Entertaining al fresco? These tips can help.

The Washington PostMay 16, 2013 

Rather than a tablecloth, Susan Spungen sets her outdoor table with casual placemats.

THE WASHINGTON POST

My idea of the perfect outdoor party is dining with good friends at a candlelit table under a twinkling, bug-free sky as the grill sizzles. Because I live in a small house, I really enjoy casual entertaining in the backyard and do it as much as possible, especially before hot weather settles in.

But entertaining outdoors has a set of peculiar challenges. There are ants attacking platters of tomatoes. Everything must be carried from the kitchen and back. And a dimly lit backyard can be treacherous for under- or overcooking food on the grill. But still, when it comes to lighting, I want all candles, all the time. I detest the glare of outdoor spotlights and have been known to switch them off at friends' backyard gatherings.

Susan Spungen, author of "What's a Hostess To Do?" offers expert outdoor entertaining advice and tips:

Q: Do you have any tricks for keeping ants/bugs away from an outdoor picnic? How about bugs away from a BBQ?

A: It's tricky, but the best thing to do is to have a small table (there are some great, lightweight roll-up or folding tables) that can still be low to the ground (coffee table height), or even a cooler, and keep all the food off the ground. Also, pack your food in containers with snap-on lids to keep things covered when possible. This should cut down on ant and bug activity.

Q: Do you have a go-to dessert to serve at outdoor parties? Maybe something that doesn't melt in the heat?

A: I love fruit crisps, and so does everyone else. This is the easiest way to make people swoon! I usually bake them earlier in the day, but sometimes I pop them in the oven just before we sit down for dinner. They travel well, and are fine at room temp for hours. I make batches of topping and keep them in the freezer. The easiest of all is blueberry or mixed berry since there is absolutely no prep involved - just wash the berries and go!

Q: With an small outdoor dinner party, how important is a seating arrangement versus an open-seating plan? Do guests want to have a proper seat?

A: I think this all depends on the mood you want to strike, and even what you're serving. If it's burgers or ribs, or something really casual, I let people just sit wherever they want, maybe not even at the table. If I am serving something like grilled fish, I set the table and like guests to all sit down together.

Q: Is there a theme party in existence that isn't cheesy? Do you personally ever throw them? Do you have an idea of a theme that might actually be . . classy? Or at least not hokey?

A: I do! I usually keep the theme to the food, and sometimes some minor decorations, or at least a color scheme. I've done Cinco De mayo parties, 4th of July parties and Bastille Day Parties. French-themed summer food, and Red, White and Blue deco, what could go wrong?

Q: My friends and I are hosting a pink-themed party in June. We want the cocktails to be pink as well. Do you have any recipes for light, refreshing and pink summer cocktails?

A: I like pink drinks too! I love to do a Sangria with Rose wine and pink fruit, like white peaches, plums, cherries, and raspberries. It's easy to mix up pitchers of it. I did a recipe last summer for Bon Appetit. If you search Epicurious with my name, you will find it. It has St. Germain in it, which I love!

Q: Is there an efficient alternative to paper plates? They seem so tacky.

A: Yes. Although there are wonderful disposable plates available today in gorgeous tasteful patterns such as those by Caspari. Otherwise, go with unbreakable melamine designs that now look exactly like Italian or French pottery.

Q: What's the best way to keep cold dishes chilled? What's a good rule of thumb for how long things can be left out?

A: If you're traveling with the food, keep them in coolers with ice packs which will keep things ice cold for a long time, so starting cold is a good idea. Keeping things in ceramic bowls rather than plastic helps too, and keep the bowl in the fridge, filled, to really chill it down before serving. Technically, food can sit out for 6 hours before spoiling, but I wouldn't go that long, especially in hot weather. More like a couple of hours.

Q: My daughter is getting married this August and I'd like to host her bridal shower at our home. We live in upstate New York which can be pretty unpredictable, weather-wise, so I'll plan on it being mainly indoors to be safe. I err on the side of rustic, rather than delicate, but I'd love to surprise her with a beautiful spread - to prove her mom can do these things. Can you recommend an elegant dish or two to base a menu around? The crowd will be around 20 people.

A: I have a great recipe in my first book, "Recipes," that is perfect for this. It's a version of Vitello Tonnato, but made with pork. It can also be made with turkey. It is sliced cold meat in a tuna sauce (I know it sounds odd, but it is absolutely delicious.). The beauty is, it can be made completely ahead of time and chilled until serving time. It looks very elegant, and it's light too.

Q: Can you recommend some stylish ways to keep an evening outdoor picnic lit?

A: I love candles in big glass hurricanes (so they don't blow out) and citronella torches all around. They throw off a lot of light, and it's like having giant candles - what's better than candlelight? The bonus is they help keep bugs away.

Q: What's the most lady-like way to eat - and/or serve - watermelon?

A: That's a good question! How about cutting into bite size chunks and serving with toothpicks?

Q: Two questions: Can the Big Green Egg organic charcoal be used in any charcoal grill? We have a very small fence-enclosed patio area. Can you suggest the best type of furniture to use in a small area, possibly folding so that it also doesn't take much storage space. We could only accommodate about 6 people total.

A: I am pretty sure you can use the BGE charcoal with any grill - it's just a very good hardwood charcoal. I think you have answered your own question about furniture. A small round table will probably work best. Carte and Barrel has some really cute folding chairs right now in bright colors based on Parisian park chairs. They fold up really flat.

Q: Do you use evite or paperless post for your invitations?

A: Yes. I am a huge fan of www.paperlesspost.com for online correspondence invitations. They have gorgeous invites you can design yourself online (it is incredibly easy, trust me) and they are sent out immediately through email. Most cost just cents to send. (Some are even free.) You can whip one up for any occasion in a few minutes and keep an address book on file with them so it's easy to send them. I just sent an invitation for my cat's 19th birthday using their image of a sleek black cat wearing a birthday hat and a pearl necklace. I have sent invitations for Thanksgiving dinner, birthday parties and just impromptu gatherings. There are lots appropriate for a backyard dinner party. It makes the whole event seem special. Check out their Oscar de la Renta collection that just debuted this week.

Q: What's your go-to menu (munchies, entree/sides, dessert) for a late-afternoon backyard party, where both kids and their parents will be in attendance?

A: I usually do burgers and dogs for Memorial Day BBQs - everyone loves it. I usually make some nicer sides, like pretty salads and an array of condiments to dress it up a little. I think it's a great way to kick off the season!

Q: I'm over the Mojito at this point. For years I've made them at family gatherings: and I'm always covered in lime bits and sticky with sugar after making them with a mortar and pestle to order. Enough! What are your favorite summer cocktails? Anything that's particularly impressive without needing too many ingredients?

A: My current favorite is the Aperol Spritz. It's just Prosecco, Aperol Liqueur, seltzer and an orange slice. It can be served up or on the rocks (my preference). Looks pretty, and so refreshing!

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