Ah, summertime. It's any nervous party host's favorite season: A more easygoing attitude toward entertaining accompanies the barefoot, balmy days of summer, allowing party planners to toss aside notions of Martha Stewart-like perfectionism for more relaxed spontaneity.
In other words, during the summer months, it's OK to keep it simple, real simple – and this year, especially, with a struggling economy, a pared-down approach is perhaps more acceptable than ever.
Grilling is hot, as everything from peaches to oysters are being put to the flames; hosts are serving more appetizer-only or tapas-style (Spanish for "small plates") menus; and potluck-style gatherings have morphed into what New York food consultant Clark Wolf calls "plotluck," where anything growing in one's own backyard is fair game for a shared dish.
"In high economic times, we feel guilty if we're not putting on the Ritz," says Mr. Wolf, "but when things are down, we feel all right about getting more earthy, more comfy, and, in a sense, rediscovering our culinary roots.
"At the same time," he adds, "we're not slumming it."
On Martha's Vineyard, where Cathy Walthers has catered parties for the past nine summers, her clients are definitely not "slumming it," but they are relishing the more relaxed tone that pervades summer parties. What she calls "easy appetizers" are perhaps more in demand than ever, as hosts want to stay out of the kitchen and mingle with their guests. Over the years, Ms. Walthers, also a cookbook author, has amassed a huge collection of recipes for this darling of the summer-party circuit.
Some of her most popular appetizers are fruit skewers made by threading together strawberries, blueberries, melon, and feta cheese. She also likes to roast figs with extra-virgin olive oil and then serve them warm with a drizzling of balsamic vinegar or maple syrup. Or she might drench rounds of goat cheese in a mixture of olive oil, lemon zest, garlic, basil, and salt and pepper.
Summer is also prime time for shortcuts, and even Walthers is not averse to buying takeout now and then. "These days, cheese departments include much more than cheese," she says. "If I find a good spread or an artichoke dip, for example, I'll serve that instead of making my own."
One of her most-requested recipes is a variation on guacamole that's made with edamame instead of avocados. Walthers stumbled upon "Hip Dip" in Didi Emmons's cookbook "Entertaining for a Veggie Planet," which Walthers also heeds for its tips – both philosophical and practical – about casual entertaining.
Ms. Emmons's approach is indeed useful for any summer party host. Her philosophy about entertaining could be summed up by her words: "In my experience, the most enjoyable gatherings are simple, unorthodox, and occasionally even botched."
She adds: "All of the unspoken 'shoulds' of entertaining can ruin a good time," and "less than perfect is where the fun is."
Still, in her book, Emmons does offer many useful guidelines for menu planning, including "Strive for balance in flavors, colors, temperatures, and textures" and the seemingly obvious but oft-forgotten advice: "Don't choose dishes that require a lot of last-minute attention."
Perhaps the simplest suggestion for planning a party menu comes from Wolf of "plotluck" fame. The New Yorker urges party planners to decide on dishes based on what's available and appealing at their local farmers' market.
"Take a trip to your farmers' market and combine fresh goods with prepared stuff," he says. "It's cheaper, more delicious, and you're helping your community."
That might sound easy for him, as Union Square Market, one of America's most celebrated farmers' markets, is practically on his doorstep, but Wolf has crisscrossed the country in search of farmers' markets and been thrilled with what he's found.
"There's so much more than just produce," he says. "Farmers' markets are offering all kinds of products made from their crops. You can get focaccia with fresh onions and rosemary, spinach empanadas, fruit tarts…."
Wolf is excited about the movement toward supporting local growers. A friend of his recently hosted a "low carb" party, short for low-carbon footprint – or in other words, local foods only.
It's a concept that's been catching on – for economic and especially environmental reasons – and is perhaps the ultimate way to entertain during these lazy days of summer.
Lemon-Basil Goat Cheese
This easy appetizer with bits of lemon and basil is always a hit. You can prepare the goat cheese and the topping in advance. To keep the basil bright green, sliver just before serving.
6 to 8 ounces of your favorite goat cheese
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely minced garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 to 6 fresh basil leaves
Using either a mold or your hands, gently form the goat cheese into a disk measuring approximately 4 inches wide by about 1 inch thick.
In a small bowl, mix the lemon zest, garlic, olive oil, and pinch of salt. Place the round of cheese on a small serving platter or white plate. Season with freshly ground pepper and, when ready to serve, evenly pour the mixture over it.
Sliver the basil and sprinkle over the goat cheese. Set it out with a cheese spreader and plenty of crackers.
– Source: Cathy Walthers, caterer and cookbook author