10 tips for summer outdoor entertaining
This Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer party season. And although Southern California enjoys warm weather year-round, the longer days can make summer parties even more enjoyable. But if the thought of planning a gathering stresses you out, here are some tips to help you relax while you get the party started. Summer entertaining should be fun and effortless.
Keep it simple.
Now is not the time to test that elaborate new recipe you’ve been wanting to try. You don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen, especially if your guests are outside on the patio. Prepare dishes ahead of time that can be reheated. Or better yet, plan for food that can be served cold or at room temperature. Also, avoid food that requires a knife to eat, as maneuvering utensils can be a challenge for guests who are standing or sitting on the grass.
Bring the indoors out.
Just because you’re entertaining outside doesn’t mean you have to rough it. Borrow the pillows from the living room so guests can be more comfortable. Take out the dining table or a hallway console table, and use it as a bar. If you have people who can help you to carry them, bring a big chair, or even a sofa, onto your patio.
Have multiple seating arrangements.
If you can spread out in your backyard, take advantage of the space. In addition to a main dining area, set up little pockets of seating all around so friends and family can move around and mingle. You can even hang a mesh canopy from a tree for anyone who wants a private tête-à-tête.
A canopy over a bench provides another seating area for guests to mix and mingle.
Let there be light.
Make sure there’s plenty of light to illuminate your space after the sun sets. String lights add a festive feel over a patio, and hurricane or votive candles cast a welcome, warm glow. You may also consider battery-operated LED candles so you don’t have to worry about leaving them unattended.
It’s tempting to use paper plates and disposable forks, but ceramic (or even colorful-yet-durable plastic) plates and real flatware can help elevate the party. You can find inexpensive plates at the dollar store. And if you really want disposable dishes, try the bamboo plates available at health food stores; at least they won’t linger in the landfill.
Have blankets and sweaters handy.
Temperatures tend to drop markedly in the evenings here in Southern California, and guests may not be prepared for the cold. As a courtesy, have some blankets and sweaters on hand in case anyone needs to warm up. It’s these little things that guests remember.
Invite the neighbors.
Because outdoor parties can get noisy, invite your neighbors beforehand. Your invitation is not only a nice gesture, it also serves as a heads-up that there will be festivities, and possibly some noise. You’ll also be less likely to receive any complaints this way.
Don’t invite the insects.
Keep those pesky mosquitoes from spoiling your party by lighting citronella candles all around your yard. It’s also a good idea to provide some insect repellant lotion or spray for guests if they need it. And if food will be out for an extended period, purchase mesh covers that can go over the platters to keep out the flies.
Don’t be a control freak. If any of your guests offer to bring something, say “yes.” Having even one fewer dish to prepare will free you up to do something else. And if you really insist on preparing all the food yourself, assign each guest some responsibility, such as putting someone in charge of serving drinks.
Factor in fun.
Even if there won’t be any kids at the party, consider having some activities and games available. Everyone’s a kid at heart. Badminton and croquet are popular summer party games, but even having just a hula hoop available can help break the ice — and make for some great photo opportunities.
R.I.P. boring Halloween decor
I took Stewie out of storage on the first of October. The eight-foot-tall scarecrow with a massive, mutated pumpkin head (he may have grown in the abandoned gardens near Chernobyl) is always the first prop I put up in my Hallowe’en yard display.
I debated for a minute whether “Uncle Albert,” a “groundbreaker” zombie that jerks out after visitors step on a pressure-triggered mat, should make an appearance this year. But who was I kidding? He gets the most screams, so of course, he was joining this year’s graveyard scene!
I’m an artist and potter, not a professional haunter, but I love to do up my own house in Folsom, California, for Hallowe’en (I use the old-fashioned spelling to remind myself of the origins of “All Hallows Even,” the first name for the holiday.) And I enjoy helping others make creepy scenes as well, via my segment, “The Charmed Pot”, on the monthly podcast, Hauntcast, and, most recently by teaching a class at the ScareLA convention.
What are the lessons you’d learn in Hallowe’en 101 so that you can scare other people’s children on October 31?
First, haunt with what you know.
I love to use monsters because my own love for Hallowe'en began in the 70s, a “golden age” for monsters. Kids around me in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley were wearing masks of skeletons and the Creature from the Black Lagoon made by the Collegeville costume company. Most of us owned the vinyl record of Disney's Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House, and we’d listen to Alfred Hitchcock, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff narrate creepy urban legends and ghost stories on their own storybook LPs.
When I was in my mid-teens, my dad became a visual effects coordinator on feature films such as Dune and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I was able to go onto working movie sets and was floored by the whole process, from model-making to the mechanics of how to “make it go.” While we only carved a single pumpkin with a goofy face for our Hallowe'en decor at my childhood home, observing all this movie inspiration and attention to detail have shaped my Hallowe’en approach.
After my husband and I moved to Folsom, 20 miles east of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierras, eight years ago, I upped my game. I now had a house to decorate — and more disposable income, so the single grinning jack-o’-lantern was joined by leering pumpkins, a string of eyeball lights, a 450-watt, hand-triggered fog machine.
The Internet is scary useful.
Halloween is huge on the Internet, full of ideas that can fuel experimentation. I I’ve found sites for how to make tombstones out of insulation foam purchased at Home Depot (safety tip: always wear a respirator when carving tombstones, or you'll be hacking nasty pink gobs from your lungs for the foreseeable future). I’ve learned about the best juice for the fog machine (Froggy's Fog, for instance, is made from pharmaceutical grade chemicals). I made Stewie, my first prop, as the son of The Grumble created by a haunter named Spooky Blue. I made a “Beloved” tombstone from a tutorial by Terra Lair. If I had questions, I asked online forums like Haunt Forum and Halloween Forum.
A yard is a great canvas for telling a story.
Yard displays can be as simple as a mass of carved pumpkins, or as complex as a full light and sound show with animatronic and pneumatic props and projection effects. The key is to tell a story. For example: the bride waiting for her beloved, who will never return; Lizzy Borden and her murdered family; the miner perpetually searching for a vein of gold; a hitchhiker who asks for a ride home. And while there's nothing wrong with what I call the “Heinz 57” haunt—where people throw together a bunch of scary props bought at the local Hallowe'en store in the spirit of the 57 varieties of Heinz products—a story can keep you and your haunt focused, avoiding a cluttered, disparate mess.
One master of storytelling is a guy who calls himself Pumpkinrot. His themes include Scarecrow Catacomb and the Swamp Foetus. He builds his props around each year’s idea, paying close attention to assaulting all the senses: eerie lighting, crunching leaves, clove-scented candles, toasted pumpkin smells. The Davis Graveyard, House Bloodthorn, and The House at Haunted Hill also inspire me.
Once you have a story, you need a mood.
The right mood makes your victims’ lizard brains feel uneasy. I have small children who come to my house, so I try to stay away from blood and gore and concentrate on a creepy atmosphere. Lighting, sound, and a thick and creeping fog are characters in my haunt as much as Stewie is. At my display this year, visitors hear the constant sound of a grave being dug and the dirt dropping onto the lid of a coffin. By the time Uncle Albert roars and jumps out at them, they're ready to scream!
Lighting is particularly important for mood. Blue or cool lighting makes your props and shadows appear farther away. Red or warm lighting makes props seem closer. And, as Robert Brown wrote in a lighting tutorial I return to over and over, haunt lighting is as much about creating shadows as it is about lighting your significant props. So this year, I wanted the blue of a cold night to wash over the tombstones. At the same time, I lit Stewie, who is closest to the house, from below in red, giving him a sinister, demonic look while creating a massive Stewie shadow that reached to the top of the roof.
Safety cannot be emphasized enough.
If you build a walk-through, you must be aware of tripping hazards and fire safety. You also must plan for a panicked victim to swat at your walk-through or run through it when he or she bumps into it. Make certain power cords are taped down or in an area where the public can't get wrapped up in them. Do not skimp on the cost of potentially dangerous items, like pneumatic cylinders or fog juice. You don’t want to use a screen-door cylinder that isn't designed to deal with the weight of a heavy prop and you don't want to get sued for an asthma attack or worse.
That said, I don’t want my display—which I expand each year—to feel too safe. I want my neighbors to experience the kind of creepy Hallowe'en that I remember from before it was sanitized. A lot of people here now do a “trunk or treat” in a church parking lot, where children go from trunk to trunk to get candy because it's “safer” than trick or treating house to house. There are often bouncy houses in these parking lots, which, let’s face it, make Hallowe'en easier for tired parents.
That’s too bad. Hallowe'en should be like the opening of the animated film based on Ray Bradbury's book, The Halloween Tree, all shivery and delightful. When I see people drive slowly by my house to take in the scene, and hear the shrieks of trick-or-treaters, it makes all the hours, money, and mashed fingers worth it.
Shelley Spranza is a potter, sculptor, and Hallowe'en enthusiast living in Folsom, California. She can be found making Hallowe'en year-round on her blog, ShellHawk's Nest, by subscription to the Hauntcast podcast, or in the documentary, “Halloween Home Haunts”.
This piece was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.
Olive Oil Treats
Chanukah is a time to recall the miracle that occurred more than 2,000 years ago when the flame in the Holy Temple was relit with a one-day supply of oil that lasted for eight days. This was the amount of time needed to prepare pure oil from the local olive trees to rekindle the flame.
The importance of the oil is the focus of our family Chanukah celebration, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 9.
In Israel, as well as in most Middle Eastern countries, olives and olive oil have many uses.
They have been used for cooking and baking since ancient times and served as a medicine, lamp fuel and as part of many religious festivals.
Traditionally during Chanukah, families serve foods fried in oil as a reminder of the miracle. Take it one step further this year and prepare dishes using both olives and olive oil to symbolize the holiday.
It is hard to imagine Chanukah without golden brown, crispy potato latkes. This year, these latkes have a new look. They are spooned into a 6-inch skillet, fried in oil, then spread with a chopped olive mixture and cut into wedges.
The Italians use olive oil almost exclusively in their cooking, and one of my favorite recipes for Chanukah is a specialty from Sicily. Sicilian Crochettes are made from a risotto that takes about 20 minutes to make from start to finish. When ready, cool, shape into crochettes, and fill with a mixture of two cheeses, tomato paste and chopped parsley. This dish is hearty and can be served as a main course for a dairy meal.
This is a two-in-one recipe, because you can also serve the trendy risotto, so popular in most Italian restaurants, as an alternative to a pasta course.
Desserts can also be made with olive oil. Many years ago, an Israeli friend shared her Chanukah cookie recipe. They are made with olive oil, instead of butter, and coated with honey and almonds. As a special treat for family and friends, make extra cookies to be given away as Chanukah gifts.
Potato Latkes with Chopped Olives
- 2 large russet potatoes, peeled and shredded
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 eggs
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped Olive Spread (recipe follows)
Place shredded potatoes in a large bowl and add lemon juice, egg, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well.
Drain liquid that accumulates at the bottom of the bowl.
In a 6-inch nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.
Spoon half of the potato mixture into the hot oil and gently flatten with a fork, spreading evenly. Cook on medium heat until brown on one side, for about 10 minutes. Then turn carefully and brown on the other side. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining olive oil and remaining potato mixture.
Spread a generous amount of chopped olives on top, sprinkle with additional olive oil and cut into wedges. Makes 8 servings.
Chopped Olive Spread
- 1 cup black olives, pitted
- 1 cup green olives, pitted
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- Chop olives coarsely, transfer to a bowl and toss with olive oil and parsley. Makes about 2 cups.
Sicilian Crochettes (Risotto Latkes)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1 1/4 cups Arborio rice
- 3 to 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup cream
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup chopped or grated mozzarella
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 2 tablespoons tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup oil
In a large, heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add onion and sauté over medium heat until soft. Add rice and mix well with a wooden spoon.
Cover with 1 or 2 ladles of hot broth, or enough to cover the rice. Cook, stirring constantly, as the broth is absorbed. Continue adding broth, a little at a time, until the rice is tender; about 15 minutes.
Add butter, cream, Parmesan and salt and pepper to taste. Continue cooking 2 to 3 minutes longer. Cool.
Filling for Crochettes: In a small bowl, combine mozzarella, Parmesan, parsley and tomato sauce.
To Prepare Crochettes: Moisten hands with water. Scoop up 2 tablespoons of risotto in your hands and shape into a flat oval; make an indentation in the center of each with your thumb. Place 1 teaspoon of mozzarella mixture in the center and cover the oval with another tablespoon of the risotto. Mold into 2-to-3 inch ovals, enclosing Mozzarella mixture completely.
In a non-stick skillet, heat oil and fry crochettes, a few at a time, until crisp and golden brown on all sides. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to paper towels to drain. Makes about 12.
Israeli Honey-Almond Cookies
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine, room temperature
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- Grated peel of 2 oranges
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- Pinch salt
- 2 cups coarsely ground almonds
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/8 cup water
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter until creamy. Add olive oil and sugar and beat until fluffy. Add egg, cinnamon, orange peel and juice and blend well. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt; then add to butter mixture a little at a time. Add 1/2 cup of the almonds and mix well. Turn dough out onto a floured board and shape into 2 (12-inch) long rolls. Refrigerate until firm.
Cut into 1/4-inch slices and arrange cookies on lightly oiled foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown, about 15 minutes. In a small saucepan, heat honey and water. Using a metal spatula, quickly dip cookies in warm honey, roll in remaining almonds and cool on racks. Makes about 5 dozen.
Decorating Your Sukkah
Are You Reading This in Your
Why do we build the sukkah? To be reminded of our ancestors’ lives in the desert, when they lived in huts made from branches and leather.
It is also a reminder of our farming ancestors, who harvested at this time of year. They built huts in the middle of their fields so that they would not have to go back and forth from their houses to their fields during the harvest. Houses and fields were far from each other, and the farmers had to make sure they got the harvest in before the rain fell. Jews also built huts to live in when they made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When you build your sukkah, when you eat in it and sleep in it, invite all the memories of your ancient ancestors in to eat and sleep with you. Watch them cutting the wheat; smell the olive oil they are pressing; feel the grapes underfoot as you and they tread on them to make wine.
Decorating Your Sukkah
String decorations for the harvest festival:
Create “food chains” to be hung from one corner of the sukkah to the other. They can be made from many different types of foods and natural materials, as long as they will stay fresh throughout all eight days of the holiday. Here are some suggested decorations:
Crabapples, cranberries, cornstalks, evergreens, gourds, peppers, popcorn, pine cones, onions, small eggplants and wildflowers.