Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Farewell to Summer That Hits the Spot

Although the first official day of fall does not come around until September 22, the rapid approach of Labor Day signals that summer is coming to a close. The children return to school, the days grow shorter, the beaches start to vacate. Although we can enjoy barbecues as late as early November, the holiday weekend is a chance for one final gathering outdoors with family and friends to celebrate the end of summer. If you reflect on your favorite activities from the summer and choose a perfect spot for your festivities, you can create a perfectly elegant setting, and a short but well-thought out menu that will not have you laboring on Labor Day hardly at all.

First, say to yourself "Keep it simple, but nice." When we used to host any kind of party at home, I was always so stressed out as I scrambled to prepare several different appetizers, at least two salads plus at least two more side dishes, and two or three different desserts. I spent more time in a cooking frenzy and very little time actually having fun with my guests. We also had a tendency to try and invite all of our friends at once, which made the event even more hectic and more challenging for socializing with each and every one while trying to juggle platters and drinks. I lived and learned, and now I impart this life's lesson unto you. You can make more of a lasting impact if you stick to a much shorter menu, but make the few things really impressive. The choices may not please everybody you know, which brings us to the next simplicity. Keep the gathering small. In addition to yourself and your significant other, two to three couples, or three to five close friends, on the guest list is enough to share an enjoyable time without being overwhelmed. Finally, have a theme. In this case, in expressing a farewell to breezy summer days, think back and recall what you enjoyed doing the most over the past two to three months. Here are a few ideas to ponder.

I personally love the beach. Maybe you were among those who blissfully spent hours on the sand and in the surf till the sun went down. A beach party might be just the thing for you. Find a beach that permits campfires or grilling, then host a seafood bake. Have guests contribute different seafoods (clams, lobsters, mussels, etc.). You provide the other ingredients that go into the pot of this traditional New England fare: small potatoes and fresh corn on the cob are the basic classics. You can find recipes for all different variations of clam bakes on Add to that the ingredients to mix up some sea breezes to sip while the food is cooking. Dessert can be a cheesecake from a really good bakery or, if you have a campfire going, you can all have some fun making s'mores over the flames. That's it. Three menu items, a fun way for you and your guests to all participate in dinner, all against the gorgeous backdrop of a sunset over the crashing waves.

Long Island is the place to live if you own a boat. If you spent your happiest weekends - and a few stolen "sick" days here and there - on the deck of your boat cruising to Fire Island and back, a boat picnic is a fitting tribute to summer's end. Again, a simple and short menu, think water. How about a Mediterranean repast? A hummus, eggplant dip or spinach dip are all easy to make. Whichever you choose, accompany it with some pita chips (also a snap to make). A nice bottle of Italian or French (or Long Island!) wine will be a nice accompaniment to this starter and can take you and your guests through dinner. Follow up with a Mediterranean seafood pasta salad, such as pasta with shrimp, cucumbers, red onion, plum tomatoes, crumbled feta, parsley and a lemon dressing. If one of your guests has impeccable taste, assign him or her the task of visiting their favorite bakery to pick up some good bread to have with the salad and a nice fruit tart for dessert.

For you hikers out there who like to wile away the day taking scenic walks through various parks, pick the most scenic site of your favorite park and have a simple picnic. Put together some traditional Lobster roll sandwiches, buy some high quality potato chips to accompany them. Bake up some cookies which travel well. Marinated vegetable salad is perfect for a picnic, it doesn't contain mayonnaise and can be served at any temperature. It's easy to make too: just cut up various summer vegetables, place them in a roasting pan, toss with salt, pepper and olive oil, and roast them for 20-30 minutes at 450-degrees. Once they have cooled to room temperature, toss them with a balsamic vinaigrette. This can be made a day in advance. Assign one guest to make a pit stop at a farm stand for some big, juicy fresh local peaches; have another guest visit a well stocked beverage store for some good craft beer to wash it all down.

I know some of my friends enjoy contemplating life as they toil in the soil of their beautifully planned gardens every summer. If you're one of these creative individuals with a gorgeous floral backdrop to be proud of, here's your chance to show it off one last time: the garden party. If you also grew a vegetable garden, use some of those vegetables in your menu. The above-mentioned roasted vegetable salad would be a good way to showcase your eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes and peppers. A nice idea is to arrange a huge platter with a salad Nicoise, a traditional French salad platter featuring tuna (prepare a grilled tuna steak for each guest, or you can use salmon if you don't like tuna), small potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, black olives and hard boiled eggs. Be creative, that's just the basic salad, don't be afraid to play with it by adding your own personal touches when it comes to additional ingredients. The only other thing you'll need is dessert. Try extending your creativity toward some elegant ice cream sundae combination.

For traditionalists who vow to make summer's final curtain call a big backyard barbecue bash with a big family and lots of kids, that's great too. If you live on Long Island, definitely consider starting with a traditional summer seafood appetizer, such as baked stuffed clams or clams casino, both easy to make. Burgers would be a good choice for the menu, have two ideas in mind: plain ones for the kids with fussy tastes, and create something really elaborate for the adults. Let your imagination take you where you want to go. I love blue cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato on a burger. Swiss, bacon, grilled red onions and mushrooms are another great combination. Accompany that with a salad which works well with the burgers, a unique potato salad with interesting ingredients in it, or a southwestern salad with black beans, corn, peppers and avacado with a chili-lime vinaigrette. For dessert, set up an ice cream sundae bar with two or three flavors of good quality ice cream, two or three homemade sauces, and a variety of toppings. That's a sweet summer's ending that the kid in all of us can have a lot of fun with. If you wish to make it even more fun, offer a prize to the adult who unveils the most original and best sundae (such as a bottle of wine) and also a prize to the kid who shows the most creativity (such as a gift card to Toys R Us).

However you choose to bid farewell to summer this holiday weekend, be sure to have fun doing it. The above ideas are just a spark to get your creative thoughts flowing with the confidence that it doesn't have to be so overwhelming that you feel overworked, overextended, and going so crazy that you can't enjoy any social time with your guests. These are your friends, or your family. It's all about the bonds you share with them. They are the stars of the show, the menu items are the costars. If you choose a location which holds the meaning of summer for you, that perfect spot will be the perfect stage. Since you'll need only a handful of place settings, abandon the paper plates and plastic cups. If your party is at the beach, on a boat or in the woods, naturally you don't want to risk your Royal Doulton either, but set an elegant table nonetheless. If you can splurge, pick up some placemats and cloth napkins in a color that works with your theme, and use real dishes, glasses and flatware. Add some embellishments to the table by putting some summer flowers to good use and arranging some lit candles for mood lighting. By planning your meal and keeping it small, you'll be able to cook fewer things and place the effort into making much more impressive dishes because you'll only have to concentrate on two or three menu items rather than a dozen, and this will also allow you a few splurges on the ingredients. By keeping the guest list more intimate, you'll be able to share the stories of the summer past and catch up with one another. Have a camera within arms reach, and you'll be able to capture memories of that enjoyable Labor Day party of 2009 to look back upon with a smile for years to come.

Happy Labor Day, enjoy!

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