FOOD WISE: Recipes, decorating ideas to celebrate the 4th!

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Raspberry and blueberry parfaits. (Courtesy Photo)

My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing! Our country’s birthday is coming up and I am excited and ready for the celebration. You know me…any excuse to celebrate! For you purists, of course we know that July 4th wasn’t named the country’s official Independence Day holiday until 1941, but the fact is, some sort of Independence Day celebration has been held since way back in 1776.

Americans have celebrated the holiday in many ways: barbecues and cookouts, family reunions, fireworks, parades and picnics. And why not? There is little enough reason in our daily lives to celebrate. I say, party on, my brothers and sistas!

I love the fireworks most of all. I try to make it a point to see a fireworks display every year. My favorites so far include a fourth of July spent at the famous Navy Pier in Chicago and attending the Boston Pops Orchestra fireworks display on the Charles River Esplanade in Boston, MASS. Totally worth fighting the crowds and crazies on public transit. There is nothing quite as spectacular as seeing the fireworks reflecting in the water and set to the music of the Boston Pops Orchestra. I know, I’m just a romantic at heart.

As spectacular as those displays were, I remember attending a fireworks display here in Liberty Hill with my grandchildren that was thoroughly charming and equally exciting for the little boys sitting in the back of our pickup, staring up at the nighttime sky, ooohing and aaahing at each explosion of light. You can’t buy those kinds of memories.

Independence Day is also a time for us to pause and think about what a fantastic country we live in. We think about how grateful we are for the men and women who have served our country to insure our freedom and the liberties we enjoy and take for granted every day.

But mostly, we think about good food, good friends, good drinks, and good parties. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As for me and my household, we are planning the annual stuff-your-face fest. I’m planning to cook out. A barbeque, if you will. Not to be confused with barbeque as in the kind of cooked meat. Here’s what’s on the menu: Grilled Beef Kebobs, Red, White and Blue Potato Salad with Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette, Grilled Sesame Asparagus and Summer Berry Trifle for dessert. Don’t worry, I’ll share some recipes with you and I’ll also share some tips with you about how to work with skewers for kebobs and how to keep food in the temperature safety zone during the cookout, along with some holiday theme ideas.

In regards to the kebobs, let’s talk about working with skewers. First of all, forget about what most grilling books say: if you’re cooking over high heat, bamboo skewers will burn and break apart – no matter how long you soak them in water beforehand. I’ve always had better luck with metal skewers. Initially, they are more expensive but they are reusable and can handle the heartiest kebobs without bending or breaking. The flat kind work best as the round ones turn while the food doesn’t. The flat ones allow you to turn the food easily. I like the Norpro 12-inch stainless steel skewers. For lighter jobs, you could use bamboo skewers as long as you give them a nice long soak in water before using them.

Another thing to keep in mind is the use of a marinade since most kebobs are made of less expensive cuts of meat, such as blade steaks or top sirloin. The acid component in the marinade will help to break down the meat’s tough connective tissue, thereby making the meat tenderer. Your kebobs will also cook more evenly if all the meat and veggie chunks are cut of similar size.

In preparing for my own July 4th celebration, I knew I wanted subtle patriotic colors and theming without it being too over-the-top. One way I could accomplish that was to add red stick on stars and streamers to some white paper lanterns and then there’s that star-spangled bow tie for the dogs. I could go on and on with red, white and blue decor ideas. I like displaying those metal pom-poms in a mason jar full of sand in multiples down the table. It kind of looks like fireworks. Another simple thing to do is use blue fingerling, red bliss and gold Yukon potatoes in your potato salad for a red, white and blue treat and; of course, you could use raspberries or strawberries, blueberries in your dessert. Most importantly, we proudly display our American Flag…long may she wave.

While we are having all our holiday fun, one of the most important things to think about is food safety. Not really a very sexy topic, but getting sick from food sitting out in the heat at a picnic is even less so. The rule is simple. If it’s hot, keep it hot. If it’s cold, keep it cold. For example, you could fill a colorful plastic tub with ice and nestle your bowl of potato salad into the ice. Also, consider setting up your food tables in the shade. Even if you set up your food tables indoors, the food temps should be maintained with an ice bath for cold foods or a crock-pot or chaffing dish for hot foods. We must be absolutely fastidious about this. Believe me, your tummy will thank you.

Whether you are picnicking with the family on the Guadalupe or catching the fireworks show at Auditorium Shores or the Dell Diamond, have fun, be safe and Happy Birthday, America!

Grilled Beef Kebobs

Serves 4 to 6

Marinade:

1/4  cup extra virgin olive oil

1/8 cup rice vinegar

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary

3 medium garlic cloves, pressed through a press

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 pounds top sirloin steak, trimmed of fat and cut into 1 1/4 inch cubes

Fruits and Vegetables:

1 pineapple, trimmed and cut the same as the steak

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium yellow bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

1 large red onion, cubed into 1-inch pieces

1. For the marinade: Combine oil, rice vinegar, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add steak and toss to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

2. Prep gas or charcoal grill.

3. For the Fruit and Vegetables: Brush all fruit and veggies with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Using metal skewers, thread each skewer with pineapple, stack of onion, cube of meat, each color of bell pepper. Then repeat sequence up to two more times.

4. Grill kebobs directly over hot grill until meat is well browned and cooked to medium rare, about 7 minutes (8 minutes for medium). Transfer to a platter. Squeeze lemon or lime wedges over the kebobs, if desired.

Summer Berry Trifle

serves 8-10

1 package (3.4-ounce) instant vanilla pudding

4 cups fresh berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries), washed and hulled, plus extra for garnish

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

24 to 36 ladyfingers or a Sara Lee frozen pound cake cut into pieces

1. To make the fillings, prepare the pudding according to the package directions and chill it.

2. Slice the strawberries, if you’re using them, then toss all of the berries with the lemon juice and the 1/4 cup of sugar. Set aside for 30 minutes to allow the berries to release their juices.

3. In a medium mixing bowl, whip the cream, vanilla extract, and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar until soft peaks form. Set aside.

4. To make the layers, set a layer of ladyfingers (around 7 or 8) on the bottom of a large, clear serving bowl (ours was 4 quarts). Top with the berries with half of the pudding.

5. Add another layer of ladyfingers, another third of the berries and juice, and the rest of the pudding. Add a final layer of ladyfingers and berries. Top with the whipped cream and a berry garnish.

6. Refrigerate until you’re ready to serve.