Pulling off the perfect picnic can be tricky.
Party planning pros suggest commonsense precautions like hiring a caterer, having an alternative shelter in case of rain, and stocking up on bug spray. But when it comes down to it, outdoor entertaining involves the right mix of food, companionship, weather, plumbing availability, waste management, critter control and alchemy.
Shortchange any of these ingredients at your own peril.
Planning is the key.
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“Regardless of the scale of your event, you must go through the same checklist,” counsels Bill Barnes, co-owner of Waiters Choice Catering of Matthews.
“The first thing to decide is what size event can your home support? Is there adequate parking? Do you have enough seating, or should you rent some extra tables and chairs?
“Even if you don’t bring in a caterer, you need to think about things like, ‘How do I replenish the tables (with food)? Is there a source for water near my staging area? Should I bring in a Porta-Jon? What do I do with the trash?’ ” says Barnes.
The menu is a huge consideration. Much of the appeal of outdoor dining is the aroma of grilling meat, says Robert Brener, associate professor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University. Since grilling is one of his specialties, Brener encourages outdoor chefs to keep their grill open to release the explosion of flavors, which is part of the dining experience.
“There’s a chemical reaction taking place during the cooking process,” he explains.
“Having the grill just right – well-maintained and very, very hot – gives the meat the proper texture, flavor and color,” Brener says. Jill Marcus, owner of Something Classic Catering, advises: “Prepare foods intended to be served at room temperature, like fresh green salads and fruit. Avoid mayonnaise and sour-cream-based salads that have food-borne illness potential.”
She suggests getting away from steaks and burgers in favor of pork tenderloin, lamb chops or whole salmon with interesting glazes, all of which can be prepared ahead.
Worried about the weather? Bob Freeman, president of SMS Catering, observes that around the Charlotte area, “The weather will be in your favor most of the time. Rain does not mess up that many events.”
Freeman’s rule of thumb: “If there’s a 50 percent chance of rain, rent a tent.”
On the flip side, tents are no use in storms with high winds or lightning. So have a “Plan B” shelter, the pros unanimously advise.
“It’s almost impossible to grill in the rain, and guests don’t want to stand under a muggy tent in a storm,” says Marcus. Your backup plan should include indoor places where the majority of your guests can get comfortable to eat.
A final note from Marcus, “Don’t make the mistake of working at your own party. Sure, it’s going to be a little work on the day of the party with setup. But then you could always hire a neighborhood teen to clean up during the party. It’s well worth it so you can concentrate on your guests and having a good time yourself.”