The Geek and I spent last weekend in Wenatchee, about 2 1/2 hours east of Seattle . My friend Jeff and his fiance Wai are getting married in September. His brother Mike is the best man, and Mike’s wife Jen is the matron of honor. We were
conned asked nicely to co-host a couples’ shower in their honor. Given that I can’t resist bossing organizing a party, of course I said yes. Hence the madness began.
Originally, it was going to be a happy hour sort of thing. Appetizers and drinks. Pretty simple. And boring. So we upped the ante. Dinner! Al fresco! Family style for 25 people! We went back and forth on the logistics of tables and food. Could it be done?
Jen was in charge of decor and Mike and I discussed menu options for nearly a month. Eventually we came around to the vision of an Italian dinner. Jen wrangled long tables and rented chairs and linens, and borrowed plates, etc. to make up the difference in what she already had. Mike and I settled on the menu. I even printed it up all fancy to put on the tables, but of course forgot that along with the placecards.
We went over Friday night to start getting ready, which consisted of mainly of Mike doing prep work for his courses and us deciding that grappa is disgusting and had no place on the berries for the cake. Bright and early Saturday, the real craziness began. The Geek washed the greens and I made the Herbfarm dressing, then Jen and I ran out for pedicures and supplies at Costco and Safeway. Once back, I made the cornmeal olive oil cake which would be served with balsamic strawberries and whipped cream. Said cream was supposed to be whipped with mascarpone cheese, also forgotten in Seattle. Dammit. No one seemed to mind. I was a bit nervous about the cake – I’d made it before but not as a half-sheet version. I multiplied the recipe by 2.5 which resulted in some funky measurements, and I have to say I wasn’t very precise. Tasted great though!
Next was outside setup. We had 3 long tables, but needed to augment with their patio table so people wouldn’t be smushed. That worked fine once we added linens and chairs, and the lanterns and flowers. Looked great! We enlisted the aid of the two oldest kids for table setting, who looked up some fancy napkin folding instructions and got to work.
We hit the wall about this point due to lack of food – Mike to the rescue with some tasty sandwiches. All the while manning the oven and grill with his porchetta (Italian pork roast), cranberry beans, and watermelon gazpacho. He even made fresh ricotta for the crostini! He’s a machine in the kitchen! Time for me and The Geek to cut a boat load of strawberries and stuff some endive with gorgonzola to be drizzled with chestnut honey and toasted pine nuts.
We finished setting up the bar outside, which include me having to empty the cooler (big enough for me to fit in) so that I could drag it from the upper yard into the lower section and then replace everything that had been in it. Did I mention that The Geek threw his back out loading a keg into someone’s car on Friday? He could barely walk by this point, let alone heave a giant cooler around.
Time to get our party duds on and christen the event with a shot of tequila with Jen! (This part is highly recommended.)
We greeted people with a choice of a Watermelon Blush, a festive bubbly drink of watermelon juice, St. Germain (an elderflower liquer), dashes of Peychauds bitters and topped with Prosecco, or a Negroni, a vintage Italian cocktail of Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. Not for the faint of heart – that Campari is bitter stuff. Guests noshed on appetizers of the stuffed endive, crostini with fresh ricotta, frozen grape kabobs and watermelon gazpacho. Sadly, the olives were forgotten in the frig. Yes, I forgot many things. Thankfully, nothing major.
After an hour or so of mingling/getting their cocktail on, guests sat down to a first course of mixed greens with Herbfarm dressing, a very simple starter. It should be said that the food had to be brought downstairs to be served, and given that we could only carry 4 or so plates at a time, it was painful the next day. Mike was busily roasting green beans and slicing porchetta – all prettily arranged on 3 platters, along with three bowls of cranberry beans and three baskets of homemeade focaccia. Everyone oohed and ahhed, and dug in to some very tasty food and wine.
Time to clear (and thanks to a couple of guests who helped out in this area) and get on with the game! Jeff and Wai weren’t too sure about this, but since we weren’t doing gifts, there had to be something showery! So we came up with our version of the Almost-Newlywed Game. 10 questions for both of them, and the winner got to take the bag of *ahem* bedroom accessories that Jen so carefully picked out. They were great sports and everyone laughed a lot.
Back upstairs for the dessert plating, which I had intended to serve at the table, but several people had to cut out early and others were up and about so most ate theirs standing. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and it was a great dessert for a group that large. Sadly though, since we weren’t at the table it was a little tricky to get the sparkling muscat out to go with it, so I walked around with that for those who were interested.
Darkness fell and most left, leaving us hardcore folks (read, JunkBelly members and wives) around the fire pit, and the hosts pretty well exhausted. But proud and happy it a) went so well and b) was over. The clean up could wait til morning.
Don’t even attempt this without at least 3 people, and those people better like each other. You could get away with less if you had it catered. (Before this party came up, I’d been considering an outdoor dinner party for an event in September. I’d still do it, but I might get some of the food from another source like Whole Foods, or make everything ahead so it could just bake the day of. I know guests would volunteer to help, but I just want them to be guests. And normally I would never consider outsourcing food, but in some cases you have to compromise. I’d do it if it meant I could have everyone there I wanted.)
Keep it simple, and do ahead. Food and setup. See above re at least three people.
Have at least one person in charge of greeting and the bar. It’s weird if guests walk in and you are madly scrambling in the kitchen. Someone needs to handle the drinks. A few spare older kids are handy for errands like replacing the La-Cucuracha-singing bottle opener.
Mike would serve the gazpacho as a first course next time, to slow the dinner pacing down. And I think maybe doing the dessert before the game would have kept people seated for dessert, making more of a finish to the meal.
Finally: an endeavor this ambitious could have gone horribly wrong at any time. I know Jen was a bit stressed about table set up and Mike was a little cranky in the kitchen. To be expected – it’s a lot of pressure. All the pre-planning paid off, despite minor glitches like menu and mascarpone being forgotten. But really what made it work was the teamwork – we all knew what had to be done and kept the end vision in mind. A Tuscan evening in the garden with good friends and food.
Something to celebrate, for sure.