We're in heaven at our house, because the barbecue season has just begun. We much prefer outside entertaining to inside entertaining, partly because of the furniture shortage inside. But besides that, everybody just plain likes eating outside. The food tastes better, the sound effects are superb, and the family cook is a little less shrewish about messiness when the local blue jays, squirrels and wild bunnies hop by and help clean up.
If there's anything better than entertaining outdoors, it's being entertained outdoors at somebody else's house. In our neighborhood, nobody accepts such an invitation without asking, "What can I bring?" and everybody brings something. The glory of being responsible for just one dish is that you can be mighty fancy about it; in fact, must be.
Unless you are known to be incapacitated in some way -- the mother of newborn triplets, perhaps, or the victim of a parade of passing in-laws, a kitchen under construction or a wicked tennis elbow -- then you cannot simply show up with a hunk of cheese and a box of crackers. Since it's not your party, and you're not spending the afternoon sweeping the deck, pruning the rhododendrons, and hunting for mesquite for the barbecue grill, then you are expected to produce.
Styles in bring-a-dish foods come and go as in everything else. From what I've observed so far this year, a simple green salad or potato salad will elicit huge yawns, while even the pasta salad of the past three seasons is getting a bit old. This year what used to be the staple of the salad has become the accent. A potato could turn up as boiled, sliced, marinated and just flecking the green bean salad. Little flakes of iceberg lettuce add crunch to a salad that's mostly tomatoes, and bits of pasta lace a salad made of lightly poached broccoli.
All a salad needs to be great this year, in other words, is to be not made of lettuce, and to have a punchy, spectacular dressing. To nip boredom in the bud, try playing with new kinds of vinegar -- raspberry, herb, and so forth -- so you can brag about it when the compliments come in.
Another thing new this year is the reappearance of the hot vegetable dish at outdoor parties, perhaps due to the preponderance of microwave ovens for quick reheating. Everybody knows that hot dishes are always taken more seriously than cold ones. Now that things like baked beans, scalloped corn, creamed spinach, and hot pasta and rice dishes can be quickly zapped right in their pretty serving bowls, they're making a comeback.
If there are children at the party, you can volunteer to bring their meal, which your hostess will adore you for. (Now she can concentrate on the serious food.) It's nice to be able to put the kids at their own little table while the grown-ups are enjoying their drinks or dinner; this can be easily done with a bowl of potato chips (they never seem to go out of style) and a fruit salad for dessert, which takes a good long time to eat and discourages wandering and the ensuing chase.
Finally, if you want to be a popular guest, here's a case where quantity counts for a lot. Once you've settled on what you're bringing, be sure to ask: "And what else?"
If the guests are gathering to enjoy the long shadows of late afternoon, long before dinner, here's a substantial starter to have with drinks. ENNIFER SARGENT'S NACHOS CASSEROLE (12 servings)
3/4 pound ground chuck
3/4 pound bulk hot Italian sausage
1 large onion, chopped coarsely
16-ounce can refried beans with green chilies
4-ounce can of green chilies, drained and chopped
3/4 pound shredded monterey jack cheese
3/4 pound shredded muenster
1 cup taco sauce or salsa (choose your degree of hotness)
1 cup sour cream
2 very ripe avocados, mashed
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions (optional)
6 to 8 cups tortilla chips
Saute' beef and sausage with onion in large skillet until cooked through and well-browned. Drain off all excess fat, and pat with a paper towel. Spread beans in the bottom of a 3-quart casserole dish. Top with meat mixture, then chilies, cheese and taco sauce.
Bake uncovered in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until bubbling. Layer on sour cream, then avocado. Sprinkle top with scallions.
Serve with tortilla chips for dipping, but have a big spoon handy to help reach all layers. GINNY DAY'S TOMATO AND BASIL SALAD (6 servings)
3 cups washed, dried basil leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
6 large, ripe tomatoes
1 medium purple onion
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
6 ounces strong brie, unripe enough to grate
Put the basil leaves and half the olive oil in a food processor and blend to a pure'e. Core the tomatoes, slice, and cut the slices in half. Slice the onion thinly and separate into rings. Put the tomatoes, onion, remaining oil, basil pure'e, parsley and vinegar into a bowl, stir gently and chill for an hour. Just before serving, sprinkle cheese over the top. BARBECUED DOG-BOBS (10 servings)
If you can say this, you can make it. This dish is great when the grown-ups already have the grill going for steak or swordfish.
5 large potatoes
1 whole fresh pineapple
2 tablespoons oil
Cut the potatoes into 1-inch cubes. Boil for 8 minutes or until cooked, but not mushy. Cut top and rough skin off pineapple and chop into chunks. Cut the hot dogs into 5 bite-sized pieces each. Thread the hot dog pieces, pineapple pieces and potatoes on 10 metal skewers, alternating. (If you use wooden skewers, be sure to soak them in cold water for at least 2 hours first, to prevent burning.) Brush kabobs with oil, and grill 4 inches from coals for 5 minutes. Turn and grill for 5 minutes more. GREEN BEAN SALAD WITH POP'S DRESSING (6 servings)
1 pound green beans, the skinnier the better
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup shredded iceberg lettuce
1/2 red pepper, cut in little strips and halved
2 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup tiny olives
FOR THE DRESSING:
2/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce
Snap the ends off the green beans and drop into boiling water for about 7 minutes, or until soft but not soggy. Add the other salad ingredients and chill. Meanwhile, mix the dressing ingredients in a jar and shake thoroughly. Dress just before serving. Salt and pepper to taste.