Chef Kevin Johnson Creates a Low-Stress Summer Dinner Party Menu
If your dinner parties involve a disappearing act while you juggle hot pans for half the evening, Kevin Johnson has a better solution. The executive chef and owner of the Grocery in Charleston, South Carolina, offers a summer menu that will allow you to relax as guests arrive. “If you’re going to have a great dinner party, stress yourself out a day or two before, so when guests arrive, you can hang out and enjoy yourself,” Johnson says. “With a bit of planning, a lot can be done ahead.”
Good planning may be why the 2014 James Beard semi-finalist has time to be a board member for the Charleston Wine + Food Festival teach at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, and work on behalf of Lowcountry Local First, promoting locally-owned businesses.
Johnson’s menu may be lengthy for the home cook, but it’s made to be tailored, he says. “You could be just as successful doing two or three of these sides and it would be great.”
Johnson’s Mediterranean-themed dinner marries fresh side dishes with a leg of lamb that he promises won’t add to the stress. Greek feta vinaigrette, he says, is refreshing, bright, and brings a lot of acidity and crunch to cut through the lamb’s richness. The key is to put the feta in the dressing. “Feta can be kind of intense so if you put it in the vinaigrette rather than tossing it onto the salad, you can use quite a lot less while still permeating the salad with the feta flavor. You can make the vinaigrette a couple of days ahead.” Planks of grilled broccoli bring more crunch and acidity when tossed with a roman vinaigrette featuring anchovies, chile, lemons, and garlic. “This is one of the few dishes you’ll toil over at the last minute. I really like getting some nice rustic char on broccoli; it adds sweetness but at the same time, just a little bitterness,” says Johnson. “The vinaigrette is very assertive. You add salinity with some capers and olives, put it all in a bowl and toss and then arrange it on a plate. You can serve it room temperature.”
Grilled eggplant caponata gratin
The idea with serving cold or room temperature dishes is they all have room for error. You don’t want to be stressed out about having something the perfect temperature.
Traditional eggplant caponata calls for simmering eggplant until it’s soft and brown—“not the prettiest,” Johnson says. Instead, he layers grilled eggplant slices with raw tomato and sliced mozzarella, gratin-style, pops it into the oven, and then drizzles with a rich caponata sauce.
Blanched snap beans and shaved radish pair well with coin-like slices of Charleston’s ubiquitous pickled shrimp, dressed by the pickling juice. Shaved summer squash with lemon juice, olive oil, pecorino, Marcona almonds, and lots of mint does double duty by using up a notorious bumper crop and creating more crunch. It’s countered by a chewy tabbouleh, made with farro rather than the traditional cracked wheat so it can be made ahead.
The dinner’s star is the leg of lamb. “I chose lamb because I think it’s reserved too much for special occasions,” Johnson says. “People are a little bit intimidated by it, but why not celebrate with lamb instead of throwing a bunch of steaks on the grill?” Johnson’s lamb is rubbed with North African spices and then basted with rosemary, lemon, and olive oil. For the home griller, Johnson advises lighting one side of the grill and putting the lamb on the other side so it cooks slowly over indirect heat. “You want to cook it low and slow. You don’t want to take a big hunk of meat and just slap it on the grill,” he says.
The main thing is that the dishes don’t have to be served piping hot, which means that you can relax at your dinner party, and pour yourself a cocktail. This is Charleston, after all.