How to Host a Summer Barbecue Like a Professional

How to Host a Summer Barbecue Like a Professional

“We’re becoming nesting lesbians,” Erika Nakamura half-joked, smiling at her wife, Jocelyn Guest, across the kitchen counter of a friend’s weekend home in Hudson, N.Y. “We prefer to socialize at home, so we’re like, ‘Come to the country!’” It’s not exactly a hard sell: Nakamura and Guest, 39 and 35 respectively, are a team of butchers who recently ran White Gold on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and have now created a line of sausages as part of their new company, J&E Small Goods. “In Australia and New Zealand,” Nakamura said, “‘small goods’ are added-value meat products. In the States, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s so hipster to call it small goods!’ But it’s actually an appropriate term: We can do knives and cutting boards, make it more of a lifestyle brand.” The couple moved from New York City to the town of Goldens Bridge, N.Y., last year, in anticipation of the birth of their daughter, Nina, who is now almost 10 months old — and they quickly adapted to the extra space, proximity to close friends and entertaining opportunities that decision afforded them.

This particular upstate barbecue began as a reunion of sorts: A year ago, Nakamura and Guest were in Sicily for the wedding of Johanna Peet and Raju Mann, who own the natural skin-care line Peet + Rivko. “It was supposed to be Sicily quorum,” Guest said, “but some people were busy, so it became, ‘Who wants to eat some free food?’ Which in our group of friends is everybody.” The menu followed logically: Sicilian-inspired, with an emphasis on all things summery and grilled. There was a large panzanella; swordfish polpette on skewers; saffron-tinged arancini and Italian charcuterie platters for happy-hour snacking; spicy lamb sausage from J&E; a leafy green salad; and simply grilled eggplant and little yellow squash that looked like blistered lemon halves.

Peet’s mother, Maria, who’s Sicilian, ducked in and out of the kitchen, making Aperol spritzes for the guests as they arrived. Occasionally, she’d check in on prep: Guest was tackling a large batch of arancini, made with saffron and sushi rice and packed with as much mozzarella as the baseball-size mounds could hold. (“I’m very nervous about feeding these to Maria,” she noted.) When the chef Nina Clemente arrived, she strapped on an apron and served as arancini sous chef. The two of them plated each batch of crispy, golden-fried rice balls in bowls that Guest and Nakamura had bought last year from the New York-based ceramist Jono Pandolfi.

For a pair of new parents, prepping dinner for 15 means outsourcing child-care — or, if you look at it a different way, offering “playing with a baby” as a cocktail hour extra. As her mothers baked focaccia and sliced tomatoes for panzanella (made, of course, with homemade bread), baby Nina gnawed on a hunk of biscotti; Guest bragged to the set designer Jessie Katz that her daughter had recently eaten a fried sardine head on her own accord at Via Carota down in the city. Maria Damato, an educator and friend of Erika’s from college who occasionally helps out at J&E Small Goods, strapped Nina to her back before picking wildflowers from the house’s back fields. She and Katz arranged them on two long tables set among raised vegetable beds in the backyard; later, the rest of the crew played and cooed with Nina on a blanket as Jocelyn set out charcuterie. Nearby, Nakamura built the grill to char vegetables, sausage and swordfish meatballs: She tricked out Peet and Mann’s cinder block fire pit with the grate from a Big Green Egg.

The dinner ended with a table crowded with bottles of Amaro and two pies, both made by Nakamura: a pistachio-raspberry tart and a simple pie crust filled with cinnamon-flecked fresh ricotta topped with blueberries. For a prelude to dessert, partners Jordana Rothman and Blake Mackay serenaded Nina with an all-mommy rendition of “Baby Shark” as half the table clapped along. Night completed, Guest and Nakamura shared their advice for throwing a large-scale, lazyish summer barbecue of your own.

“At one point we were almost going to have tomatoes on every single course, and then we had to dial it back,” Nakamura said. “But we don’t eat tomatoes if it’s not tomato season, and as I was shopping I was just getting more and more excited by what is actually available right now.” Her suggestion is to vary how you use — and select — each vegetable. The panzanella featured tomatoes multiple ways: small cherry ones cooked in olive oil with garlic until their skins blistered and the garlic infused them with a little extra punch; large, kaleidoscopically hued heirlooms cut into hefty chunks that mirrored the dish’s bread cubes. To get the most out of your produce, consider serving each vegetable multiple ways, or in multiple sizes. Serve some tomatoes cooked and some raw, or choose zucchini of varying colors and shapes to add variety, like Nakamura and Guest did.

“I think that briquettes are kind of gross, honestly,” Nakamura said as she built her fire. When she doesn’t have a chimney on hand to start her fire, she uses all-natural charcoal starters that she buys on Amazon. “They are such a game changer. There are no chemicals, and it feels really clean.” For straight-ahead grilled flavor, she also recommends letting your fire burn off a bit before you start placing things on the grates. “When you first light a fire, you get a lot of yellowy, dense smoke, and it tastes really acrid,” she explained. “But when you burn off a good portion of the fire, you see the clearer white smoke — you get a much better flavor from that.”

To ensure you can actually enjoy the company of your friends, Guest and Nakamura stress the importance of preparation. “Plan a menu well so that you’re not miserable,” Guest said. “Like, instead of individual steaks, cook a larger format steak and slice it.” Nakamura added that she prefers things without too many moving parts. Take their grilled swordfish polpette: The lemon zest-infused meatballs were formed ahead of time, then skewered with baby tomatoes; once the grill was going, the couple took care of these, warmed eggplant and zucchini, and grilled sausages with one (relatively straightforward!) cooking method.

Instead of putting out bits of cured meat on a standard wooden slab, Nakamura and Guest made their serving boards edible in the form of freshly baked focaccia loaves. It was a particularly ingenious way to turn a snack table into a conversation piece: Guest fanned and folded rounds of mortadella, soppressata, capicola and salami atop three stretches of bread that she’d just recently pulled from the oven, creating a mosaic of meats whose delicious oils seeped into the bread.

To celebrate their newly launched line, Nakamura and Guest served their spicy lamb sausage in simple pinwheels. It proved the point that if you’ve got good sausages — well sourced, thoughtfully spiced — you don’t need to bury them in a bun. And you shouldn’t char them too aggressively, either; Guest let her fire calm down a bit, since a high flame would risk rupturing the delicate casings. This also allowed more of the sausage flavor to come through, rather than getting masked by char and smoke.

When it was time to eat, everyone sat at a long, farmhouse-style table on a combination of benches and folding chairs, and the surface included a simple mishmash of light neutrals: a sandy-colored tablecloth with minimalist blue stripes served as the backdrop for white plates of varying make and model, some of them a blue-edged metal. Pandolfi’s serving vessels were glazed white with raw, sandy outsides, and even the utensils were brought out in a large earthenware jug, part centerpiece and part tool kit. To replicate this look at home, choose a range of neutrals and stick to them, letting the color on the table come from flowers and vegetables. And if you can find a suitably scenic country backdrop, all the better.

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