Potluck, anyone?

What they say about politics is also true for summer entertaining: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Instead of a formal (groan) dinner party, how about an alfresco potluck?

The game plan is this: Divide and conquer. Each guest/family brings one easy-to-serve, readily transportable dish that requires minimal prep time. If you’re hosting the get-together in your backyard, plan to supply the chilled beverages, seating and tableware. If you’ve chosen a public space — say, a neighborhood park or condo commons — ask guests to be responsible for their own blanket/cutlery/cooler of drinks/bug spray/sense of humor.

In this techno-century, e-vites are a great way to get the word out quickly and then to track who’s bringing what (How many baked bean casseroles can dance on the top of a picnic table?). Divide the menu into four categories — appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts — and invite each respondent to sign up for a contribution to feed, say, eight. As each slot fills, it’s recorded on the e-message response sheet. (As an alternative, phone participants and assign
a category.)

It’s vital to stress food safety when spreading the word. Hot dishes must be kept hot (on the grill, in the oven) and cold food cold, especially salads involving mayonnaise, to ensure that memories of the event center on the fun and not the trip to the emergency room.

Themes events can add to the spirit. For instance, a Fourth of July potluck party planned to include several generations, from toddlers through grandparents, can include entertainment for all, such as a sing-along or talent contest, maybe a kids’ or pets’ costume parade, and age-spanning games, like a horseshoe toss and croquet or holiday trivia.

If a lot of kids are expected, corral a couple of teenagers ahead of time (bribery works well) to conduct “day camp” activities — perhaps chalk painting, sprinkler dashes or drawing pads. A nap corner for tired toddlers is a good idea, too.

If you’re hosting the event, alert neighbors about the upcoming on-street parking situation (and while you’re at it, invite them to the party). If your gathering is large, beg use of their refrigerators, coolers, lawn chairs, etc. For table coverings, consider reusable materials such as colorful and inexpensive bed sheets. Make or buy centerpieces that won’t topple in a breeze, and likewise remember that flimsy paper plates are likely to be gone with the wind.

Plan on serving food that can be presented in large quantities, such as casseroles, fruit bowls and sheet cakes — ones that don’t require precise serving times (forget the ice cream). If you’re providing the beverages, figure that two gallons makes 32 glasses of iced tea, lemonade or sangria. For chips and dip, count on one ounce per guest.

For backyard hosts, here’s a time line for preparations. On the day before the party, mow the lawn, assemble serving stations, set up chairs and tables, and position trash containers. On the day of the party, arrange table covers with clips or duct tape, position decorations, spray the yard and/or set out citronella candles. Fill coolers or washtubs with ice to keep beverages cold. (Don’t forget the bottled water.) Then take a shower and dress for success.

Basil Sangria

from Straight Wharf Restaurant,
Nantucket, Mass.
Serves 12

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water

8 sprigs basil

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 orange

2 bottles chilled white wine, such as Pinot Grigio

¾ cup brandy

½ cup orange juice

Ice

Chilled club soda

In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar; remove from heat. Add basil and zests. Let the syrup stand, stirring often, until cooled to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Discard basil and zests. In a large pitcher, combine the basil syrup with the wine, brandy and orange juice. Pour the sangria into ice-filled glasses and top with club soda.

Tarragon Lemonade

Straight Wharf Restaurant

Serves 12

10 cups water

2 ¼ cups sugar

17 tarragon sprigs

8 cups fresh lemon juice,
strained (about 40 lemons)

Salt

Ice cubes

In a medium saucepan, combine 4 cups of water with sugar and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Simmer over moderately high heat until reduced to 3 ¼ cups, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat and add tarragon sprigs. Let stand, stirring often, until cooled to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
Discard tarragon.

In a large glass pitcher, combine remaining 6 cups water with tarragon syrup and lemon juice. Add a pinch of salt, stirring until it dissolves. Serve lemonade over ice cubes, garnished with remaining tarragon sprigs.

Watermelon Gazpacho

Straight Wharf Restaurant

Serves 12

6 ½ pounds tomatoes, cored

2 pounds seedless watermelon, 2 cups coarsely chopped, 2 cups diced

2 pounds cucumbers, peeled and seeded — 2 cups coarsely chopped, 2 cups diced

¼ cup sherry vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper

6 scallions, thinly sliced

2 jalapenos, seeded and minced (optional)

½ cup chopped cilantro

¼ cup fresh limejuice

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add tomatoes and blanch until skins are loosened, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a large-rimmed baking sheet to cool.

Peel tomatoes and halve them crosswise. Working over a coarse sieve set over a large bowl, squeeze tomato halves to release seeds and juice. Press on the seeds (makes about 2 cups juice in the bowl). Coarsely chop enough of the tomatoes to make 4 cups. Cut remaining tomatoes into ½-inch diced pieces. Discard seeds.

In a food processor, puree coarsely chopped tomatoes with the reserved tomato juice as well as the 2 cups each of chopped melon and cucumber. Transfer the soup to a large bowl. Stir in diced tomatoes, watermelon and cucumber, vinegar and olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour.

In small bowl, mix scallions, jalapenos (if used), cilantro and lime juice; season with salt and pepper. Serve relish alongside the soup bowl for guests to garnish their own servings.

Corn and Radish Salad

Serves 4

1 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 small jalapeno, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 ½ teaspoons honey

¼ teaspoon cumin

¼ cup vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

4 cups fresh corn kernels (about 4 ears)

6 medium radishes, halved and thinly sliced crosswise

¼ cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley

¼ small red onion, thinly sliced

In a blender, puree lime juice, jalapeno, honey and cumin. With motor running, add oil. Season with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss corn with radishes, parsley, onion and dressing. Season with salt and pepper.

Tomato Salad with Watercress Salsa Verde

From Food & Wine magazine

Serves 4

2 cups watercress leaves, thick stems discarded

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 garlic clove

1 oil-packed anchovy fillet, optional

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

8 cups diced firm bread, such as ciabatta (1 ½-inch dice)

1 pound tomatoes, cut in 1-inch diced pieces

1 ½ ounces shaved pecorino cheese (3/4 cup)

In a food processor, pulse the watercress, capers, garlic and anchovy (if used) until finely chopped. Add oil and vinegar and process until dressing is smooth. Season with salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss the bread, tomatoes, pecorino and dressing. Season with salt and pepper.

Gooey Walnut Brownies

from Food & Wine magazine

Makes 16

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ teaspoon salt

3 large eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350˚. Grease an 8-inch-square pan and line with parchment paper so that paper extends over two opposite sides.

In a large saucepan, melt chocolate and butter over low heat, stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and stir in sugar and salt. Let cool slightly, then gradually stir in beaten eggs. Stir in vanilla. Add flour and stir until blended. Fold in walnuts and pour into baking pan.

Bake in center of oven for 40 minutes, until the top is glossy and cracked in spots and a toothpick inserted near center comes out with only a few crumbs attached. Let cool completely in the pan, at least 4 hours. Run a knife around edges of pan and lift out brownies, using the overhanging parchment paper. Cut into squares.