Consider these tips and strategies an extra set of hands at your next outdoor gathering. Whether it's a casual barbecue or a more formal affair, all of the ideas will save you time and worry -- so you can spend more time with your guests.
Cold drinks, slippery with condensation, can slide around on a plastic or metal tray, so line it with a sheet of cork to hold glasses steady. Rolls of cork sheeting, about 1/8 inch thick, are available at office-supply stores. Trace the bottom of a tray onto a piece of cork, and cut it out with scissors. Affix cork inside tray with double-sided tape.
Pretty paper goods are no match for an unruly summer breeze at an outdoor party. River rocks (available by the bag at garden centers) help keep plates and napkins where they belong, even after they've left the serving table. Pile them in a bucket on the buffet table for guests to grab along with their utensils; you'll avoid having to chase flyaways.
Turn away pesky ants for days on end with this nontoxic repellent. Pour equal amounts of water and white vinegar into a spray bottle, and shake to mix. Then spritz the solution in water-resistant areas where ants are common, such as patios, porches, and picnic tables, before family and friends gather.
Fend off picnic-table pests with inexpensive sewing supplies: embroidery hoops and muslin. Buy hoops that are slightly larger than the rims of your pitchers and serving bowls. With pinking shears, cut cloth squares two to three inches wider than each hoop. Position a piece of fabric in each hoop to create handy covers.
Make multiples of these scoops-on-a-stick and you won't have to spoon ice cream, one serving at a time, in the middle of a party. Using a small (1 1/2-inch) ice cream scoop, dole out balls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Insert a craft spoon into each, and place in the freezer. Chill until hardened. Roll scoops in sprinkles, toasted coconut, or crushed nuts or candies, and store them in the freezer on a freshly lined baking sheet.
Serve corn on the cob already buttered so guests can dig right in. Bring water to a boil in a stockpot (don't add any salt; it toughens kernels), and drop in six to eight ears. Return to a boil, then cook two to four minutes for crisp-tender corn. When ears are just about done, slice eight tablespoons of unsalted butter, and drop them into the cooking water; stir to melt. The butter will float, and each ear will get an even coating as you remove it from the pot with tongs.
Match the informality of a summer buffet with rustic serving dishes fashioned from clay flowerpots and saucers. Use brand-new terra-cotta, and wipe it with a damp cloth (doing the same for cleanup). Line flowerpots with tea towels to hold bread, buns, or biscuits; for saucers, use napkins or clean nontoxic leaves, and place cheeses or spreads on top. Firm and semifirm cheeses such as cheddar, chevre, and blue are good choices for outdoor entertaining -- they will keep a few hours and won't become runny in the sun.
A guest's wineglass won't end up in the wrong hands when one of these brightly colored name tags identifies it. Use a permanent marker to write the name of a guest on a wide rubber band after placing it around a glass. Alternatively, you might use the bands as napkin rings that double as place cards.
A basic white platter just might be the most versatile item in your cupboard. Use it to corral party cocktail garnishes. Offer accompaniments to cocktails: citrus wedges (for gin and vodka tonics), olives and caper berries (martinis, Bloody Marys), and cocktail onions (Gibsons).
Here's a great way to chill beverages in time for an impromptu backyard barbecue. Place wine or other bottles in a bucket; add a layer of ice, followed by a layer of salt (coarse or table); repeat until you almost reach the top. Fill the bucket with cold water to just below the ice line. The water in the ice bucket will be colder than normal, chilling the libations in less than 10 minutes. We'll drink to that!
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