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Great Gatherings: Backyard Fiesta

Go south of the border for a colorful outdoor party

Written by Krissa Rossbund
  • Luca Trovato

    Recipes for This Story

    Fresh Ginger-Lime Margarita
    Smoked Gouda Quesadillas
    Mexican Steak Salad
    Tres Leches Cake with Mexican Whipped Cream
    Blueberry-Sage Thumbprints

    Bright colors. Bold tastes. And, oh, those Ginger-Lime Margaritas! When “entertainologist” Lulu Powers puts together a Mexican-themed party, she delivers conviviality from the joyful tablescape to the flavorful cuisine.

    Avoiding cultural clichés, her table is a sombrero-free zone that pays tribute to the way “Mexican culture breathes exuberance into every element of life,” Lulu explains.  “A fiesta is about incorporating color and unexpected casual things, not pristine appointments,” she says. That is especially true in summer.

    Photography: Luca Trovato

  • Luca Trovato

    The brightly colored table she designed complements the bright flavors of the menu she developed—the margaritas, Smoked Gouda and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas, sizzling Mexican Steak Salad, and Tres Leche Cake. She draped the table with a fringed linen tablecloth of coral, yellow, turquoise, and ecru. Dark wood service plates match the tone of the outdoor wicker furniture, setting off Lulu’s turquoise-rimmed salad and dinner plates. A mix of sparkling margarita glasses ranges in style from clear modern forms to textured glass, contrasting nicely with  water glasses that are embellished with patterns of gold stripes and chevrons. Fun touches include inexpensive cotton-and-bead bracelets repurposed to cinch white linen napkins with embroidered monograms.

    “Instead of striving for a perfect, formal table, it’s easier to take a naturally casual event and give it a little bit of sophistication,” says Lulu. “A fiesta stimulates all senses with vibrancy, music, and wonderful spices. It’s perfect for the laid-back attitude of summer.”

    Recipes begin here.

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    Basic Goes Bold

    Choose white plates bordered in accent colors, like these turquoise-rimmed pieces anchored by wood chargers from Crate & Barrel. Vintage flatware from Pearle & Pierce Home boasts resin handles.

    Recipes begin here.

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    Colorful Monograms

    The preppy monogram gets a salsa lesson from Nantucket Monogram, kicking up its spirited heels in bright colors. Casual bracelets Lulu found at a discount store serve  as napkin rings that guests can wear home.

    Recipes begin here.

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    Orange Aid

    Creating a brilliant contrast to a turquoise vase and an art glass tumbler hand-painted with gold, Lulu arranged orange ranunculus and French tulips into a simple and striking centerpiece combo.

    Recipes begin here.

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    Signature Drinks

    Choose a margarita glass that has charisma, like this vintage turquoise glass with a twisted stem and textured bowl that catches candlelight. It contrasts nicely with a gold-striped old-fashioned glass from C. Wonder.

    Recipes begin here.

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    Adjust the Thermostat

    Allow guests to set the flavor thermostat themselves. Tabasco sauce in miniature bottles delivers extra heat to the quesadillas and salad. Lulu turned a sterling silver wine coaster into a tray for the diminutive bottles nestled in fragrant fresh oregano.

    Recipes begin here.

  • Luca Trovato

    Whet the Appetite

    Lulu chose Smoked Gouda and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas for a robust appetizer. She brushed flour tortillas with butter, baked them to achieve their golden crust, then garnished with chopped jalapeños for color and taste.

    Recipes begin here.

  • Luca Trovato

    Menu & Shopping List

    Entertainologist Lulu Powers creates both beautiful, festive tables and delicious recipes. You’ll need to shop at a specialty grocery store, and to make the experience more authentic, visit a Mexican grocery for some of the ingredients, including the flank steak for the Mexican Steak Salad.


    Fresh Ginger-Lime Margarita 
    Smoked Gouda Quesadillas
    Mexican Steak Salad
    Tres Leches Cake with Mexican Whipped Cream
    Blueberry-Sage Thumbprints

    Shopping List

    Check your pantry for these necessary items before shopping:

    • Honey (need 1 teaspoon)
    • Salt (need 3-1/4 teaspoons)
    • Kosher salt (need 1 tablespoon + 1/2 teaspoon)
    • Ground black pepper (need 1/8 teaspoon)
    • Brown sugar (need 1 cup + 1 tablespoon)
    • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder (check expiration date)
    • All-purpose flour (need 2 cups)
    • Eggs (need 6)
    • Unsalted butter (need 1 cup + 3 tablespoons or about 2-1/2 sticks)
    • Whole milk (need 1 cup)
    • Canola oil (need 1-1/4 cups)
    • Extra-virgin olive oil (need about 1/2 cup)
    • Balsamic vinegar (need 2 tablespoons)
    • Nonstick cooking spray

    Specialty grocery story and/or mexican grocery

    • Margarita salt such as Sel Magique's margarita salt (Sel Magique is also available online at Birchbox.
    • Mexican Crema (need 1 cup)
    • Ground espelette chile pepper or hot paprika (need 1 tablespoon)
    • Mexican-style sweet chocolate (need 1 tablet + additional for garnish)


    • Limes (need 2 per cocktail + 1 additional lime for peel and juice for the steak salad
    • 1 lemon
    • Kumquats (about 4 for cocktail garnish, based on 8 cocktails) and/or
    • 1 bunch fresh mint leaves (for cocktail garnish)
    • Fresh ginger
    • 10 jalapeño peppers (need 1 for steak marinade plus 9 for optional garnishes)
    • 2 large red onions
    • 1 medium onion
    • 1 bunch green onions (optional)
    • 1 head garlic (need 1 clove)
    • 1 bunch mint (for steak salad)
    • 1 bunch cilantro (need 1-1/4 cups)
    • 4 ears fresh sweet corn
    • 1 jicama
    • Sliced fresh pineapple
    • 5 ounces mesclun mix or spring mix lettuces
    • Pear-shaped cherry tomatoes (need 1/2 cup)
    • 1 avocado
    • 12 strawberries (optional garnish for cake)
    • Blueberries (need 50 for optional garnish for cookies)


    • Hot pepper sauce
    • 1 (7-ounce) can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (need 2 tablespoons
    • 1 package (8-inch) flour tortillas
    • 1 package (6-inch) corn tortillas
    • 1 (4-serving size) package vanilla instant pudding and pie filling mix
    • 1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk
    • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
    • Agave nectar (need 1 tablespoon)
    • Blueberry preserves (need 1/4 to 1/3 cup)

    Bakery aisle

    • Ground cumin (need 2 tablespoons)
    • Ground cinnamon (need 2 teaspoons)
    • Dried sage (need 1-1/2 teaspoons)
    • Dried oregano (need 1 tablespoon)
    • 1 package 2-layer-size yellow cake mix
    • 1 (4-ounce) bottle vanilla bean paste or vanilla (Note: vanilla bean paste will yield a richer vanilla flavor)
    • 2/3 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal

    Meat counter

    • 1 pound beef skirt steak or beef flank steak


    • Orange juice (need 1 cup)
    • 1 quart whipping cream (need 2-3/4 cups)
    • 1 (8-ounce) container sour cream (need 1/2 cup)

    Cheese counter

    • 6 ounces smoked Gouda cheese, shredded (1-1/2 cups)


    • Tequila (need 3 tablespoons or 1-1/2 ounces)
    • Orange liqueur (need 3 tablespoons or 1-1/2 ounces)
    • Ruby port (need 2 tablespoons)
    • Rum (need 1 tablespoon)
  • Luca Trovato

    Fresh Ginger-Lime Margarita

    • 2 limes, juiced (1/4 cup)
    • Margarita salt such as Sel Magique's margarita salt*
    • 1 thin slice fresh ginger
    • 1-1/2 ounces tequila (3 tablespoons)
    • 1-1/2 ounces orange liqueur (3 tablespoons)
    • 3-1/2 ounces water (7 tablespoons)
    • 1 tablespoon agave nectar
    • 1/2 teaspoon sliced fresh jalapeño pepper (optional)
    • Ice cubes
    • Kumquat slices and/or fresh mint leaves (optional)

    Rub rim of glasses with lime before juicing lime. Dip rim of glasses in salt to coat; set aside.

    In cocktail shaker or glass jar with lid, combine ginger slice, tequila, and orange liqueur. To muddle, gently crush ginger slice with muddler or back of spoon. Add lime juice, water, agave nectar, jalapeño, if using, and ice. Cover and shake until very cold. Strain liquid into prepared glasses (over ice, if desired). Garnish with kumquat slices and/or mint leaves. Makes 2 cocktails.

    *Sel Magique margarita salt is a salty-sweet blend of cracked sea salt and spices. Find it at Birchbox.

  • Luca Trovato

    Smoked Gouda Quesadillas
    Mexican Crema is close to crème fraîche in texture and flavor. Crème fraîche can be substituted or you can make your own Mexican Crema by combining 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup whipping cream.

    Caramelized Onions:
    • 1 large red onion, cut in thin wedges (about 3 cups)
    • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
    • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
    • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons ruby port
    • 1 teaspoon bottled hot pepper sauce

    Chipotle Crema:
    • 1 cup Mexican Crema
    • 2 tablespoons chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
    • 1 teaspoon honey
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt

    • 6 ounces smoked Gouda cheese, shredded (1-1/2 cups)
    • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    • 3 (8-inch) flour tortillas
    • Minced seeded fresh jalapeño pepper* (optional)
    • Grilled green onions (optional)

    To make Caramelized Onions, in large skillet melt 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add onion. Cook, covered, 13 to 15 minutes or until onions are tender, stirring occasionally. Uncover; cook and stir over medium-high heat 3 to 5 minutes or until golden. Remove from heat. Stir in balsamic vinegar, port, and bottled hot pepper sauce. Set aside.

    To make Chipotle Crema, in small bowl stir together Mexican Crema, chipotle peppers, honey, and salt; set aside.

    To assemble Quesadillas, spoon 1/2 cup caramelized onions over one half of each tortilla. Top with 2 tablespoons Chipotle Crema and sprinkle with 1/2 cup cheese. Fold over unfilled side to make quesadillas.

    In very large skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Cook quesadillas, two at a time, 6 minutes or until browned and crisp, turning once. Place cooked quesadillas on baking sheet; keep warm in 200°F oven while cooking remaining quesadilla. Cut each quesadilla in 3 wedges. Garnish with minced jalapeño and grilled green onions, if desired. Serve with remaining Chipotle Crema. Makes 9 servings.

    Because hot chile peppers, such as jalapeños, contain volatile oils that can burn your skin and eyes, avoid direct contact with chiles as much as possible. When working with chile peppers, wear plastic or rubber gloves. If your bare hands do touch the chile peppers, wash your hands well with soap and water.

  • Luca Trovato

    Mexican Steak Salad
    Espelette chile pepper is a pepper popular in the Basque region of the south of France. Ground, it is mildly hot but distinguished by a slightly smoky flavor.

    Seasoning Blend:
    • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
    • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
    • 1 tablespoon dried oregano, crushed
    • 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar
    • 1 tablespoon ground espelette chile pepper or hot paprika

    Marinade for Steak:
    • 1 medium onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
    • 1/2 cup snipped fresh cilantro
    • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lime peel
    • 2 tablespoons lime juice
    • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    • 1 pound beef skirt steak or beef flank steak

    Orange Cilantro Dressing:
    • 1 cup orange juice
    • 1/2-cup snipped fresh cilantro
    • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
    • 1/4 cup canola oil
    • 1 clove garlic
    • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
    • 1 teaspoon seeded and chopped jalapeño pepper
    • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
    • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

    For the Salad:
    • 4 ears fresh sweet corn, husks and silks removed
    • 4 (1/4 inch thick) slices jicama
    • 4 (1/4 inch thick) slices red onion
    • 4 (1/2 inch thick) slices pineapple
    • 5 ounces mesclun mix or spring mix lettuces
    • 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
    • 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
    • 1/2 cup pear-shaped cherry tomatoes, halved
    • 1 avocado, pitted, peeled and cut up
    • 3 (6-inch) corn tortillas, cut into bite-size strips and fried
    • Jalapeño peppers, sliced (optional)

    To make Seasoning Blend, in small bowl combine the salt, cumin, oregano, brown sugar, and ground espelette chile pepper; set aside.

    To make marinade, in small bowl combine onion, cilantro, 2 tablespoons Seasoning Blend, lime peel, lime juice, and olive oil. Spread mixture on all sides of steak. Place steak in large resealable plastic bag set in shallow dish; seal bag. Marinate in refrigerator overnight, turning bag occasionally.

    To make Dressing, in small saucepan bring orange juice to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until orange juice is reduced to 1/2 cup, about 8 minutes. Let cool. In blender or food processor combine the orange juice, cilantro, olive oil, canola oil, garlic, cumin, jalapeño, salt, and ground black pepper. Cover; blend or process until smooth.

    To assemble Mexican Salad, remove steak from marinade; discard marinade. For charcoal grill, grill skirt steak on rack of uncovered grill directly over medium coals 6 to 8 minutes (17 to 21 minutes for flank steak) for medium doneness (160°F), turning once halfway through grilling. Add corn to grill rack, grill 10 to 12 minutes, turning frequently. Add jicama, red onion, and pineapple to grill rack. Grill 6 to 8 minutes, turning once. (For gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Grill as directed.) When cool enough to handle, cut corn from cob, cut pineapple and onion into bite-size pieces, and cut jicama into bite-size strips.

    Let steak stand 3 to 5 minutes; thinly slice steak across the grain into bite-size strips. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon Seasoning Blend. (Save remaining Seasoning Blend for another use.)

    In large mixing bowl combine salad greens, mint, cilantro, tomatoes, corn, avocado, jicama, red onion, and pineapple. Toss mixture with 2 tablespoons Dressing. Garnish with corn tortillas and, if desired, jalapeño pepper slice. Pass remaining dressing. Makes 6 servings.

    Make Ahead Tip:
    The Seasoning Blend can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container up to 1 month. Dressing can be made ahead, covered and chilled up to 24 hours.

  • Luca Trovato

    Tres Leches Cake with Mexican Whipped Cream

    Mexican-style sweet chocolate is sold usually sold in tablets. Some brands, such as Nestle’s, might be found in your local grocery store; but you may need to go to a Mexican grocery store. In the winter, mix the tablets with just-boiling water for a rich chocolate drink.

    • Nonstick cooking spray
    • 1 package 2-layer-size yellow cake mix
    • 1 (4-serving size) package vanilla instant pudding and pie filling
    • 1 cup whole milk
    • 1 cup canola oil
    • 4 eggs
    • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
    • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • Whole sliced fresh strawberries (optional)
    • Mexican Whipped Cream (recipe follows)

    Milk Syrup:
    • 3/4 cup whipping cream
    • 1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk
    • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla
    • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
    • 1 tablespoon rum

    To make Cake, preheat oven to 350°F. Coat 13x9x2-inch baking pan generously with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. In large mixing bowl combine cake mix, pudding mix, whole milk, oil, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla bean paste, and salt. Beat with electric mixer on low speed 2 minutes. Stop mixer and scrape down sides of bowl. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes more, scraping down sides and bottom of bowl (batter will be thick). Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 30 to 34 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool 2 hours on wire rack in pan. After cake has cooled, poke holes all over top of cake with fork or long skewer, making as many holes as possible.

    To make Milk Syrup, in medium bowl whisk together the whipping cream, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, kosher salt and rum. Remove and reserve 1/2 cup of milk mixture. Cover; chill until ready to serve. Spoon remaining milk syrup mixture over top of the cake, stopping to allow syrup to soak in each time. Continue until all syrup has been used. It will eventually all soak in. Cover cake loosely with plastic wrap and chill at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours. Just before serving, spoon over reserved milk syrup mixture. Top each serving with sliced strawberry, if desired, and serve with Mexican Whipped Cream. Makes 12 servings.

    Mexican Whipped Cream

    • 1 tablet Mexican-style sweet chocolate, finely chopped
    • 2 tablespoons water
    • 2 cups whipping cream
    • 1/2 cup sour cream
    • 2 tablespoons vanilla bean paste or vanilla
    • Mexican-style sweet chocolate, shaved (optional)

    In small microwave-safe bowl combine finely chopped chocolate and water. Microwave on 100% (high) power 30 to 60 seconds or until chocolate is melted and smooth, stirring once. Cool slightly. Place cream in bowl of food processor. Cover; process 30 seconds. Add sour cream. Cover; process 1 minute more. Add vanilla and cooled chocolate mixture. Cover; process until desired consistency. (Over-processing may cause mixture to turn to butter). If desired, shave additional Mexican-style sweet chocolate over top of whipped cream.

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    Blueberry-Sage Thumbprints

    These sage and cornmeal cookies make a delightful take-home gift for guests.

    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 2/3 cup finely ground yellow cornmeal
    • 1-1/2 teaspoons dried sage, crushed
    • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1/4 teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup butter, softened
    • 1 cup packed brown sugar
    • 2 egg yolks
    • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
    • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
    • 1/4 to 1/3 cup blueberry preserves
    • Fresh blueberries (optional)

    Preheat oven to 350°F.  In medium bowl combine flour, cornmeal, sage, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

    In large mixing bowl beat butter with electric mixer on medium speed 30 seconds. Add brown sugar and beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Beat in egg yolks, lemon peel, and vanilla until combined. Beat in as much flour mixture as you can with mixer. Stir in remaining flour mixture.

    Shape dough into 3/4-inch balls. Place 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Lightly press tip of your thumb into center of each ball. Fill centers with about 1/4 teaspoon blueberry preserves. Bake about 10 minutes or until edges are set and bottoms are lightly browned. Cool on cookie sheet 1 minute. Transfer cookies to wire rack; cool completely. Top cookies with fresh blueberries, if desired. Makes 50 cookies.