Plate It forward

If you haven’t already spent time with family and/or friends around the table now that summer has started, it will happen very soon.

An intrinsic part of the summer season is shared meals. We gather on holidays to share a meal or two, but in the summer the whole season is about impromptu eating with whomever is around.

Sometimes you can plan for a potluck, but if end up with unexpected guests that get hungry, you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve.

This week I am going to help you “plate it forward” – be able to whip up something flavourful without stressing.

First, let’s talk about summer flavours.

This season is the one that has plenty of ingredients available fresh from the markets and gardens, so that’s an advantage. Many items don’t need to be played with too much as they already taste great raw.

Here are my top five choices, but once you get to your favourite market or farm stand feel free to be inspired by what moves you. Make sure you always have these items in your kitchen, along with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and some kind of citrus fruit.

  • Fresh mixed greens – salad for lunch or dinner is a great plan when it’s hot, and you can add almost anything over top of greens. (I’ll speak about details later in the column.) At markets, look for wild greens, edible flowers or even herbs like cilantro or parsley to include.
  • Local fruit – there is something just picked from late June through September, and fruit can be used in so many ways besides on breakfast cereal.
  • Zucchinis (in early summer) then tomatoes (in late summer) – these veggies work raw and cooked in all kinds of dishes, and they are inexpensive in season and full of flavour.
  • Onions, Garlic and Pasta – this just might be the magic combination for providing a quick and easy “from-scratch” meal for a crowd.
  • Fresh Herbs – pick at least two herbs that you like to use. If you need suggestions, thyme & oregano are great separately and together; chives and basil give lots of punch when added to dishes, and dill & parsley work to perk up your taste buds.

Secondly, you need some handy meal plans. Simple works best, especially these days when many people are on diets or have allergies or restrictions. Here are my three main suggestions:

Fish or meat with salad

We eat this kind of dinner at least three nights a week all summer long. (We do it in the winter too, since I got my Tower Garden and can grow fresh greens at home for less than five dollars a head.)

You can easily grill the fish or meat and avoid cooking inside when it’s hot. Even using leftovers works well – think of grilling extra pieces of chicken or a slightly larger roast and slicing pieces cold over a salad.

And note to self: salad doesn’t have to be greens; it can include the poke bowl/Buddha bowl variety using grains or even legumes with other veggies.

One more salad tip: make your own dressings and avoid all kinds of extra sugars, preservatives and other unpronounceable things. Google is your friend – just look up the style you want, like “Asian, tangy, citrus, herb…” for flavours and use “dressing, vinaigrette, sauce” to get the right category.

Something in a bun, on a tortilla or a lettuce leaf

This option is particularly good if everyone can’t sit at a table and eat. A meal in an edible package or wrapper works well when you’re standing. Again, you can use leftovers to add to the substance if need be, and salad could be the filling if you’re stuck for ideas.

If time is a challenge, you can make this a do-it-yourself meal, too: set out cheese, meats, veggies on a counter with assorted condiments and sauces and the wrappers at one end.

Give people some suggestions by grouping things together in themes (e.g. a taste of Italy with prosciutto, cheese, sliced tomatoes or zucchinis, maybe olive tapenade or garlic mayo and arugula).

Picnic-style meals (this includes the potluck format)

Al fresco dining is the quintessential option in summer.

If you’re hosting a potluck, give people some direction so you don’t end up with a bunch of pasta salad (hint: try to think of what people like to make when you assign the categories).

Whether your picnic is on location or at home, make it fun. Include some treats that you might not usually have, like a cheese spread or pâté. Decorate the table and/or the room with enthusiasm and you can put sun in a rainy day or take the stress out of a work-day.

This can be an assortment of leftovers when they start to pile up in the fridge or it might be the result of a trip to a local deli section.

Bonus picnic tips:

Go wild with condiments – this is your chance to make sure you finally use the mustard and chutney in the fridge.

Watermelon is the perfect picnic dessert.

OK, let’s bring it home in style – let’s make sure everyone is happy at your table. The other elements of a great meal are beverages, and dessert. Both of them can be handled easily.

Beverages — if your meal is impromptu, just go with the flow. Use what you have, and if that’s water then the only thing to worry about is if you want to put ice or lemon in your pitcher. If you’re inviting people over, guide them about what to bring or what you will supply.

Dessert – again, it’s important to remember we wanted a no-stress meal so go with the flow. You know your crowd, so think of what they like. If you aren’t sure, fresh fruit is always a lovely way to end a summer meal.

Any kind of biscuit, chocolate, or ice cream is a delicious accompaniment but not required.

So now you have the secret to being the summer host with the most fun meals. Your only problem might be that everyone likes to hang out after they eat your food.

That’s when you tell them you’d love to come to their place next time, bringing your favourite dish to make (wink wink).

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories