Whether it’s Cinco de Mayo, Labor Day, 4th of July, or just a little summer get-together, it’s nice to do something special to make your bbq or pool party unique. Anyone can open tubs of dips and pour pre-made margarita mix, but why do that when it’s cheaper, healthier, and tastier to prepare a few things really well.
Here are a few of my favorite tricks and recipes that always make my guests smile. All pics are from my archives. (It’s been too long since I threw a real party so I had to dig deep.)
** DILLY DALLY AND DECORATE
You’re right to think people are just happy to be at your house having you cook for them, but a few simple additions can make all the difference to make your party exceptional. A garden variety of flowers on the table, in the bathroom, on shelves. Use vases or an eclectic mix of handy containers – see mine here. Witty cocktail napkins are a simple snag at any Sur La Table.
If it’s a holiday, I don’t have to tell you to buy themed knick knacks at the Dollar Store. But… Buy cute knick knacks! Allot at least $10 and go wild.
** ROLL OUT THE RED BLANKET
Well, your blanket doesn’t have to be red, but I’ve found people will join other guests they don’t know on a blanket to eat or chat. At a table, they feel like they have to pull up a chair, on a couch they have to squish in. This is also a simple solution if you don’t have enough chairs and tables. Eating a meal standing can be uncomfortable.
** OPT FOR ALTERNATIVE BEVERAGES
Anybody can serve light beer and margaritas. Consider other options for punch, concoctions, and lagers. My go-to is an infused vodka with strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. I muddle them up and let them sit in the vodka overnight (or at least 8 hours) in the fridge. Strain the fruit or leave it, then serve with splash of fresh oj and soda water.
Another favorite is sweet tequila (like Corralejo Reposado that has a honey sweetness on the tongue) over ice with lime and a splash of water or soda water. If you like it sweet, add agave. Advise guests to sip instead of slurp. This drink is clean and has exponentially less calories than a margarita. If you really enjoy a mixed drink, opt for a mojito! Here’s an easy recipe.
As for wine, it’s hot outside, so pick up bottles of Rose instead of Chardonnay or Sav Blanc. It’s cheap, colorful, and delicious!
Finally, serve local craft beer instead of Bud Light. It’s like serving a steak instead of a frozen burger. A few of my favorites are here.
** MARINATE YOUR MEAT
Unless you’re serving masses or have a special burger mix (if so please share!), buy some good cuts of meat and marinate them. Click here for my beef fajita marinade and grilled pork chops.
If you’re looking to go big, roast up this bad boy pork dish. It’s labor intense and pays off in flavor. Great for cold weather, but I feel you could serve it in smaller portions for a summer party. Being the cover of BonAppetit, it’s a show stopper.
** ORDER THE REAL DEAL
There are two companies that come to mind for amazing party food you can order online. Goode Company and Texas Tamales will deliver the goods to your door that you can unwrap and serve with pride. Goode Company has THE BEST brisket, BBQ sauce (get the original), and a pecan pie that is admittedly better than mine.
Tamales are not something I would make myself and freeze well so they’re great to have at parties. Top them off with some of their chile and/or chile con queso. Your guests will love you (and hate you) all in one breath. Sinfully delicious and worth every bite.
** DIY YOUR DIPS
Resist the hesitation to dump dip out of the tub into the bowl. Usually this is what guests will eat the most of, so do them right and make it from fresh ingredients!
No one can resist chile con queso dip, I don’t care who they are. Use this recipe instead of a block of velveeta for a smokey and healthy sauce people won’t feel so bad about devouring.
Making guacamole from scratch is totally worth it. Chop up avocados, tomatoes, and onions to your liking. Please don’t forget the cilantro, it’s my favorite part! Maybe add some fresh jalapeno. Squeeze in lemon or lime. Salt and pepper. To give it a little extra kick, add fresh minced garlic (very important it’s minced).
A healthy alternative to both is pineapple salsa. Simple chop up:
- 1 pineapple, peeled and diced
- ¼ cup chopped scallion, green part only
- ¼ cup diced red bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon finely diced fresh jalapeno
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
**MAKE YOUR OWN CHIPS
Even though this takes a long time, hand-made chips will be the talk of the party. All you have to do is cut up tortillas into triangles and fry them in EVOO or Grapeseeed oil. Fill a sauce pan about 1/3 with oil, wait until the oil is hot, fry triangles in batches so they don’t overlap flipping a couple times, then put aside on paper towels to absorb the grease. Season with salt.
Of course, you can bake them too, but they aren’t as good.
** DON’T FORGET THE SWEETS
Dessert is easy to make ahead so it shouldn’t get in your way the day of the party. Two recipes that always please a crowd are my famous chocolate pie (one batch can make 2-3 pies). This year’s favorite has been banana pudding which you can serve in individual plastic cups instead of a big bowl. For a cake or cupcakes, absolutely take the time to make this carrot cake. Or consider these bad ass brownies.
** PLAN A GAME
Games are either a huge hit or a total miss. My thought: drop the idea early and see the reaction before you commit. My friends and I love an hour of Celebrity (charades with celebrity names), Kings (above), Pictionary, Scategories, etc. My friend Scott from high school, who happens to be a builder, actually had one of those huge Jengas made out of 2×4’s. SOOOO much fun. I’m not saying go that far. But consider it if you’re bbq is adults. Now, if you’re entertaining kids, absolutely plan ahead with a bag toss, chalk, hopscotch, or board games if you don’t have the available toys.