Easy Entertaining: A Cold, Make-Ahead Dinner for a Hot Summer’s Night

July 21, 2021 Updated: July 21, 2021

During the summer, when the heat is at its peak, I like to keep my time in a hot kitchen to a minimum. But entertaining must go on, so I often take advantage of the cool hours of the morning to cook a quick-to-make dinner that needs time to chill. When guests arrive in the evening, I have a well thought-out menu ready to serve; all I have to do is pour the wine and chit-chat.

The menu for this dinner is sophisticated in its flavors but casual in its preparation. It always works to balance a meal by pairing a plain dish with a more colorful one; they don’t have to all be over-the-top. The flavors of each dish complement each other, and it’s this overall balance that makes this particular menu excellent for a lovely summer dinner at home.

As a first course, I’m serving carrot gazpacho. Made with carrots and freshly squeezed orange juice, and seasoned as you would traditional gazpacho with olive oil, a jolt of vinegar, and a bit of garlic, this refreshing chilled soup is my go-to when tomatoes aren’t yet at their peak—or just when I want to have something different and exciting. I serve it totally plain, with no garnishes or decorations. It doesn’t need any; you’ll see.

Next is chicken tonnato, inspired by the classic Piedmontese vitello tonnato, a cold dish of poached veal marinated in a creamy, salty, tangy sauce made with tuna, anchovies, egg, lemon juice, and capers. It’s an exquisite dish that takes a couple of days to prepare correctly. Traditionally, it’s served as the first course of a summer dinner, starting with the broth in which the veal was poached, followed by the cold vitello tonnato itself. My simplified version swaps the veal for quick-cooking chicken breasts, and uses a blender to whiz the sauce together in seconds.

Couscous salad is a great side dish to prepare ahead of time, as the couscous absorbs the flavors of the other ingredients while it sits in the fridge. Since I’m serving this one with chicken tonnato, a rather monotone dish, I’m adding lots of contrasting colors, textures, and flavors to make the whole meal exciting and complete. Just before serving, I fluff the couscous with a fork and add a fresh drizzle of olive oil.

To round out the meal, a green salad and simply dressed tomatoes add color, texture, and freshness to the table. Dessert for this summer meal can be as easy as ice cream and cookies, or fresh, seasonal fruit from the market.

All these recipes are perfect when made in the morning, but even better if made the day before, to give the flavors more time to develop—especially the chicken. Cool, isn’t it?

cold summer dinner table setting horizontal
Pretty pastels, small flower arrangements, and plates of fresh fruit define this airy, elegant summer table setting. (Victoria de la Maza)

Setting the Table

For this dinner, I’m using pastel colors—and not too many of them—to keep the mood cool, light, and airy, fitting for summer.

I’ve always been partial to elegant ivory candles, but lately have been using different-toned ones to match the flowers, napkins, or even the color on my walls. I must say they add an extra layer of gloss and are an easy upgrade to any table. Pale celadon candles are perfect for tonight, complimenting my vintage plates beautifully.

Small flower arrangements and small plates piled high with bright red cherries—another nod to the season—lend color and charm, adding pops of festivity and glamour while keeping the overall theme quiet and elegant. I like mixing things; the high-low combination works every time, making my table settings unique and personal.

I like setting the table in the morning or even the day before. That gives the flowers time to open a bit more and settle in with each other, and gives me some buffer room to make last-minute changes and do the placement and seating arrangements. Not rushing is essential to staying cool!

RECIPE: Carrot Gazpacho

RECIPE: Chicken Tonnato

RECIPE: Couscous Salad With Scallions, Golden Raisins, and Chickpeas

Victoria de la Maza is an award-winning cookbook author, columnist, and international TV host. Passionate about great food, she combines American traditions with her European heritage to create classic-with-a-twist recipes and ideas for stylish entertaining at home.