At the Table…with Athena Calderone

May 24, 2018

“We eat first with our eyes.”

Although 1st-century foodie Apicius originally coined the phrase, Athena Calderone has made it her personal motto. The chef and designer is known for her gorgeous, infinitely Instagrammable dishes, a parade of plates almost too pretty to eat—the key word, of course, being almost. (Follow her @eyeswoon.)

“I’m always thinking about the composition,” says Athena, who showcases her work on her popular lifestyle blog, EyeSwoon. “It’s like styling a credenza or a coffee table—thinking of where to add height, where to pull back and have negative space, when to have something more curvaceous because the other elements have sharp lines. Food is the same way.”

Along with her husband, Victor, and son, Jivan, Athena calls Brooklyn Heights home for most of the year. But come summer, it’s off to the Hamptons. In 2010, looking for a respite from city life, Athena purchased an abandoned beach home in Amagansett and spent her weekends lovingly—and at times, painstakingly—transforming it into a retreat for her family and friends. Recently, she invited us over to share her summer hosting secrets.

Athena’s top tip for entertaining during the fairer months? Relax—and then relax a little more. Despite her flair for picture-perfect dishes, Athena’s summer parties are laidback, shoes-optional affairs.

“It should be effortless and unfussy,” she says. “I live for the days when I spend hours at the beach with friends, then we all tumble into the car, stop at the market, and cook dinner at someone’s house. I love to fire up the grill, set an undone table, and see drinks being poured, drinks being spilled, a little rambunctiousness, and a lot of laughter.”

This weekend, Athena’s kicking off the season with a Memorial Day menu that’s equal parts simple and stunning: Moroccan-inspired chicken skewers, roasted asparagus and radishes, and a summer fruit crostata. Each dish can be prepared almost entirely in advance, which is a requirement for Athena when entertaining.

“Running around the kitchen during the get-together is a major no-no,” she says. “As a host, you should get to join in on the fun—this sets the tone for the guests. These are super-straightforward dishes that can be prepped in advance. I love a main course you can just throw on the grill—no need to overdo it.”

As for that crostata, don’t fret about creating a perfectly polished tart—in fact, a slightly messy presentation is better.  “A crostata is not about perfection,” says Athena. “By nature, it’s meant to be rustic, so don’t worry too much about how you fold it up.”

Athena takes a similarly relaxed yet thoughtful approach to tablescaping. For her Memorial Day gathering, she’s setting the tone with an early summer palette of blush pink, crisp white, and mint green. There’s not much in bloom just yet in Amagansett, so instead of flowers, she’s using potted plants, barely blossomed branches, and rocks collected along the coast. “Get creative and think outside the bouquet,” she advises. “A traditional floral arrangement is by no means necessary when entertaining.”

“Traditional,” it should be noted, rarely has a place at Athena’s gatherings, especially this time of year. In fact, her outdoor “table” isn’t a table at all—she recruited a door leftover from her home renovations, set it low over a butcher block, then arranged pillows for casual, come-one-come-all seating. “Simplicity is always in style,” she says. “But especially in the summer.”

Guests on the way this weekend? Here, Athena was kind enough to share her Roasted Asparagus and Radishes recipe from her latest, aptly named book, “Cook Beautiful.”

Roasted Asparagus and Radishes with Mustard-Tarragon Vinaigrette
Serves 4-6

What You’ll Need
1 bunch radishes, trimmed and halved (quartered if large)
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling, plus 3 tablespoons for the vinaigrette
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
1½ tablespoons champagne vinegar
1½ tablespoons whole-grain mustard
4 to 5 sprigs fresh tarragon, leaves removed

How to Make It
Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Spread the radishes on a baking sheet and the asparagus on a second baking sheet. Drizzle both with oil and season with salt and pepper, tossing to evenly coat the vegetables. Spread the vegetables in an even, single layer.

Roast the radishes for 10 minutes. Give them a shake, then add the pan of asparagus to the oven. Roast until both the radishes and asparagus are lightly golden and tender, 12 to 14 minutes. While the vegetables are roasting, whisk together the vinegar and mustard, then slowly whisk in the 3 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer the radishes and asparagus to a serving platter. Lightly drizzle with the vinaigrette and sprinkle with tarragon. Serve immediately with extra vinaigrette on the side.