By Kristine Hansen | Photography by Lexia Frank Photography and Jenica Wolf Photography, courtesy of Cherry Blossom Events
Pulling together an elegant al fresco party at your home without succumbing to exhaustion is no easy task. In the rush of shopping for ingredients, cooking and tidying up your outdoor spaces, it’s easy to forget that visitors are only looking for a spot to relax—and delicious food, of course
To make it approachable, focus on just three aspects at your gathering, says Sarah Sarbacker of Cherry Blossom Events, which organizes parties for everything from corporate events to lifestyle events, including weddings. Those might include the food, the activity and the drinks. Keeping the focus narrow ensures you won’t go over the top—which can make guests feel the event is so orchestrated that it’s difficult to relax.
“What makes guests feel [like saying] ‘This is a different party’ are all the little details,” says Sarbacker. Cute striped straws in lemonades or sodas or fun cocktail napkins depicting flamingos are easy to pick up at retailers like Cost Plus World Market or Target, and don’t require a crafty skill. Or consider picking up galvanized tins at a home renovation store like Home Depot that can store cutlery, chilled beers or sodas, and load them on a bar cart.
The trend right now, says Sarbacker, is to choose just one color. “Everything is very minimalist, so it’s getting your color through [just] one item,” she says. For example, a white tablecloth and a vase of pink tulips provide a pop of color—and elegance. Also, mismatched plates and serveware are on point and add an easy, eclectic elegance to your fête—ideal for when you lack a full set.
Also, try to do as much prep work ahead of time as possible. Sarbacker gives an example of an outdoor event she and her husband hosted at their Madisonarea farm. They artfully packaged the meals into paper boxes (easily purchased at a party-supply store such as Party City) and put a nametag on each. “My husband made the burgers and I added a potato-chip bag and tied it up. These are nice because they’re pre-made and ready, and allow you more time to greet your guests.” Mini pies from a local baker such as Bloom Bake Shop amp up the cuteness in the dessert presentation. “Everyone gets their own mini pie,” says Sarbacker. “People love that.”
Sarbacker is also noticing renewed interest in catering prepared meats for backyard affairs, thanks to all of the new BBQ spots opening in Madison. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and Smoky Jon’s both offer catering. Andrea VandeBerg, who co-owns Cherry Blossom Events with Sarbacker, recently pre-ordered brats from State Street Brats for a gathering she planned.
Also angling into the comfort-food vibe when entertaining at home is Chef Mike Magee at HotelRED. “I always lean towards Italian food. Italian food is America’s new comfort food,” he says. But he’s not talking about meatballs and lasagna—instead it’s Italian fare with a Mediterranean twist, relying on vegetables and meats instead of heavy cheeses and sauces. One of his favorite go-to recipes for a crowd traces back to Northern Italy and combines peas, bacon and ricotta with spiral- or shell-shaped pasta. Tossing the vegetables with cooked bacon and butter—then the boiled pasta—he finishes with cracked pepper and grated Parmesan cheese. “The vegetables are interchangeable,” he says, based on what’s in season. “In summer you can go with succotash and basil.” In addition to farmers’ markets around the city, Whole Foods Market is his favorite place to buy organic fresh produce. He also likes shopping at The Conscious Carnivore for farm-raised meats.
But parties don’t have to just be a lunch or dinner thing. Tom and Heidi Notbohm, proprietors of The Buckingham Inn, a bed and breakfast near Camp Randall, are pros at creating an easy, elegant breakfast. Alongside a quiche or frittata, they always include a greens salad with vinaigrette, and fresh fruit is its own course. Being members of a farm with a community supported agriculture program means they always have fresh organic fruits and vegetables on hand, perfect to throw into that signature frittata or quiche recipe.
“[Being in a CSA] forces you to work with new foods,” says Tom, “like garlicscapes, collard greens and beet greens. These go great in egg dishes.” Baking in small ramekins without a crust means that gluten-sensitive guests can also enjoy the eats.
The couple also likes hosting afternoon and evening events with a tailgating theme tied to a game at Camp Randall. When the University of Wisconsin Madison played Hawaii a few years ago, “we had pulled pork that was prepared ahead of time, fruit salsa and fish skewers. The skewers add a nice, fun flair and they’re easy to cook on the grill, just a few minutes,” says Tom. Their favorite meat suppliers are Jones Dairy Farm for turkey sausage and Nueske’s for bacon. Both are Wisconsin-based.
For dessert, hone in on a recipe for a crisp, pie or bar that you like. Use seasonal fruits—such as rhubarb in early summer, strawberries towards the end of June and apples in early autumn. If you’re in a time crunch, Heidi Notbohm likes artisan chocolates from a local chocolatier (such as Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, or the Notbohm’s favorite, Maurie’s Fine Chocolates) and putting them on a fancy tray. “Just having chocolates on a tray is always a hit,” she says.
This article was featured in the Madison Spring 2017 issue.
The Lakeshore Living publications are published by Nei-Turner Media Group, a full-service agency located in Lake Geneva, WI. Our four publications cover the picturesque lake communities of Lake Geneva, Madison, Lake Country and Northwoods.
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