A Garden Party – Michael Benavidez

This summer is my first in Northern California. I’ve traded the sweltering, shimmering summers of Virginia for the presence of an almost anthropomorphically persistent fog. It can be romantic, but sometimes I miss the sweltering nights and open windows.

In their memory, I present a Garden Party. These are some ideas for summer entertaining; fun, easy, and light party foods that can be eaten with fingers, prepared in batches, and easily served.

I want to emphasize that these are ideas. Play with them! Change things out, add new things in. These recipes are to my taste. If your taste is different, adjust accordingly.


Grilled Brie, Pear, and Prosciutto Quesadillas

6 8-in flour tortillas

12 oz brie, rind removed (the rind on brie is edible and delicious, but doesn’t melt well)

10 oz prosciutto, chopped

1.5 cups sliced peaches (about 3 large fruits. For this, it’s better to peaches that are just barely ripe. Overly tender or juicy peaches will make soggy quesadillas.)

Evenly divide peaches, prosciutto, and brie between tortillas and fold in half to form quesadillas. Heat grill to medium and brush with olive oil. Grill quesadillas for 2 ½ minutes on each side with grill covered to melt cheese. Slice and serve.


Pickled Shishito Peppers

Shishito peppers are an amazing summer snack. They can be seared in a pan, blistered on a grill, or eaten raw. On average, about 1 out of every 10 is spicy. This is a ‘quick’ pickle preparation, not intended for canning or long-term preservation but rather for intensifying flavors.

40-50 shishito peppers

1 tbsp olive oil

3 cups rice vinegar

1 tbsp kosher salt

1 tsp whole black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

½ tsp coriander seeds

2 cloves garlic, gently crushed

In a pan over medium heat, bring olive oil to a shimmer. Working in batches, sear the shishito peppers until they are lightly toasted and their color has just begun to fade. Set aside in a heatproof bowl. In a medium saucepan, mix the vinegar, salt, garlic, and spices. Bring mixture to a boil. Pour hot brine over peppers. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Pickles will continue to develop flavor for 2-3 weeks.

Harissa Devilled Eggs

Harissa is a North African condiment that is basically Sriracha’s sophisticated older brother. Traditionally, it’s a paste of roasted red peppers, serranos, garlic, coriander, and caraway. It adds a complex, slightly smokiness to a classic party Hors d’oeuvre. Optionally, you can dice up a few of the pickled peppers from the previous recipe for a briny, delightfully contrasting garnish.

12 eggs

6 tbsp mayonnaise

2 tsp Dijon mustard

4 tsp harissa

2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tbsp finely chopped cilantro

Hard-boil the eggs. Cool in an ice bath, peel, and halve. Carefully remove yolks and set aside whites. Mix yolks, mustard, harissa, lime juice, and cilantro. Mash with fork until fully incorporated and smooth. Spoon mixture into egg yolks or use a pastry bag for an easy and elegant presentation. Garnish with chives or diced pickled peppers.

Tomatillo Gazpacho

Gazpacho is summer in a bowl. All the garden’s bounty from the warm months, chilled and refreshing with bright acidity. This soup can double as an appetizer for a sit-down dinner, or serve it in shot glasses for a party canapé.

3 tbsp olive oil

3 cloves garlic

1 ½ lb tomatillos

2 avocados

1 cucumber

1 green bell pepper

½ red onion

16 oz vegetable stock

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

In a medium saucepan, heat the stock, tomatillos, and garlic. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until tomatillos are cooked through (about 1 min). Remove from heat, cool, and add mixture to blender. Do not blend hot liquids! Add remaining ingredients to blender and puree until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste, and refrigerate at least an hour before serving. Garnish with diced scallions or feta crumbles.

When I think of summer drinks, I think fruity. Fruity drinks get a bad rap, but they can be done in a way that captures the flavors of fresh, seasonal fruit while avoiding fake, saccharine sweetness. Here are two suggestions for drinks that utilize some summer fruits. Not to be repetitive, but play with these! The formula for both is fairly straightforward: a base spirit, a sweetener, an acid, and a soda to finish the drink with some effervescence. If you stick to that formula, you can swap fruits, spirits, acids, and sweeteners in and out to your taste. Use peaches instead of blackberries, or raspberries instead of strawberries. And let me know how they turn out!

*A note on measurements: These recipes are written as ratios so that amounts can be increased or decreased based on your needs. For a single serving, indicated amounts are in ounces.

Blackberry-Ginger Rum Punch

A variation on the classic Dark and Stormy with the addition of one of my favorite summer fruits.  A quick syrup captures the color and flavor of fresh blackberries and combines it with the sweetness of spiced rum and the heat of ginger.

2 parts spiced rum

1 part blackberry-ginger syrup

.5 part fresh lime juice

Mix all ingredients, shake, and strain over ice into a highball glass. Top with ginger beer (I like Goslings).

Blackberry-Ginger Syrup

1 lb fresh blackberries (frozen works too, just thaw beforehand)

1 ½ tbsp ginger, diced

1/4 cup sugar

¼ cup water

Juice of 1 lemon

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan.

In a medium saucepan, bring all ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes until the berries are falling apart. Pour through a fine strainer, pushing on the berries to extract all the liquid. Refrigerate and the syrup will thicken as it chills.

Strawberry “Americano”

Aperol is an Italian aperitif with a bitterness that is refreshing but not overpowering and a prominent orange aroma. Strawberries can be difficult to work with, because heat noticeably changes their flavor. To capture the essence of fresh strawberries, you have to find a way to extract their flavor without cooking them, and for this application a combination of sugar and the alcohol in the Aperol serves this purpose.  This cocktail is a variation on a classic Italian mixed drink called an Americano, with the less  aggressively bitter Aperol in place of Campari and an Italian Blood Orange soda in place of soda water. The procedure for infusing the Aperol can be used with any kind of spirit and fruit combination.

2 parts Strawberry-infused Aperol

1 part sweet vermouth

.5 part fresh lemon juice

Mix all ingredients, shake, and strain over ice into a highball. Top with San Pellegrino Blood Orange Soda

Strawberry-infused Aperol

1 lb of strawberries, pitted and cored

¼ cup of sugar

1 750 ml bottle Aperol

Cover strawberries with sugar and Aperol in blender. Refrigerate for 3-4 hours.  Blend and pour through fine mesh strainer.