Keep parties cool, intimate in ‘season for informal gatherings’

Party experts say that hosting summer gatherings in the evening helps keep guests protected from unforgiving sunshine and triple-digit heat. For food, consider serving simple dishes like barbecue, tapas and fresh veggies.
Party experts say that hosting summer gatherings in the evening helps keep guests protected from unforgiving sunshine and triple-digit heat. For food, consider serving simple dishes like barbecue, tapas and fresh veggies. FamilyFun magazine

Summer is the season for outdoor parties, but given the valley’s notorious triple-digit temperatures, hosts may have to get creative to keep their guests cool, fed and entertained.

“When you’re having a summer party in Sacramento, the heat is always a factor,” said Stephanie Stiavetti, a personal chef and cooking teacher based in the Bay Area. “Everyone wants to party and sit and eat in the sun, but in Sacramento that’s not really a possibility.”

Stiavetti suggested Sacramentans throw their parties at night, so guests can sit in a backyard or on a patio without being uncomfortably hot. There are also fewer insects flocking to food in the evening, Stiavetti added, mentioning yellow jackets, mosquitoes and flies as common summer offenders.

Amber Stott, founder of Sacramento’s Food Literacy Center, usually opts for throwing brunch parties, which take place before the hottest time of the day. Stott described summer as “the season for informal gatherings,” meaning simple, tasty food that’s easy to prepare and split among a large group of people.

It’s hard to go wrong with a potluck-style barbecue, Stott said, adding that the event can be made healthier by asking people to bring a dish made with ingredients from a farmers market.

Chef and cookbook author John Ash, who jokes that he has “every barbecue, grill and wood-fired oven known to man,” said he enjoys throwing large summer barbecuing events in his backyard in Sonoma County. It’s fun because people can even cook their own things, Ash said, adding that he likes to teach people how to make pizzas on the grill.

“Once you show people how to do it, you sort of just stand back and let them make their own,” Ash said. “Just have a lot of condiments and toppings for them to choose from.”

Stott seconded the pizza idea, adding that the cooking process can become part of the party.

All chefs interviewed agreed that the best summer gatherings involve food that can be prepared outdoors. And guests should be encouraged to join in – if they’re around to witness the cooking in action, they’ll likely ask to turn the ribs, help with the salad or shake the vinaigrette.

“People get really close when they eat together, but people get even closer when they cook together,” Stiavetti said.

To truly allow for a sense of intimacy, Stiavetti countered the other chefs by recommending smaller summer gatherings. That way a host can get face time with every guest at the event, she said.

“The whole point of having a summer party is that you’re supposed to be having fun as a host, and if you’re running around like a crazy person trying to keep people fed and drinks full and also making sure that people aren’t standing in your petunias, you’re not going to have a lot of fun,” Stiavetti said.

Similarly, chefs interviewed for the article emphasized the importance of simple dishes: barbecue, tapas and fresh veggies, to name a few.

A summer gathering is not the right time to test a recipe that’s more complex than you’re used to, or too complicated to prepare in a short amount of time, Stiavetti said.

But if you’re not cooking for your own event, it may be easier for you to increase the size of your party without increasing your stress levels.

Andrea Henley Allen, an events planner at Hannibal’s Catering and Events on 37th Avenue in Sacramento, said the average size of an event thrown at a private home is from 25 to 50 people. The parties typically begin in the afternoon and carry on until the evening, Henley Allen said, with barbecues being especially popular this year.

“Last year, everyone was doing burgers and hot dogs, but this year it’s been mostly chicken and tri-tip,” Henley Allen said. “We have a luau barbecue that’s been really popular this summer, which is a Kahlua pulled pork and teriyaki chicken.”

Jackson Catering and Events on Fulton Avenue in Sacramento primarily serves large parties of up to 150 people, co-owner Brandon Rogers said, but the company will cater events as small as 12. Like Hannibal’s, the majority of Jackson Catering’s summer business takes place in the afternoons and evenings, with people typically requesting buffet-style barbecue, comfort food and simple fare around Independence Day.

For Fourth of July-specific party planning, the kicker is whether you’re close to fireworks, Ash said. Throwing your party at night may be an easy way to entertain your guests and keep them away from the rays of Sacramento’s unforgiving sun.

“I’d serve food that led into being able to watch the fireworks go off,” Ash said. “My whole deal would be to do it as a picnic, which means food you prepare ahead of time so that it’s easily transportable. And the more of it that can be finger food, the better.”

Tyler Foggatt: 916-321-1145, @tylerfoggatt