Summer is the season for parties. It’s the time of year for graduation gatherings and family picnics, showers and anniversaries, garden parties and pool-side brunches.
When it comes to summer entertaining, we often think of backyard barbecues—a game of horseshoes, frosty mugs of ice-cold beer, and thick, juicy Porterhouse steaks sizzling away over the coals. But a party outdoors can be just as elegant as an indoor party. It’s all in how you present it.
Here are some of our favorite ideas for throwing an elegant summertime party.
Setting the Stage
An elegant dinner involves the successful balance of food, presentation, and ambiance.
And, in terms of presentation, remember your plated meal sits in the environment of your tabletop. For an interesting perspective, bend down and take a look at it from eye level to get an idea of the architecture of your tabletop. Adding a bit of height—but not too much—can add visual excitement, dimension, and texture to your table setting—from flat to impressive.
Simple touches work—candle sticks, for example, from tall to short, from fat to skinny. Mix and match them. Take a look at the height relationship of your water glasses to wine glasses. You can also give your tabletop a lift by placing napkins in a wine glass, rather than next to the plate. And, instead of one large centerpiece that can potentially obstruct your guests’ vision across the table and interrupt the flow of conversation, try multiple smaller arrangements that are below the line of sight.
Also, consider the architecture of your plate. After your entrée takes center-of-the-plate position, serve one side dish in an individual serving container to lift your plate presentation as well. Try a timbale, risotto, a ragu of mushrooms, a sauce or other similar sides and complements in an individual, plate-friendly ramekin, or small gratin dish.
Presenting: Lobster Tails
When serving fine lobster tails, such as Lobel’s Maine Lobster Tails, choose a presentation approach that fits the meal you are serving.
With the tail roasted or steamed and served with melted or drawn butter, it is customary to expose the lobster tail meat while still in or attached to the shell. To do so: cut a V into the top shell about an inch wide at the edge of the shell narrowing to a point just at the end of the tail before the fins. Then carefully loosen the lobster meat and pull up gently resting the meat on top of the shell. Drizzle with melted butter and serve.
If you’re serving lobster with a sauce, such as a beurre blanc or Bearnaise, remove the tail from the shell and cut the lobster tail meat crosswise into half-inch medallions. Fan the medallions shingle-style in a straight line on the plate or in an arc pattern. Either pool the sauce on the plate first and lay the lobster medallions on the sauce, or plate the lobster and nap with the sauce.
What’s at Steak: Plate Presentation
Whether you arrange on a platter or individual plates, it’s always important to slice meat across the grain. Grain is the pattern along which long muscle fibers align. Cutting with the grain allows the muscle fibers to remain long, resulting in a tough chew. Cutting against the grain cuts the muscle fiber bundles into short sections that are tender to chew.
Rather than serving a whole steak portion uncut, slice the steak and then fan the slices on the plate.
When preparing a large Porterhouse steak for presentation to more than one diner, it is common to first cut the filet portion and the strip portion from the T-shaped bone. Then the filet and strip are cut across the grain into slices. You can then reassemble with the bone or fan overlapping slices on the plate or platter.
Topping it Off
Another way to add visual appeal and a flavor boost as well are compound butters. Rather than passing a tub of compound butter at table, put softened compound butter in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Pipe out stars or scrolls onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and refrigerate and transfer to a plate before bringing them to the table or place on individual portions.
Dress it Up
In recent years, it’s become popular to layer food one on top of the other to create a tower of food on the plate. This type of food architecture builds tabletop interest by giving height to the presentation. For example, start with a steak topped with a layer crispy fried potato wafers, which, in turn, is topped with a ragu of wild mushrooms, which is topped with a sprinkle of slivered Parmesan or a drizzle of béarnaise and a confetti of parsley.
Crown roasts, whole roasted poultry, and racks of lamb are dramatic on their own at table. But paper frills that cover exposed, protruding bones add an air of whimsy and practicality at the same time.
Get Artistic with Sauces
When serving a sauce, rather than simply ladling it over the top, get creative—you can turn your food into works of art and really impress your guests.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes restaurant trick: pour the sauce into a diner-style squeeze bottle to more easily pipe lines and patterns with your sauces. Of course, this works better with thicker, more substantial sauces that will hold the design on the plate or entrée.
Try different patterns and designs, such as zig-zags, concentric circles or swirls, a woven crosshatch, or fun dots. If you have two different colored sauces, you can create real visual interest by interplaying them in these designs.
Even using a spoon to plate sauce can be artistic. Dollop a spoonful of sauce onto the plate, then drag the back of the spoon through it. You can even use a new, clean paint brush to apply your sauce, creating a very artistic look as you can see the brush strokes in the sauce. Just be sure to keep a napkin on hand to wipe the edges of plates or to remove any unintentional splashes of sauce.
Let your creative juices flow, and let your inner artist come out to play when it comes to plate presentation. Your guests will be certain to appreciate it.