member of my family, the feeling goes beyond pride. It fills my heart in such a profound way that guests feel it and bask in the love. Every guest still felt the afterglow of our dinner party days later.

Menu

– Greet guests with a glass of champagne or sparkling juice

– Platter of three cheeses that you are excited about

– Special crackers

– Spinach dip with crudités

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Buffet

– Grilled Asparagus (oil the spears and grill on medium for about 5 minutes–don’t overcook)

– Wild and white rice salad with pistachios, fava beans, and lime

Kale Caesar Salad with summer bread and butter radishes

– Vidalia Onion Soufflé

– A lovely platter of smoked salmon accompanied by homemade Harissa sauce, sour cream, finely chopped red onion, and chives

– Beautifully cut grapefruit and avocado salad, lightly dressed with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper

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Just like on the buffet, when doing the dessert, you want a real “wow” piece

Dessert
– A beautiful 2-tiered cake

– Perfect summer strawberries and blueberries

TIP: you can’t go wrong with beautiful summer fruit–whatever is in season and perfect at the moment.

TIP: for Kale Caesar choose half kale and half romaine. Toss the kale leaves with a bit of olive oil and salt 20 minutes before you add the other greens

TIP: for events, construct a schedule like the following:

Two days ahead: make the harissa sauce, buy cheeses and drinks, buy nonperishable groceries, make the Caesar dressing

One day ahead: make the rice salad and spinach dip; cut the onions for the soufflé and caramelize, cool and refrigerate them; cut the grapefruit sections and store in glass jar; measure the dry ingredients for soufflé and leave out; cut crudités and store in ice water,  pick up salmon, cut grapefruit into sections and refrigerate; buy berries but don’t wash

Day of party: pick up cake, grill asparagus and leave out at room temperature, assemble and cook soufflé, wash greens for salad, wash berries right before the party

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Delicious.

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