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Expert Advice: How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party

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Expert Advice: How to Throw an Impromptu Summer Dinner Party

June 21, 2019

There’s something about summer that invites spontaneity: one last quick dip in the lake before dinner, an afternoon drive to nowhere in particular, spur-of-the-moment dinners taken outside in the garden. Some of the most memorable summer evenings start out this way: an impromptu dinner party, just because it’s too beautiful to call it a night. (Or because company drops by unexpectedly.)

How to pull off a festive dinner—to make sure there’s something to eat, and that it’s just a bit special—when there’s no time to run to the grocery store, the florist, or the farmer’s market? (Or, when you’d rather spend the hours before a party reading in a hammock, not running errands?) We asked Jill Donenfeld, a chef and cookbook writer who, as a co-founder of in-home chef company The Culinistas, knows a few things about throwing a party. Here are her easy last-minute tips.

1. Keep essentials on hand.

 Photograph by Nicole Franzen from How to Crowd Source a Garden.
Above: Photograph by Nicole Franzen from How to Crowd Source a Garden.

To be ready on a moment’s notice—or, so that you can invite the gang over straight from the beach and avoid a stop at the grocery store—keep a few essentials on hand. An instant dinner? “Pasta, anchovies, tomato paste, lemons, walnuts,” Donenfeld says, almost all of which you can keep stocked in the pantry. “Finish with a simple salad: Bibb lettuce, mustard, honey, olive oil, lemon, raisins.” As for the bar, keep it stocked with the basics: “tequila, gin, vermouth, Pellegrino equals tequila and soda, gin martinis, and sparkling water.”

2. Shop the house.

Photograph by Heikki Aho for Remodelista, from Steal This Look: Tiina’s Summer Tabletop Setting.
Above: Photograph by Heikki Aho for Remodelista, from Steal This Look: Tiina’s Summer Tabletop Setting.

Once dinner’s started, scour the house for what you already have: “Any textiles, bright and patterned, that can be used as a tablecloth or runner,” Donenfeld says. “Light all the candles you have and dim the lights.”

3. Add bits and bobs from nature.

If you have a few extra minutes, add a simple, small detail to make it just a bit more special than any old weeknight dinner. “If you are a collector of rocks or shells like I am, find your prettiest pieces and place one at each person’s table setting: plate, napkin on top, a piece of coral to secure it,” Donenfeld says.

4. Float flowers.

 Photography by Natalie Weiss and styling by Alexa Hotz for Gardenista, as seen in In the Garden and Atelier with Cécile Daladier in Paris.
Above: Photography by Natalie Weiss and styling by Alexa Hotz for Gardenista, as seen in In the Garden and Atelier with Cécile Daladier in Paris.

Don’t feel like you need big, lush flower arrangements to make it a party. “Float flowers in bowls—anything you find on a walk, forage, or get from the grocer,” says Donenfeld. “My favorites in season now are rhododendrons: big pink pompoms. If you prefer a cleaner, upright look, one calla lily and one closed peony make for nice small arrangements that you can source from the deli.”

5. Let food double as decor.

 Photograph by Aya Brackett for Remodelista, from A Seasonal Celebration, Creatives Included.
Above: Photograph by Aya Brackett for Remodelista, from A Seasonal Celebration, Creatives Included.

“I like a functional table, since room is often limited,” Donenfeld says. For example: “I am always a fan of baguettes between the guests. Lay them perpendicular across the table between each ‘two-top’.” Or, line the center of the table with “a long trough of steamed clams”, Donenfeld says. It’ll do double duty as a first course and give a sense of summer, in all its fresh-from-the-sea abundance.

More summer entertaining tips:

N.B.: Featured photograph by Simon Bevan from London’s Best Below-Stairs Lunch, Hoxton Edition.

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