Monday, June 9, 2014

A Friend in the Kitchen

Now that it's summer and the weather is warm, I have been thinking about all the entertaining possibilities coming up. My mind immediately went to outdoor entertaining since everything tastes better outdoors. And what could be better than being surrounded by nature? More than anything else, summer entertaining should be easy and relaxed. I may have found the perfect book to help.

What's a Hostess to Do?  by Susan Spungen was published last year and is filled with great ideas for entertaining. I have been a fan of her writing for a long time, especially the articles she used to write for "Martha Stewart Living." Spungen was the founding food editor of the magazine and wrote a regular column on entertaining. I have torn out so many of her recipes over the years. Her parties always seemed effortless and chic. She eventually left the magazine and went on to become a culinary consultant for movies such as "Julie and Julia," It's Complicated," and "Eat, Pray, Love." You probably remember how beautiful the food scenes in those films were. I was so excited to see that she had written a book on entertaining.

Since I was having an outdoor cocktail party last week, I pulled down her book to see what she had to say about "effortless entertaining." My immediate reaction was: I love this book. Packed with great ideas for every kind of party, it is divided into clear sections such as The Buffet, The Dinner Party, The Cocktail Hour, Outdoor Parties, and Holidays and Other Special Occasions. It has fabulous recipes. Spungen doesn't skip a detail on how to plan a party and everything she suggests makes so much sense. She explains how to word the invitation, decorate with a theme, time your party preparations, arrange a table, mix cocktails, put together a cheese plate, and throw a party outside. For a cocktail party she suggests a buffet table, easy bite-size hors d'oeuvres, and keeping everything informal and carefree. Her approach is the opposite of fussy, which sets a great mood for the guests and keeps everyone relaxed. The idea is to have fun at your own party and your guests will do the same.

Her first suggestion was something I always do: take out paper and pen and start making lists. I wanted everything to be in one place so I used a notebook with dividers and made lists for everything I needed. The notebook was divided into sections:  the bar, menu, serving pieces, linens, and flowers and decor. 

I started with the flowers --  peonies and roses felt perfect for a party in June  

Next was the food. Shrimp cocktail was at the top of my list when I created the menu. I chose four recipes from "Ten Quick Hors d'Oeuvres" in Spungen's book, which includes the shrimp, and also added an eggplant dip from The Barefoot Contessa. All the recipes are easy to make, can be done ahead, and are able to sit on the buffet table for hours. The shrimp and cocktail sauce (above) is always a good choice because it is so simple. I made it a little more special by substituting Gazpacho Seafood Dip for the cocktail sauce. A friend gave me this recipe. Although a little more work, it was so much more interesting than a regular cocktail sauce. Plus it can be made days ahead of time. See the recipe below.

Everyone loved these cherry tomatoes stuffed with hummus and topped with slivers of olive from the book 

Eggplant dip with homemade pita chips from Barefoot Contessa was all done ahead

Smoked salmon on blinis couldn't be easier using frozen blinis from the market

As evening began to fall, we set out the flowers on the table

We put out glasses, ice buckets, and candles

A big cheese tray was another wonderful suggestion from the book

Cocktail-size paper plates and napkins made clean up easy

Sparkling rose and white wine in ice buckets allowed everyone to help themselves

The next day I was thinking that there are certain food writers who feel like a friend in the kitchen.  Their books are filled with inspiration, great recipes, and good common sense. Laurie Colwin, Ina Garten and Melissa Clark are three that come to mind. Susan Spungen is another. If you love to entertain, be sure to get a copy of her book. It will give you lots of good and practical ideas for entertaining this summer. My favorite tip? Make a big batch of topping for fruit crisp and store it in the freezer for when you are ready to make a crisp. Genius!


Here is the recipe for Gazpacho Seafood Dip: 

1/4 cup chili sauce
1 cup ketchup
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 green pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons vinegar
2-3 drops Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil

In a blender or food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine all ingredients. Refrigerate up to 1 week. Serve with seafood and avocado slices, if desired. Makes 3 cups.


  1. Sunday, I can't wait to find of copy of "What's a Hostess to Do". It sounds informative. It also sounds like a great gift for all the summer brides on my list. I've kept a notebook for years. Your table is beautiful. A summer evening spent with good friends is perfection! Have a grand week!

  2. Your table looks fabulous all set up and ready for the guests to arrive...I think I could benefit reading Susan's book! Tips and hints for simple entertaining take the stress away and make for more excuses to invite friends over. The weather looks perfect for your party.

  3. I have over an hour to go until lunch and now I'm starving! :-) Everything looks great. I love the combo of Gazpacho and shrimp--there was a Mexican restaurant in my college town that served a shrimp cocktail that was basically Gazpacho. Loved it.

  4. Everything looks delicious from the decor to the food. The book sounds like a 'must have'

  5. Bellisima Sunday!Your garden your food presentation your flowers.........I would love to be a guest in your garden!You do an outstanding job!Many people today do not bother with the things you did to make this a special night!Now, how many thank you's came the next day?!!Tell me a lot PLEASE!

  6. I do wish Edward and I could have come round by the garden gate.

  7. Sunday, this looks like a fabulous book and an even more fabulous party! I love the tablescape, the flowers and the delicious looking food!

    I agree with Pamela, I would love to attend such a wonderful party!

  8. Just so so pretty. I really love gazpacho soup and will try your recipe for certain. Flowers, wines, champagne, friends, food. Nothing more needed.

  9. Delicious and inviting - in every way, Sunday. I will be on the lookout for this book.

  10. I'm not much of a hostess, but I love seeing the photos of your gatherings. Everything is so gorgeous! Truly inspiring.

  11. Everything looks perfect and effortless so that the guests can really enjoy themselves, but I know you put in a lot of work to get it to appear that way. Absolutely gorgeous, and I hope it was a wonderful party, for a great cause.

  12. Nice post! I will follow your blog as my pattern for decorating my kitchen cabinets next week! Thank you for sharing!
    Exclusive Kitchen

  13. been rapidly copying down these ideas for a July party---THANK YOU so much for this post! I would also like to see this book by Susan Spungen!

  14. What a wonderful reception in the middle of a heavenly garden! Oh, I envy you!