While meat of all sorts is generally the centerpiece of any summer barbecue, it's the side dishes that are usually the most intriguing.
Meat can be interesting if there's a special rub or glaze involved, but at a large-scale party, the host is almost always serving the ever-popular hot dogs and hamburgers. These items can vary in quality, and there's some amount of skill involved, but the side dishes are where guests can really let their creativity shine.
But coming up with unique side dishes can be a challenge when one is invited to barbecue after barbecue.
There are the standard "grilling sides," of course—but unless yours is absolutely the best out there, it can be hard to make your dish stand out from the myriad of other items crowding picnic tables valleywide.
If you're making macaroni salad, the key to the best ones seems to be balancing out the creamy mayonnaise with the acid bite of vinegar in the dressing, which should be somewhat sparing—gloppy salad is not enjoyable for anyone.
The recipe here adds pickle juice to the dressing to add an interesting kick and help the dressing meld with the other ingredients, including chopped pickles, roasted red pepper and olives.
Baked beans can be tricky to get just right. Many canned versions are simply too sweet, not smoky enough or somehow bland.
The recipe here uses a small amount of crushed pineapple for added sweetness, but balances all of that with tangy mustard and steak sauce and a hearty inclusion of kielbasa and bacon.
This dish is best brought to a party filled with the type of people who consistently order Meat Lover's Pizza and ask for extra pepperoni.
If you really want to stand out—and give diet-conscious people a welcome option—it can be best to take the nontraditional route and go with a very lightly dressed salad.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to take mini mozzarella cheese morsels and cubed nectarines or peaches and toss them with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper and some finely chopped fresh basil.
The flavor of fresh peaches, which can be choked by sugar and ginger in baked goods, is allowed to shine brightly in this dish.
Of course, you don't need to follow these recipes. Tossing spinach with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese can be a crowd-pleaser, or try experimenting on your own with the fresh produce cropping up all over the valley. But whatever you choose to bring, enjoy the plethora of summer barbecues—we'll be huddled indoors eating soup soon enough.
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks food blog
4 cups elbow macaroni
3 whole roasted red peppers, chopped
1/2 cup black olives, sliced
1/2 cup diced sweet and spicy pickle slices (not dill)
3 whole green onions, sliced (green and white parts)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
3 tsp. sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup milk
Splash of pickle juice, to taste
Cook macaroni in lightly salted water according to package directions. Drain and rinse to cool; set aside.
Mix together mayo, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Splash in enough milk to make the dressing pourable. Add pickle juice to taste for extra flavor. Taste dressing and adjust seasonings as needed.
Toss cooled macaroni with three-quarters of the dressing. Add olives, red peppers, pickles and green onions, plus more dressing if desired, and toss.
Chill for at least 2 hours before serving (and if serving outside, place salad bowl inside a larger ice-filled bowl to keep cool). Serves 12.
Best Baked Beans
Adapted from the food blog Iowa Girl Eats
3 lbs. canned pork and beans
1 large onion, chopped
1 small can crushed pineapple, slightly drained
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 Tbsp. steak sauce
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
14 oz. smoked kielbasa, diced
12 slices of bacon
3/4 cup ketchup
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drain some of the liquid off the top of the can of beans, then mix beans with onion, crushed pineapple, brown sugar, steak sauce, mustard and kielbasa.
Pour mixture into a 9x13 baking dish sprayed with nonstick spray, then lay bacon across top. Spread ketchup on top of the bacon.
Bake for 2 hours or until the top is completely caramelized. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Peach, Mozzarella and Basil Salad
Adapted from Real Simple Magazine
Cut 3 ripe peaches into 6 to 8 wedges each, then cut each wedge in half crosswise. In a large bowl, combine the peaches with 1 cup freshly torn basil leaves and 1 cup mozzarella cut into 1-inch pieces. Drizzle with 2 tsp olive oil, sprinkle salt and pepper to taste and toss. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org