This year’s cocktail party at the lake was exceptionally delicious. I can’t pinpoint exactly why, maybe it’s due to food culture becoming somewhat of a trend, or that people are becoming more educated, or maybe we just give a shit now. Whatever the reason may be, it was unpretentiously delicious. Though I will say, among the pickled avocados, antipasto skewers, and crostini, you can’t ever go wrong with a simple cheese plate. But the fact that half of my body is comprised of cheese potentially makes me biased.  

Casual Cocktail Party | Zestful Kitchen

Nonetheless, our cocktail parties have seemed to get better and better with each passing year, and no one’s complaining about it. Except for the fact that we started later than usual which resulted in mass hunger and the table being wiped clean in nearly 12 minutes flat. But that’s beside the point.

We held our cocktail party on Wednesday evening, the night prior to the crappie fishing tournament. With the sun situated just perfectly, 7 pm proved to be the golden hour at the lake. Its mellowing rays hit the water just right to cast a rich hue over the pine-needle covered ground. The air was still warm, but with a slight breeze it was perfectly refreshing. The evening couldn’t have been any better. Plus, by Wednesday we had drank all but one of the Rosés my mom had brought, and coincidentally it turned out to be the best of them all.

Amongst four families and change, the faded picnic table was filled with finger foods, and not-quite-finger-foods, offering a little bit of something for everyone. Classics obviously made an appearance—cheese, skewers, beer cheese dip, marinated and grilled chicken thighs, key lime bars (that had a delicious crust), flourless chocolate torte, the list goes on.

Casual Cocktail Party - Radicchio Cups | Zestful Kitchen

But there were also some originals that graced the table, and although none of us can offer precise measurements and cooking times, we can offer a rough outline of how to recreate them. So this week, instead of sharing one tested and vetted recipe, I’m going to have the cooks themselves share the dishes they created in a tiny, bare-bones-equipped cabin kitchen.

Casual Cocktail Party - Radicchio Cups | Zestful Kitchen

Sam: Often overlooked for their bitter notes, radishes have a way of finding their way into the majority of my spring and summer dishes. In this light offering, my favorite summer root vegetable is combined with crisp granny smith apples, and a nutty alpine-style cheese. These three ingredients, married with a basic cider vinaigrette and a garnish of fennel fronds, will leave you plenty satisfied despite its modesty of ingredients. Take caution to cut the radishes, apples, and cheese into similar sized matchstick cuts. Doing so will ensure that each ingredient makes it into every bite.

I served this salad in a radicchio leaf, as I was serving this dish at a “no-forks” affair. The salad will, however, work well without the radicchio. Serve as side dish to a main feature, including grilled chicken and pork. I recommend pairing this dish with a glass of chardonnay.”

Casual Cocktail Party - Beef Sliders with Dijon Aioli | Zestful Kitchen

Mom: “I whipped up simple beef sliders on the barbecue and topped them with a Dijon aioli. I made the aioli like you would any aioli—mayonnaise, chopped fresh garlic, salt, pepper, and a dash of cayenne. And for a punch of familiar flavor, I whisked in a generous amount of Dijon. I served the sliders, bun-less, with a dollop of Dijon aioli and some of Sam’s sliced green apples and radishes.

I also made some classic Italian skewers of sweet cantaloupe (although I wanted to make them with New Melon, but unfortunately left it at home), salt prosciutto, and creamy mozzarella pearls. I then drizzled them with a blackberry-ginger balsamic vinegar for a sweet and tangy finish. Easy, classic, and always delicious.”

Casual Cocktail Party - Summer Cherry & Ricotta Baguette | Zestful Kitchen

Libby: “Cocktail party night is always one of my favorites at the lake. Maybe it’s because all of the cabins come together, maybe it’s the sunset in the background, probably the cocktails, but mostly the fun appetizers everyone comes ready to share. Produce usually guides many of the small bite creations, and this year cherries were my go-to. I recreated a cherry salsa of sorts from the June 2017 Bon Appétit issue. I combined perfectly ripe cherries, green onions, parsley, and about a half of a minced serrano pepper. To round out the flavors I stirred in a bit of fresh lemon juice, salt, and a good glug of olive oil.

To serve, I cut a seedy baguette down the center length-wise and drizzled the halves with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. I then employed Sam to grill the bread until it was crispy on the surface, with a nice chew in the middle—not to mention the beautiful grill marks. To finish the appetizer, I scraped a garlic clove across the bread, much like bruschetta, topped it with fresh ricotta cheese (I added a bit of salt), and piled it high with the cherry salsa. The fresh flavors and vibrant colors made this appetizer the perfect summery addition to the appetizer table.”

Casual Cocktail Party - Summer Bounty Pizza | Zestful Kitchen

Lo: “A simple, yet summer pizza pie was my go-to for this low-key appetizer party. When it comes to feeding a crowd I find there needs to be a balance between light fare and heavier bites so people leave satisfied, not scrounging. And although this pizza isn’t the heartiest you can make, it is pretty substantial.

To make my life a bit easier (considering my kitchen space and equipment) I bought a premade pizza crust at the store. If I were at home, in my own kitchen, I would probably stop by a local bakery or restaurant and grab a ball of pizza dough, roll it out myself, and prebake it.

Anyway, with my prepared pizza crust ready to go, I placed it on a baking sheet, brushed it with olive oil, and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I then arranged 2 large cloves of thinly sliced garlic and some chopped Thai basil evenly over the crust.

From there, I continued to build the pizza using fresh sweet corn cut from the cob, thinly sliced red onion (I like a lot), thinly sliced asparagus, and thinly sliced radish. I topped it off with chunks of tangy goat cheese and popped it in a 425-degree oven and for 10–12 minutes until the bottom and edges of the crust were crispy golden brown, rotating it halfway through. Right before serving I sprinkled fresh torn basil and red pepper flakes over the top.”

Casual Cocktail Party | Zestful Kitchen

Casual Cocktail Party | Zestful Kitchen

With all this talk about appetizers, I almost forgot to mention our delicious fish fry which included some amazing side dishes and gave the cocktail party a run for it’s money.

Casual Cocktail Party + Fish Fry | Zestful Kitchen

Casual Cocktail Party + Fish Fry | Zestful Kitchen


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About The Author

Lauren Grant is a professional culinary food scientist, food writer, recipe developer, and food photographer. Lauren is a previous magazine editor and test kitchen developer and has had work published in major national publications including Diabetic Living Magazine, Midwest Living Magazine, Cuisine at Home Magazine,,, and more.

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