Entertaining al Fresco

For the best of times, mix pool, patio and people

Photo By: Constance Higley

There’s a certain magic to dining al fresco. Think about it: coffee while camping, burgers by the pool, champagne at picnics. Imbued with fresh air and open skies, food and drink sparkle, fill you up, and warm you to the core. So, as we vicinity-dwellers start our long-awaited, arduous climb down the backside of that indomitable hump we call summer, it’s time to revisit those outdoor spaces you have long forgotten. And what better place to start than your own backyard?

Lucky for you, the three key components to any outdoor dinner party are the same as those of a great adventure: food, ambience and people.

When Brendan McCaskey, local Cordon Bleu-trained chef and craftsperson, is cooking a meal to be enjoyed outside, he prefers food that’s “simple and in season, but still elevated and special.” McCaskey’s preferred starter? The simple crudité plate. “Mixing hot and cold brings depth to a meal,” he explains. “Plus, I love cooking with color, and there’s a ton of colorful vegetables out there.” A couple of McCaskey’s favorites include heirloom carrots, which come in a variety of colors, along with watermelon radishes, which look just like everyone’s favorite summer treat.

Watermelon isn’t the only fruit that’s extra sweet in the summer, he adds. “Peaches are tasting great right now, too. Their sweetness gets enhanced when you prepare them in a real summery way.” That’s right, people: McCaskey likes his peaches on the grill. Once cooked, these charred pieces of sunshine mix perfectly with goat cheese, arugula and prosciutto — tossed with lemon juice, olive oil and a drizzle of honey. (recipe at the bottom)

For a main course, McCaskey likes putting a fresh take on a classic. “I make a barbeque chicken that’s a play on Korean barbeque, which has a spiciness and freshness that is perfect for warm weather,” he says. To a traditional barbeque sauce, the chef combines soy sauce, ginger, chili sauce and garlic. After the bird emerges from the oven, McCaskey covers it with cilantro, mint and scallions, cooling down the spice from the sauce while adding depth to the dish. (recipe at the bottom)

While knowing what to cook is the main battle, knowing how to prepare a meal for guests without stressing yourself out can still be a challenge, especially for the less experienced cooks out there. McCaskey recommends not overcrowding your grill by doing as much prep as you can ahead of your guests arriving.

As for drinks, McCaskey prefers something versatile and batch made, such as rosemary-infused lemonade. “That way,” McCaskey says, “if you want to offer a mixed drink, you can simply add vodka or gin and there you go.”

Eating outside is, by definition, a casual affair. But setting the mood can still seem intimidating. “I chalk it up to the Martha Stewart-ification of dinner parties,” says Constance Higley, local photographer and food stylist. Her advice is to keep it simple. “When I’m serving a meal, I’m all about highlighting the food.” Simple wood platters and neutral-colored plates, like white and gray, ensures what’s being served is the main attraction.

She extends this simplicity to table decorations. “Setting a table doesn’t have to be a hassle,” she says. “Take flowers, for instance. Everyone loves flowers, but a lot of times I use the herbs I’m cooking with. Potted rosemary and mint add a touch of green and smell amazing.”

Higley’s advice on plating food is similarly practical. “Plating each individual dish is a total time-suck.” Instead, she advises serving everything family-style, which encourages interaction and camaraderie amongst your guests, especially if they don’t know each other.

And to encourage this, McCaskey recommends “conversation lighting.” He explains, “I love decorating my table with scentless candles, which don’t interfere with the food and provide little pockets of light between people to talk and enjoy a meal together.”

In the same way that our vicinity is full of natural beauty — edible and scenic — it’s also full of people to take it all in with. The particulars are up to you. (Photo by: Constance Higley)

Set the Mood, Set the Table


This Arcadia tableware shop offers an eclectic mix of the practical and the elegant. Everything from functional, indestructible Melamine plates and cups to classy marble cake pedestals, to the currently trending rage from Australia known as the round towel; form meets function wherever you look.
5027 N. 44th St., Phoenix
(602) 957-5066


camelback-flower-shopCamelback Flowershop

Whether you’re looking for a custom bouquet or just a few single stems for a special friend, Camelback Flowershop has all your flower needs covered, and then some. Potted succulents and mounted cattle skulls lend the shop a unique Southwestern feel. Stop by on Fridays for Flower Happy Hour and grab a scent of this season’s beauty on the cheap.
4108 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix
(602) 840-4646


farmers-marketScottsdale Farmers Market

The Arizona soil is a wonderful thing. The Scottsdale Farmers Market gives vicinity-dwellers direct access to the bounty. Local produce and organic meat rub shoulders with natural dog food and gourmet popsicles.
3806 N. Brown Ave., Scottsdale
(623) 848-1234


Grilled Peach Salad

Prep time: 20 minutes
Active Cooking time: 15 minutes
Serves 6


  • 3 ripe peaches, cut in half and pits removed
  • 3 ripe figs, cut in half
  • 8 oz. goat cheese, at room temperature
  • 6 slices of prosciutto
  • Arugula
  • 1 lemon
  • 1-2 tablespoons honey
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh cracked black pepper


Heat outdoor grill/grill pan to medium-high heat. Brush grill pan with olive oil. Brush flesh side of peach halves with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place peaches on hot grill pan flesh side down. Let cook for about five minutes, until nice grill marks have appeared and the natural juices are caramelized. Remove peach halves from grill and set aside to cool.

While peaches are cooking, use two spoons to portion out goat cheese into 6 oval “quenelles.” Gently place on wax paper and chill in freezer for 2-3 minutes.

In a medium bowl, mix a generous handful of arugula with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice, seasoned with salt and pepper. Place arugula on a platter. Carefully transfer goat cheese on the bed of arugula and sprinkle each with a bit of cracked black pepper. Pair a peach half, fig half, and slice of prosciutto with each goat cheese portion.

Carefully drizzle desired amount of honey over the entire platter of peaches.

Serve family style.

Spicy BBQ Chicken

Total Cooking Time: 5 hours
Active Cooking Time: 40 minutes
Serves 6


  • 3 lbs. chicken: drumsticks, wings, & thighs
  • 1 cup BBQ sauce
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons chili sauce (sriracha)
  • 4 green onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped

Oven Method 

Mix BBQ sauce, soy sauce, ginger, honey, vinegar and chili sauce together in a bowl. Place chicken pieces in a sturdy plastic bag. Pour 1/3 of the sauce in with the chicken pieces. Seal bag and toss to coat chicken. Marinate in refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place chicken on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Cook chicken for 25 minutes. Pull chicken from oven and use a brush to apply more sauce to the tops. Then turn over chicken pieces and brush with more sauce. Place back in oven for 7 more minutes. Pull chicken from oven and brush with more sauce. Increase oven heat to 425 degrees and place chicken back in oven for 5 more minutes. Pull chicken from oven and set aside to cool, for 5-10 minutes to slightly cool. Place on platter, top with sliced green onions, chopped cilantro and mint, and serve.


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