Easy Entertaining: Grilling in the Garden

May 26, 2021 Updated: May 26, 2021

For many of us, Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer. What better way to celebrate than by firing up the grill and enjoying a meal outdoors? When I open the lid of the hot grill and the heat hits my face, it’s right at that moment that I know summer is here.

For this glorious afternoon, I’ve created a menu that needs a bit of preparation in the kitchen, but then is finished on the grill in under 15 minutes. While my friends are sipping sangria, I can handle the grilled items—and show off my grilling prowess—and have everything ready to go on the table.

On the Menu

I start with a favorite herbed potato salad, prepared in the morning. The potatoes are tossed with good olive oil, garlic, and masses of fresh herbs while still warm, so they absorb all those wonderful flavors, and then chilled. Served cold or at room temperature, it is a sensational dish, full of aroma and color.

potato salad
Fresh herbs enliven a simple potato salad. (Victoria de la Maza)

For the main event, I’m arranging a tray of sliders with different toppings and sauces, for everyone to mix and match as they please. Fun, right?

I much prefer sliders to their larger cousins, as I love to try different proteins with different garnishes. For today, I’m making spicy beef patties, to spread with Dijon mustard on Hawaiian rolls, and bites of grilled salmon, nestled in Boston lettuce leaves slathered with a bright caper-mayonnaise sauce. These two-bite mini-burgers pack a huge amount of flavor.

assembling sliders
Chopped pickled jalapeños give these beef patties some punch. (Victoria de la Maza)

Play with the sauces and garnishes: You can lay out lettuce and tomato slices, avocado, fresh mango, relish, ketchup, mayonnaise, different mustards, and even hot sauces, so your guests can customize their own perfect sliders. This is a great opportunity to try out local specialties—like that spicy pepper jelly that you bought from the market on a whim, and has been sitting in your pantry for the past three months.

It’s also interesting to play around with the bread—try Hawaiian rolls, brioche, English muffins, potato buns, or even ciabatta. For those avoiding gluten, I always set out some Boston lettuce to serve as “buns.”

grilled salmon wraps
Crisp lettuce cups make a fresh replacement for buns. (Victoria de la Maza)

While the grill is hot, I also throw on a few ears of corn, which go from grill to table in about 10 minutes. To dress it up a bit, I spread the cooked ears with a creamy sauce of Greek yogurt, sour cream, and fresh lime juice, then top them off with crumbly aged cotija cheese, for flavors reminiscent of elotes, Mexican street corn. I make the sauce in the morning, to give the flavors time to develop, and spread it on the corn right after it comes off the grill. Make double, as your friends will inhale it and ask for more.

grilled corn close up
A creamy sauce, cotija cheese, and cilantro dress up this Mexican-inspired grilled corn. (Victoria de la Maza)

For dessert, keep it simple and fresh with watermelon and melon balls, dressed with a little sugar to bring out their natural sweet juices.

Setting the Table

Setting up a buffet outside is such a wonderful way to spend the afternoon with friends. I am setting the buffet table with a colorful tablecloth, melamine plates and glasses, large napkins, and wicker trays to carry everything out. I’ll serve all the food on platters, and set out a big pitcher of sangria for sipping.

My small garden in Charleston is easily transformed into a sitting room. I’ll find a shady spot and make sure that there are comfy chairs and chaises to lounge on (bring extra pillows!), side tables or ceramic stools to put down drinks and plates, and large napkins to cover our laps. We’re bringing the inside out, to create a comfortable space to encourage conversation, camaraderie, and laughter.

Without a set table, we’re free to move around and serve ourselves from the buffet. More informal than other meals, this one is all about relaxing outside with friends, enjoying the fresh air, and savoring that first taste of summer.

As of this writing, you can find me sipping sangria and nibbling on grilled corn, while reclining on a chaise surrounded by pillows. Cheers!

RECIPE: Potato Salad With Fresh Herbs
RECIPE: Spicy Beef Sliders
RECIPE: Grilled Salmon Lettuce Sliders With Caper Mayonnaise
RECIPE: Grilled Corn With Cotija Cream

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.