by Christina Mueller
Top Chef judge and cookbook author
knows a thing or two about food and design. At a recent stint as guest pit master at Hill Country BBQ in Brooklyn, Simmons’ recently cooked up a slew of new recipes designed for outdoor entertaining. Here are her tips for entertaining al fresco & healthy grilling, plus a perfect “grilled” cocktail recipe.
Frame your space with lights.
Lanterns have a long history of lighting the outdoors, and a few large lanterns hung above a patio or deck add warmth and create instant party space. Go mod-retro with a Moravian star – the slender holes sprinkle tiny rays of light – or modern with a candle lantern or pendant.
Swap out your tablecloth for a table runner
No matter what fabric you choose, table runners look fresh. Natural fabrics like leather and linen look great and add a lot of texture. Or, bring the chalkboard trend to the table with a chalkboard table runner such as the one shown here.
Chalkboard Table Runner, available at
Invest in a few good platters and serving ware
Great news for the home cook: grilling on the whole is on-trend and super-simple. Lay your protein of choice on the grill, cook as directed on each side, then serve as is on a big platter. All you need are a few tools (tongs, flexible spatula, some oil that can handle high heat) and a few great platters for serving (natural wood and hammered metal are Gail’s choice). Bonus: serving on the whole is sure to result in a “wow” from your guests.
Bring vintage to your plate
Long a staple of the camping set, enameled plateware is finding new fans among the urban cognoscenti for its durability and updated, textured look. Classic colors like red and blue tipped with white capture the idea while newer colors such as marbled pink or grey reimagine the vintage concept.
Up your straw game
Serve Gail’s charred lime margarita recipe in a margarita glass or tumbler. Make it stand out with a cool, environmentally-friendly straw. Copper cups are on trend (Oh, those Moscow Mules!) but straws stand out just a little bit more.
Copper Straws, available at
Grow your own garnish
Living walls, a vertical expression of the traditional horizontal gardenscape, fit in small spaces and bring energy to any deck or patio. Plant a few cilantro seeds now and in less than a month, use the spouts to garnish a charred lime margarita.
Free-Standing Vertical Chalkboard Garden, available at
Grill your garnish
If grilling a whole bird or large cut of meat is not in the cards, consider grilling smaller foods to add smoky flavor and a handmade touch. Chop a bunch of scallions or long Spanish onions, quarter a head of Romaine, or add peeled cloves of garlic to the grill. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and serve.
Try new smoky flavors
Chipotle, a dried, smoked jalapeño pepper, kick-started the trend a few years ago, but the rage for all things smoked endures and adds deep flavor to any dish. Try new flavors that work with the smokiness of the grill – coffee rubs are great with beef – or experiment with za’atar, a mix of dried herbs, sesame seeds, dried sumac and salt that is popular in Morocco and elsewhere.
Try more new smoky flavors
Mezcal, tequila’s less familiar cousin, gets its subtle, smoky flavor from a three day cooking process in an underground, earthen oven. Drink it straight or on the rocks – do not forget to rim the glass with smoked salt – and serve with a plate of sliced oranges sprinkled with ground chile and lime.
Mezcal, available at
Grill your dessert
Who wants to turn on the oven in the dog days of summer? Rather than bake dessert, purchase caramel sauce and high quality ice cream. Serve in a beautiful bowl with a wedge of grilled pineapple or peach. Garnish with a sprinkle of lime zest. Smart and beautiful.
Charred Lime Margarita
By Gail Simmons
Canola oil for grill
3 limes halved
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, plus more for garnish
3 oz tequila
1 ½ oz triple sec
2 teaspoons simple syrup
1 tablespoon fine smoked salt for garnish
Heat a grill or grill pan to medium high heat and brush with canola oil. Add 4 lime halves, flesh side down, and grill until well charred, 2-3 minutes. Remove from grill and allow to cool. Cut an additional lime half into wheels and grill until well charred, 2-3 minutes, flipping halfway. Zest the remaining lime half and set aside.
Juice charred lime halves into a cocktail shaker, straining seeds. Muddle together charred lime juice and cilantro leaves. Add lime zest, tequila, triple sec, simple syrup and plenty of ice, and shake until well chilled. Rub the rim of two rocks glasses with one of the charred lime wheels. Spread smoked salt on a plate and swirl the rim of each glass through the salt to coat. Add ice to glasses. Strain and divide margarita into glasses. Garnish each with a charred lime wheel and a few cilantro leaves and serve immediately.