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sunday dinner: summer dinner party menu.

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According to the Department of Labor website:

“Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

The first Labor Day was celebrated in September 1882 in New York City (we’re early adopters here in the Big Apple), and with what better way to celebrate than…a picnic.

And why not? The farmer’s markets this time of year are positively bursting with gorgeous fruits and vegetables, and the weather is just begging you to spend as much time outside as possible. Throw in the modern upgrade of a three-day weekend, and we’ve got a party, folks.

Consider this menu an elevated version of the original Labor Day picnic. You’ve got your spicy oven fried chicken — a twist on an American classic, paired with roasted corn salad and some simply dressed fresh tomatoes, both enhanced by the addition of freshly chopped herbs. Finish the day with an oat cake overflowing with blueberries and blackberries — a simple, homey treat that highlights the best of the season.

Now, full disclosure here, you don’t have to make all of this menu for dinner. If you want to make any of these individually, you can use any of the following recipes: chicken, corn, tomatoes, blueberry oat cake. But. If ever there was a more perfect combination than these best of summer flavors, I don’t know about it, so I highly encourage you to attempt the full menu.

You ready? OK, let’s do this.

Spicy Oven Fried Chicken

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cleaned and fat trimmed
1 cup flour
2 large eggs
1 ½ cup buttermilk
1 ½ cups panko breadcrumbs
3 teaspoons cajun seasoning
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
hot sauce
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Roasted Corn with Fresh Herbs & Lime Butter

6-8 ears of corn, in the husk
¼ cup chopped mixed fresh herbs (such as basil, sage, tarragon, chives, flat-leaf parsley)
1 large clove garlic, minced
juice of 2 limes
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

Farmer’s Market Tomato Salad

1 container mixed small farmer’s market tomatoes (such as cherry or pear), halved
¼ cup chopped fresh basil, mint and flat-leaf parsley
extra virgin olive oil
white balsamic vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Blueberry & Blackberry Oat Cake

½ stick unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
¾ cup flour, plus more for pan
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons quick-cooking oats, divided
2/3 cups water
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups mixed blueberries and blackberries
2 tablespoons course sanding sugar

Kitchen items needed: large shallow bowl or baking dish, two large sealable plastic bags, large baking sheet covered with tin foil or parchment paper, metal tongs, 8×8 square baking pan

Prepping and cooking a dinner party menu is all about timing. For everything to come to the table at the same time, it requires a little multi-tasking, and you’re not going to be cooking one thing at a time. You’ll likely be cooking one thing and prepping another with the goal that all is beautiful and ready to be served without spending too much time resting or cooling to a less than ideal temperature. Follow me, and you’ll be a master at this balancing act in no time.

With that in mind, we’re going to tackle dessert first (life is uncertain, etc., etc.). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grab your 8×8 square baking pan and a stick of butter and rub butter over the bottom and the four sides of the pan (do not use the entire stick, this is not Paula Deen’s kitchen). Then, throw a tablespoon or two of flour in your pan and toss it around until the pan is thoroughly coated. Discard the excess flour, tapping the side of the pan a few times. You really only want a thin layer of flour and butter so the cake doesn’t stick to the pan when it bakes.

Measure out 1 cup of oats and combine with the water; set aside to soften.

Grab two large mixing bowls, in one whisk together all the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon). In the other, combine your butter and sugars (granulated and brown) and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes (you can do this in a stand mixer, with a hand mixer, or by hand with a fork, depending on how equipped your kitchen is). Once the butter/sugar mixture is creamy and light in color, add egg and vanilla and stir until just combined. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in small quantities until thoroughly combined, then mix in the softened oats. Fold in about half of the berries, being careful not to crush them.

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Spread batter in your buttered & floured baking pan, using your spatula to evenly distribute. Top with the remaining 3 tablespoons of oats and the sanding sugar, then top with the rest of the berries. Place on the center rack of your preheated oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out mostly clean with some moist crumbs. Set aside to cool.

With dessert covered, let’s turn to the chicken. Clean and trim your chicken so any excess fat is removed, and place your chicken thighs in a shallow bowl or baking dish. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and douse each thigh with a few shakes of hot sauce. Cover the chicken with one cup of buttermilk, ensuring that the thighs are completely submerged in the milk. Cover dish lightly with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to marinate.

Once your cake is out of the oven, turn the temp up to 450 degrees. Grab your corn and trim any excess husk or silk but do not remove the husk completely. Cooking the corn in the husk allows it to roast and steam at the same time, which delivers a sweet and juicy result. Once heated, place your corn directly on the oven rack, using two racks if necessary to ensure no cobs are touching each other. Roast for 30 minutes. The husks will brown and your kitchen will smell a little like a camp fire, but this is no cause for concern. It is merely one stop on the journey to delicious.

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At this point, you’re about half way to showtime, and you look gaaawwww-geous, daaaaahling.

While the corn is roasting, let’s make us some lime butter. Mince your garlic and place in a small mixing bowl. Juice the limes and add to the garlic, and then add the salt and pepper. Melt the stick of butter (in the microwave is easiest), then while whisking constantly, add the melted butter to garlic-lime mixture in a slow stream until completely combined and emulsified. Set aside until ready for use.

When the corn is completely roasted, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly on a baking sheet. Once cool enough to handle, remove husks and using a sharp chef’s knife, remove kernels from each cob and place in a large mixing bowl. Set aside until ready for use.

And now, it’s chicken time. First, turn your oven down to 375 degrees.

Next, grab two large sealable plastic bags — in the first, add the flour and season with salt and pepper; in the second, add the panko breadcrumbs, the cajun seasoning, the smoked paprika, and season with salt and pepper. Take your marinating chicken out of the refrigerator, and using tongs or a fork, remove the thighs from the milk, shaking a bit to remove excess liquid, and place them on a large plate. Dump the marinade and rinse out your dish, then to it add the other 1/2 cup of buttermilk, the two eggs, a few healthy dashes of hot sauce and season with salt and pepper. Whisk quickly with a fork to break down the eggs and combine with the buttermilk.

Now, you’re going to set up an assembly line of sorts in the following order: your plate of chicken thighs, the bag with flour, the buttermilk-egg mixture, the bag with the breadcrumbs, then a large baking sheet covered in parchment paper or tin foil. Using your metal tongs, grab two to three chicken thighs and place them in the bag with the flour. Seal the bag and toss the chicken thighs until thoroughly coated in flour. Use your tongs to remove the thighs from the bag (shaking to remove excess flour) and place them in the buttermilk-egg mixture. Thoroughly coat the thighs in the mixture, then transfer them to the bag with the breadcrumbs. Seal the bag and shake to coat all sides of the thighs with the spiced breadcrumb mixture. Finally, grab your thighs from the breadcrumb mixture and place, evenly spaced, on the baking sheet. Repeat this assembly line until all thighs are properly ‘dressed’ and placed on the baking sheet (don’t do too many thighs at once so as not to gum up the flour or the breadcrumbs).

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Bake the chicken for 45 minutes until the crust is golden brown and crisp and the juices run clear.

While the chicken is baking, slice the tomatoes and chop the herbs for the corn and the tomatoes. You don’t want to give the herbs the opportunity to wilt, so all of this should be put together at the last minute. Place your chopped tomatoes in a serving bowl and drizzle a little olive oil and white balsamic over the top. Season with salt and pepper.

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When your chicken has about five minutes left on the clock, mix the lime butter with the corn, then add the fresh herbs and toss to incorporate. Add the other fresh herbs to the tomatoes and toss lightly.

Remove chicken from oven and transfer immediately to a serving platter. Bring everything to the table, crack open a bottle of wine (hopefully you did this awhile ago, but if not, now’s the perfect time — I’m LOVING this rosé right now), and dig in.

The crunch of the chicken with the fresh, limey flavor of the corn and the sweetness of the tomatoes are just the absolute best flavor combination. This menu truly celebrates the best of summer and should leave any guests ‘ooohing’ and ‘ahhhing’ well after the sun goes down.

Serve the berry oat cake for dessert — it’s sweet enough that you don’t need any accompaniments — and if you’re lucky enough to have leftovers, this is pure magic with a cup of coffee for breakfast the next morning.

Truth be told, I want to eat this meal every weekend, surrounded by friends and family, laughing and rollocking and just livin’ life. It will be a bright, happy memory to revive in the dark winter months when a fresh, juicy tomato is but a dream.

Until then, enjoy the last few beats of this glorious season with some fresh food, some good wine, and some great company. That, my friends, is just perfect.

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