Skye McAlpine of From My Dining Table is sharing advice, recipes, and menus that make it possible—and enjoyable—to entertain large groups of hungry guests. For even more tips on entertaining, join our Burnt Dinner Brigade.
Today, how to throw the easiest, breeziest dinner party there is—plus a recipe for asparagus tartlets to pack in your picnic basket.
The joy of picnics is that they’re simple to plan. You choose your setting—the park, the beach, or your back garden—then invite your guests. The more, the merrier: You can invite as many people as you please because none of the usual logistical quandaries that come with cooking for friends at home (“How many can we squeeze around the dining table?”, “Do we have enough knives and forks?”) apply to eating out of doors. It’s the easiest way to entertain.
All you need are good-quality ingredients, very simply prepared. I usually pick one or two centerpiece items that call for a plate and a knife—a nice cheese to pair with the fruit plus a cake or a tart (something hardy, like a fruit cake or a yogurt cake)—and everything else is fingerfood: hard-boiled eggs (better still, tiny quails eggs), cracked crab claws, or honey-roasted cold sausages.
These savory asparagus and pecorino tartlets are a favorite picnic dish of mine—they’re just the right size to hold in your hand, yet they feel substantial enough for a meal. I make them with asparagus and pecorino cheese, but you could just as well play around with the filling: caramelized red peppers with feta cheese and a hint of cilantro, or chunks of braised fennel with a little Manchego and fresh mint. Since picnics are convivial events, potluck-style dining works well: Ask your guests to bring drinks, plates, or additional food.
A few very simple touches go a long way towards making the whole affair feel like a party: a nice tablecloth—lay it down over blankets if the ground is damp or cold—and a few linen napkins. Fresh summer fruits (cherries, peaches, apricots, plums) in brown paper bags and wicker baskets double as "table decoration" and food to snack on.
And a couple of homemade touches make the great outdoors feel as intimate as your kitchen at home: homemade dips for roughly sliced fresh vegetables, sandwiches on nice crusty bread, and something sweet like a cake or a tin of homemade shortbread. I try to keep plastic packaging to a minimum to reduce waste and make the picnic feel less haphazard. Use greaseproof paper to wrap the sandwiches and old tins, glass jars, tiffin boxes, and plastic or glass containers for transporting your other dishes.
Makes 6 small tarts
For the pastry
200 grams all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
100 grams cold butter, cut into cubes
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
For the filling:
1 small onion
Salt, for seasoning
180 grams asparagus
200 milliliters heavy cream
150 grams pecorino cheese
Pepper, for seasoning
A few menu suggestions for a great picnic (add the tartlets to any of these):
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Photos by Skye McAlpine