Summer Entertaining: Recipes for making tacos, mojitos, and memories

Written By: Mary Beth Evans

For more summers than I can count, I have thrown Saturday evening get-togethers with three of my closest girlfriends and our families. It still brings smile to my face to think of the kids bursting through the gates to reunite in the yard, the fun and games beginning the moment they arrived.One of the highlights of our backyard was an old avocado tree that had low-slung branches, excellent for climbing. We connected a zip-line between two trees and the kids would take turns going back and forth, sometimes in full superhero regalia. The costume trunk was always a hug addition to the activities. The kids would write little scripts and endlessly rehearse. They never ran out of things to do. As for the adults, it was a great opportunity to relax, enjoy some grown-up time, and spend time with our kids too.

Years later, our kids are teenagers and the closest of friends. We all have such wonderful memories of those summer evenings together and reminisce about them to this day. At the center of every great gathering is great food. You could go with the typical summer fare of hot dogs and burgers, but I prefer to spice it up a bit. One of my favorites is a casual, south of the border theme that always seems to be a success with a crowd. There really is not much to it and the array of choices and colors make for a decorative, and of course delicious, meal.

Let’s Get This Party Started

We usually have the blender going as everyone begins to arrive. A margarita with a rim of salt or a mojito with some fresh mint from the garden is a good way to get things started. I always put out a galvanized washtub full of ice with juice boxes and water for the kids so they can grab what they want throughout the evening. For the adults, I start with a huge bowl of guacamole, as simple as mashed avocados with salsa mixed in, and a separate bowl of salsa and a big bowl of tortilla chips on the side. For the kids, a big bowl of popcorn is a big hit. I like to prepare it the old-fashioned way—in a large pot on the stove, with the kernels (covered in canola oil) layered on the bottom of the pan. With the lid on, jiggle the pot over a medium flame until the popping slows to almost a stop. I pour the popcorn into a large bowl, salt it to taste, and it is unbelievably yummy! There is always popcorn on the grass, but the birds love it the next day.

The Heat Is On

A taco bar makes for a delicious meal. It is so easy and there is something for everyone. Before my party starts, I prepare all the toppings for the tacos. I put shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, freshly chopped cilantro, and chopped fresh white onions in bowls in the refrigerator. At the last minute, I might slice fresh avocados to go with the guacamole I made for the appetizer. Once the meat is cooked, I set out some sour cream, more salsa, and some Tabasco for the brave. I like to have both flour and corn tortillas. Wrap them in foil and heat in the oven until warmed through and they are the perfect packaging for the tasty fillings. A sliced seedless watermelon is also a refreshing addition to the meal.

Tasty Tacos: I like to prepare both chicken and tri-tip, giving my guests the choice of what to fill their tacos with. The great thing about making both is that you will most likely have leftovers, and they are just as tasty the next day. Once the meat and poultry are prepared, I like to lay the mounds of tri-tip and chicken on a big platter.

Chicken: Start with two large chickens and split them down the center with a pair of kitchen shears. Place them in a large bowl and cover with a large bottle of Italian dressing. Let them sit for 20 minutes before removing and place the chicken halves, bone side down, on heavy-duty cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for about one hour. The juices should run clear and the chicken look opaque when sliced into. Allow to cool enough to handle, and then shred the meat, discarding the skin. I usually use the white meat and save the dark meat for leftovers.

Tri-tip: My little secret about preparing tri-tip is Lawry’s brand beef marinade. It’s a little package of a dry marinade that you mix with water. Use one pouch per piece of meat and marinate for 20 minutes. I have tried fancier marinades, but this comes out the best and it is ridiculously easy. Put the meat on a very hot grill and cook until it is medium rare in the center. Take it off the grill and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes and then thinly slice strips across the grain. 

On the Side

You can buy canned pinto or black beans, but it is very easy to prepare your own and they taste great. Here is a simple method: Rinse and sort out any pebbles from a bag of dried pinto or black beans. Cover with water, add a little salt, and let soak overnight. Drain and rinse them the next day. In a large pot, sauté one chopped onion and four minced cloves of garlic in a bit of olive oil until translucent. You can add one half tablespoon of red pepper flakes if you want to spice it up, but I rarely do because of the young taste buds. Place the beans in the pot with the sautéed onion and garlic and cover with chicken broth by one half inch.Add some fresh cracked pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for one to one-and-a-half hours until the beans are tender. If there is too much liquid, remove the lid. Mash the pinto beans with a potato masher, leaving some whole. These can be made early in the day and reheated at mealtime. Purchase some coleslaw to round out the meal and you are officially done. 

 

Come and Get It! 

Once the taco bar is complete, I lay a few big quilts or blankets out on the lawn. Everyone begins building their own creations from the ingredients that appeal to them. We all find a spot on a blanket and eat picnic-style. Use nice paper napkins and plastic plates and utensils and cleanup is a cinch!

As for dessert, my friends often bring homemade cookies or brownies and I serve ice cream and fresh berries. 

It’s a Wrap

Our evenings would often end with the kids performing one of the skits they had worked on during the day. This never failed to deliver a lot of laughs and, most important, a lifetime of fond memories. 

Mary Beth’s Mojito

—one serving—

½ oz. fresh mint, still on stem

3 tsp. sugar

1½ limes cut into eighths ice

6 oz. Bacardi Limón

(plain will work too)

2 oz. soda water

In the bottom of a 12-ounce glass, lightly mash the mint, sugar, and limes until the limes are fully juiced and bruised and the smell of mint is strong. Fill the glass with ice and pour in the Bacardi. Place a shaker over the glass and shake well. Top with soda water to the rim.