Classic Labor Day recipes for the most relaxed holiday gathering

summery vegetable salad
A let-it-sit-all-night salad of couscous and veggies fits the prompt for simple outdoor entertaining for Labor Day weekend.
(Leslie Grow / For The Times)

As we’ve all now become accustomed to doing, holidays with large gatherings of friends and family are likely to be outdoors. And there’s no better occasion to start honing your outdoor-entertaining skills than Labor Day weekend. It’s the holiday made for sitting outdoors on lawn chairs while the grill slowly smokes a big piece of meat or sears grill marks onto late-summer vegetables like peppers, eggplant and zucchini.

I don’t have a grill, or a backyard, so I’ll be commandeering a friend’s — with their permission, of course — with this plan of attack: Grill three different meats to feed all my guests’ wants and desires, while one big salad and the dessert chills in the fridge. It will leave me plenty of time to occasionally peek under the lid of the grill to see how things are crisping, rendering and flaming, while also enjoying a cold drink with my friends, the whole point of the gathering in the first place.

Instead of coming up with something new and exciting, though, I’m falling back on some classics from the L.A. Times’s recipe archives — standards that don’t need improving and that allow me to adapt easily to whomever I’m serving and whatever looks great at the market this week.


For the main events, I’m going with impressive cuts that feed a large crowd and can sit out for casual grazing. A big steak can be sliced into substantial slabs — and served with a garlic and citrus-packed gremolata made of nutty, rich pistachios. A whole branzino — head and tail left intact but otherwise bone-free — is excellent marinated in Thai chiles, fish sauce, garlic and turmeric and then grilled simply until the skin is blistered and crisp.

And a whole chicken cooked Peruvian style, marinated in soy sauce, lime juice, ginger, cumin and oregano, among many other things, is deeply flavorful when slowly roasted in a grill — or on a rotating spit-roaster, if you have one — until the edges are charred and crispy and the marinade has cooked into an umami-rich shellac on the outside of the bird. The only thing that can top it, arguably, is the creamy green aji sauce served on the side.

For a side, I keep it dead simple with a salad of couscous — although you can use any cooked grain — tossed with a lemon vinaigrette and mixed with cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and feta. It’s that kind of salad that is just as good after it’s been sitting out for an hour as it was fresh from the fridge. And the longer it sits in the dressing, the more the ingredients’ flavors deepen and mingle. It takes well to any other vegetables you want to add as well: grilled or raw bell peppers, corn, zucchini and summer squash or eggplant.

And if you’re the type that just brings out pints of ice cream for a backyard entertaining situation, that’s wonderful. But if you want to take it up a notch — I admit I’m very much that person — then a panna cotta is the way to go. It’s just cream and milk and sugar set with some gelatin, and it can be made with any alternative nut milks, if your guests are those people. Best of all, it goes well with virtually any fruit: Pick up some berries at the market, that pint of figs you’ve been eyeing, a really ripe peach from your tree or, truly, some supermarket blueberries. For the latter, mash them a bit and toss with a little sugar to draw out their juices.

Spoon it over the custards on plates, maybe add a splash of some boozy liqueur and end the night on an unexpectedly fancy note. After all, just because we’ll be spending holidays outdoors for a while doesn’t mean we have to eat like it’s a camping trip each time around.

Get the recipes:


Whole Grilled Branzino

Time 50 minutes
Yields Serves 1 to 2

Pollo a la Brasa

Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Yields Serves 2 to 3 as a main course

Summer Salad with Israeli Couscous

Time 20 minutes
Yields Serves 6.

Panna Cotta

Time 40 minutes
Yields Serves 8