Healthy Summer Entertaining Tips from Celebrity Caterer Peter Callahan (Plus Mini Caprese Tea Sandwiches)

Hot dogs, hamburgers and chips are an easy fix for a summer fest, but not so good for you. Instead, at your next fete, try these healthy tips from Peter Callahan.

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Backyard barbecues and outdoor entertaining are in full swing just in time for Fourth of July celebrations. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and bowls of chips and dips are an easy fix for a summer fest, but there are plenty of easy ways to keep things wholesome and healthy when entertaining in the great outdoors.

We sat down with expert entertainer Peter Callahan, owner of the eponymous Peter Callahan Catering, to learn his best summer entertaining tricks, especially those with a healthy bent.

Healthy Eats: You are a powerhouse in the catering world, throwing events for some pretty big-name clients. Do you ever get stressed out?

Peter Callahan: The cobbler has no shoes. Sometimes you don’t treat your own parties as seriously as everyone else’s. It’s always about creating a list and doing it ahead of time. If I go off that routine, I can become the biggest amateur there is.

HE: What should one always keep on hand in case someone drops in?

PC: From a food perspective it’s great to have a cheese, have tomatoes that you can just rinse and throw Maldon sea salt on top. We go to Nantucket, so a really delicious thing we have is smoked bluefish pate and something crunchy to put it on, like cucumber disks. If you want to be real fancy-schmancy you can have frozen, cooked and peeled shrimp, and serve with cocktail sauce. Keep beer and wine chilled and a bottle of tequila handy.

HE: Any favorite non-alcoholic summery beverages?

PC: One of my favorite drinks is fresh lemon juice and a basil puree. It’s a great celadon green, and it tastes like summer.

HE: What are your must tips for summer entertaining?

PC: I like to do my entertaining outdoors and by candlelight, so I use hurricane glass around the candles so they don’t blow out. I serve food family style, and I make as much ahead as possible. I do all the salads. I’ll even sometimes grill ahead. A lot of grilled food is delicious at room temperature in the summer.

HE: What can you grill ahead?

PC: Steak and chicken are great grilled ahead. Fish does not grill ahead unless it is shellfish or salmon or tuna. White fish, striped bass running in local waters are not so great. Or halibut; they really need to be served warm. I also like salsas: diced tomatillos or diced mango, or a tomato confit. Things that are light or colorful go well served with the grilled items.

HE: What ideas do you have for feeding kids — say, at a pool party?

PC: Kids love everything frozen. They love frozen smoothies during the day, which are filling and refreshing, and you are getting fruit into their diets. Or homemade fruit popsicles. Kids love anything that is festive, so we take a cookie cutter and cut watermelon in shapes, put them on a stick — it’s much more fun for them. They also love a grilled chicken and just having good, local fresh things so they aren’t digging into chips or other things they should be staying away from. Roasting ears of corn is good too; kids love that.

HE: From a food safety perspective, how should a host manage food in hot weather?

PC: Number one is our back terrace is right off our kitchen, so we often have our buffet inside. But ice is the way to go if you need to have the platters outside, even in the shade. Find two platters of the same size, smash up ice, put it on one platter with a dishtowel draped over the ice, then put another platter on top of it. Fish and shrimp will stay cool.

HE: You’re famous for being the guy who started the whole mini-food trend. Was healthy eating part of the impetus?

PC: Everyone’s favorite is grilled cheese or cheeseburgers, but in their regular size we know that’s not something to do. When you shrink it down to bite size, you can have your favorite things in a healthy portion. One bite-sized cheeseburger is probably one-twentieth of the calories and fat content, since it’s one-twentieth of the size. All of a sudden the things that people love can be served at a party or a casual gathering.

HE: Any other healthy entertaining tricks up your sleeve?

PC: The other really great trick is instead of putting something in a bun, wrap it in Bibb lettuce, like a lobster roll put in Bibb lettuce, [or] grilled chicken wrap in lettuce. Anything you would put in bread, you can use lettuce.

Peter’s Caprese Tea Sandwiches

Makes 2 dozen

Caprese salad, that ubiquitous arrangement of fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes and basil leaves, is the “it” dish for all the Hamptons “it” girls. Served in a mini pita, it makes a beautiful, fresh and simple bite, which one client said “tastes like July.” Baby heirloom tomatoes offer a sweet, juicy flavor that works well with extra-luscious buffalo mozzarella and good-quality extra virgin olive oil.

Twelve 2- to 3-inch mini pitas
2 ounces fresh salted mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1/2 pint grape tomatoes or baby heirloom tomatoes, halved (about 1 cup)

3/4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as Maldon

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, stacked, rolled and thinly sliced crosswise into ribbons (or 1/2 cup small fresh basil leaves)

Freshly ground pepper
  1. Divide the pitas in half so you have 24 half-moon pockets.
  2. Stuff each pocket with 3 to 4 pieces of mozzarella and set aside.
  3. Place the tomatoes in a small bowl and drizzle with the olive oil. Add the salt and toss to combine.
  4. Add some tomatoes to each pita pocket, and finish with a little basil and ground pepper.
  5. Serve immediately.

Tip: Trader Joe’s mini pitas work especially well. They’re tasty and are the smallest we have found.

Serves 24 (per tea sandwich); Calories 52; Fat 1 g; Saturated Fat 0 g; Protein 2 g; Carbohydrate 8 g; Sugar: 1 g; Fiber 1 g; Cholesterol 1 mg; Sodium 111 mg

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.

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