As the most popular U.S. holiday for cooking out, July 4 is a day marked by the tantalizing sounds and smells of meat sizzling on the grill.
Whether it’s the smoky aroma of charcoal that makes us weak in the knees, or the summery perfume of barbecue sauce slowly caramelizing in a spicy-sweet flourish, it’s summer cooking at its best.
But even the biggest stars — in this case, the ribs, burgers and barbecue chicken that make the day epic — need a cast of equally tasty supporting actors to make the event really shine. It’s hardly a cookout without a slew of sides for your guests to also fill up on. And no, potato chips and pretzels don’t count.
No one will complain if your picnic table sports tried-and-true, classic sides like baked beans, coleslaw or potato salad. They’re faves for a reason, after all, so go for it! Yet this being the nation’s birthday party, it might also be fun to throw a few surprises on the menu that add a bright jolt of color or zesty flavor — hopefully both.
With summers hotter than ever, perhaps this year’s motto for the Fourth should be “Fresh and Easy,” as in food that’s simply prepared (i.e., no special equipment or oven required) but still delivers great flavor.
Red, white and blue are the official colors of Independence Day, so how about starting with a cool fruit salad that encompasses all the colors of the flag? It begins with cubes of juicy red watermelon and raspberries, with fresh blueberries and crumbled feta rounding out the required hues. A light and bright honey-citrus dressing ties it all together in refreshing fashion, and here’s a guarantee — the kids will love it, despite it being healthful.
Got some vegetarians on the guest list? A hearty, plant-based wheat berry salad is sure to make them happy. The berries’ nutty flavor pairs perfectly with the tang of quick pickles (radish, cucumber and fennel), and when you add a creamy buttermilk dressing to the mix, the results are pretty addictive.
And finally, now that it’s July, how about a salad made with what’s arguably summer’s finest fruit: tomatoes, which are starting to show up at farmers markets and also in early planted gardens. Sweet and sun-kissed, with a variety of sizes and varieties to choose from, all a bowl of the fruit needs to make it really sparkle is a sweet-and-sour dressing made with a generous dash of the Mediterranean spice mix za’atar, and a tablespoon or two of capers for a briny finish.
WATERMELON, BERRY AND CUCUMBER SALAD WITH HONEY-LIME DRESSING
Fourth of July means watermelon, but cutting the huge fruit into individual slices during your picnic or cookout can prove a headache for the host, because it’s going to drip. But if you cut it into chunks a few hours beforehand, and then toss it with summer berries and cucumber in a citrusy dressing? Dessert will not only provide a super-sweet taste of summer but be stress-free, as well.
Be sure to wash the watermelon before cutting it to remove any dirt, and rinse the knife between cuts, too. (A towel placed underneath will keep it from slipping and also collect any juice drips.) If not using right away, store the chunks in a resealable bag or airtight container and refrigerate. (It will keep for 2-3 days.)
2 tablespoons honey
Juice of 1 or 2 large limes (about 1/4 cup)
Extra-virgin olive oil
6 to 7 cups cubed watermelon
1 English (seedless) cucumber, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 cup torn basil leaves
1/2 to 1 cup creamy Greek feta, crumbled
In small bowl, whisk together the honey, lime juice, 2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil and salt to taste,.
In a large bowl or on a serving platter with sides, combine the watermelon, cucumber, blueberries, raspberries, mint and basil.
Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently. Top with the crumbled feta and serve.
— “The Mediterranean Dish: 120 Bold and Healthy Recipes You’ll Make on Repeat” by Suzy Karadsheh (Clarkson Potter, Sept. 13, 2022, $32.50)
CREAMY BUTTERMILK WHEAT SALAD
Chances are there is going to be at least one non-meat eater at your cookout on the Fourth. This hearty salad will make them happy with its protein-rich star player — the edible part of the wheat kernel known as wheat berries.
Here, the nutty, high-fiber grain is paired with quick-pickled veggies and a tangy homemade buttermilk dressing amped up with fresh dill and chives. The result is a salad that’s crunchy, chewy, nutritious and utterly addictive.
The wheat berries, pickles and dressing all can be made ahead, so all you have to do on cookout day is assemble and toss. If you don’t enjoy or can’t find wheat berries (I got a 5-pound bag at palousebrand.com for $16 and they’re also available on Amazon), substitute another grain such as couscous, farro, quinoa or barley. Be sure to chill the salad for at least an hour or two in the fridge to give the flavors a chance to meld.
1 cup white Sonora wheat berries
Handful of toasted almonds
5 radishes, finely sliced into rounds
1 medium cucumber, sliced lengthwise into thin ribbons
1 fennel bulb, finely sliced
1/2 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fine sea salt
For buttermilk dressing
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon white wine or apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Small handful finely chopped chives
Small handful finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon chopped marjoram or thyme, optional
1 teaspoon chopped tarragon, optional
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Make quick pickles: Place sliced vegetables in a large mason jar, then cover with vinegar, sugar, salt and 1 cup water. Secure lid and shake vigorously to combine then place jar in fridge. (This can be done 3 days in advance.) Let them pickle for at least 30 minutes if using on the same day.
Place wheat berries in a large saucepan, along with 4 cups water, and simmer over medium heat for 40-60 minutes, until the berries expand into small spheres like large Israeli couscous. Drain and leave to cool completely. If you cook ahead of time, store in their cooking fluid in fridge for up to a week.
Make dressing by mixing together all the ingredients in a large bowl.
Assemble salad: Drain the quick pickles and add to the bowl with dressing, along with the wheat berries and hazelnuts. Toss to combine, then chill well until serving.
— “The Miller’s Daughter: Unusual Flours & Heritage Grains” by Emma Zimmerman (Hardie Grant, May 2022, $30)
TOMATO & ZA’ATAR SALAD
Fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes are one of the true joys of summer eating. This salad has a small list of ingredients but delivers big on taste. For that, you can thank the lemon-kissed vinaigrette, made with the perky Mediterranean spice mix za’atar. Capers and pitted Kalamata olives add a bright, salty finish.
You can use any type of tomato, but a mix of sizes (cherry, heirloom, plum) will add a variety of textures.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 1/2 tablespoons za’atar
Salt and black pepper
1 3/4 pound variety of sweet and ripe plum, heirloom and cherry tomatoes
1/4 red onion, finely sliced
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
Handful of pitted Kalamata olives
Handful of basil leaves, roughly torn
Aleppo pepper, to serve (optional)
Whisk the dressing ingredients together with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Roughly chop the tomatoes into 1 1/2 -inch chunks, playing around with the sizes of the different fruits for a variety of textures, then place in a salad bowl.
Scatter the onion, capers and olives around the tomatoes, then pour the dressing over the top and toss well.
Add the torn basil leaves, toss again, and finish with a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, if desired.
— Adapted form “Ripe Figs” by Yasmin Khan (Norton, $35)