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10 food and drink recipes for casual outdoor entertaining

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Sure, there’s a lot of hype at the beginning of summer about cookouts and outdoor entertaining, when we look forward to kicking off a season of vacations and long weekends spent with friends and family. But I think there’s something special, too, about the waning weeks of summer. Those are the times we’re trying to hang on to that last bit of magic, storing it all up before the busy days of back-to-school fall and the hectic holiday season are upon us. In fact, I prefer September into October for the more temperate weather — cooler evenings and fewer bugs make it much more enjoyable to be outside for hours on end, eating and drinking in the backyard around a shared table.

Of course, what you serve matters, too. Whether you want to make them for this Labor Day weekend or beyond, here are some easy food and beverage ideas from our Recipe Finder for low-key outdoor hangs. Many of these options are fast, simple and ideal for make-ahead potential so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time outside having fun.

Sweet Potato Salsa Salad, above. This “bounteous, healthy, hearty dish that belongs at your next picnic, cookout — or really any other party,” says Food editor Joe Yonan. It feeds a crowd and features a base of roasted sweet potatoes tossed with cherry tomatoes, corn, black beans and bell peppers, followed by a fresh salsa with avocado. It can be made up to three days in advance, though it’s best to keep the sweet potato mixture and salsa separate until serving.

Herb-Marinated Tofu Feta. Put out some toothpicks so your guests can pluck cubes of creamy, tangy, salty feta out of a marinade that comes together quickly in a bowl. The tofu can hang out in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, and the longer it does, the better.

Tofu gets a bad rap sometimes. Here’s how to make it great.

Cookie Butter Puppy Chow. Set a giant bowl of this party favorite down on the table and watch it disappear in no time. My riff on the chocolate-coated cereal snack also known as Muddy Buddies, thanks to the recipe on the back of the Chex box, swaps cookie butter in for the peanut butter and adds a little bit of cinnamon and salt for extra flavor. An optional inclusion of cocoa powder with the confectioners’ sugar used for dusting brings more depth and chocolate flavor.

Mediterranean Pinwheels. The streamlined four-ingredient version of this recipe was designed for kids, but would also be perfect for setting out on a giant party platter for grown-ups. The colorful pinwheels feature a spinach tortilla wrapped around goat cheese or hummus, diced roasted red peppers from a jar and dried herbs. You can make them up to a day in advance and store in the refrigerator.

Baked Hummus. Put store-bought hummus to good use when you mix it with canned chickpeas and top with tomatoes and nuts. You only need 10 minutes to assemble and 30 minutes to bake, meaning it’s the ideal thing to slide into the oven before your guests arrive. Pull it out warm and serve with wedges of pita or flatbread, crackers and vegetables.

Seven-Layer Dip. For a no-cook option, check out Aaron Hutcherson’s version of the party-friendly dip that mixes canned (refried beans, olives, salsa) and fresh (lime juice, jalapeños and grated cheese) ingredients. Have it done in just about 15 minutes, and refrigerate it for up to a day.

Maple Spiced Glazed Nuts. This five-ingredient recipe features walnuts or pecans gussied up with maple syrup, cayenne pepper and cinnamon. They will last up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Feel free to double the recipe for a crowd.

Pão de Queijo. These gluten-free Brazilian cheese puffs work well as a party food when you freeze them partially baked. After that, they just bake for 15 to 20 minutes straight from the freezer. Serve hot out of the oven and be prepared for wows.

Horchata With Cinnamon and Vanilla. Horchata, a blended rice beverage, works well as a shoulder season drink that is still refreshing enough for late summer but hints at the spices associated with fall. Make up to five days in advance.

Holiday Red Sangria Punch. While the name of this recipe suggests it as a holiday season quaff, I can hardly think of a gathering where I wouldn’t welcome a fruity glass of sangria. This one combines orange and apple liqueurs, orange and lemon juices and ginger ale, plus grapes, apples and oranges.

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