One of my favorite fall parties I ever threw was this pumpkin-carving party, co-hosted with my friend Lydia, an autumnal afternoon of carving pumpkins, sipping cider and sitting down for a romantic outdoor dinner at dusk. Today I'm going to give you a full look at how we transformed the blank slate of Lydia's backyard into party central, with a casual pumpkin-carving zone and a cozy buffet and dining area.
I'll also give you all the details how I created a mostly make-ahead menu centered on a healthy Indian-themed sweet potato bar full of fresh yet comforting flavors. And there's a fun DIY project: an eye-catching (but simple!) table runner made out of butcher paper and neon tape. Ready to dive in?
The Day Before
Lydia's dining table only seats eight, so we decided to rent a table in order to accommodate more guests and eat outdoors. Actually, we rented two — because I was going to be picking up the tables myself, the rental store agent suggesting renting two 4-foot tables instead of one 8-foot table, which might not fit in my car. This made it easy for me to pick up the tables by myself the afternoon before the party and only cost a few dollars more than renting one long table. (The total cost was about $14.)
I was also cooking away in the days leading up to the party. The great thing about a menu of soups and stews made with plenty of spices is that most of the meal actually tastes better after a day or two in the fridge. The party was on Sunday; I made the Savory Spiced Pecans and Mixed Bean Masala on Friday and the Curried Cauliflower Soup and Lamb Korma on Saturday. On Saturday I also prepped the dessert of Oatmeal-Brown Sugar Baked Apples by coring the apples and stuffing them with brown sugar, oatmeal and a little cube of butter, so they were ready to be popped in the oven.
The Day of the Party
I spent the morning doing some last minute prep in the kitchen: I shaved the fennel and made the dressing for the Shaved Fennel, Roasted Tomato & Pistachio Salad, washed and thinly sliced two bunches of collards and toasted some coconut for the sautéed greens side dish, and washed the sweet potatoes. Once at Lydia's, I would only need to sauté the greens, toss the salad, roast the sweet potatoes and bake the apples. Everything else would be warmed on the stove.
After I arrived at Lydia's, we started setting up her backyard for the party. There were two distinct zones: the buffet and dining area and a place for guests to carve pumpkins.
The Buffet Area
The corner of the yard seemed like the best place to set up the buffet and dining tables. Unfortunately, one side was flanked by an ugly cinderblock wall and the other was a chain-link fence looking in on the neighbor's yard littered with old car parts and appliances. We decided to embrace the creepiness of the neighbor's yard ("It's Halloween-y...kind of?") and upped the spooky factor by covering the chain-link fence with fake spiderwebs.
To make the cinderblock wall look a little nicer, we hung three table runners vertically by taping them to the top of the wall, then moved the existing outdoor table up against it. Although too small to be our outdoor dining table, it was the right size to be a buffet table.
The Dining Table & DIY Table Runner
After covering the plastic rental tables with a big canvas dropcloth to hide the cheap-looking legs, we covered the tabletop with a sheet of butcher paper and Lydia added a fun plaid pattern by sticking neon orange artist tape onto the paper. It only took about five minutes for her to create the pattern, but the results looked fantastic.
The tabletop was decorated with bunches of orange marigolds, handfuls of fresh rosemary in metal cups, votive candles and a few gold and green elephant-shaped candleholders from the Nate Berkus line for Target. Lydia also made placecards by writing each guest's name in glue on a feather and sprinkling it with glitter — simple but so pretty.
The Pumpkin-Carving Area
To create a casual, comfortable area for guests to carve pumpkins, we spread an assortment of blankets on the ground and placed a few trays on and around the blankets, so guests had a place to put their drinks as they worked. We also brought a few comfortable leather chairs outdoors for people to relax in once they were done carving. We gave each guest a pumpkin carving kit and a piece of butcher paper to carve their pumpkin on, and had a few big bowls for collecting seeds and guts.
A Word on the Weather
October is a beautiful month in many places of the world, but Los Angeles is not one of them. We are teased with the occasional gray and foggy day, followed by a week of blazing-hot weather that makes everything feel dry and brown and terrible. Unfortunately, the day of the party turned out to be one of those sunstroke days, with highs in the mid-90s and relentless sunshine.
I had to scrap my plans to wear a sweater and was seriously worried serving hot soup to my guests would cause someone to pass out, but I ended up heating the soup just to the point where it was warm and it was perfect. By the time the sun dipped behind a nearby building, it was pleasant enough to slip on a sweater and a dinner of stews and curries sounded good after all. Crisis averted!
While the guests carved pumpkins, we set out bowls of spiced pecans to nibble on and there was plenty of refreshing cider-bourbon punch and ice water to keep people cool. About an hour into the party, Lydia and I slipped inside to warm the soup on the stove. We ladled it into mugs, garnished it with red pepper flakes and toasted pecans, and circulated around the party passing it out to guests.
After rounding up the empty mugs, we headed back into the kitchen to finish dinner prep. I warmed the two curries on the stove, sautéed the greens, tossed the salad and pulled the sweet potatoes out of the oven. Lydia prepped the garnishes of chopped cilantro and yogurt and we wrangled a few guests to help us carry all the food from the second-floor kitchen to the buffet table. And then dinner was served!
During dinner, we sipped wines paired with the meal by Mary Gorman-McAdams. As the sun set, the candles we had placed on the tables and in the defunct outdoor fireplace in the corner started to glow and it felt like nowhere in the world could be quite as magical as this yard at this moment, surrounded by friends.
After dinner, we cleared the plates and headed inside for a leisurely dessert of baked apples and homemade masala chai tea in the living room. Some guests sipped bourbon with their desserts, others chose red dessert wine. After another hour or so of eating, drinking and chatting, the guests started to disperse, full of food and wine and carrying home a freshly-carved pumpkin — which fell apart in less than a week in the LA heat, but still. It was a pretty perfect party.
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