Summer's here, which means it's time to invite over the neighbors, fire up the grill, and move your meals outdoors. But just because formality is going on vacation doesn't mean your entertaining costs are going to drop: After all, as even a quick glimpse through your local department store will reveal, it's possible to spend a fortune on summer entertaining -- even if you discount the cost of air conditioning.
One strategy for keeping costs low is to focus on the basics: You want fresh food, you don't want to cook indoors, and you don't want to worry about foods that will spoil in the heat. With that in mind, we've compiled a list of reasonably-priced summer eating and drinking tips that will keep your house cool, your guests happy, and your backyard full. If we've missed any of your favorite summer entertaining ideas, please be sure to mention them in the comments section below!
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When it comes to summer wines, classic buying tips apply: Many wine shops offer steep discounts on overstocked wines or partial cases. Beyond that, there are several inexpensive wines that are great summer chillers: Vinho Verde, for example, is a light, summery Portuguese wine that often costs $5 or less a bottle.
As for beer, if you're looking for something that hits the sweet spot between a run-of-the-mill Budweiser and a pricey microbrew, you might consider a German hefeweizen. These smooth wheat beers aren't too hoppy, are fairly crisp, don't have too much alcohol, and taste great with a wedge of orange. Alternately, if you still have fond college memories of Mickey's wide-mouths and Gennessee Cream Ale, you'll be pleased to know that inexpensive American cream ales are experiencing a renaissance.
When it comes to cost-effective beverages, it's hard to beat everyday sodas, but if you want a cheap soda that isn't loaded with high fructose corn syrup, the options get a lot thinner. A few weeks ago, we looked at some of the best bets at your local Asian market, but if you have a Latin American store in your area, you might try Jarritos, a Mexican soda brand that uses cane sugar instead of HFCS. As an added benefit, Jarritos comes in wide variety of flavors -- like watermelon, pineapple and tamarind -- that are sure to surprise your friends and family.
When it comes to decorating for a garden party, lighting is key. Mini Christmas lights are attractive and cheap: a strand of 100 lights will probably set you back about $8 or so. If you'd like a slightly retro look, tiki torches start at less than $5 apiece. Or, if you want to go with a more personal touch, you can try making your own citronella candles. Candle molds are only a few bucks, and a jumbo citronella candle will give you enough wax for several smaller candles.
When it comes to garden party snacks, it's hard to beat a basic cheese plate. They're easy to assemble, don't require cooking, and don't have to cost a lot -- all you need are a few types of cheese and a thinly sliced baguette. If you want to go whole hog, throw in some olives, slice up a few apples, and add in some slices of prociutto or sopressata.
If you want to go with something a little more summery, chilled gazpacho is a good option. The simple Spanish soup is tasty and inexpensive to make. And, if you really want to impress your guests, check out this watermelon blueberry gazpacho recipe from Food Republic: it's sweet, spicy, and absolutely distinctive!
One of the great secrets of classic Southern cooking is that the three classic meats -- pulled pork, beef brisket, and chicken -- are not only delicious but are also extremely economical. Plus, pork shoulder and brisket will take several hours to cook, giving you the perfect excuse to sip beer in the backyard with your friends.
Nothing says summer like fresh watermelon, and the price is definitely right. But if you want to go a little more elaborate, here's an option: combine your favorite berries in a bowl (personally, I like a mix of blueberries, raspberries, and sliced strawberries). Add balsamic glaze to taste, and set aside in the fridge. When you're ready for dessert, take the berry mix and either drizzle over vanilla ice cream or pound cake, then garnish with whipped cream. For less than $15, it's a sure way to wow your family and friends.