But, like Thanksgiving, it is not the time to fool around when it comes to entertaining. Most folks want the familiar: comfort food and an old-fashioned band concert, not molecular gastronomy and a night at the opera. But that doesn’t mean you can’t liberate yourself from hot dogs and potato chips. And, just because you’re gathering in the backyard rather than the dining room, there’s no reason not to set a nice table. So, go ahead. Tweak tradition. Have fun. After all, it’s a birthday party!
Ready, Set, Go!
Whether you’re celebrating with family or welcoming a crowd, know your audience. “The first thing I always ask a client is, ‘Who’s coming?’” says Barbara Lepman, owner of An Apple a Day Catering in Glencoe. “How many people? What’s the age range? Will there be children? All this determines your menu.” Not only your menu, but how you expedite it. If you have 50 people stopping by and only one gas grill, you can’t wait until the doorbell rings to start slapping steaks on the fire. “Most green salads can be assembled the day before and dressed the day of the party,” notes Lepman. “The same with pasta salads. Vegetables can be grilled the day before. Even chicken can be grilled the day before and then reheated in the oven to free up the grill for other items.” And be prepared for rain. “You have to have an alternate plan,” stresses Lepman. “If you are renting tables and chairs, they have to be able to come into house. Don’t order 60-inch round tables that you can’t get through the door. And, if forced to go inside, you have to think, ‘Where am I going to put my bar, where am I going to set up the buffet?’” No matter what, if you’re sitting in the sun or generating your own convivial warmth indoors, enjoy yourself. “Just have fun. Make it easy,” urges Lepman. “You don’t have to make 50 dishes. Just have five really good things so that guests walk away and say, “That was the best steak” or “That was the best salad.”
Key to kicking any July 4 fête up a notch is to bring an interior design sense to your alfresco activities. You may not want to carry your mother’s antique Windsor chairs into the garden, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with your patio furniture. Take a trip to a party rental house and you’ll see a good selection of tables and chairs that will transform any terrace or lawn into a distinctive outdoor room. “Lounge furniture is very popular now,” relates boutique event planner Amy DiTomasso of Sugar Chic Designs. “And you don’t have to rely on the typical folding tables to set up your food or seat guests. There are many specialty tables available.”
When it comes to setting those tables, look beyond paper goods. DiTomasso takes an eclectic approach. “I like to take something casual and juxtapose it with something beautiful. Even if serving casual food, display it in elegant serving pieces,” she suggests. “Or dress up the table with chargers, which you’d normally only use for a formal dinner. And I am never afraid to use nice glassware or china. I always recommend upgrading from plastic to glass. That may not seem like a big deal, but people often overlook this, and it makes such a difference.” If you can’t quite bring yourself to free your good dishes and stemware from the china cabinet, a restaurant supply house is a great source for grown-up accoutrements. As for purely decorative touches, take a look around the house and see what items you have on hand that can make the trip outside. “I run around my house and find things to accessorize,” says DiTomasso. “Using the things you love really gives a party personality.”
No matter which way your menu skews—heavy on grilled meats or guided by the garden—it’s easy to cook outside the box a bit without leaving your guests wondering what holiday they’re celebrating. And you don’t have to jettison all the usual suspects (brats, corn on the cob, a good burger). Just looking at things a little differently will go a long way toward creating a meal with a little extra zip. There’s a world of rubs and richly layered barbecue sauces that can elevate the preparation of any animal protein. And forget everyday coleslaw and potato salad. Lepman’s repertoire includes a grilled potato salad with peppers and onions in a balsamic dressing and a Thai slaw with almonds, scallions, and a peanut dressing. If your get-together isn’t too large, what’s to stop you from serving grilled salmon fillets, accompanied by an herb-enlivened green salad splashed with
a touch of lemon vinaigrette? Chips and dip are okay, but it doesn’t take much to brown some lovely, garlic-rubbed artisan bread on the grill and top it with a Provençal salsa of tomatoes, olives, parsley, and tarragon. As for kids, Lepman notes that corn, watermelon, and pasta are always a hit. “And children like individual packaging, too, so I try to have cute little trays or individual bags of cookies, grapes, or baked carrot chips.” As for beverages, Lepman says the trend is for local beers and flavored teas and lemonades. What to avoid? “Anything on sticks,” she states. “They’re awkward and you just end up getting your fingers dirty.”
Hopefully, you won’t end up getting your hands too dirty, either. According to Lepman, advance planning—and lining up some strategic help—is the key to throwing a successful outdoor party. The rest is up to Mother Nature.
AN APPLE A DAY CATERING is located in Glencoe and caters to the western suburbs, 847-835-2620, anappleadaycatering.com
LAKE GENEVA PIE CO. ships pies directly from their Wisconsin pie shop, 262.248.5100, lgpie.com
THE GOURMET FROG BAKERY caters to the western suburbs, 847-433-7038, froggysbakery.com
ADDITIONAL LOCAL CATERERS WHO PROVIDE UPSCALE BARBEQUE FOOD:
THE TASTE OF HOME CATERING in Hinsdale, 630-323-7979, tasteofhomecatering.com
VILLAGE GOURMET CAFÉ & CATERING in Clarendon Hills, 847-835-2620, villagegourmet.info