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A guide to spring cookouts, fresh from the garden

Once we begin shedding heavy winter coats for light, breezy cardigans, Southerners delight in spending as much time outdoors as possible. The beautiful spring weather calls, and in no time you’re planning your first cookout.

Backyard shindigs are the best way to kick off the season because they not only bring together friends and family for mouth-watering meals but are also so simple to host. That said, a good cookout should be much more than just cracking open a beer and grilling hot dogs. Here’s how to plan a spring cookout that’s equal parts elegant and down to earth.

The food

Plan exactly what you’d like to cook out. Will it be a proper barbecue with ribs or pulled pork? Will it involve flipping hand-pattied hamburgers and sausages on the grill? Or maybe you’re going with some fresh-grilled veggies or hand-speared kabobs? Whatever you decide, make sure the main dishes are accompanied by an array of sides that’ll suit a range of palates. The South is unmatched in its enthusiasm for scrumptious sides (at least we say so), and this gives you plenty of options, whether it’s a heaping helping of Dill Potato Salad or a tempting platter of BLT Deviled Eggs.

Of course, as much as we love indulgent comfort foods brimming with mayonnaise, it’s also important to put something healthy on the table. A perfect expression of a nutritious side dish featuring local, seasonal produce is none other than the heirloom tomato salad.


Heirloom Tomato Salad
Serves 8-10

Ingredients

  • 4 pounds heirloom tomatoes, sliced in bite-sized pieces
  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 pound small mozzarella balls
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl until emulsified. Chiffonade the basil by stacking the leaves on top of each other, tightly rolling them together and then slicing them into long, thin strips. Add tomatoes, mozzarella balls, onion and basil to the bowl and toss well.


This quick and easy recipe is incredibly versatile (just adjust the above measurements based on the amount of tomatoes you have on hand). Despite its simplicity, don’t be surprised if it disappears from the table quickly.

Don’t forget dessert. This Strawberry Rhubarb Galette keeps with our “fresh from the garden” theme and offers tangy sweetness wrapped up in a wheat-and-cornmeal free-form crust.


The drinks

Every Southern cookout needs a never-ending flow of iced tea and/or lemonade. An outdoor feast is also a perfect opportunity to mix up fruity springtime libations like a White Strawberry-Lemon Sangria or Lime-Grapefruit-Basil Gin Punch. To serve these thirst-quenching beverages, make it easy on yourself and invest in a few self-serve drink containers, like a Mason jar drink dispenser. Don’t forget to clearly label each dispenser to ensure guests know which drinks are alcoholic.

Store-bottled and canned beers and other drinks in a galvanized beverage tub filled with ice. Keep a bottle opener nearby along with a container to collect bottle caps for recycling. Feeling especially eco-friendly? Swap out plastic and paper straws for reusable stainless steel straws, and offer each guest their own Mason jar in lieu of the traditional plastic red cups.


Decorations

Cookouts are traditionally casual affairs, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the decor. With all the greenery sprouting from the ground, you don’t have to do much to make a big impact. Keep it simple with light and airy touches by decorating the party space with bouquets of fresh-cut flowers, paper lanterns or a string of colorful cloth bunting.

As for the table, covering it with clean, white linen will never fail to make a good impression, but warm-weather cookouts practically beg for classic red checkered tablecloths. Another great option is laying down sheets of butcher paper. In addition to looking great and making post-party cleanup a breeze, butcher paper is perfect for parties with children and artsy adults. Simply leave out a jar of crayons and watch everyone go to town.


Photo Credit: Steve Schaefer


Gametime

When your butcher paper Picassos get ready to stretch their legs, you should have an array of yard games for them to play. Cornhole and horseshoes are classic competitions in the South, but if folks are looking for something a little less intense (but just as fun), a Giant Jenga tower is guaranteed to be a hit.

If your cookout extends into the evening, remember to think about lighting options, especially around food and drink stations. The aforementioned paper lanterns can work double-duty here. Failing that, opt for strategically placed string lights, LED tea lights or even ironically tacky Tiki torches in high-traffic areas.

With excellent food and fun party decor, pulling off a refined yet laid-back spring cookout is easier than you think. By the end of the night, you and your guests will all be wondering, “why don’t we do this more often?”

Next Article:
A guide to Easter brunch

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