10 Summer Entertaining Tips from a Hostess Extraordinaire

One of the first foodie people I began religiously following online was Karen Mordechai of Sunday Suppers. A stylist and photographer, Karen manages to creatively bring together all the essential elements of a good dinner: food, decor, and ambience, without ever losing sight that it’s all about connecting with the people around the table. We asked Karen to share her insights on entertaining with friends.

Read on:

Photography by Karen Mordechai, except where noted.

no need for vases: sprigs of summer flowers become part of the tablescape. 9
Above: No need for vases: Sprigs of summer flowers become part of the tablescape.

Remodelista: What is the first thing you think about when you are having people over for dinner?

Karen Mordechai: I think about the season and an overall feeling that a great meal can create. The starting point can be a location, a time of day, or a particular ingredient that is beautiful at the market.

RM: How do you plan out a dinner?

KM: Start with one element that inspires the meal, i.e. breakfast in bed. As a visual person I always start there with either a mood board or color palate. The layers build organically—I create a menu based on what is seasonally current. The location can then dictate much of the decor, and then I keep adding layers as I plan. Menu, design, decor, and little touches all come next. I try to keep it all very simple but well thought out.

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Above: Menu planning.

RM: Do you have everything ready ahead of time? I always seem to be cooking at the last minute despite my best intentions.

KM: Yes, absolutely. A well-planned list of to-dos. I do as much as possible in advance. But when that is not possible, try not to fret. Guests love to join in the prep and help out. I feel it creates a lighter environment for all.

RM: Do you have a go-to meal that you can pull together at the last minute or do you like to try something new?

KM: I do tend to try new things all the time–but I would say that a good roast is a great way to feed a crowd. It can often be left alone in the oven for hours and the sides and accompanying dishes are not as difficult to execute.

ingredients for a party: soft lighting and plenty of seating. 11
Above: Ingredients for a party: soft lighting and plenty of seating.

RM: Your go-to table setting?

KM: Kraft paper, white dinnerware, vintage flatware, and bistro glassware.

RM: How do you keep a table looking fresh?

KM: Start with the basics and a clean palette and then add a layer of interest that ties into the season or the meal in a simple, unfussy way. Lots of greens for spring or a feather on each setting for Thanksgiving. There are very simple ways to create beauty on the table. Rethinking textures for a new use is one of my favorite things to do—a vintage wallpaper as a table runner or a cheesecloth to wrap a gift or a newspaper to create a menu.

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Above: A wild arrangement channels summer.

RM: Preferred lighting?

KM: Most of our suppers start early on Sundays, so daylight is lovely, and as the sun sets we light candles and add dim lights.

RM: Best investment for entertaining outdoors?

KM: A few great blankets for picnics, a charcoal grill, and a string of party lights—in the winter, I bring these indoors to hang over our dinner tables.

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Above: Simple, good food served communally.

RM: Best way to serve food?

KM: I love family-style; it adds a sense of community and enjoyment and suits our type of food, which is honest and straightforward cooking.

RM: What’s secret is to creating a good dinner party?

KM: A great mix of people and good food. In the end, those are the most memorable evenings.

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Above: Dishes evoke the season (like late summer).

RM: Favorite dish of late?

KM: We recently did a foraging trip in the woods and came back to the studio to make lunch the following day. Inspired by a recipe from Bon Appetit, I used the greens we foraged on our trip and tweaked the recipe a bit. It’s just the perfect summer salad.

Sunday Suppers Tomato Salad with Coriander Dressing

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 lb English hothouse cucumbers, sliced
2 to 3 large heirloom tomatoes, sliced
6 small red tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 pints small cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch wood sorrel
1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves with tender stems

For the dressing:
½ tsp coriander seed
Juice of 2 lemons
3 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
½ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

Make the dressing by toasting the coriander seeds in a pan over medium heat until golden, then finely grind them in a mortar and pestle. Add the coriander, lemon, sugar, salt, and pepper in a bowl and whisk to dissolve sugar. Slowly whisk in the oil, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Arrange the sorrel on a platter, layer the tomatoes and parsley on top, and dress with coriander dressing. Top with olive oil and smoked Maldon sea salt to taste.

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N.B. This post has been updated; the original story ran on August 2, 2013. Featured image by Karen Mordechai for Sunday Suppers, from Steal This Look: Summer Scandi Table, New York Edition.

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