Sunday, July 12, 2009

BBQ, Overachiever style.

I really enjoy entertaining, but as anyone who has ever seen my cottage will attest, there is not much room to do it. Which I why I savor the summer and the opportunity to throw a backyard BBQ, because I have a lot more backyard than living room. Which is not to say that my backyard is large, because it's not. But my living room is very, very tiny.

Yesterday night we threw our first BBQ of the summer. Hard to believe that it's mid July, and still the weather has been unseasonably cool. Luckily yesterday was a beautiful day, but even so, the temps never even reached 70, and by 7 pm is was definitely cooler than that. Nonetheless, my wonderful guests persevered and we enjoyed some yummy BBQ fare in the backyard, mosquitoes and all, until it got too dark and chilly. (Incidentally, yesterday night had a record low temperature for Nantucket--48 degrees! July indeed!)

When throwing a BBQ, many people are content to slap pre-made burger patties on a grill, top with American cheese, ketchup and yellow mustard, and call it good. Maybe have a tub of deli potato salad or some other side dishes. I am not one of those people. I need appetizers, main course, sides and dessert, and I like at least a modicum of cohesiveness. I also require real plates & silverware, and bunches of fresh flowers and lots of candles for ambiance, to elevate my hand-me-down vinyl and aluminum lawn furniture. I'm probably tooting my own horn too much by labeling this post "BBQ, Overachiever Style"--I don't want to mislead you into thinking that this was some gourmet meal or that it rivals the parties that are photographed and featured in style magazines. But I do the best I can with my limited space and resources.

Conventional entertaining wisdom dictates that the first time you try a new recipe should not be when you're cooking for a crowd, but somehow I always manage to overlook this bit of (sage) advice. Last night I tried out a handful of untested recipes, and I am glad to report that they were about 75% good, but there was room for improvement. (The % good thing is a reference to my father, who last weekend told my mother that her sole--not to be confused with soul--was 80% good. I was amused.) The menu was as follows: Apps: Crudite platter with roasted garlic and artichoke dip (courtesy of Cottage Living. Yes, I read it. Since I live in a cottage and all). Tortilla chips with mango salsa (courtesy of People Magazine. Surprisingly delicious). Main course: Turkey burgers with guacamole and caramelized onions (suggested by my sister, Ali). Potato Salad. Romaine salad with corn, tomatoes, and scallions. Dessert: Fruit salad (courtesy of Beth), homemade ice cream sandwiches, and pound cake (courtesy of Sean). You can never have too much dessert!

And now, some of the recipes, and suggestions on things that I would do differently.

Crudite Platter (as inspired by Cottage Living):

I was not so in love with the veg dip to bother publishing it, although I will say that it provided a more interesting alternative to ranch dressing. Will update this when I find a dip that I like more. Cottage Living suggested blanching some of the veggies to give them more flavor & color. It had never occurred to me to do this before, but I was actually a fan of this technique. This will probably sound silly, but my jaw gets tired when I'm chewing lots of raw veggies. Additionally, and more importantly, by blanching veggies, you can serve a wider array of vegetables. On a raw veggie platter you're restricted to things that you can eat raw: carrots, celery, peppers, tomatoes, cukes, and cauliflower & broccoli, if you like those raw. By incorporating cooked veggies as well, you can have stuff like green beans, asparagus, and potatoes. Plus, I prefer broccoli cooked. So anyway, that's what I did. To my surprise, the potatoes were the biggest hit of all.

Vegetables that you like. I used:
* Bell peppers (red and yellow are my faves)
* Grape tomatoes
* Fingerling potatoes
* Broccoli
* Green beans
* Carrots (the recipe suggests true baby carrots, i.e., actual small carrots with the greens still attached, as opposed to the baby carrots that are whittled from full sized imperfect carrots. I could not find these, so I just cut sticks from regular carrots)

Other suggestions include cauliflower cut into florets and blanched and endive pulled into leaves and served raw.

Remove the seeds and membrane from the bell peppers and cut them into nice thin strips. Prepare the rest of the vegetables for blanching: for the beans this means trimming the ends, for the broccoli or cauliflower, this means cutting them into bite size florets, and for the asparagus this means cutting off the bottom ends. A handy trick for figuring out where to cut the asparagus is to snap one or two ends off. Line up the snapped asparagus with the bunch and then cut the whole bunch about an inch longer than the snapped stalks. Some people say that you should cut at the snap, but to me it seems wasteful because you will probably find that the stalk snaps pretty high, and I think that the vegetable is still perfectly edible up to an inch below where it snaps naturally. Potatoes should be scrubbed but whole, and carrots should be peeled and cut into sticks, if using big carrots, or have the greens trimmed if using true baby carrots. Boil a large pot of water. Cook each vegetable in the boiling water separately. Remove with a slotted spoon, and dunk them in an ice bath for a few minutes, then drain. Bring the water back to a boil between each vegetable. Cooking times are as follows:

Potatoes: 10 minutes or so. Start checking for doneness after 8 minutes. Once cooled, cut in half or thirds.
Broccoli & asparagus: 30 seconds
Carrots & green beans: 1 minute

Arrange blanched veggies, along with peppers and grape tomatoes on a platter with your dip of choice in the middle. (Unfortunately I didn't think to take a picture of mine yesterday, since I was rushing so much. It was pretty, though. I like to arrange the colors so that none of the greens or reds are touching. It makes it more festive that way.)

Mango Salsa (adapted from People Magazine)

This salsa was excellent. It came from a feature on what to serve at a LOST finale party.

In a bowl combine the following:

* 1 mango, peeled and diced.
* 1 avocado, peeled and diced
* 3 or 4 tomatoes, diced
* 1/2 or 1 jalapeno, diced. Much of the heat in a jalapeno resides in the seeds, so if you want a less spicy dip, carefully remove the seeds and membrane from the inside of the pepper before dicing. If you can handle the heat (I can't), leave the seeds in.
* 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
* 1/4 cup red onion, finely diced
* 1 large clove garlic, minced

Drizzle these ingredients with 2 tablespoons each of olive oil and lime juice, and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve with your favorite tortilla chips.

Turkey Burgers:

My sister suggested burgers with caramelized onions and guac after a friend of hers served them at their 4th of July party. I am actually a huge fan of turkey burgers. It's what I grew up eating, and I like them just as much, if not more, than beef. A few of my guests were skeptical, but after trying them they admitted that turkey burgers are good, which made me very happy.

* Ground turkey (not the 99% fat free kind, though. Go for the 93% fat free. I'm pretty sure it's better for you than beef, but it's still flavorful and juicy. The 99% fat free stuff just...isn't.
* Hamburger buns of choice

Plan on about 4 burgers per 1.3 lb package. Season burgers as you like. We use Emeril's Original Essence because it's fast and easy and has good stuff in it. Use a lot, don't be shy! Mix it all together and form patties. Grill until they are cooked through, but not dry. Toast the buns at the end, if you like.


Everyone has their own favorite guac recipe. For this burger topper I used:
* 2 avocados
* 1/4 red onion, finely diced
* 1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
* Juice from 1 lime
* Kosher salt & pepper--to taste

Mash all together in a bowl. Easy peasy.

Note: when serving guac as a chip dip, for example, I will also dice a tomato, but I skipped it for this one because I was serving tomatoes in 2 other dishes. For this, I just wanted something that would be nice and thick and stay on a burger.

Caramelized Onions:

* Vidalia onions, halved then cut into 1/3 inch slices.
* Butter--about 1 tablespoon for each onion

Well, I made too much of these, but damn, they were good. I used 3 medium onions for 9 people, but I think I only needed 2. No matter, the leftovers were excellent in scrambled eggs this morning and quesadillas tonight. The most important thing for caramelized onions is to leave yourself enough time! Truly caramelized onions take an hour or more. If you read a recipe and it says something like "caramelize the onions, 20 minutes" or some such thing, know that it is a dirty lie. First what you need to do is get a big enough frying pan, something heavy and non stick is ideal. Melt the butter over medium heat, and add the onions, separating the rings as you add them to the pan. Cook over medium-low heat, tossing them frequently. Eventually the onions will cook down to about 1/4 their volume. The trick is to let them soften without browning. The onions will turn brown eventually, but it will be a caramelized brown, not a burnt brown, and it will happen after about an hour of cooking them. Keep cooking them, tossing, until they reach a nice golden caramel color. Remove from the heat and transfer to your serving dish (or just serve them straight from the pan, if that's how you roll).

Easy Romaine, Corn, and Tomato Salad for 10

This salad is a riff on what Erik has dubbed the "Radloff Salad," a summer staple at my parent's house. A true Radloff Salad is served in a shallow bowl and consists of some combo of mesculan, arugula and/or baby spinach, topped with lots of slices of tomatoes, some cooked sweet corn cut off the cob, shaved Parmesan cheese, and whatever else is kicking around. This salad uses romaine lettuce instead of delicate baby greens because it's easy to cut up and won't be damaged when you toss the salad. The corn adds an unexpected sweetness, and is really the star of this simple salad.

* 2 heads of romaine lettuce.
* 4 ears of corn
* 1 pint grape tomatoes
* block of parmesan cheese
* 4 or 5 scallions

* Extra virgin olive oil
* Balsamic vinegar
* Dijon mustard (optional)
* Salt & pepper, to taste

Peel the corn and boil the ears for about 5 minutes. Drain and let cool. (This can be done ahead of time)

Rinse the grape tomatoes and cut in half.

Rinse the scallions and cut into thin slices. I use pretty much all of the scallion, unless the dark green parts are particularly limp or bruised.

Cut the romaine into 1/2 inch slices, and then wash & spin in a salad spinner.

Working over a large salad bowl, cut the corn off of the cob and break it up with your fingers. Add the tomatoes, lettuce, and scallions. To make an easy dressing, simply drizzle with EVOO and balsamic vinegar (about a 2:1 ratio) and toss. Shave about 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese on top. A really easy way to do this is to use a vegetable peeler and run it along the block of cheese, just as if you were peeling it. Add salt & pepper to taste.

For a slightly tangy-er, more complex dressing, try this instead:
In a bowl whisk together equal parts Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar. Slowly drizzle in olive oil (2 parts), whisking with a fork while you add the oil. The goal here is to emulsify the dressing, that is, to create a thick, uniformly blended dressing. If you do this correctly, you might even need to thin it out a little with water. Adjust to taste with salt & pepper or more oil, if needed. Pour on the salad and toss.

Homemade Ice Cream Sandwiches

Well...I'm not going to give you the cookie recipe I used, since I decided it wasn't actually that good. I tried to be moderately virtuous by using a chocolate chip cookie recipe from Cooking Light. However, the cookies didn't spread well so they ended up too thick, and they just tasted too...light. But the gist of it was: 2 chocolate chip cookies, vanilla ice cream in the middle, each sandwich individually wrapped in saran wrap and frozen. When I try these again I will just use the recipe off the back of a bag of Toll House chocolate chips, a tried and true recipe that produces thin cookies, which are key here. When assembling these sandwiches, make sure the cookies are totally cooled and don't let your ice cream soften too much. I thought I needed soft ice cream, but what I found was that even after I put them back in the freezer the ice cream ran and basically froze around the cookie inside the saran wrap, so when you unwrapped them the cookies had nearly nothing between them and the ice cream was all on the outside, and there were quite messy to eat. So this was basically a recipe on how not to make homemade ice cream sandwiches. Perhaps I will blog about these again when I do them right! (But, that being said, everyone ate them, so I guess the moral of the story is that even a bad ice cream sandwich is still pretty good!

So that is a run down of what I cooked yesterday, bloopers and all (hey, I'm no Martha Stewart). I think I managed to elevate the BBQ fare just a notch, and have hopefully inspired you for your next BBQ party.

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