It seems like Independence Day is always about burgers, hot dogs, ribs, and chicken, but that doesn't mean that vegetarians (or plain vegetable lovers like me) can't celebrate their independence with a whole mess of smoky, charred, grilled foods and delicious side dishes as well. This year, unfortunately, I'm going to be out of the country on July 4th (I know!), but in my head, this is the menu I'd be serving at my backyard cookout. And okay, I would probably make a burger and a hot dog or two anyway, for the folks who really want them, but trust me: Vegetarians will not feel left out.
In fact, I dare you to take the vegetable challenge: Replace one of your standard Fourth of July recipes with just one item off this list. Serve those black bean burgers instead of beef burgers, or perhaps the tofu banh mi in place of a grilled chicken sandwich, and just see if it isn't the very first thing to disappear from the table.
Make-Ahead Salads and Appetizers
I know everyone means well when they come poking around the kitchen or grill offering help, and oftentimes I'm glad to take it! But when you're hosting a big party, managing guests can end up being more of a chore than managing the food itself.
If there's one key to avoiding this situation, it's to make as many things as possible ahead of time, preferably foods that don't even require reheating to serve. Keep your guests well fed and well lubricated with beer, wine, and other summer drinks, and they'll entertain themselves, leaving you free to focus on the more serious cooking tasks at hand. Here are a few of my favorite summertime snacks and side dishes to offer.
The secret to getting the best flavor while maintaining a vibrant, crunchy texture in our coleslaw is to sprinkle the cabbage with salt and sugar in advance in order to draw out excess water. We then gently drain the cabbage on towels instead of squeezing it in order to help retain as much structural integrity as possible. The result is coleslaw that has the texture of fresh, crunchy cabbage, with a flavor that's clearly owed to a nice long marinade.
Deviled Eggs With Fried Capers, Lemon, and Parsley
Great deviled eggs start with perfectly boiled eggs. From there, you can go the classic route, or try this version, which calls for tart and crisp fried capers, chopped parsley, and plenty of good olive oil.
The Best Baba Ganoush
The secret to the best baba ganoush is simple: Get rid of as much extra moisture as possible. With my recipe, you start by roasting the eggplant (either the grill, the oven, or a burner will work fine), then scrape out the flesh and take it for a whirl in the salad spinner before adding tahini, garlic, lemon, and olive oil. The result is an intensely flavored, smoky dip that's utterly addictive.
Sicilian Eggplant and Pine Nut Caponata
This super-simple make-ahead dish combines sweet, tart, and savory flavors with creamy, rich, crunchy, and fresh textures. There's a lot going on here, but fortunately, it's a snap to put together and gets better as it rests overnight. Serve it at room temperature with some crackers or bread for scooping.
Mains From the Grill
Two quick tips to make any cookout run more smoothly:
First, make sure that you've got everything you're gonna need prepped, ready, and outside on a table by the grill. I hate it when I forget something inside and have to run to the kitchen, leaving the grill unattended while my food overcooks or chars. Be prepared. You'll be a lot calmer, and your food will be a lot tastier for it.
Second, don't try to grill too many things at once. This is the number one mistake I see backyard cooks make. Those potatoes need a different type of heat than those burgers or kebabs. You're much better off cooking one or two things at a time and really nailing them. Trust me: Your guests will be happier with better, more spaced out food.
Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers
I've had people get annoyed at me for calling these "Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers." I mean, isn't that label a little presumptuous? I can only assume that those people have not actually tried these burgers, because by all accounts, they are really, really awesome. The key is to partially dehydrate the black beans before combining them into the burger to give them a more intense flavor and a nice meaty texture. Nobody likes a mushy burger, and nobody doesn't like these particular non-mushy burgers. Or something like that.
Make them. You will not regret it.
Lemongrass-Marinated Tofu Banh Mi Sandwiches
It took me a while to nail it down, but I'm confident that I now have a foolproof method of grilling tofu that delivers tofu with a great, crisp, hearty crust and flavor that really sticks to it. It was a quick hop, step, and a jump to then use that tofu to make these Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches, complete with easy pickled carrots and daikon radishes.
Grilled Spiced Cauliflower
Cauliflower and other brassica are some of the best things to throw on the grill. They get incredibly sweet and nutty. In this version, a hearty spice blend flavored with turmeric, cumin, coriander, and ginger pushes the vegetable to the extremes of flavor and texture.
Sides From the Grill
You've already got the grill fired up—might as well grill everything, am I right? Here are a few of my favorite grilled side dishes.
Simple Grilled Potato Salad
Regular potato salads are great. I'll give you that. I particularly like my creamy vegan fingerling potato salad. But when I'm at the grill, I want to grill everything, including the potato salad. This salad was the result of an afternoon in which I let my grilling desires get the best of me. I should let that happen more often.
Grilled Corn, Tomato, Feta, and Herb Salad
Just about as bright and fresh as you can get. I love the way the sweet corn and juicy tomatoes play off the sharp, creamy feta in this salad, while the mixed herbs make sure that every bite stays interesting.
Mexican Street Corn (Elotes)
This is the greatest corn dish of all time.
I can't host a cookout during corn season without doing some kind of on-the-cob flavored corn preparation. Elotes, the Mexican version dressed with crema (or mayonnaise), garlic, lime, chilies, and cotija cheese, is a classic for a reason. I have never met anyone who didn't declare this their favorite corn dish ever, immediately after tasting it.
Grilled Cabbage With Spicy Thai Dressing
I love putting brussels sprouts, cabbage, and other brassica on top of Neapolitan pizzas, where they brown nicely in the oven, turning sweet and nutty-tasting. I figured, why not just ditch the pizza and keep the brassica? Grilling cabbage is one of the best ways to serve it. You cook it long enough so that it just gets tender throughout, with a juicy texture and crisp, charred edges. Pair it up with a spicy Thai-style dressing made with fish sauce and lime juice, and you may even forget about pizza altogether.
During the summer, I want my desserts quick, easy, and mostly hands-off. Here are three options. The first takes all of five minutes and involves no cooking at all; the second packs tons of cherry flavor and sweet, fluffy dumplings into a no-bake stovetop treat; and the last, while more time-consuming, is a personal favorite and totally worth it.
5-Minute Fruit Mousse
All it takes is some fresh, ripe summer berries, a little bit of sweetener, an egg white, and a food processor, and you're five minutes away from a light, summery, elegant dessert. Throw some whipped cream and fresh herbs on there if you want to get extra fancy, but honestly, this stuff is so good, you may just want to put it in a communal bowl and pass out the spoons.
Stovetop Cherry Grunt
This is a great dessert if you want to give the impression of having spent a great deal of time putting together a pastry-and-fruit pie without actually having to put in much time at all. Grunts are stovetop desserts that essentially combine a fruity pie filling with dropped biscuit-like dumplings. Think cherry shortcake, without having to heat up the oven.
Dense, Chewy, and Rich New England-Style Ice Cream
For the 10 years that I lived in Boston, I spent every Fourth of July waking up before sunrise to take a tarp and a blanket out to the Esplanade to grab the best seats for the fireworks barge. We'd spend the whole day napping, cooking, playing games, drinking beer, and sending people out on ice cream runs. There's something about that thick, extra-creamy New England ice cream that just screams Independence Day to me. Luckily, Max's New England-style ice cream recipe hits exactly the right texture. It gets an automatic pass onto the Fourth of July dessert list.