I’m always torn: I love entertaining people … I love to invite everyone to stay for dinner … I love eating good food … but I’m not in love with working in the kitchen while others are having fun! Plenty of times, whether at the lake or visiting the beach, I get stuck in the kitchen, when I’d really rather have a glass of wine with my friends and not worry about dinner.
We have had many a night at the lake eating frozen casseroles—they make for an effortless dinner, and they work great to keep everything in the cooler cold on the trip over if you are weekending at the lake. But I would prefer to serve a meal that shows a little more individuality and care; a lasagna from the gourmet-to-go is easy and feeds a crowd, but it doesn’t necessarily show off my skills as an entertainer!
Here I’ve provided three recipes that make for great dinners that may come in handy at the lake. These dishes are pretty flexible in the number of people they serve and are pretty quick to prepare. One way I like to approach feeding a crowd is to just grill up a big platter of chicken or steak, then add a relish or side dish to make it interesting. If the side is visually attractive and tastes great, no one will notice that you’re serving “just chicken”!
The first recipe is for a tomato relish of sorts, which is very versatile. It can be served with simply marinated grilled chicken, fish or steak. It can be made up to two days ahead, so that helps with the workload, especially if you can talk someone else into being the grillmaster. If the dinner crowd gets large, slice the steak or chicken, and arrange it on a platter, with the tomato relish around the sides. If the dinner turns into an even bigger crowd, slice the steak or chicken and serve with the tomato relish over a huge bowl of fresh salad greens or pasta.
Everywhere I’ve eaten this year is touting Southern foods. The second recipe is for a classic Southern succotash, great served as a side with burgers or grilled chicken, for an almost meatless dinner with some fresh cornbread. For a more refined dinner, add ½ cup crème fraîche to it and mound in the center of a plate as the base for crabcakes, seared scallops or grilled salmon.
I recently resurrected (and updated) a dish that was popular when I was a kid: a layered salad. My mother made this salad in a glass bowl as I do, but I’ve adjusted the ingredients and lightened up the dressing. The protein can be changed—grilled chicken, salmon or shrimp work well, or you could glam it up with lobster. This salad can be made in the morning and held all day in the fridge, which leaves the day free.
Tomato Olive Relish (makes about 2½ cups)
Cherry tomatoes are always available, but if you make this in the height of summer, use fresh heirloom tomatoes straight from the farmers market (or your garden) for even better results.
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
½ bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves picked and left whole
½ cup pitted Kalamata olives, drained and very coarsely chopped
¼ cup basil leaves, torn into small pieces
¼ cup good-quality olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Mix all ingredients together and refrigerate up to two days. Let come to room temperature before serving.
Summer Succotash (makes about 6 servings)
3 strips of thick-cut bacon
1 large onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
½ pound fresh okra, sliced
3 cups coarsely chopped tomatoes (or halved cherry tomatoes)
Kernels cut from 6 ears fresh corn
2 cups shelled fresh butter beans
One bunch of fresh chives, thinly sliced
Slice the bacon crosswise into ¼ inch pieces. In a large skillet over medium heat, saute the bacon until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to drain on paper towels, leaving the fat in the skillet.
Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring until they’ve begun to soften, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the okra, tomatoes, corn and butter beans to the pan. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover and cook without stirring for 10 minutes (stirring makes the okra stringy). Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes. Taste the butter beans to make sure they’re tender, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the chives and bacon, and serve.
Layered Summer Salad (serves 6)
5 cups baby arugula or other baby greens
2 cups tomatoes, chopped
2 cups yellow peppers, diced
2 cups avocado, diced and sprinkled with the juice of a lemon
2 cups sugar snap peas
8 slices of cooked bacon, crumbled
8 scallions, chopped, both white and green parts
2 pounds of cooked shrimp, chunked salmon or chicken
1½ cups Duke’s mayonnaise
1½ cups fat-free plain Greek yogurt
6 scallions, root and tops trimmed, then cut into 2-inch lengths
1 cup packed basil leaves
Juice of ½ lemon
2 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the salad: Find a large glass container (about 3 quarts) with high, straight sides if possible. Layer the ingredients, spreading each layer evenly over the entire container. The side view should show even colorful layers.
To make the dressing: Put all the dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Dressing will be thick.
Put spoonfuls of dressing over the salad. Carefully spread them to cover the entire top of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for up to 8 hours. When it’s time to serve, after the guests have seen your beautiful layered creation, toss the whole thing to distribute the dressing, and serve generous portions.