Splendid in summer: cooking for friends

Making dinner during the week most often involves what I call “functional cooking”—menu planning, repurposing leftovers and utilizing foods I have on hand.  Doing the shopping, the prepping, the cooking, and the dishwashing. Nourishing myself and my husband is a good cause but it kind of becomes a means to an end. Making it work, day after day. But cooking for friends? That’s inspiring! In fact, when I get in a dinner rut, I know it’s time to have some friends over.

The act of cooking for others

What is it about cooking for others? I love nourishing people, bringing them joy, and the pleasure of savoring both the food and conversation around the table. That’s when I step outside myself, see things with fresh eyes, and think outside the box a little. Not that I’m going to try something outrageous or crazy on people I love! But it’s a chance to spread my wings.

I begin thinking about a menu by noting, what’s in season? What herbs and spices are calling to me? How many courses am I going to have? If it’s a Saturday night, I might stretch a little more. If it’s Sunday dinner with neighbors, I keep it really simple.

But I’m still, even now, with as long as I’ve been cooking, a little nervous. As a cook, I don’t think you ever let go of that. You’re always stepping onto a stage where you’ll be judged a little differently than non-cooks. Are the flavors and textures going to be ok? The left brain, the editor, worries and doubts. But when the right brain kicks in and things are flowing, cooking is an expression of pure love and joy! That is for me the BEST. It has nothing to do with my level of experience in the kitchen. At all. It comes from another place, of wanting to nourish people and facilitate conversation. In reality, it always happens! Great conversations happen around a table. Food is the great equalizer.

I have some standbys that I like to cook. But I do have a very large cookbook collection where I often turn for inspiration. And then I kind of sketch it out, so I’ve got a rough game plan. And then I let what’s in the marketplace really drive what’s actually winds up on the table. You never know what you’re going to bump into. Especially in summer!

Summer is the BEST time to cook for friends.

It’s so colorful,  much more informal, and there are so many optionals for special settings.  The markets are filled with the gorgeous summer harvest. You can choose to have an outside barbeque, a potluck, meet at a beach and cook over a fire pit, or on your porch. When you’re cooking for friends outside, you’re not just making food, you’re making memories!

Beyond Recipes: Menu ideas

Dazzle your guests with some examples my friends found especially delightful:

  • Lamb with a ton of vegetables. Everyone loves all the colorful, flavorful vegetables! Even those don’t normally eat that way. And lamb is sort of a special treat these days.
  • A totally different kind of fish with a totally different chimichurri recipe. People’s eyes widen with surprise and pleasure with the unexpectedness of it.
  • Chilled Watermelon or Velvety Gazpacho soup shooters (see recipes below). Cold soups are refreshing, nourishing, and a welcome texture with a summer meal that people don’t often include. Don’t overlook this easy but special option!
  • A kaleidoscope of exceptional salads. Really, this is your chance to show off some of the delightful things you can do to create a refreshing summer meal that is at once light and curiously satisfying, with a whole vocabulary of textures.
  • Moroccan & Persian food. If you don’t know these cuisines, summer is the perfect time to explore and build your repertoire with something marvelous, new, and a bit unusual.
  • Unusual spices. Think about where your tastebuds want to go. Using different spices, give your guests a passport and travel to distant places.  Surprise your guests’ taste buds! In addition to Moroccan and Persian, think Indian, Latin, Thai, Italian. It’s very easy and fun to switch out flavor prints from around the world.
  • A different and delicious dessert.  Need I say more?
  • Kitchen choreography: how to make cooking for friends smooth and easy.

    If you really want to devote a lot of time, by all means do the big menu. But do as much as you can in advance. There’s nothing worse than going into somebody’s house and finding them frantic in the kitchen!

    If you just want to have friends over, do a one-course meal with a nice salad. They’ll be thrilled. They didn’t have to cook.

    But you don’t have to go all Top Chef. Be sure to leave enough time to enjoy your company!

    Here’s my suggested order for food preparation:

    • Work backwards. If you’re doing desert, make it first. It might be simply fruit. Do it, get it done.

    • Get as much done as possible in advance. That way you’ll have time to attend to whatever needs to be thrown together at the last minute.

    • Don’t be afraid to delegate. Does a guest love to grill? Does another love to chop? Assign them tasks. It’s really fun to cook together!

    • Clean as you go so your kitchen doesn’t look like a bomb hit it. Feel free to delegate a guest or two to help with clean up. You know how people are—they practically insist! Don’t feel that you have to resist. :)

    • Be free when your friends arrive. When my friend’s walk in, I’m done. There are only a few things to assemble. No stress, for me or my guests.

    Back in the day I used to have a supper club. We’d get together on Sunday and cook. Each of the cooks would take on a dish. Our friends would come over at 5pm and we’d feed them. Cooking together gave us confidence to get adventurous! Homemade ravioli is not something you tend to do on your own. But with a friend you will!  This is a good way to up your skills and have the joy of conversation while you’re at it.

    An optional way to entertain: you do the main course. A friend brings a desert and a friend brings a salad. Another friend deals with the mocktails and cocktails. Many hands make light work and more fun for all.

    Some of my best and easy recipes for special summer dinners.  

    Kebabs (aka, Kabobs) are always popular with summer guests!

    Wild Salmon Kebabs (1).jpg

    Sometimes it’s just fun to play with your food. I want people to eat omega-3 rich wild salmon—it’s great for heart and brain health—and this recipe is a blast. The salmon is cubed, threaded onto skewers, baked for a few minutes, and voilà: instant salmon kebabs. The Asian pesto, with ginger, cilantro, and mint, makes the skewers a kick to eat. I like this dish served with Watercress, Purple Cabbage, and Edamame Salad with Toasted Sesame Seeds. Talk about a color blast!

    End of Summer Salad_HMC (1).jpg

    Languid days, firefly twilights: this salad just yearns to be made when the calendar the peak of summer and refreshment needs to be close at hand. This quenching dish combines watermelon and tomatoes with mint to form its heart. A little lime juice and cilantro provide a nice high note for this salad, playing well off the slightly briny creaminess of the feta cheese. All you need is a deck and a hammock and you’ll be good to go.

    One of several delectable chilled summer soups! Another is Chilled Watermelon Soup with Chile and Lime.  

    Velvety Mediterranean Gazpacho with Avocado Cream (1).jpg

    Some folks like shots of tequila. Well, my choice of a shot is much, much healthier. Take this Mediterranean gazpacho. It makes a hit of V-8 look like amateur hour. The great part about gazpacho is it’s really a vegetable orgy; cucumbers, red bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, red onions, fennel, garlic. But no worries about endless chopping! Here we toss everything–veggies, spices, herbs, oil–all into Vinny the Vita Mix, add a little olive oil and shazam! It’s party time. And—no hangovers. Promise.