By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Jody Horton
When you have a lovely garden, a party is never more than a few steps away! Surrounded by seasonal edibles, aromatic herbs and exotic culinary specimens like allspice and hoja santa, kumquats and Key limes, there’s always something to celebrate. Howl at the moon, revel beneath the perfume of night-blooming daturas, nibble on sun-ripened cherry tomatoes from the vine or pick summer peaches right off the tree, but don’t forget to gather friends to partake in the pleasure.
Welcome guests to the garden with sangria or a party punch (spiked or not) flavored with fresh herbs and fragrant flowers, and served from a large Mexican agua fresca jar or big glass pitcher. Line the base of the container with greenery, fresh fruit and flowers. Surround the punch with vases of long sprigs of mint, lemon balm, lemon verbena and pineapple sage, and small bowls mounded with whole strawberries and slices of assorted citrus—they’ll look pretty on the table, and guests can choose garnishes for their drinks. Don’t forget the ladle and bucket of ice (ice cubes frozen with garden herbs and flowers make quite a hit).
Whether it’s an intimate feast al fresco or a garden full of friends, regale your guests but make it easy for yourself. Choose make-ahead recipes that allow guests to serve themselves. And don’t forget to put the garden to work when planning the theme for your party. Consider a garden harvest or cookbook exchange, party favors like herbal bouquets, dried seeds or small plants, or even a “wildest living garden hat” contest.
Bring out Grandma’s antique punch bowl or your great aunt’s serving platter. Serve punch out of jelly jars, then let guests take them home filled with herbal bouquets. Mix and match glassware and guests, display menus or recipes (or pass out copies) and label dishes with handwritten descriptive cards. Tie raffia and rosemary around colorful napkins. Invite newfound or long-lost friends to the party. Stir it up!
For our Singin’ for Your Supper garden party, we invited Austin’s musical sweethearts Cindy Cashdollar and Elizabeth McQueen of Asleep at the Wheel fame, the legendary Marcia Ball, rockabilly darlin’ Ruby Dee Philippa and music consultant Deborah Fleming. They brought guitars and recipes to share (see below for all their recipes) and did indeed sing for their supper while sipping plenty of peach sangria.
More garden party theme ideas below.
LUCINDA'S BASIL TORTA
This recipe is a real party pleaser—first published in my book, The Herb Garden Cookbook. It’s been a popular appetizer at Austin restaurants Castle Hill, Mirabelle and Chez Zee for years. Here’s my newest version:
8 oz. cream cheese
4 oz. goat cheese or rinsed feta
3 T. butter, softened
1 c. Garden Pesto (click here for recipe)
¾ lb. provolone, sliced
1½ c. Roasted Red Pepper Salsa (click here for recipe)
¼–½ c. toasted pine nuts or Marcona almonds
Blend cream cheese, feta and butter; add pesto and mix well.
Line a 4-cup loaf pan or bowl with plastic wrap, leaving several inches of wrap overhanging on each side. Make a layer of provolone slices on the bottom and up the sides of the loaf pan. Spread half of the pesto mixture over the provolone layer, carefully filling in the corners. Evenly spread 4–5 tablespoons of the Roasted Red Pepper Salsa over the pesto layer, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts. Add another layer of provolone, pressing down well between layers. Repeat with another layer of pesto mixture, 4–5 tablespoons of salsa, and 2 tablespoons of pine nuts. Fold in the provolone sides and cover with a final layer of provolone. Tightly cover the loaf with plastic wrap and chill overnight.
Invert the torta on a platter and wreathe with fresh basil and whole cayenne peppers. Loosely mound the top with the remaining salsa (you’ll have some extra), pine nuts and fresh sprigs of basil. Serve with toasted crostini, flatbread or crackers.
Torta is good for several days, refrigerated and tightly wrapped. Mound with salsa just prior to serving. Although best served at room temperature, it slices better when chilled.
Optional garnishes: Fresh sprigs of basil, fresh red cayenne peppers, toasted pine nuts or Marcona almonds, whole sundried tomatoes, crostini.
SHAKIN' THE TREE SANGRIA
2 1.5 liter bottles of dry, fruity white wine
½ c. Paula’s Texas Orange liqueur
½ c. Paula’s Texas Lemon liqueur
12 or more ripe Hill Country peaches, pitted and sliced
5 oranges, cut in half-rounds
Several big bunches of fresh lemon balm, lemon verbena and/or mint
1 bottle cava or prosecco
Fresh peach slices (or seasonal fruit) and herb sprigs for garnish
Pour wine and liqueurs into a large glass jar, along with the peaches and oranges. Gently wring herbs to release their flavor and add them to the jar. Chill overnight. Adjust flavorings. Before serving, remove herbs, adding fresh ones. Pour into glasses, top with cava or prosecco. Garnish glasses with fresh peach slices and fragrant herb sprigs.
Tips for Success
• Expand the party. Instead of one buffet table, set up various serving stations around the garden to encourage guests to mingle.
• Make functional items work for you. Turn a standing birdbath into a pedestal for a platter, a ceramic pot into an ice bucket or a garden bench into a serving table.
• Encourage grazing. Allow guests to pick and garnish, sniff and taste directly from the garden bounty or create their own delights from herbal pinch pots on the tables.
• Provide natural pest control. Have mosquito repellent, outdoor fans and umbrellas on hand.
• Consider seating comfort. Offer additional cushions, pillows or picnic quilts.
• Create ambiance. Have citronella, Mexican votives and recycled wine bottles with tall candles tucked about to create ambient lighting.
• Don’t forget the water. Have pitchers of sparkling or iced water with fresh mint and lemon slices on hand.
The Singin’ for Your Supper guests are nationally and internationally renowned touring musicians who call Austin home—and they all love to cook! Here’s what they brought to the table.
MARCIA BALL is a four-time Grammy-nominated pianist, vocalist and songwriter who captures the soul of Louisiana, Texas, R & B and honky-tonk with her loveably gritty style. She’s the winner of eight Blues Music Awards. Find out more at marciaball.com.
MARCIA BALL’S GOT MY RED BEETS COOKIN’ RECIPE
CINDY CASHDOLLAR is a steel guitar and Dobro artist and five-time Grammy winner as part of Asleep at the Wheel. She also plays solo and with legendary contemporary artists. Find out more at cindycashdollar.com.
CINDY CASHDOLLAR’S SWING BEAN SALAD RECIPE
ELIZABETH MCQUEEN lights up the stage when she plays guitar and sings with Asleep at the Wheel, as well as with some of the best musicians in the country. She just released her new record, The Laziest Girl in Town, and somehow manages to travel (and blog) with the band and a baby girl! Find out more at elizabeth-mcqueen.com. ELIZABETH MCQUEEN’S OLD COWHAND CAPRESE SALAD RECIPE
RUBY DEE PHILIPPA is a guitarist and vocalist for Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers—a four-piece combo that blends “snarling rockabilly with honky-tonk heartache.” She has stolen hearts from Texas to Europe, and also ran three fine-dining restaurants in Seattle before settling in Austin. Find out more at rubydeemusic.com.
RUBY DEE PHILIPPA’S MO’ ROCKIN’ CARROT SPREAD RECIPE
DEB FLEMING says she’s on the “flip side of the record”—handling the business aspects for performing artists (several from this party!). To find out what she’s up to, visit her Facebook page at facebook.com/LiveOakMusic.
DEB FLEMING’S TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS SALAD RECIPE
More Garden Party Theme Ideas
Ask guests to bring one of their favorite tapas—tasty little tidbits made with ingredients fresh from the garden or farmers market. Serve with plenty of sangria.
Encourage guests to bring their favorite salsa—from savory blends with corn and roasted veggies to summer fruits. Present a spicy black bean dip, crispy whole corn tortillas and rotisserie chicken for salsa-topped tostadas.
Order out or make your own pizzas. Mound a platter with sprigs of fresh basil, rosemary, oregano, arugula and edible flowers. Provide small bowls of freshly grated Parmesan, crushed cayenne and homemade pesto. Mound pizzas with the herbs, drizzle with balsamic vinegar or truffle oil and eat pizza and salad in one scrumptious bite!
HUMP DAY HAPPY HOUR
Host an informal midweek get-together that doesn’t have to last all night. Provide hearty veggie dips and spreads, bruschetta or basil torta and crostini.
A RAINBOW GATHERING
Use festive combinations of glassware, silverware and plates. Like your guests, serving pieces don’t have to match to be interesting.