Summertime is the dream of every child. Days stretch out forever, no school to worry about, and they can sleep as long as they like. Barbecues are pulled out of storage, dusted off, and readied for grilling. As the days lengthen, swimming pools warm in the sun and windows and doors are flung open to let in the fresh breeze. I love the summer and welcome it with open arms every year.
Side dishes are often treated as though they are ugly cousins at a family reunion, ignored or pushed aside. But they can become the stars of your meal with a little ingenuity and innovation. I put a lot of thought into my menus and try to create a good balance of flavors, textures, nutrients and “favorites.” My mother used to say that if a plate of food was “pretty” and had lots of color, then it was healthy. She was way ahead of her time. Today we know that fresh fruits and vegetables are essential for good health and are nature’s rainbow. Just like a leprechaun’s pot of gold, eating fresh produce will give you a happy life!
When you are planning your side dishes, ask yourself these questions: Will it complement the smoky flavors? Does it add texture to the plates? Will they have lots of bright colors? Am I serving a different menu than the last time they came to dinner? And, if it is a holiday, do I have enough “traditional” foods to satisfy people’s memories? Instead of just making the same things over and over, look for new and unusual sides that will be interesting and fun for your guests to experience.
There is something very comforting about potato salad – maybe it is the memories of warm summer days, picnics at the beach, barbecues, and softball games with friends. I make a lot of different types of potato salad but today’s recipe is the one I keep coming back to and the one I always serve at a traditional barbecue. If you don’t like mayonnaise or are afraid of it spoiling on a hot day, you can also use a simple vinaigrette or Italian dressing instead. In that case, leave out the pickles and add some bell peppers to the celery and onions. You could even add some chopped salami for an Italian twist! Any way you make it, I know your family and friends will love it.
I recently tried Rick Bayless’ Frontera’s Chipotle Pineapple Barbecue Sauce and was bowled over. Full of piquant flavors, it is the perfect blend of spice, sweet, and heat. The moment I tasted it my mind filled with thoughts of ways to use it. With our 4th of July barbecue coming up, I decided to develop a recipe to combine this amazing product with baked beans. I think you will enjoy my take on a traditional side dish that utilizes some store-bought products to save time.
When making baked beans, instead of starting with dry beans, you can save yourself hours by using good quality canned beans. I like a blend of white, black, and pinto for a more interesting look and texture. As with many casseroles, I think the flavor improves with time, so if you can, make the beans a day ahead to let flavors meld.
The Japanese salad, Sunomono is sliced cucumbers with a sweetened vinegar sauce. I love the sweet/sour combination with the cucumbers. Another classic combination with this dressing is fresh dill. Adding raw red onion gives the salad a little bite, but if you soak the onions in ice water first, it mellows their flavor. You get their bright flavor without the harshness. To me it is the perfect combination of bright, fresh, and crunchy, the flavors of summer. Using a mandoline will produce paper-thin slices and is extremely easy to use. Just be careful not to cut yourself on the super sharp blade!
Homemade pickles are surprisingly easy to make and don’t take nearly as long to cure as you might imagine. Kirby cucumbers are the traditional choice, but you can also pickle other vegetables such as green beans, onions, or carrots. Having something acidic on the plate really helps clean the palate between bites and balances the bold flavors of foods cooked on the grill.
The Fourth of July holiday is a perfect time for enjoying the beautiful weather with family and friends. You can host a barbecue at your home or head out for a picnic. Picnics take some extra planning and strategy, but it can be easy with the right equipment. You want to plan meals that travel well, nothing with a lot of liquid with the exception of cold drinks. Look for things that don’t have to be kept frozen, or conversely piping hot. You want recipes that can be served at room temperature, that don’t take any last minute preparation, and that go well together. You always want a variety of flavors, textures, and colors to create interest. Remember that you taste first with your eyes, so bring a few sprigs of fresh herbs to garnish your plates.
You need to have non-breakable containers, preferably square or rectangular, with tight fitting lids. These will stack more easily, save room, and stay cooler longer. Freezer packs interspersed throughout keep things at the right temperature and won’t melt when they thaw. And lastly, the right cooler makes all the difference in the world. We have a soft-sided rolling cooler that collapses down to a small flat package when not in use. We have used ours for many years and always have it in the trunk of the car when we take road trips just in case we find something yummy that “needs” to come home with us.
Pasta and grain salads are some of my favorite things to take on picnics. They can be made ahead, are good either chilled or at room temperature, and everyone loves them. They are endlessly variable and a great way to use nearly everything in your refrigerator. I always like to add a protein to my salads, whether it is some cubed cheese, chopped meats, chicken, seafood, beans, or legumes. It helps keep people’s blood sugar stable longer. Also, don’t forget that there may be people joining you that are vegetarians. Offering healthier options can also be helpful to those on diets.
One of the most important aspects of serving food on picnics is keeping it at the right temperature. Anything that needs to be kept cold should be served directly from the cooler and the containers closed as soon as everyone has their share. Keep the cooler closed as much as possible. If your foods have been out of refrigeration for more than a few hours, throw away any leftovers. It is better to get rid of them than risk people getting sick.
If you will be cooking proteins at your destination, make sure you keep them well wrapped and completely separate from any other foods to avoid cross contamination. Bring a set of utensils to use with the raw food and a second set to use once it has been cooked. I always have several resealable plastic bags to store dirty utensils in and to haul away our trash.
No matter how you choose to spend your holiday, I hope your day will be full of fun and laughter, good food, good friends, and fantastic fireworks. I am sure you will be creating new memories and family traditions to pass down to the next generation.
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Potato salad needs to be kept cold for safety reasons. If you are planning on serving it at a barbecue or picnic, place it in a serving bowl and take along a bowl big enough for the serving bowl to fit inside – a wide shallow bowl would be perfect. When you get to your destination, place some ice in the large bowl, nestle the serving bowl in the ice, and add more ice around the edges. This will keep your salad nice and cold, no matter how long it sits out. Replenish ice as needed.
- 6 large russet potatoes, scrubbed
- 2 tbsp kosher salt
- 3 green onions, rinsed
- 2 tbsp sweet pickle relish or 3 sweet gherkins, minced
- 2 stalks celery
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup Light Mayonnaise (preferably Best Foods or Hellman’s)
- About 2 tsp yellow mustard
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp sweet pickle juice (from jar of pickles)
- Optional ingredients: chopped hard-boiled eggs, cooked and crumbled bacon, corn, chopped bell peppers, minced mild or hot chiles, chopped pepperoncini, halved cherry tomatoes, etc.
- Place unpeeled potatoes in a large stockpot and cover with water by 2-inches. Bring to a boil over high heat, stir in 2 tbsp kosher salt, reduce heat to medium (keep water at a low boil) and cook until you can easily pierce potatoes with a fork, about 20 minutes. Large potatoes may take longer. Remove from water and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, chop onions, sweet pickles and celery into small pieces all about the same size. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, salt, pepper, and enough pickle juice to thin it out a bit. Taste and adjust seasonings until you get a flavor balance you like.
- When potatoes are cool enough to handle, but still warm, peel and cut into bite-sized cubes. Add potatoes to bowl with onions, pickles, and celery. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper and toss until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
- Pour half of mayonnaise mixture over the top and toss until coated. Add remaining mayonnaise as desired to get the amount of sauce you like. My husband likes his potato salad quite dry, and others like it heavily dressed. Toss until everything is evenly coated. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve, at least 2 hours if possible. Flavors need time to meld and the salad should be served cold.
- Yield: about 6 servings
- 1 (12 oz) bottle of Frontera Chipotle Pineapple Barbecue Sauce
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 4 slices thick-cut bacon, diced, cooked and drained, or use 2 tbsp olive oil instead for vegetarian version
- 1 large onion, chopped finely
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped finely
- 3 cans cooked white, black, or pinto beans, or a combination; drained and rinsed
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup water, or as needed Hot sauce, optional
- Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F.
- In a bowl, whisk together the barbecue sauce, Worcestershire, maple syrup, and dry mustard. Make sure mustard is completely dissolved.
- Cook bacon in skillet and once done, remove all but 2 tbsp of the renderings, or if you are not using bacon, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onion and bell pepper until translucent and tender, but not mushy, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Place beans in a large mixing bowl. Add cooked bacon, sautéed onion, and bell pepper. Toss to combine. Pour in barbecue sauce and stir to blend. Add water as needed to get to the consistency you like. Remember that the sauce will thicken as it bakes. Taste and adjust seasonings. You can add some hot sauce if you want a spicier flavor.
- Transfer to a deep ovenproof baking dish Bake 30 to 45 minutes or until it is bubbling around the edges, is hot all the way through, and top is browned. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
- Yield: about 6 servings
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice or cider vinegar
- 1 tsp lemon pepper blend, or to taste
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp dried oregano or thyme
- 1 lb small pasta (any shape), cooked al dente in salted water, drained, and rinsed
- 1 cup pasta cooking water, reserved
- 3 stalks celery, chopped fairly fine
- 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- 1 yellow bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 scallions, minced
- 3 to 4 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, oregano, thyme, or basil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice, lemon pepper blend, salt, and herbs. Whisk until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
- Combine the vegetables in a microwave-safe bowl and cook for 20 seconds to slightly soften them.
- In a large bowl, combine cooked pasta with chopped vegetables. Toss to combine well. Add enough of the mayonnaise mixture to make a smooth salad. If you like a “drier” salad, you don’t have to use it all. Toss well to coat all ingredients thoroughly. If needed, add a little of the reserved pasta cooking water to thin the sauce.
- Chill, covered, at least 1 hour or until ready to serve. Sprinkle with chopped herbs.
- Can be made ahead and will last 3 to 4 days, covered, in the refrigerator. Flavor improves with age, so make this a day ahead and save yourself time on the day of your party.
- Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 2/3 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tbsp maple syrup
- 1/2 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1/4 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 or 2 jalapeno chiles, stemmed, seeded, and minced
- 4 cups shredded cabbage (preferably Napa cabbage)
- 1-1/2 cups shredded carrots
- 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
- 1/2 cup minced cilantro
- To Make the Dressing: Mix together all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl. (If you want a mild salad, add just 1 chile.) May be made 1 or 2 days in advance; refrigerate in a covered container.
- To Make the Slaw: Combine the cabbage, carrots, bell pepper, and cilantro in a large bowl. Add 2/3 of the dressing and toss to combine. (If you want a creamier slaw, add all of the dressing.)
- Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving. Keeps well for up to 1 day in the refrigerator.
- 1 small red onion or sweet onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 cucumbers
- 3/4 cup rice wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh dill, plus extra sprigs for garnish
- 1-1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Place onion slices in a bowl and cover with ice water. Let stand about 20 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
- Combine vinegar and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until sugar is completely dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in olive oil. Let cool.
- While vinegar is cooling, peel cucumbers and either cube or slice thinly. Sometimes I like to remove the seeds first by splitting cucumber in half lengthwise and scraping out the center with a spoon. Place cucumbers in a medium mixing bowl, add drained onions, and sweetened vinegar. Sprinkle with chopped dill, salt, and pepper. Toss to mix.
- Cover and chill. It will hold several weeks in the refrigerator, so make extra and have it on hand for a snack during hot days.
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings
- 4 quarts water
- 6 tbsp coarse white salt (kosher, if available)
- 18 to 20 Kirby cucumbers (all about the same size), scrubbed
- 8 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly-crushed
- 2 tbsp pickling spice
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 large bunch of dill, preferably going to seed, washed
- In a large pot, heat 1 qt water with the salt until the salt is dissolved. Add the remaining water.
- Prepare 3 (1 quart) wide-mouth jars by running them through the dishwasher or filling them with boiling water, then dumping it out.
- Pack the cucumbers vertically into the jars, making sure they're tightly packed. As you fill the jars, divide the garlic, spices, bay leaves, and dill amongst them. If you want the cucumbers to pickle more quickly, split them lengthwise. If you prefer pickle chips, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices. Stack randomly in jar, making sure there is space between pieces.
- Fill the jars with brine so that the cucumbers are completely covered. Cover the jars with cheesecloth, secured with rubber bands, or loosely with the lids. Store in a cool, dark place for 3 days.
- After 3 days, taste one. The pickles can ferment from 3 to 6 days. The longer the fermentation, the more sour they'll become. Once the pickles are to your liking, refrigerate them.