Summertime, especially in Door County, means family, friends and (ideally) beautiful weather. Unfortunately, the summer months are all-too brief. Why spend that limited time eating indoors when you can host an outdoor summer dinner party and spend more relaxed time with your loved ones? Entertaining outdoors might be a little more work (although it certainly doesn’t have to be), but the ability to relax with friends and bask in the sunshine gives you more time to enjoy everything the summer months have to offer.
Outdoor dining does not have to mean the standard burger and brat barbeque, either. Putting a little more effort into a summer party makes it more of a special event and tells your guests that you are willing to go the extra mile on their behalf.
Even if you don’t have a permanent place in Door County, or your property is just too small to accommodate all the people you’d like to invite, there are plenty of options available. Door County is blessed with acres upon of acres of state and county parks, many of which have picnic areas that can be reserved exclusively for your use.
I recently attended a delightful outdoor dinner party in Peninsula State Park. My hosts reserved the Weborg Point picnic shelter, hired one of the county’s premier chefs and invited an intimate group of friends for a casual evening of fine food, beverages and conviviality.
The Weborg shelter, on the Fish Creek end of Peninsula State Park, is a rustic but spacious building equipped with knotty pine picnic tables and a large fireplace. Located on a scenic point overlooking the waters of Green Bay, it can comfortably accommodate up to 50 people.
Mother Nature, in her infinite wisdom, did not seem to want to cooperate. The day of the party came in like a lion, with rain and thundershowers. When I called my hosts to see if the party would go on, I was assured that the shelter was large enough to protect everyone from the elements, so the soirée would go on, rain or shine.
Shine did come, however, when the weather broke about 90 minutes before the appointed hour revealing a perfect blue sky and a wonderfully pleasant late afternoon. As the hosts and chef busied themselves with last minute food and decorating details, guests began to trickle in and search out a libation.
Instead of tying someone to a bar mixing drinks, our hosts made quantities of cocktails and other beverages available and let guests help themselves. Recognizing the season of fresh fruit, there were pitchers of sangria, overflowing with slices of apples, lemons, oranges and limes. They set premixed pitchers in trays of ice, surrounded by small bowls of garnishes. They also made sure to have plenty of bottles of gently chilled white wines, like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Riesling.
One of the guests brought an antique croquet set for a bit of before-dinner competition. Once a course was agreed upon (no one could quite remember the actual rules), a quartet of inspired sports-persons, with mallets in one hand and beverages in the other, took to the field of play. After some cutthroat play that had croquet balls rolling all over Weborg Point, a victor was finally crowned and everyone made their way to the table elegantly set by Chef Steve Wisniewski of Dockside Catering.
Chef Steve, who trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, had devised a Spanish tapas-style menu for the evening. A series of salads and salsas, all designed to be wrapped in a variety of sizes of tortillas, made for ease of eating for guests. The self-service tapas dinner makes sure everyone has enough to eat but is not chained down to one place setting at a formal dinner table, allowing guests to further mix and mingle throughout dinner.
The entrées for the evening had a little something for everyone. For the carnivores, there was grilled chili-rubbed pork with spinach, onions and olives in a tantalizing sweet pepper sauce, and pulled barbeque chocolate chicken thighs with apples, Napa cabbage, toasted almonds and chives. There were apple-wood grilled halibut cheeks, garnished with roasted sweet peppers and cilantro. For the vegetarians in the group (and there seems to be at least one in every crowd these days), there was a wild mushroom sautée, multi-bean hummus and a roasted vegetable salsa. Each entrée was made to be wrapped in either a corn tostadas or multi-grain tortilla.
For a fresh take on desert, Chef Steve prepared a grilled fennel, pineapple, orange and apple salad with citrus squeeze and fresh mint. There was also a mango salsa with cucumber, prickly pears and strawberries, and a spicy jicama jalapeño relish. Further emphasizing the season of fresh produce, Chef Steve decorated the dishes with beautiful purple chive flowers and scattered freshly chopped herbs around the table. After each guest helped themselves to the delicious food in multiple trips to the table, our summer evening ended with a brief walk from the Weborg shelter to a nearby pier to view the spectacular sunset over Chambers and Adventure Islands.
Summers in Door County are perfect for outdoor dinner parties, as the peninsula lies at 45 degrees north latitude, halfway to the North Pole. That gives us a distinct advantage for outdoor entertaining, as daylight and twilight last well past 8:30 pm for most of the summer. Make the most of every second of the fleeting summer that you can.
Whether at home or elsewhere, the point of a successful dinner party should be to enjoy the finer things in life: good food, fine wines and excellent company. Celebrate the freshness of summer foods, complemented by crisp, refreshing beverages, surrounded by people who you enjoy being with. By remembering a few simple and easy steps, you too can host a dinner party that your guests will remember and talk about for months afterwards.