My favorite kind of party is the kind that comes together at the last minute. A quick drink at home that turns into a proper sit down dinner. That sort of evening that's deliciously spontaneous, where you cook and you chat and somewhere along the way, you eat. It’s all very casual and has none of the stuffy rigmarole that the words "dinner" and "party" inevitably seem to conjure when spoken together.
This kind of effortless entertaining—sometimes improvised on the spur of the moment, sometimes not—is, frankly, what I’m all about. It’s what I love. And I find, it comes easiest in the summer; it’s not just that the weather puts everyone in a rosé-drinking, carefree kind of a mood, though that helps, of course. It’s also that food is simplest in summer; there is a bounty of fresh, seasonal produce to play around with. And unlike the root vegetables of autumn which are all about slow roasting, or the bitter winter produce that really only comes into its own with much artful braising, good summertime ingredients call for little (or nothing) else. Think tomatoes (the plump, flavorsome variety on a pretty plate with a drizzle of olive oil and a few strewn basil leaves), a loaf of bread, some charcuterie, a bottle of wine, and you're halfway to a complete dinner. And those juicy, sweet orange melons that are just coming into season right now, slice and drape them with slithers of salty prosciutto crudo and you have yourself prosciutto e melone bliss.
Summer food, you see, is instant gratification; it makes even those of us who don’t call ourselves cooks feel intuitive, cool, and confident in the kitchen. Start with burrata; buy it, lots of it. Burrata on a plate with a drizzle of olive oil and topped with pretty much anything. The recipe below calls for slithers of preserved lemons, that are tang-y and salty and pay the most extravagant compliment to the exquisite creaminess of the cheese; but there are countless other variations on that same theme which work every bit as beautifully. Try burrata with a few sweet baby tomatoes; a drizzle of salsa verde perhaps; or a handful of roughly chopped black olives and capers. Frankly, even burrata on it’s own is sublime.
Panzanella is another favorite of mine; a Tuscan bread salad, its very name pan-za-nella rolls off the tongue with the same intoxicatingly languid charm of dolce-vita. To my mind, it is the culinary incarnation of la dolce vita. Essentially: bread torn roughly into pieces, drenched in grassy olive oil, and tossed with tomatoes, sweet red onion, fennel, olives, and even anchovies or a tin of tuna if you have them on hand. I love panzanella; it’s the kind of dish there is no right or wrong way of making.
For the rest: it’s the small touches that create that sense of occasion. Nice linen napkins, neatly ironed and laid on your place settings (if you don’t have good napkins, tea towels will do), better still if they’re mismatched as it adds character to the table. A jug of flowers: pink peonies, or overblown garden roses, with a few sprigs of lavender, sage, and higgledy piggledy greenery mixed in. Mind not to cut the stems too stiffly, you want to create that casual semblance they’ve been picked from your garden—even if you don’t have a garden. And if it’s dinner, then candles, lots of them and of all different heights. Candlelight masks the sins of the plainest kitchens, and will transform pretty much any old dining table into a something utterly magical.
And last but not least: dessert. Dessert elevates all meals however humble or simple they might be. It needn’t be some kind of great culinary confection; you could buy a fruit tart or a cake from the store, there is certainly no shame in that. There is always ice cream, bought from a decent gelateria and served in cones—it gives the party an alfresco charm and who doesn't like to eat ice cream from a cone? But at this time of year, also consider a bowl of strawberries, piled extravagantly high (more is always more in these instances), and served with clotted cream. Or berries that swim in their juices and syrup-y red wine. And there you have it, the recipe(s) for a perfect no-cook dinner party.
Burrata with Preserved Lemons and Thyme
- 4-5 whole burrata
- 2 preserved lemons
- A drizzle of olive oil
- A few sprigs of thyme
Coarsely slice the preserved lemons and set to one side. Arrange the balls of creamy burrata on their plate; then just before serving, roughly tear them open with your fingers, top with the slithers of lemon, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with thyme.
- 550g baby tomatoes, halved
- 1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 bulb of fennel, trimmed and roughly sliced
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- A generous pinch of salt
- 50g stale crusty bread
- A handful of pitted black olives
- A few basil leaves
This works best with a mix of tomatoes: all different colors, shapes and sizes. Halve the baby ones and cut the larger tomatoes into wedges, then toss them into a large bowl, along with the chopped onion and fennel.
In a small bowl, lightly whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt with a fork. Drizzle over the tomatoes, fennel, and onion, and toss well, making sure everything is coated in the dressing.
Now, roughly tear the bread into pieces, throw it in with everything else, and toss together so it soaks up the lovely juices. Add the olives and toss the panzanella once again before tearing in the green basil leaves.
Fennel, Parmesan, and Black Olive Salad
- 3-4 large bulbs of fennel, finely sliced
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 100g parmesan
- A handful of pitted black olives
- Salt and pepper to taste
Squeeze the lemon juice and drizzle the olive oil over the fennel. Toss together, then add a little salt and pepper to taste, and toss again. It will keep like that in the fridge for a good couple of hours.
Just before serving, heap the fennel onto a large dish, throw in the olives and use a potato peeler to finely shave the parmesan cheese over the salad.
Strawberries in Red Wine Syrup
- 500g strawberries
- Zest of 1 lemon, in long thick strips
- 100g caster sugar
- 1 bottle of fruity red wine
Hull and halve the strawberries, then pile them high in a large bowl. Add the strips of lemon zest, sprinkle over the sugar, and pour in the red wine. Chill the strawberries in the fridge for 1-2 hours, to allow the fruit to macerate and the syrup to develop its flavors.
Serve as is, chilled and with clotted cream, or a dollop of mascarpone.