The classic summer dinner party is usually a barbecue, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, there are lots of other casual dinner party menu ideas for warm summer nights when you want to get together with friends but just can’t stand the idea of a formal meal.
Main Course Salads
A grilled chicken, melon, and feta salad with red onions and poppy seed dressing is a fantastic main course that ticks all the summer eating boxes: fresh produce, bright colors, and easy to prepare. You can grill the chicken breasts the night before and cut your cooking time down to next to nothing. Choose honeydew, cantaloupe, or even seedless watermelon. Arrange a bed of mixed greens on a large platter, add the grilled chicken in bite-sized pieces, then add melon, thinly sliced rings of red onions, and feta, and drizzle with the poppy seed dressing. For dessert, try a lemon pear crisp made the night before and served with or without ice cream.
For vegetarians, a black bean and couscous salad with red, yellow, or orange peppers, corn, grape or cherry tomatoes, red onions, and feta served with a rice wine vinaigrette makes a substantial meal. You can make this salad up to two days ahead and refrigerate so that all you need to do is pull it out of the fridge and let it get to room temperature. Sprinkle freshly chopped coriander on top. Invest in a farmer’s market rhubarb pie if it’s too hot to bake and serve with custard, sherbet, or ice cream.
A warm quinoa salad with an orange balsamic vinaigrette is another casual crowd pleaser. Cook the quinoa the same way you do rice: bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot and cook for 15 minutes. While it’s cooking, chop up some baby carrots, zucchini, cucumber, peppers, green onion, and tomatoes. Mix the quinoa and the veggies together, toss with the vinaigrette, and serve. This would go well with corn on the cob barbecued on the grill. Round off the meal with a fresh fruit salad and brownies.
Pasta salads are also a good choice for vegetarians, and they too can be made ahead of time. Cook the pasta the night before and all you’ll have to do the night of your dinner party is chop the veggies, dress the salad, and bake some garlic bread. Pasta salad variations are as infinite as pasta sauces. They can be served hot or cold and take their flavor direction from any part of the world. Think Greek pasta salad, ratatouille-inspired pasta salad, even cold sesame noodles with broccoli and kale. Follow it up with a gorgeous red velvet or Black Forest cake for dessert. Lemon squares also make a wonderful finishing touch.
Chances are good most American homes own at least one fondue set. While you’ll have to prepare the fondue itself on the stove, you can get it ready for half an hour before your guests arrive, keep it warm with a candle, and have time for a quick shower to cool off. While main course fondues are primarily cheese-based, you could try a beer and Italian sausage fondue served with crostini and fresh vegetables instead. Serve with a large green salad and follow it up with a homemade watermelon or lemon sherbet and some gingersnaps.
Another option for a casual dinner party is a dessert fondue. If you’ve just served the traditional steak, hamburger, chicken, or fish main course, a chocolate fondue with fresh fruits and berries is the perfect end to a fantastic meal.
If you’re a traditionalist, carry on with burgers, hot dogs, sausages, corn grilled in its husks and, of course, potato salad. If you want to change things up a bit, try making some grilled fish tacos, grilled veggies, or even pork chops. The grilled veggies can be turned into lovely open-faced sandwich served on thick wedges of crusty bread and topped with a little grated cheese that will melt without going back on to the barbecue. A fudge chocolate pudding cake made the night before and served cold is the perfect way to finish off any barbecue.
Remember when you’re planning your casual dinner party menu that our appetites tend to decline about 10 percent when the weather is hot, as our metabolism slows when the thermometer more closely matches our normal body temperature. Focus on serving foods that have a high water content, like lettuce, celery, cucumber, and melons to ensure everyone stays hydrated.