Who needs a boring ol’ dog n’ burger this July 4 when you can have big Mediterranean flavors instead? These lamb burgers are jazzed up with cilantro, scallions, and an unexpected hit of fresh ginger (which gives them a slightly more Southeast Asian pedigree, but no matter–our country is a big tossed salad of culinary influences, is it not?), ready to be dolloped with cool herbed yogurt. For vegetarians, there’s a smoky spread of grilled eggplant and tahini, scooped into grilled pita and topped with crunchy carrot-mint salad. Not a tahini fan? Leave it out and add a little more garlic, lemon juice and olive oil instead, and you’ll have melitzanosalata, a Greek-style eggplant dip, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of chopped fresh oregano.
Put out pitchers of cool, minty limeade, white peach lemonade, or white sangria made with peaches, raspberries, and a bubbly Spanish cava. And in addition to the typical cool-off beers, why not quench the adults’ thirst with some local hard ciders, like Sonoma’s two Gravenstein-based ciders, Graviva! from Tilted Shed Ciderworks, and Apple Sauced from Devoto Gardens? After all, hard cider was the drink of choice for Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who all drank it by the tankardful.
For dessert, think simple, sweet and no-fuss. Load up an ice-filled cooler with a rainbow of fruity popsicles. Plates of bite-sized Rice Krispie treats and wedges of chilled watermelon work, too. Or go the full Girl Scout route and let guests make their own s’mores with chocolate squares, graham crackers, and marshmallows around the grill.
But before you fire up the grill, heed these tips:
The number-one mistake made by outdoor grillers?
Underestimating the time it takes to bring a charcoal-fired grill up to grilling temperature. We’ve all been there, scraping the hummus bowl dry, eating too many chips and baby carrots while the grill slowly fumes, taking its own sweet time to get up to burger-charring heat. If you’re using charcoal, assume that it will take forty-five minutes to an hour to get a bed of coals hot enough to cook. When ready, flames should subside and the coals should be glowing red with a light coating of white ash. A gas grill will be faster; assume about 10 to 15 minutes to get up to temperature.
Hate the taste (and smell) of lighter fluid?
Use a chimney-style metal flue to get your coals started. And remember, to avoid flare-ups, never squeeze lighter fluid onto still-flaming coals. If you don’t have a grill, a ridged grill pan will do just fine. Make sure to preheat it for at least 5 to 7 minutes over medium-high heat before grilling.
That plate you filled with raw meat patties to carry out to the grill?
Don’t reuse it to hold the cooked burgers! Always put cooked food onto a clean plate for serving, and use clean serving utensils. Wash hands, utensils, and plates after touching or preparing raw meat or poultry. Keep cold things cold and hot things hot, and don’t put everything out at once. Keep reinforcements of perishable items, like dairy- or mayonnaise-based sauces and condiments, in the refrigerator. After 3 to 4 hours, dump what’s been sitting out in the heat and replace with fresh supplies in clean dishes. Never mix what’s been sitting out with what’s fresh from the fridge.
And if you’re looking for some additional good old American picnic favorites, we’ve got classic potato salad, roasted potato salad in rosemary-chive vinaigrette, and for the gluten-free and/or vegans among us, a tasty, no-fail quinoa-bean salad.
Recipe: Lamb Burgers with Herbed Yogurt
Slide this tasty burgers into grilled pita-bread halves or toasted sesame buns, then top with a dollop of herby yogurt or spiced-up ketchup.
- 2 lb ground lamb
- 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
- 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
- 1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
- 3 scallions (green onions), finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 4 to 6 pita breads or buns
- Herbed Yogurt Sauce, for serving (below)
1. Prepare grill. Gently mix lamb with herbs, grated ginger, scallions, cumin, and salt. Form into plump patties.
2. Grill patties over medium-high heat about 4 minutes on each side, or until outside is well browned but centers are still pink. Place pita bread at edges of grill and grill until just warmed through and lightly char-marked. Tuck burgers into pita and dollop with Herbed Yogurt.
Recipe: Herbed Yogurt
Inspired by Greek tzatziki and Indian raita, this makes a cooling topping for lamb burgers. It can also double as a great dip for raw veggies. Look for thick, dense Greek-style yogurt, or use a half-and-half mixture of yogurt and sour cream.
- 2 cups plain yogurt, preferably Greek style
- 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill, stems removed, finely chopped
- 3 scallions or 1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. Stir yogurt, mint, dill, scallions, and salt and pepper together. Taste for seasoning. If not using right away, cover and chill.
Recipe: Grilled Eggplant Spread
Known as baba ganoush in Middle Eastern restaurants, this is hummus’s sexy older sister: smooth and smoky, with a sassy, garlicky bite zingy with lemon. Use as a sandwich spread in grilled pita rounds with carrot-mint salad and fresh tomato slices, or serve as a dip with raw veggies and crunchy pita chips.
- 1 large eggplant
- 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/3 cup tahini
- juice of 2 lemons
- 1/4 tsp smoked paprika, for serving (optional)
1. Prepare grill. Rub eggplant with olive oil and pierce in several places with a fork. Grill whole eggplant, turning frequently, until skin is browned and charred and flesh is softened. Remove from grill and set aside until cool enough to handle. Strip off skin and discard.
2. Put grilled eggplant, garlic, salt, tahini, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and lemon juice into blender or food processor. Blend for 1 minute. Scrape down sides with rubber spatula.
3. Replace the lid and blend again for another minute, or until mixture is smooth. Taste for seasoning, and add more lemon juice, salt, or olive oil as needed.
4. Using rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with smoked paprika, if desired.
Recipe: Carrot Mint Salad
Crunchy, bright, wholesome, and pretty.
- 1 lb carrots, organic if possible, peeled and coarsely grated
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 to 3 tbsp lemon juice
- A splash of apple cider vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- A large handful of fresh mint leaves, stems removed, finely chopped
1. Toss carrots with olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Just before serving, stir in mint.