Patriotic Summertime Plates —And the Livin’s Tasty

By Fanny Slater |

Sun’s out. Bun’s out.

Wait, no. Put your swim trunks back on. We’re talking patriotic summertime plates: burgers and dogs here. Between the grill marks, tan lines, and patriotic pitter patter in the air—it’s clear that summertime extravaganzas are upon us. Whether you’re kicking off the season with a pool party or packing some snacks and taking off for the shore, you’ve got to have a plan, Stan. So grab your picnic baskets and your sweetest shades because I’m about to cruise you through a course on Americana eats that are guaranteed to create some sparks at your next celebration.

But first, beach. Thanks to that infamous eastern seaboard humidity, Port City patrons find any excuse they can to jump in the ocean. And with a long, hot day ahead (and a sure-to-be sunburnt nose)—organizing a satisfying lunch ahead of time is a must. It doesn’t matter if you plop your cooler into the Wrightsville, Carolina Beach, or Southport sand. What counts is what’s on the inside. So which items are good for sandy-toed snacking and which aren’t? Here are some basic rules and a few tasty tips. For a substantial meal without the messy between-bread fillings, opt for wraps over sandwiches. Choose something light, healthy, and beach-body-friendly like homemade chicken salad. Scoop into whole wheat wraps, roll into foil, and tear down your tortilla as you go. This creates a pocket on the bottom to catch any celery that’s gone astray. Cutting down on carbs? Dollop your creamy concoction into oversize Bibb lettuce leafs instead for a nutritious, easy-to-skip-around-with lunch. Plus, you’ll have a free hand for Frisbee-throwing or Founder’s All Day IPA-drinking.

Trust me. I know my brews.

Nothing says checkered picnic cloths like fried chicken. And if you’re armed with a basket and a blanket—you’re probably not setting up shop at a microwave-ready location. Luckily, the only thing better than fried chicken…is leftover cold fried chicken. This dish is a staple Americana-style classic that bring salt, crunch, and smiles to any occasion. Seeing as on-the-go eats are best served either room temperature or cold, this juicy repurposed meal is ideal for picnicking. How to cook it up like the pros? All no-fail fried chicken starts with an extended stay in a buttermilk bath. Step two involves a dredge into spice-perfumed flour and then into the fryer we go. If you’re opposed to eating second-day items at their non-intended temperatures (come on, you’re telling me you don’t like cold pizza?) here are some other suggestions.

The triple salad threat—potato, pasta, fruit—is always a winner for cooling crowds down under the sun. And seriously, what’s more ‘Merica than potato salad? If you’re fearful the mayo in your mix can’t take the heat, go for an oil-based vinaigrette instead. Pack plastic utensils and plates for cleanup in a snap. For a mind-blowing spin on fruit salad, mix colors and textures like sliced pineapple, strawberries, and kiwi. Take advantage of vibrant Farmer’s Market produce and impress your followers by Instagramming things like: #eatlocal. Season your sweet salad with citrus (like zippy lime), a drizzle of honey, and fresh herbs like mint for an unexpected pop of floral flavor.

The epitome of summertime is a swimsuit-clad cookout by the pool. And though the bottle-poppers receive the majority of the cheers—everybody knows that the heart of the party is at the grill. The smell of chlorine and charcoal in the air screams Americana. Why is there something so patriotic about squirting ketchup and mustard between buns? Well that’s a question that doesn’t really require an answer, like “where do babies come from?” or “what are Slim Jims made of?” The best part about typical cookout fare is that it doesn’t take much to impress. Feel free to get all Food Network by whipping up an aioli or caramelizing some onions with bourbon (no really, check out my recipe)—or simply lay out a plate of buns and meat and watch the crowd go wild. I suppose if we had to break down the reasoning, it’s the ease of the meal that gives it such appeal. I rhymed. You’re welcome. It’s wonderful to create an elegant spread for a special gathering, but merely grilling hot dogs and cheeseburgers is enough to satisfy your hungry troop. Well, unless they’re vegetarians…

As much as I hate to admit, that heavy picnic fare (I’m lookin’ at you, white flour bread and fat-loaded salads) can occasionally leave you feeling not-so-swimsuit-ready. So if you’re going for an upscale meal, it’s time to get fresh with creative patriotic summertime plates. Want a little red, white, and blue in your fancy feast? Blueberry, strawberry, and jicama salsa does the trick. Substitute the mayo in decadent dips for nonfat Greek yogurt. Swap out chuck for lean ground turkey burgers, and standard pork dogs for chicken sausages. Keep your patriotic pals happy by maintaining a traditional menu with some modernized spins. By catering to everyone’s needs (but not losing the celebratory spirit) you can keep the peace but still break out the classic condiments.

What to say to your friend who still brings American flag-adorned cupcakes to the July 4th cookout? Welcome to the nineties, Mr. Banks. Sure—red, white, and blue sweets are cute and all but let me show you how to step up your color-happy dessert game beyond the cake realm. Holy kebab, who doesn’t like putting things on a stick? Thread raspberries, blueberries, and pears onto skewers for an Americana trio you’ll want to dip in melted chocolate. Or tequila. Whatever floats your Banana Boat. If it turns out to be a scorcher, your guests will go gaga for ruby red watermelon granita (pureed, frozen, and raked watermelon, sugar, and lemon).

And just because I like you, here’s my number one piece of advice for planning successful summertime soirees: prepare, prepare, prepare. For early morning excursions to the shore—wakey, wakey, get movey and shakey. Nothing kills a beach mood like bumper-to-bumper traffic, so do the majority of your picnic prep ahead of time. Plus, most cooler-packed eats (chicken salad, pimiento cheese, potato salad) all taste better once the flavors get comfy overnight. For a killer cookout cocktail that keeps the host from getting stuck shaking drinks, here’s the trick. Create one signature mix (like vodka-spiked lavender lemonade) and store in a pitcher. Serve alongside a bucket of ice and sparkly water to garnish and you’ve got a stellar setup Uncle Sam is sure to swing by.

Patriotic Summertime Plates

Grilled Sausage Dogs with Drunken Onions & Roasted Tomato Cream
Serves 8

2 large vine ripened tomatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and coarse black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
2 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Worcestershire
8 sausage dogs (flavor and protein of your choice)
8 buns, split open and toasted
1 jar bread and butter pickles

Preheat the oven to 425°.

Toss the tomatoes with the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and arrange on a baking sheet. Roast until wilted and lightly caramelized, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

While the tomatoes are baking, in a large skillet heat the butter over medium low heat. Add the onions and brown sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the bourbon and bring to a low boil. Cook until the liquid evaporates, turn the heat down to low, and continue cooking until the onions are golden brown and caramelized, about 15 to 20 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a small food processor or blender, add the roasted tomatoes and all of their juices, Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, and Worcestershire. Pulse until smooth and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat a grill or grill pan to medium high. Cook the sausages until lightly charred on the outside and fully cooked. Spread each toasted bun with the roasted tomato cream and then top with a sausage link, drunken onions, and pickles.