Actor and cookbook author David Burtka knows how to throw a party. After all, entertaining is the subject of his cookbook, “Life Is a Party,” which came out in April. Organized by season and occasion, recipes come in complete menus but can easily stand up on their own. The same goes for his pro tips, from advice on setting the scene to getting guests involved and making get-togethers both kid-friendly and fun for adults.
Ahead of one of the year’s biggest entertaining holidays, we caught up with Burtka to see what he has up his sleeve for the Fourth of July and for parties in general this season. Like he has for many years, this July 4th he’s heading to the Hamptons with his family—actor Neil Patrick Harris and their 8-year-old twins—where they’ll spend the day at friend Andrew Farkas’ house.
“A big party is always fun, but even if it’s just us having a nice dinner by the water, as long as we’re all together, that’s what’s important,” he says.
After a memorable personal mishap from a few summers ago, he also offers a word of caution on a popular July 4th tradition...
Look out for Burtka’s interview with Christopher Kimball on Milk Street Radio later this summer and when you’re planning your next gathering, for the Fourth of July or otherwise, follow his lead.
For Burtka, Fourth of July feasting is about one thing: “Americana, man.” That means hot dogs, hamburgers, s’mores and simple sheet cakes decorated with strawberries and blueberries to look like an American flag. He’s also a fan of fresh oysters and lobster rolls, but whatever it is, it’s simple. Beyond the theme, it’s important to choose dishes that will stand up after a few hours outside. “Marinated grilled vegetables are always a good bet,” he says, because they can sit out all day after they’re cooked. Just be sure to let vegetables cool completely before covering them with foil or plastic wrap to avoid unwanted steaming. As for salads, he recommends a chopped salad with sturdy vegetables—”anything that’s not going to get wilty.” And, “stay away from anything mayonnaise-based, of course,” he says. “Three hours in and that’s how you get food poisoning.”
A grilled potato and leek salad is a good choice. (When we spoke, Burtka was prepping this very dish for a backyard barbecue later that night.) It’s a great party dish because you’re actually supposed to let it sit out for two to three hours to let the flavors meld; it gets better with time. Plus, “there’s nothing like a grilled leek,” Burtka adds, and with a salsa verde vinaigrette like he offers in the book, “you’ve solved your mayonnaise problem.”
The first thing you do when greeting a guest? “Offer him or her a drink!” Burtka says. “It’s always nice to have at least one specialty cocktail and something batchable is always fun.” This time of year, he suggests a blueberry-lemonade fizz—fresh blueberries, mint-infused simple syrup, vodka, a splash of soda and mint sprigs for garnish. He also loves a Lillet and apricot cocktail—apricot-infused simple syrup shaken with Lillet Blanc, vodka and lemon juice, topped with seltzer. (Both recipes can be found in the book.)
Burtka also recommends a DIY soda bar, where guests can mix and match. For the Fourth, that could mean a red, white and blue combo of strawberry, coconut and blueberry syrups to flavor soda, he says.
“But also, just doing plain rosé and beer is very American. Or just beer.”
“You’re always good to go with frozen watermelon or frozen berries. Take a skewer of berries and freeze them. It’s easy, fast, cool and refreshing. And not necessarily unhealthy,” Burtka says. “Cut fun shapes out of the watermelon and use the scraps for a watermelon cocktail,” he adds. Or, try a sundae bar with strawberries, which are in peak season, letting the kids make their own. Never underestimate that quintessential July 4th flag cake, either: “Just a vanilla cake decorated with white frosting and strawberries and blueberries. Kids love decorating it, too.”
Whether it’s giving the kids a cake to decorate or setting up adult-friendly games, Burtka brings an x-factor to his parties by getting guests involved—and keeping them engaged. “Ask your guests to stack [cellphones] in the middle of the table,” he suggests, and “always have some sort of after-dinner entertainment.” A word to the wise, however, if that Fourth of July after-dinner activity involves sparklers.
“One year, my kids were really small—2 or 3—and we were at Andrew's [Farkas] house, and they all had sparklers. I turned around for one minute and my son, for some reason, just wanted to know what it would feel like to touch a sparkler! So be careful with sparklers and children,” he warns. (His son was OK after some ice.)
Finally, one last piece of advice when it comes to seating guests at the table: “If they sleep together, don’t seat them together.”
Photo credits: Danielle Levitt; Amy Neunsinger
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