Of all the reasons why Columbia is a great place to call home, one that’s often overlooked is the city’s climate that makes it possible — and enjoyable — to entertain outside nearly all year long.
Just ask Lita DaSilva and Julie Tuttle, two wonderful hostesses who regularly transform their outdoor spaces into elegant dining rooms for friends and family.
For the DaSilva family, the back porch is the preferred gathering spot, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does a near-constant breeze keep things comfortable and bug-free on all but the most sweltering of Columbia evenings, but the view beyond the pool to a pasture populated by horses, hay and the occasional cow, is remarkably bucolic. “It opens up onto Millwood, which is the old Hampton Plantation,” says Lita. “I’ve always thought the prettiest part of our yard isn’t even in our yard! We’re so grateful to our neighbors for maintaining such a lovely property.”
Lita admits that, thanks to the remarkable landscape beyond their yard, she and Robbie, her husband, didn’t need to do much to make the porch appealing. “What we did do was make it really comfortable, because we sit out there almost year-round,” she says. “We used neutral colors, so that the décor doesn’t compete with the view beyond, and we added pops of color in throw pillows that echo what’s growing in containers, the yard and the field behind us. We have four sons and a big dog, and while the porch is covered, it is otherwise open to the elements, so everything out there has to stand up to wear and tear. There’s nothing that can’t either be thrown in the washing machine or blasted with the garden hose.”
As easy-care as it is, the DaSilva’s porch is also elegant, featuring a ceiling painted Charleston blue and accessories like sculptural table lamps and large hanging artwork. Thanks to the large scale sofa and chairs, there’s plenty of room for guests to sit and visit. When it’s time for dinner, everyone can gather around a generous rustic farm table, which Lita sets with china, silver, linens and flowers. “There’s definitely a time and place for Chinet® plates and Solo® cups, but I usually set the porch dining table the same as I would inside,” she says. “It’s not any trouble to bring it all outside, and it just makes things more festive.”
Although Lita has pretty pots of blooming plants set around, she still likes to use fresh-cut flowers when she entertains. “For this dinner party, one of our guests was my good friend Julianne Sojourner, who owns the floral and event design business, My Friend’s Garden,” she notes. “Julianne was kind enough to help me get the porch party-ready. She used shallow metal buckets with wooden handles filled with variegated pittosporum and sunflowers for the table –– these had a casual, rustic look and were colorful but low enough that we could see each other over the arrangements, which is important.” To complete the look, Julianne repeated the pittosporum through out the room, mixing with zebra grass in a tall metal bucket.
Parties at the DaSilvas’ usually begin with pick-up appetizers served on the oversized ottoman. To cut down on prep time, Lita will often take one of her giant platters to The Gourmet Shop, where it can be filled with an assortment of cheeses, fruits and nuts. “A good cheese board is a great outdoor appetizer because you can put all of the food on one big tray, and you don’t have to fool with multiple dishes,” she says. A large cooler on wheels stays on the porch and keeps beer and wine ice-cold and at the ready; there’s usually a full bar set up as well.
Lita has found that the most efficient way to serve an outdoor dinner is buffet-style inside, with the food set up on the kitchen island or breakfast room bar. “Our kitchen overlooks the porch, so no one feels like they’re marching through the house with a plate, and it keeps the food cooler than if it were outside,” she explains.” Lita also relies on make-ahead dishes that are as tasty at room temperature as they are cold from the fridge or hot from the oven.
“Our go-to dishes include salads with mixed greens, fresh herbs and fennel, green beans and roasted potatoes topped with grilled fish or shellfish,” says Lita. “I also like to do a similar salad with panko and Parmesan chicken cutlets from Whole Foods, topped with arugula, tomatoes and fresh burrata cheese. It’s so easy.” The DaSilvas often round out a meal with dishes from local caterers. “Rose Mary Naccash of Gourmet Rose Catering makes this fantastic cold, but hearty, rice salad that’s incredibly tasty,” says Lita.
To cut down on time spent away from their guests, Lita and Robbie prepare as much of the dinner ahead of time as possible, grilling meat, fish or poultry earlier in the day and making sure dessert, such as banana pudding topped with crumbled Biscoff® cookies, a basket of assorted Grey Ghost cookies or Dove® mini ice cream bars, is ready to be served. And if the occasion calls for something special, Ally and Eloise Bake Shop’s desserts are always a hit.
“For me, entertaining is all about being with our guests,” says Lita. “I have friends who whip up fabulous meals while everybody gathers in the kitchen. I wish I were one of those kinds of cooks, but I get distracted chatting with my company and end up forgetting something, burning something or worse! I’m more relaxed if I have most, if not all, of the cooking done before guests arrive. Food that’s both pretty and good doesn’t have to be elaborate.”
Julie and David Tuttle love to entertain outdoors whenever they can, but their favorite time is late fall, when the couple throws their annual post-Thanksgiving feast, lovingly referred to as “friendsgiving.” Held the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the feast is an outdoor affair for around 30 guests that includes special lighting, a rotating signature drink, gourmet dishes and tabletop décor that changes each year. “It’s such a big deal to us that when we moved from Shandon to Lake Carolina, we designed our entire backyard around the event,” says Julie. “People think we are joking when we say that, but it had to be perfect!”
Although the couple loved their Shandon yard, the new layout allowed for a lot more lights and a more magical feel. “Starting from scratch gave us the opportunity to give it a more cozy feel,” says Julie. “Rather than feeling like you’re just dining outdoors, it really feels like it’s a complete outdoor room. It’s gorgeous.”
Located in the backyard, the party site comprises of multiple indoor and outdoor spaces, including a courtyard, porches and a specially designed garage. “Our home is actually a series of mini houses connected by breezeways and porches,” explains Julie. “It gives us a lot of flexibility.” Dinner is served in a sunken courtyard with a checkerboard “floor” composed of alternating squares of slate and grass. One side of the courtyard is the garage, which was designed with a set of sliding barn doors that open into the area. “We use it for overflow and storage,” says Julie. “The proximity to the yard and the sliding doors make setup and breakdown so easy.”
A second side of the courtyard is the couple’s home office. It’s here that the custom-built Thanksgiving table spends most of its days. “We use it as a conference table during the workweek,” explains Julie. “It takes no time at all to move it outside for a party.” There’s also a pretty screened porch set with a fireplace and, completing the square, a tall hedge. “It feels private, but not closed in,” says Julie. “The flow works well, and the lighting, from lanterns, candles, strings of lights overhead and the ambient light from the rooms, is fantastic.”
Over the years, the party has developed traditions of its own. Guests are asked to bring wine and a traditional Thanksgiving dish. No assignments are necessary since, in general, each guest brings the same thing year after year. “We all have our ‘faves,’ and we’re more than a little set in our ways,” laughs Julie.
The Tuttles develop a unique fall-themed drink for the evening each year — they’ve served everything from sangria with fall spices and sparkling cider to spiked coffee drinks and desserts. Julie and David also provide the main dish, which is often a fairly labor-intensive, cold-weather classic like braised short ribs. For smaller gatherings, she’ll fuss over the entire dinner. “I like to cook real things, and I’m usually not looking for shortcuts,” she explains. “I like recipes from The Smitten Kitchen Cookboook because they’re just challenging enough without being over the top.” She also makes pies — she likes fruit over chocolate — and cobblers for dessert, or offers friends a tasting of several different cookies or bars. “I like to serve things that you don’t eat every day, so they’re special,” she says.
When it’s time to serve, Julie usually sets up a buffet on the dining room table inside the house and lets guests serve themselves, although for smaller events she’ll serve family-style outside and use upholstered chairs and benches instead of traditional seating.
Julie and David find their real joy in creating a different tablescape for each event. “We like a little funk without too much symmetry,” laughs Julie. To get just the right look each year, she and David delve into their various collections of vases, napkins, candelabras and other items. “We collect lots of things, and they’re each unified by one detail, so they work together on a table,” explains Julie.
One set of napkins in a variety of colors, for instance, is bound together by white lace; another set is all florals. Each of the white vases depicts a different animal; the couple also collects artwork and architectural pieces, which are a party favorite. The candelabras, which define a different spot each year, are old, huge and covered in layers of wax. To ensure that they’ll never have to repeat, the couple visits antique shops and local stores several times a month in search of items that could start, or extend, their vast collection. “We’ll buy four or five of something and add to it until we have enough — it’s an ongoing process that we both love,” she says. “Yes, David is as into it as I am. We’re definitely nerds, but we’re not hoarders! Everything has a place and is part of a larger group.”
Flowers and greenery add lushness to both the table and the house. “When we entertain, we put fresh flowers everywhere, even in areas of the house where guests won’t go,” explains Julie. “It makes the house and courtyard look festive, welcoming and alive, which is all the reason to celebrate.”
For this outdoor party, Julie decided to do a place setting for eight and incorporated fun napkins and dinner accessories that she and David have collected. She used colors and elements that are season-neutral like gray, white, green and copper. For dinner, Julie chose dishes that didn’t rely on being warm or cold to still be good. They prepared marinated and grilled pork tenderloin with assorted jams; roasted red potatoes; sautéed asparagus with yogurt dressing, panzanella salad with mixed greens; and a trio of dessert bars. The following recipes from Julie are adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. Try this asparagus side dish as well as the delicious dessert bars to add a culinary perk to your next party.
Sautéed Asparagus With Yogurt Dressing
2 large bundles asparagus
3 hard-boiled eggs
1 lemon, halved
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt, pepper and olive oil
Heat a large sauté pan to medium heat with about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Trim the ends of asparagus. Season with salt, pepper and juice of half of lemon. Cover and cook until desired texture.
While asparagus is cooking, start the yogurt dressing. Combine Greek yogurt, garlic, paprika, juice of half of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.
Once the asparagus is plated, crumble or place sliced hard-boiled eggs on top. Drizzle dressing over the asparagus and eggs, or serve along side. This yogurt dressing was great on everything!
Cherry Brown Butter Bars
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick unsalted butter
About 20 cherries, pitted and halved
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch-by-8-inch pan with parchment paper. Mix melted butter, sugar and vanilla until combined. Add flour and salt. Spread dough evenly on bottom of pan. Bake crust for 18 minutes or until golden brown.
While the crust is baking, start the filling. Melt butter in a saucepan. Continue cooking until butter is dark brown in color, making sure not to burn. Remove from heat immediately. Combine sugar, eggs and salt in a medium bowl. Add flour and vanilla and stir until smooth. Gradually add the brown butter until fully combined.
Line the halved cherries in bottom of crust. Pour filling evenly across cherries. Return to oven and bake for 40 minutes. After baking, allow to cool in the pan. Once cooled, lift parchment paper from pan and cut bars to your liking.
Brown Butter Sea Salt Krispies
1 stick unsalted butter
1 bag large marshmallows
6 cups Rice Krispies® Cereal (or similar)
1/4 teaspoon (or more!) sea salt (Julie prefers the lavender salt from Beautiful Briny Sea)
Melt butter over low-medium heat in large saucepan. Stir frequently until butter becomes dark brown in color. Remove from heat immediately and add bag of marshmallows, stirring constantly until marshmallows are completely melted. Add cereal and sea salt until fully combined. Spread evenly into greased 9-inch-by-13-inch pan. Allow to cool, then slice and enjoy!
Blueberry Crumb Bar
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 sticks unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups blueberries
4 teaspoons cornstarch
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan. Using a mixer (not necessary, but it works best), combine 1 cup sugar, flour and baking powder to create dough. Mix in salt. Blend in butter and egg until dough is very crumbly. Spread half of dough in pan.
In another bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar, cornstarch and juice from lemon. Mix in blueberries. Spread the blueberry mixture over the dough in pan. Sprinkle remaining dough on top. Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow bars to cool completely before slicing as you like!