Go low-key but have big fun with a progressive patio party

Spring begs us to eat outside, enjoying friends amid warming weather and budding flowers. To keep the focus on fun, consider a progressive patio party. Pick nearby friends and move the party from house to house, enjoying a course at each home. The plus? No one gets stuck planning-or cleaning up after-the whole affair.

The key to a progressive meal is making sure each course can be done almost entirely ahead, with just a bit of last-minute attention when the guests arrive.

Start the meal with strawberry sangria and set out plates of nuts to nibble. Then move on to a white bean dip that's pretty when paired with sliced cucumbers and blanched snap peas. A pea and mint soup is refreshingly delicious whether warm or chilled. The main course is poached salmon drizzled with a caper vinaigrette; serve it over salad greens if you want something more substantial. And finally, a light and airy angel food cake spiked with coffee and cocoa flavors will send everyone home happy.

Spring Peak Soup with Mint

(Serves 10)

Nothing says spring quite like fresh peas. While fresh peas are great to use when you can find them, frozen peas are a perfectly fine substitute-and much less work. This soup is delicious warm or chilled.

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 2 leeks, chopped (white and pale green parts only)

• 4 cups canned low-salt chicken broth

• 2, 10-ounce packages frozen peas or 5 cups fresh shelled peas

• 2/3 cup chopped fresh mint

• Salt and pepper

• Sour cream for garnish

• Chopped fresh chives for garnish

Directions:

In a heavy, large saucepan melt butter over medium-low heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Add broth. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Add peas. Cook 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in mint. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Working in batches, puree soup until smooth in a blender. (Note: Soup can be made up to a day ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate. Rewarm before serving or serve chilled.)

Ladle soup into small bowls. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chives.

Strawberry Sangria (Serves 10)

Serve this fruity drink with bowls of salted almonds or pistachios.

Ingredients:

• 2 bottles (750 ml) red wine such as chianti or gamay

• 2 pounds strawberries, hulled, sliced

• 2 cups apple juice

• 2/3 cup Triple Sec or other orange liqueur

• 1/2 cup sugar

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher. Stir until sugar dissolves. Refrigerate at least 4 and up to 24 hours.

White Bean Dip (Serves 10)

This is a great dip to dish up with cucumber slices and blanched snap peas.

Ingredients:

• 3, 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

• 5 garlic cloves, peeled

• 6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

• 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• Salt and pepper to taste

• Sliced cucumbers and blanched snap peas

Directions:

Combine beans and garlic in a food processor. Process until finely chopped. Add lemon juice, olive oil and cumin. Process until a smooth puree forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Note: Dip can be made a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.) Serve with cucumbers and snap peas.

Poached Salmon with Caper Vinaigrette

(Serves 10)

If you can't fit all of the salmon into one skillet, cook it in batches. Poached salmon is as delicious at room temperature as warm. You can also use the salmon, flaked into a green salad, with the vinaigrette.

Salmon:

• 2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces

• 1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch pieces

• 1 small onion, sliced

• 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 8 cups water

• 10, 4-ounce skinless salmon fillets

Directions:

In a heavy large skillet, combine carrots, celery, onion, lemon slices, 1 teaspoon salt and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Cover and simmer 10 minutes.

Season salmon lightly with salt and pepper. Gently lower into simmering liquid. Reduce heat to the barest simmer. Cover and cook just until fish is opaque throughout, about 5 to 8 minutes. Use a slotted spatula to transfer salmon to a platter. (Note: Salmon can be prepared up to a day ahead. Cool, cover and store in the refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before serving.)

Vinaigrette:

• 2 shallots, finely chopped

• 6 tablespoons red wine vinegar

• 1/2 cup drained chopped capers

• 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

• Salt and pepper to taste

• 2/3 cup olive oil

Directions:

In a small bowl, combine shallot, vinegar, capers and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in oil.

Spoon vinaigrette over salmon.

Mocha Angel Food Cake (Serves 12)

This light cake is the perfect finale to a progressive dinner. Pair it with sliced strawberries if you like, but it is delicious with just a dusting of cocoa powder and confectioners' sugar.

Ingredients:

• 2 tablespoons instant espresso or coffee powder

• 2 teaspoons vanilla

• 1 tablespoon water

• 12 large egg whites, room temperature

• 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

• 1 1/4 cups sugar

• 1 cup cake flour

• 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder plus additional for sprinkling

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• Confectioners' sugar

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small bowl, stir espresso powder, vanilla and water until powder dissolves.

Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, beating until stiff glossy peaks form. Beat in coffee mixture.

Sift flour, cocoa powder and salt over egg white mixture in three additions, folding in gently after each. Spoon batter into a non-greased angel food cake pan. Cut through batter to release air bubbles.

Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Invert pan onto cooling rack. Cool completely in pan. Run a thin knife around the edge of the pan to release cake.

Combine a little additional cocoa powder and confectioners' sugar in a small bowl. Sift over cake if desired.