Summer entertaining: Enjoy the outdoors with a veggie board, Juneberry mocktails and grilled peach sundaes

  • Herby bean dip and Avocado yogurt dip

    Herby bean dip and Avocado yogurt dip Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Posted6/24/2020 6:00 AM

Illinois is on track for Phase 4 of the state's re-opening plan on Friday, with gatherings of up to 50 people. But it's also hot, and everyone feels the strain, be that physical, economic, emotional, or all three. I'm leaning toward smaller, more frequent get-togethers, hosted outside, hand-sanitizer at the ready. By keeping it casual and low-effort, I'm more likely to invite family, friends and neighbors over. Low-effort does not mean low-impact, however. A few whimsical flourishes set the celebratory tone. These recipes are simple to execute and barely count as "cooking," but they've wowed my guests every time I've served them. There is no shortage of tutorials for grilling burgers, steaks or brats. Instead, I am offering suggestions for what comes before and after that meaty main course.

Greet guests with a beautiful pink mocktail/cocktail. Do you have Juneberry (aka serviceberry or Saskatoon berry) or black chokeberry (Aronia) shrubs? The fruits are nutrient powerhouses, and you can turn them into fruit syrup as the base of this refreshing drink. If not, any other berry from the store will work. There is something thrilling, especially for kids, about foraging in your backyard. Pick the berries when they are a deep blueish purple, and before the robins get them all.


For pre-dinner nibbles, the veggie platter gets a makeover that incorporates edible flowers from your garden. It features two dips that elevate the "been there, done that" ranch dressing, guacamole and hummus standbys.

A few simple tips turn a crudité plate from "blah" to "oh boy!" Thinking like an artist, choose vegetables that have unusual shapes or colors. Watermelon radishes, purple cauliflower and candy-striped Chioggia beets are examples that add gorgeous, unexpected elements to your plate.

Incorporate edible flowers (see sidebar for a list) from your yard to embellish your tray. I was sad to see my radishes had bolted in the heat, but I used the pretty lilac flowers on the board shown here. Just make sure you wash them, especially if you used any herbicides or insecticides in your garden. Give your kids a basket and some safety scissors, and then tour the yard to see what looks good. Whatever isn't edible can be placed into recycled glass jars and bottles for a charming tablescape.

Then think like a farm stand vendor. They know how to display their wares in a way that stimulates the appetite and signals freshness. Include some whole pieces with halved slices to show off the shapes. Open up a few pods to reveal the peas nestled inside. Leave a bit of green stem and the tails of the roots on peppers, carrots and radishes. You can blanch the beans, broccoli and asparagus by pouring boiling water over them, which will intensify the color and give a barely-cooked, toothsome texture.

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As for the dips, you can always go the pre-packaged route. Add a drizzle of olive oil and an herb sprig to fancy it up if you'd like. But these two are as easy as measuring out the ingredients and whizzing them all together in a food processor. The fresh herbs are pretty much interchangeable, so you can use what you have or what you like. I tend an herb garden, so I had plenty of choices. But you can save money and just use one or two if you are purchasing them.

The veg can be cut the day before, if that's easier, and stored in bags in the fridge. Even the dips can be made ahead. Add some sliced baguette, nuts, cheese and cured meats, and you can call this dinner.

Assemble your veg, alternating the green ones with the brighter colors, around the dips in the center of a large platter, cutting board or even a pastry slab. You can create a "bed" of greens as the base. I used collards and rainbow chard that were growing in the garden, but I wouldn't buy these just for this purpose. It's probably a good idea to reinforce the standard "no double-dipping" rule, especially with kids in the mix, along with "you touched it, you eat it." These are good manners that kids aren't born knowing, and they are especially pertinent these days.

For dessert, these grilled peach sundaes are so good that I've learned to make two (sometimes three) servings per person. The key here is to clean the grill grates after cooking your main dish so that the peaches don't stick (or taste weirdly savory). Then you have to resist the urge to flip them until they've softened and developed defined grill lines. The result hits the sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy jackpot.


I hope these simple recipes will encourage you to savor time outdoors with your favorite people.

• Leslie Meredith is the winner of the 2019 Cook of the Week Challenge and a mother from Arlington Heights. She runs School of Food out of her home. See the school's Facebook page @learngrowcookeat or contact Leslie at

Wet your whistle with a Juneberry mocktail or add some gin to make it a cocktail.
Wet your whistle with a Juneberry mocktail or add some gin to make it a cocktail. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith
Juneberry Mocktail/Cocktail

¼ cup Juneberry syrup

¼ cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)

5 cups plain club soda or flavored seltzer for mocktail or 2 cups club soda plus 2 cups gin for cocktail

Ice cubes

Basil leaves and lime twists for garnish

Add the syrup, juice and, if using, gin, to a large pitcher and stir well until combined. Top with soda water. Pour into individual glasses filled with ice and top with a basil leaf and a lime twist. If you slap the basil between your palms, it will release some of the oil and flavor once you put it into the drink.

Serves 8

To make the Juneberry syrup:

1 cup juneberries, washed (or black chokeberries or fresh berries of choice)

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Simmer all ingredients on low heat until fruit softens and begins to split. Use the back of a wooden spoon to "smoosh" the berries against the sides of the pot and continue simmering until reduced to about half. Allow to cool a bit then strain into a glass jar. Store any leftovers in the fridge and use within a week or two. It's good on ice cream, yogurt or pancakes.

Herby bean dip

1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1 tablespoon chopped shallot (or use green onions)

¼ teaspoon garlic granules

6 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley and dill used here)

Salt and pepper, to taste

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a food processor and pulse until well blended. Drizzle in olive oil as processor runs continuously until emulsified. Garnish with a parsley sprig and serve with crudité and crackers of your choice.

Serves 6

Avocado yogurt dip

1 large avocado, peeled and pitted, about 1 cup

½ cup plain Greek yogurt

1¼ teaspoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (garlic chives, basil and cilantro used here)

½ teaspoon garlic granules

Salt and pepper to taste

Blend everything together in a food processor until smooth. Garnish with a basil leaf and serve with crudité and crackers of your choice.

Serves 6

Grilled Peach Sundaes top off an outdoor gathering in a tasty yet timely way as peaches are coming into farmers markets and stores.
Grilled Peach Sundaes top off an outdoor gathering in a tasty yet timely way as peaches are coming into farmers markets and stores. - Courtesy of Leslie Meredith

Grilled Peach Sundaes

5 peaches, on the firm side, halved

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or use vanilla if you prefer)

¾ cup chopped pistachios

½ cup honey

10 small basil leaves

Heat grill to medium. Brush cut side of peaches with the oil and cook face down for 5 minutes with the lid closed. Turn peaches and cook for another 4 minutes, or until soft. Place each half in a bowl and top with a dollop of yogurt, a heaping tablespoon of chopped nuts, a drizzle of honey, and a basil leaf. Serve immediately.

Serves 10

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