Memorial Day weekend. It's the traditional kickoff of the outdoor entertaining season. Think of it as dress rehearsal for summer. And what could be easier than summertime entertaining? Informality rules. It's OK to use paper plates and napkins at a backyard party. When someone spills, you simply hose down the patio after everyone leaves.
The problem is that most hosts aren't ready for summer. Some Southern Californians keep their parties outdoors all year round, but contrary to the "Land of Sunshine" myth, a lot of us have been indoors the past few months, cooking intimate suppers, hosting dinner parties and indoor brunches.
Entertaining outdoors may be more casual than indoor parties, but it does take some strategic planning.
We talked to caterers who know better than anyone how to keep preparation to a minimum and costs down. They all agreed: The secret is to keep things simple, and keep a pantry stocked with basic food and table accessories. Stocking up doesn't mean lowering your standards, though. Buy food you enjoy. Buy in season. Buy in quantity. The pantry will work even when you are not entertaining.
Caterer Don Ernstein of Wonderful Parties, Wonderful Food suggests taking advantage of all the colorful produce available at farmers markets now and displaying them in their natural state: a basket brimming with washed, plump strawberries or red cherry tomatoes or perfectly ripe peaches; a platter of yellow, red and green peppers. "I'm big on the way a party looks," says Ernstein. "I once did a centerpiece that was a big sunburst of yellow squash and green zucchini. What's left can be used the next day in soup."
"I love potatoes and always have them around," says party planner Randy Fuhrman. "You can do a potato salad with vinaigrette, or mash them with sour cream, cream cheese and butter to serve with barbecue chicken. And even if you are on a diet, potatoes work. Mash them with the skins on and serve with salsa instead of butter."
Fuhrman, who was once given as a gift to Barbra Streisand (as a cook), swears by the canned salsa sold at Smart & Final. "It's probably one of the best on the market and costs half the amount of money as everybody else's. It's not like a fresh salsa, but you can add some chopped red onion, some chopped cilantro, fresh tomatoes and let it sit for a few hours." he says. "(The technique) is what we call 'fluff,' let's take credit for doing it from scratch."
Another caterer high on fluff is former news anchor Inez Pedroza, who runs the Creative Gourmet. "In the last two to five years," she says, "there have been a lot of products on the market that were never available before. Trader Joe's has a nice marinara sauce. Add some garlic, salt and a dash of butter and you've got a really nice sauce."
Not all caterers advise doctoring up already prepared products to save time. Tom Byrne of La Cuisine prefers to work his menus around locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs from growers markets in the area. "It's the freshest and the ripest and it's coming from California growers," he says. Right now is the best time to buy fresh basil in bulk. Wash it, puree it, pack it in a container with olive oil and you've got an array of instant entrees. "It keeps for months in the refrigerator as long as it's covered with oil," Byrne says. "You can use it for literally everything--marinades, cold pasta sauces, basil sauce for beef or grilled chicken."
"We've been doing a lot of turkey chili parties which are really inexpensive," says Gary Budnick of Prime Time Catering, "We buy these giant rolls of frozen ground turkey at Smart & Final. That way you just take one of those serrated freezer knives and cut off what you need, and put the rest back in the freezer."
Salads made from grains or legumes are inexpensive and often improve if they sit for a day or two. Couscous, tabbouleh, wild rice, quinoa and mixed beans all keep well. Plus, says Ernstein of Wonderful Parties, "you can buy a bag of beans and serve 20 people."
Fuhrman likes to prepare tri-tips for a crowd. The trick, he says, is to not overcook the meat. "They really take only a small amount of time." he says.
But ribs are another matter entirely. Fuhrman suggests boiling them first because it releases a lot of the fat and makes them tender. "Then I soak them in barbecue sauce, bake them in the oven and finish them off on the grill. The reality for me is that barbecuing is just to give really good marks (on the meat)."
When it comes to what to serve for dessert, Byrne, who catered Liz Taylor's last wedding, suggests buying ripe raspberries by the flat. Cook them with a bit of sugar, puree the mixture and then strain it for fresh raspberry sauce. "This is the time when they are cheap and you can do it," he says, "Otherwise raspberries are pretty much prohibitive." There are 101 uses for raspberry sauce--as a dessert base, a topping for ice creams, over fresh fruit, or on shortcake.
The shortcake can be made ahead of time, too. With a food processor, it's possible to whip up batches of the dough in minutes, cut them into rounds and freeze them for later use. "Shortcake is a versatile, summery thing. All you do is crush the berries, bake the cake and add a little whipping cream," says Byrne. "And it doesn't have to be repetitive because you can make raspberry shortcake one day, then blueberry, blackberry, strawberry."
Another quick dessert: Buy plenty of sweet strawberries and melons in season, cut them into small pieces and freeze in small quantities. "Take them out of the freezer, throw them in the food processor for a flash," says Byrne, "and it becomes instant, delicious, refreshing sorbet."
"What you need to figure out is what freezes well," says Ernstein, who often caters for gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown. "I would never make 10 chocolate cakes. People don't have refrigerator space for that. My (dessert) concept has always been that you have to have fruit, you have to have something that's chocolate and you have to have something that's not chocolate." He favors brownies, lemon squares or shortbread cookies because they freeze well, and fresh berries because, he says, "they look beautiful and all you have to do is wash them."
Sometimes, though, it doesn't cost that much more to buy the food than to make it. "One of the best parties I ever did was when I went to a Chinese takeout place and got containers of food. I bought extra empty containers and those became the vessels they ate out of," says Ernstein. "Then I ordered a huge stir-fry vegetable dish and put it on a big blue and white platter. Everyone ate with chopsticks.
"People have to ask themselves, 'Do I really have time to do this and am I really going to save enough money? Or should I go to a wonderful place that specializes in chicken?' " adds Ernstein. "Summer entertaining should be easy. If you love to cook, maybe make just one or two things and go pick up a great cherry pie somewhere. You don't have to make everything to call it your own."
"The most important thing," adds Fuhrman, "is to have fun. If you really don't enjoy entertaining, it's going to come out in your food."