Dinner Parties 101: The Great Outdoors


It happens every year. Daylight starts lingering a bit longer, outdoor restaurant patios begin to overflow, and I become obsessed with doing anything and everything outside. My palate also takes a dramatic turn. By the end of March, I never want to see a pot of chili, rich stew, or cream-based soup ever again. Instead, I crave the fresh, simple ingredients of spring and summer, flock to any nearby farmer’s market and have visions of vine ripe tomatoes dancing in my head. It may come as no surprise that my favorite dinner parties are the outdoor ones.

The recipes below are three of my favorites for an outdoor crowd. Each is a substantial meal in itself and only needs simple accompaniments. They taste just as delicious room temperature as they do hot, and can be served family style, which simplifies things immensely.

By August when the Georgia humidity has nearly suffocated me, I may not feel the same way, but as of now I am giddy with anticipation for the first outdoor dinner party of the season.

Spiced mini-burgers with couscous salad

These mini burgers are a fun Mediterranean twist on your typical hamburger. I like to serve them without a bun and with thick pita wedges on the side instead. Ground lamb can also be used as a delicious alternative to the ground beef.

1 10-ounce box couscous (1 1/2 cups)
1 pound ground beef
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
Kosher salt and black pepper
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 scallions, sliced
4 plum tomatoes, quartered
1 seedless cucumber, cut into half-moons
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 8-ounce container hummus (optional)
2 1/2 cups tzatziki sauce (see recipe below)

Place the couscous in a large bowl and pour 1 ½ cups hot water over the top. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes; fluff with a fork.

Sprinkle the beef with the cumin, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper, then form into 12 small ½-inch-thick patties. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the patties and cook to the desired doneness (four minutes per side for medium).

Toss the couscous with the scallions, tomatoes, cucumber, lemon juice, the remaining three tablespoons of oil, 1 ¼ teaspoons salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Serve with the burgers and hummus and tzatziki on the side.

1 cucumber, diced
1 tablespoon of olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh dill
Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Pat the diced cucumber dry with a paper towel and set aside. Combine oil and lemon juice in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Fold the yogurt in slowly, making sure it mixes completely with the oil. Add the garlic, cucumber, salt, pepper, and dill and stir until evenly distributed. Garnish with a bit of green and serve well chilled. Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Fish tacos with tropical fruit salsa and cilantro crème fraiche
Recipe from Peace Meals: A Book of Recipes for Cooking and Connecting

If you’re a wimp like me when it comes to spiciness, leave the chilies out of the tacos and add a bit of minced red onion instead.

Tropical Fruit Salsa
1 cup peeled, pitted and diced mango (about 1 mango)
1 cup peeled, cored and diced pineapple
2 avocados, pitted, peeled and diced
1/4 cup chopped, fresh cilantro, plus additional for garnish
¼ cup minced red onion
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onions
2 pounds skinless, boneless red snapper fillets, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 canned chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, finely chopped
3 cups thinly shredded cabbage
16 corn tortillas
Cilantro Crème Fraiche (see recipe below)

Gently mix together the salsa ingredients in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside. Whisk together the lime juice and 3 tablespoons of the oil in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Season the fish with salt and pepper and add to the onions. Saute, stirring frequently, about 3 to 4 minutes or until just cooked through. Remove the pan from heat, add the chilies, and mix gently. Toss the cabbage together with the dressing in a medium bowl. Warm the tortillas in a skillet and fill each with the fish mixture, cabbage, and tropical fruit salsa. Top with cilantro crème fraiche and serve with black beans and rice.

Cilantro Crème Fraiche
½ cup buttermilk
Juice of 2 limes
1 serrano chili, minced
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped (save sprigs for garnish)
3 cups crème fraiche
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

In a blender, puree the buttermilk, lime juice, chilies, and cilantro. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and fold in the crème fraiche and cumin.
Makes 16 tacos.

Spaghetti with Artichokes and Pancetta
Recipe from Food & Wine magazine
Serve this dish with a fresh caprese salad and you’ve got yourself a meal.

1 lemon, halved
8 baby artichokes (about 1 pound)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
one 2-ounce piece of pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
½ cup dry white wine
kosher salt and freshy ground pepper
1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus even more for serving

Fill a large bowl with water. Squeeze in the juice from the lemon halves, and add the lemon halves to the water. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, peel off the dark green outer leaves. Cut off the top fourth of the artichoke; peel and trim the stem. Slice the artichoke lengthwise 1/8 inch thick and drop into the lemon water. Repeat with the remaining artichokes

In a saucepan, heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic, and pancetta and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain the artichokes and discard lemon. Add the artichokes to the saucepan, cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring, until almost tender, about 10 minutes. Add the white wine, cover and simmer over moderately low heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water. Add the pasta and the reserved cooking water to the artichokes and toss over moderate heat for 1 minute. Remove from the heat, stir in the 1/4 cup of cheese and season with salt and pepper. Serve the pasta, passing more grated cheese at the table.  Serves 6.