Photo: Francesco Lagnese
On a cloudless late-summer afternoon, Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan is playing on the beach with her 1-year-old daughter, Ursula. Up in the barn, Sara's husband, Maxwell, is working at his computer. No one would guess that in a few short hours, the couple will be having 10 people over for dinner.
This laid-back manner is part of the charm that has made the pair so successful in their professional lives. Sara and Max run Apartment Therapy, a network of Web sites that draws about 10 million hits a month and whose mission, according to the site, is "to connect people to the resources they need to improve their homes, while reducing their reliance on stuff." In her spare time, Sara is also an accomplished cook and food writer. Last year she authored The Greyston Bakery Cookbook, after spending four years working for the Greyston Foundation in Westchester County, New York; the nonprofit organization employs disadvantaged workers at its bakery, then channels the profits from its baked goods into socially progressive, community-building programs.
During the week, the Gillingham-Ryans live in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, but on weekends, and for a month each summer, they escape to the family retreat on Long Island's East End. The house, which is owned by Mary Ryan, Max's mother, sits on 18 acres overseen by the Long Island–based Peconic Land Trust, which works to protect the region's landscape and ecological well-being. What better way to kick off a glorious outdoor dinner party than with margaritas garnished with garden-fresh mint leaves?
Sara and Max love to relax with friends and family at the Long Island home. They entertain frequently, sometimes hosting weekend yoga retreats. At mealtimes, everyone gathers in the barn for the delicious, seasonally inspired dishes Sara makes from ingredients she finds in the garden and at local farmers' markets; Max decorates the inside of the barn with objects like tree limbs, shells, and wildflowers scavenged from the land.
Tonight Sara has planned a dinner based on the region's most vibrant summer produce and herbs. As guests arrive, Max starts a roaring fire. Sara passes around margaritas spruced up with homegrown mint and sets out two appetizers: baguette slices topped with ripe figs, candied walnuts, and triple-crème cheese, followed by crunchy bruschetta piled with oven-dried tomatoes, peppery arugula, and almond slivers. "We always start with something simple and yummy that you have to eat with your hands," Sara says. "It's a way to connect with the food."
After the cocktails and eppetizers, guests find seats in the barn, which is partly lit by a lamp Max made out of a huge parasol. Everyone helps themselves to the food, served family-style from heaping platters. There are slices of grilled rib eye steak rubbed with rosemary and cayenne, shredded kale cooked with pancetta and spiked with chili pepper and Pecorino Romano, and lemony risotto seasoned with herbs like basil, thyme, and sage. Sara says she likes to present a mix of familiar and unexpected flavors, "even if some not very adventurous eaters are coming to dinner." To finish, she serves a summery dessert: an Italian plum tart from a recipe she created for the Greyston cookbook.
Outside, night has fallen and the beach is dark. But here in the barn there's a warm glow—of satiety, friendship, and the priceless calm of a summer night. Proof that, as Sara and Max say on their Web site, "Simplicity and luxury are not mutually exclusive."
James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Nina Simonds is the host of a weekly food, health, and lifestyle video blog at SpicesofLife.com.