Setting the Stage for Outdoor Entertaining
It’s summer! For many people in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to get out of the house and host outdoor gatherings, whether it’s enjoying an outdoor living room or kitchen-like features, perfect for entertaining.
After all, who wants to cook inside and haul everything outdoors? Likewise, who wants a constant parade of people flowing in and out of the house?
There are many ways to create great outdoor entertaining spaces and simplify the process of serving food and drinks, including some economical options. Claim some space in your own great outdoors and make it happen!
The centerpiece of any good outdoor kitchen is a great grill. If you select from manufacturers’ models, pick one with surfaces on either side of the grill, to simplify food prep. You may also prefer a gas grill with a burner on one side to prepare items that don’t grill well.
Use your grill to enjoy the bounty of the season. If you want to go beyond traditional burgers and dogs, consider mixing it up with these less common options:
Go vegetarian (or not) – Kabobs of fruits and vegetables make it easy to cook and serve your guests with minimal hassle. If your company prefers it, include meat options. If you don’t mind the extra serving dishes, consider providing plastic gloves and letting guests build their own kabobs!
Rack ‘em – Slather a few racks of ribs with your favorite sauce and grill them, along with foil-wrapped Irish or sweet potatoes, and ears of corn. Add a big bowl of fresh green salad for an easy meal that’s sure to please.
Go fishing – For an impressive option, catch or purchase whole fish and grill them, stuffed with lemon slices and herbs. This is easier than grilling filets (which crumble and make a mess) and it will wow your guests. Add roasted fresh vegetables and a herbed potato salad for a complete meal!
An outdoor bar is a great way to serve drinks with a meal—or to create a focal point for a gathering that includes snacks instead of a complete meal. (To avoid disasters, be sure to select a sturdy table!) Options include:
Self-service – Let guests choose from a large glass container of sangria, a non-alcoholic punch, a colorful bucket of coolers/beer/sodas, or a long planter box filled with ice and a selection of wine bottles. Supply beverage glasses, extra ice, water, and a large bowl of fresh fruit (on ice) for garnish.
Pick a theme – Reduce the options (and the hassle) with a theme. For example, a Margarita Madness Party only requires two or three types of premixed margaritas, perhaps including a non-alcoholic version. Set up a pretty bucket filled with ice, a large platter of salt for storing pre-moistened glassware upside down, and a bowl of sliced limes and fresh strawberries for garnish. Done!
Drinks plus – If you don’t plan to serve a meal, but want more than just drinks and a veggie tray, consider serving Bloody Marys loaded with wonderful savory treats, presented on long skewers slipped into the drink including shrimp, mozzarella cheese balls, jalapeno peppers, strips of crispy bacon, olives, prosciutto, celery, stuffed mushrooms, or anything your imagination can conjure.
Beyond the Grill and the Bar
If you have the finances and the inclination, you can build a permanent outdoor kitchen, complete with an ice maker, a refrigerator, a fully-plumbed sink, and an island for bar stools. If, however, you prefer keeping things casual and flexible, there are several less expensive options.
Buy it – Purchase an outdoor sink cart from your local home and garden store, or online, and connect a garden hose for running water.
Build it – Construct a frame to hold a five-gallon water bottle (placed upside down) over the sink, with a removable plug. Attach a garden hose to the drain so you can control where the water goes.
Re-purpose it – Foot pumps and electric pumps (usually used in camper sinks) can push water from a five-gallon bottle to a faucet. For this option, consider finding a used stainless steel bowl at a tag sale or thrift shop.
Avoid it – Stick to bottled drinking water and hang a sign that reads “Dirty Dishes Station” over a large metal or plastic wash bin. This way, dirty dishes are easily carried inside, where your dishwasher can handle cleanup.
Keep it Cool
Outdoor refrigerators can be expensive to purchase and operate. Other options:
A small apartment size refrigerator – Put it on a rolling cart and tuck it in the garage, when not in use.
A high-quality chest cooler – Fill it with ice and, for more comfortable access, set it on a raised platform.
A sizable open-top container – Loaded with ice, and placed in the shade, a galvanized watering trough or similar tub can keep items cool (anything that doesn’t have to be protected from melting ice).
When you are creating your outdoor kitchen and entertainment areas, you may want to find sturdy counter space for food prep and serving. Keep an eye out for second-hand sales, industrial auctions, and sales from restaurants that are closing to pick up stainless steel tables, carts, and other weatherproof items to repurpose for your outdoor kitchen.
Also, consider ambiance and comfort for your guests:
Seating – Be sure there are enough comfortable chairs. Unless you’re hosting an outdoor sit-down dinner, you won’t need a chair for every person. Instead, assume a few guests will stand and mingle around several comfortable resting spots.
Music – Bluetooth speakers are an easy and affordable way to enhance the mood.
Lighting – Daytime entertaining won’t need any help (beyond providing some shade), but evening get-togethers will benefit from a gently lit atmosphere.
Plants – If you have a lush backyard, you don’t need to add a thing! If your yard is a bit sparse, you may want to add planters with bright flowers or a couple colorful table arrangements.
Whether scaled down or elaborate, the most essential part of outdoor kitchen entertaining is spending time with the people you enjoy. Happy summer!