• Alexa Boschini

Entertaining with Ease

Author's new book includes tips for relaxing and engaging outdoor events

Susan SpungenSusan Spungen
From setting The scene to making seating arrangements to developing a savory menu, hosting an event involves a variety of responsibilities and challenges. And when that event is held outdoors, factors such as the weather must also be considered.
     Though entertaining can be a stressful endeavor, chef, author and culinary consultant Susan Spungen insists it doesn't have to be. In her latest book, What's a Hostess to Do? 313 Ideas and Inspirations for Effortless Entertaining, out this month, Spungen offers a bevy of tips for entertaining with ease, from an indoor dinner party to an outdoor soiree.
     "It's really a more modern and casual take on how we entertain today," Spungen said. "It's not about doing things fancy and proper or the way they might have done it in past generations. We live very differently now. Everything should really be about getting people together and having a good time, and sharing good food and not trying to be perfect."
     Though she was always interested in food, Spungen initially studied art because cooking "wasn't the bona fide career choice it is now." She worked in restaurants throughout art school, and in 1990 became a pastry chef at restaurateur Pino Luongo's Coco Pazzo in New York.
     The following year she joined the staff of Martha Stewart Living as founding food editor, and later published her own cookbook, Recipes: A Collection for the Modern Cook. She continues to contribute to several magazines and has appeared on a number of television shows. She has also served as a culinary consultant and "food stylist" on films such as It's Complicated; Eat, Pray, Love and Julie & Julia, in which she taught cooking techniques to Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

     "I made all the food look pretty for the camera," Spungen said. "Especially on Julie & Julia, it was like I was a technical consultant, like a doctor would consult on ER. I worked with the director and the actors to make sure we were portraying the food in the most authentic way possible."
     Like her first book, What's a Hostess to Do? features a slew of recipes meant to impress guests without inflicting stress on the host. "There are recipes, about 120 of them, but some of them are what in the industry you might call a talk-through recipe," she said. "There's a bit looser interpretation. We have 10 assembled desserts, things that you could serve for dessert without making or baking anything, things that you don't need special skills for. We have 10 assembled hors d'oeuvres."
     But in addition to recipes, the book is rife with event planning advice, including party etiquette, lighting and music selection, arranging centerpieces and other tips for creating a successful event, from holiday dinners to cocktail parties. The book also features a section devoted to outdoor entertaining.
     "The benefits are that you can accommodate more people, and cleanup is not as big of an issue," Spungen said. "When you have a lot of people in your house, it's a lot harder to clean up. The challenges definitely are weather and bugs, but I feel like those are the only challenges. I just love having people over on a beautiful night. It's really casual. I love having a party that's inclusive."
     According to the introduction to the book's outdoor entertaining section, an event loosens up when held outdoors, where "simplicity and informality rule" and the natural environment helps set the scene. The chapter addresses picnics away from home, grilling equipment, tips for repelling bugs and the importance of a rain plan, among other topics.
     "As for rain, you really need to think about it," Spungen said. "If you're having a big party, you've got to have a tent or you've got to be able to get everyone inside your house."
     For outdoor events held at night, Spungen said decorating outdoor spaces is "all about fire." Torches, fire pits and other forms of outdoor lighting create a striking ambience as day fades to night, she said.
     "I just love the glow that (torches) give after dark, and all kinds of hurricanes and candles," Spungen said. "Lighting is really important if you're going to be outside in the evening ... I think a fire pit is a great thing to have outside. If you are going to have a party that goes into the evening, there are so many of those out there. If you don't have a great built-in fireplace, you can get a nice portable fire pit."
     Much of the chapter is devoted to the art of grilling - essential tools, varieties of charcoal, a wide selection of entrees that can be prepared on the grill. Spungen recommends using hardwood lump charcoal over charcoal briquettes to create the hottest fire. While she appreciates the convenience of a gas barbecue, Spungen said she prefers a charcoal fire whenever possible.

Spungen encourages
Spungen encourages outdoor event hosts to explore meals they can prepare on the grill beyond the standard steak, hot dogs and hamburgers, such as this grilled Paella Valenciana.
In the outdoor entertaining chapter of What’s a Hostess to Do?, Spungen offers suggestions for dishes to prepare in a foil pouch on the grill, including fl avorful vegetables and these grilled clams.
In the outdoor

     "We love the Big Green Egg," Spungen said of her family's grill of choice. "My husband is a barbecue aficionado, so we use that a lot. If you want to do serious slow cook barbecue, there's a lot of different things out there, but you can do so many things with the Big Green Egg. You can bake bread, you can cook a turkey."
     The outdoor entertaining chapter includes a wide assortment of recipes that encourage outdoor event hosts to exercise their creativity on the grill. In addition to tips on how to grill the perfect steak, Spungen's "food and drink for the great outdoors" include salmon cooked on a cedar plank, clams grilled in a foil pouch, "stir-fry" vegetables prepared in a grill basket, grilled pizza, grilled fruit and Paella Valenciana.
     "I want people to think about not just throwing a steak on a grill," Spungen said. "There's so much more you can do with your grill. You can cook just about anything outdoors."
     Now that What's a Hostess to Do? is available to readers, Spungen said she hopes to write another cookbook and focus on her new website and blog, themoderncook.com. Whatever she tackles next, Spungen said she hopes her readers remember that among all the factors that go into hosting a successful event, the most important is having fun.
     "I just want to impress on people that they don't have to be perfect," she said. "They don't have to get themselves into a tizzy about things. I think you should always be realistic about what you can really accomplish. It's better to be simple and do a little less and do it well than try to overdo it."

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