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Tuesday, July 27


Veneda, Mike, Raymond, Patricia, Shenaz, Amin, Erica, Matt, Charmian, Dennis

Assorted juices, Italian sodas, selection of trendy, non-alcoholic drinks; Pimms, wine, beer, ale

Guacamole (with tortilla chips, Italian bread sticks and bread basket)

Black Bean Salsa (black beans, tomatoes, red onion cilantro, garlic, cumin, lime, chipotle sauce)

Crudite Platter (olives, artichoke hearts, grilled peppers, sun dried tomatoes, Manchego cheese)

Wild Scottish Trout (grilled outdoors with butter and herbs)

Picnic Pasta Salad (chifferi rigati, also known as elbow macaroni, sun dried tomato mayonnaise, boiled eggs, sliced black olives, gherkins, spices)

Baby Spinach Salad (with red onion and honey mustard dressing)

Triple Chocolate Cake and Vanilla Ice Cream

Coffee and Teas

Lucky Richie. Born smack dab in the middle of summer, one day after the 4th of July. If he were an American, Independence Day would guarantee a raucous outdoor party, with fireworks, friends and barbecue every year. I can’t think of a better time of year to be born.

This is the first real summer we’ve had since 2003, when London hit record breaking triple digits, while I fried atop a Big Red Bus tour, guzzling liters of bottled water, purchased from Harrod’s stunning Food Hall. Instead of museums, I squandered hours marveling at Harrod's orgy of stunning produce, cheese, and meat curated by culinary minions.

It’s never this hot,” my husband declared, as I moaned about the lack of air conditioning.
He was right. Summer didn’t come again for seven years. At the time, though, I was dubious. Coming from California, I panicked and bought a ceiling fan. Friends and neighbours find this wildly amusing, but this summer their good-natured ribbing is tinged with lust for the monstrosity whirling above the dining table.

I don’t like hot weather myself. A bright, rainless, windless 18 celsius suits me perfectly. Days made for dining outdoors; Days so light, I don’t need to find my reading glasses; Days when the garden instantly doubles our living space, affording the perfect opportunity for a party; Days that don't come often enough on this small island.

When planning a party with 6 - 12 guests (ideal range for maximum pleasure) I like three weeks lead time. Any more than this and I procrastinate. Any less and I’m too stressed to enjoy myself. Three weeks is the right amount of time to invite guests, plan the menu, buy the food, beverages and wine, clean the house, glam up the garden (and myself a bit) and prepare the feast.

Even though I always create a menu and run it by guests in advance, I end up following 75 - 80% of it. Like this book, my menus are ideas, a good starting point for what’s to come --- not a blueprint. I’d be bored senseless if I had to follow instructions, even my own. The idea is to leave plenty of room for inspiration.

Since I am not much of a baker, or desert maker, I give myself the most room for deviation here. While I will stay up half the night making Richie a homemade, triple chocolate cake for his birthday, most of the time it's a a handsome cheese board, with a bit of port, or something decadent purchased from someone much better at dessert than I shall ever be.
Over the years, I’ve learned that if you lay an especially fetching table; stock up on quality drink options, including thoughtful non-alcoholic beverages, served in generous, attractive glassware; allow ample time for yourself (I like to take a hot, bubble bath an hour, or two, before guests arrive) and enthusiastically welcome guests, with a dazzling array of drinks and finger food, in a convivial atmosphere, the stage is set for a memorable experience.

Entertaining takes a lot of time. A party of 12 requires about 60 hours of prep time. Richie helps too. Let’s say, 80 hours total. For such an investment, we're going to thoroughly enjoy ourselves. We're going to spend time leisurely visiting with our guests, feasting lustily and pleasuring in the jovial atmosphere.

Richie's birthday party was extra important this year because it fell in the middle of treatment for the re-occurrence of osteosarcoma of the jaw.  

Good friends and neighbours rallied around to celebrate my brave, warrior with gusto. While we sang happy birthday, I was embarrassed to feel the knot in my throat swell into a stream of tears. My husband blew out the candles on his slightly sagging, triple chocolate cake, quietly wishing for another well-lived year. 

I make a lot of guacamole in the summer months. I’m also a fan of black bean salsa. Not to get too far off topic, but black bean salsa and guacamole, make an excellent vegetarian burrito. This colourful duo also works well with fresh fish.

Black Bean Salsa

What You Need

Black Beans - 4 cups cooked (I usually go with Epicure’s organic black beans) 
Chipotle Sauce (smoked hot chili pepper) - 2 tbs
Red Onion - 1 large
Coriander - a big, fresh handful. If you can’t get fresh, go with 1 tbs of crushed coriander seeds
Garlic - 6 cloves
Lime - 2 large
Cumin - 2 tbs
Salt and Pepper - 1 tsp each
Tomatoes - 3 large

What You Do

Drain beans. Place in large bowl. Stir in the chipotle sauce. Peel and an finely chop the onion. Add to beans. Wash and finely chop coriander. (If using seeds instead, finely crush) Add to mixture. Peel garlic cloves. Chop finely. Add to beans. Juice limes and combine with beans. Season with cumin, salt and pepper. Wash and dice tomatoes. Add to beans. Taste. Adjust seasoning as you like. 

Serve salsa with tortilla chips and/or thinly sliced, lightly toasted ciabetta.
Crudite Platter 

This is one of my favourite dishes, a brilliant tapestry of colours and textures. I grill the peppers and buy everything else from Waitrose, or a good deli. Granted, it doesn’t come cheap. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a sumptuous vegetarian meal, add a selection of artisan bread and you’re in business. Even a carnivore like myself finds this spread satisfying.

What You Need

Grilled Peppers, Romano, red or mixed, 8 (grill yourself for a third the price)
Olive Oil - 1 cup
Sea Salt and Coarse Pepper - 1 tbs each
Artichoke Hearts, sliced, in oil, 500g
Olives, 600g, Italian, Spanish, Greek (preferably without pits) Some suggestions: Chilie Stuffed Kalkadis, Sicilian Paterno, Lucques, Couchillo, Queen.
Sun Dried Tomatoes 500g (packed in olive oil)
Cheese - Manchego, any handcrafted sheep cheese works well, 800g
Optional: Watercress, fennel, basil leaves, or chives for garnish
Ciabatta style baguettes
Extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping bread

What You Do

If you’re grilling the peppers yourself, wash, slice and de-seed. Pour half the olive oil on large roasting tray. Season with sea salt and coarse pepper (about a tablespoon of each) Roll the peppers in seasoned oil and roast in hot oven (180c) for about 20 minutes, turning once, or until soft and slightly blackened around the edges. Remove from heat. Cool. Serve on big platter, with all the other provisions artfully displayed. Combine the remaining olive oil with the vinegar and serve along side the ciabatta.

*If you’re on a budget, go with grilled peppers on toasted ciabatta. Add sun dried tomatoes and basil leaves, for bruschetta. Leave everything else for another day.

Baby Spinach Salad 

What You Need For The Salad

Baby Spinach 400g
Red Onion - 1 large

What You Need For The Dressing

Whole grain Mustard - 1 cup
Honey - 1/4 cup
Apple Balsamic Vinegar - 1/4 cup
Coarse Pepper and Sea Salt - 1/2 tsp each

What You Do

Thoroughly wash spinach. Spread it on an absorbent towel to dry. Peel and thinly slice onion. Combine spinach and onion in large bowl. Set aside.

In blender, combine mustard, honey and vinegar. Blend well for about 30 second. Stir in pepper and salt. Set aside. Toss with spinach and onions just before serving. If you’re having a buffet, offer dressing on the side.

Wild Sea Trout

Wild sea trout is worlds more flavourful than farmed trout. It’s close to wild salmon in taste. In Britain, wild sea trout is caught between late February through October, peaking around August. It’s a luxury fish sold at a luxury price. While I used to be able to buy it from the fish counters of the places I shop, increasingly, I’ve had to go online to purchase it. 

A 3-1/2 pound (1500g) fish feeds six. For Richie’s birthday, I grilled three, 3-1/2 pound, wild trout, on our gas fired paella cooker (a ridiculous purchase I made the first year I moved to England) 

While I love seeing (and smelling) the whole fish sizzling outdoors, I don’t recommend it for more than 4 - 6 diners. An intimate number can easily share the catch from the table, helping themselves to whatever piece they fancy. More than this, and it’s a struggle to get the succulent flesh on everybody’s plate, piping hot, sans skin and bones.

Next time we do a wild trout feast for 12, I’ll grill the fish in advance. Skin and bone it, and serve it at room temperature with creamy fennel sauce.This recipe works well with any whole fish, not just wild trout.

What You Need

Butter - 125g
Walnut Oil - 1/2 cup
Fennel - 1/2 cup chopped, or 2 tbs seeds
Chives - 1/2 cup chopped, or 2 tbs dried
Sea Salt/Coarse Black Pepper - 1 tbs each
Heavy Duty Foil
Whole Wild Trout 3-1/2 - 4 pounds, gutted, keep head on.
Lemons - 4
Optional: Outdoor grill

What You Do

Even though we eat fish several times a week, I have yet to invest in a oval fish pan, or kettle. A 24 inch kettle would be ideal and one day I shall have one. If you do, by all means, use it. Otherwise, heavy duty foil works great.

Melt butter in small saucepan. Add walnut oil. Set aside. Wash and finely chop fennel and chives. Add to butter and oil. Add salt and pepper. Combine well.

Tear off a large piece of foil. Rinse fish under cold running water. Place fish on foil. Spoon butter mixture into cavity. Pour the remainder over fish. Wrap tightly in foil, making sure the fish is well sealed. Grill over medium heat, indoors, or out, a half hour each side, turning once. 

Make sure it is cooked through by checking the fattest part of the fish, closest to the bone. If it is still bright pink, rather than the mellow salmon pink it becomes when cooked, continue cooking another five minutes and check again.

If you’re grilling fish inside, grill in oven heated to 180c. Outside, over medium heat, at least six inches from heat source.

Serve fish with lots of lemon wedges and/or fennel sauce.

Fennel Sauce

What You Need

Dry White Wine - 1/2 cup 
Lemons - 2 
Fennel - fresh, 1 cup finely chopped. 
If you can’t get fresh, use 2 tbs dill seeds, lightly toasted
Parsley - fresh 1/2 cup finely chopped, or 2 tbs dried
Capers - 1 tbs
Sea Salt/Coarse Pepper - 1 tsp each
Heavy Cream - 2 cups
Optional: Smoked paprika - 1 tsp

What You Do

In medium sauce pan, over medium heat, combine wine and juice from two lemons. Add fennel, parsley, capers, salt and pepper. Stir well. Bring to gentle boil. Turn heat down to very low setting. Add cream, stir until you achieve consistency of sauce (six - eight minutes) Add paprika, if using it. Pour into pretty jug and serve with fish. Sauce keeps well in fridge for a couple of days.

More Ideas and Suggestions
Set up a drinks table in a cool, shady place. Buy lots of ice and stash it in coolers packed with a generous assortment of cold beverages. Buy 10 liter dispensers of spring water on tap and make it the center of your drinks table, with stacks of sturdy, disposable cups.

Tall laundry baskets make attractive trash receptacle. Line a couple with clean trash bags and position near food and beverage tables (not right next to them, though)

Our garden parties are casual affairs. This means super sturdy, attractive, disposable plates, napkins, cutlery, and “glasses,” in a variety of practical sizes. You will thank yourself for this concession, even if, like me, you initially find the idea unappealing. 

Search out the best quality, sturdy disposables you can find. When you find them, stock up for parties and picnics.Have a stash of hats and sunblock available for your guests. Not everybody comes prepared for the great English outdoors. Invest in some pretty bunting to hang in the garden. Better yet, if you’re crafty, make it yourself. I have seen gorgeous cloth bunting in art galleries, selling for hundreds of pounds.

If your party is an evening affair, think about lighting well in advance. Garden lights, fairy lights, lanterns, battered operated LED birds and butterflies, torches, and candles create a magical atmosphere. Ask the photographer in your group to take digital pictures of everyone (and the food) and post them for everybody to help themselves on a free (non public) photo sharing website.

Always, always, always leave yourself time for a hot, scented bath before guests arrive.

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