At the end of every month, I tear off another page of our oversize family calendar and toss the tattered sheet away. April lands in the recycling bin and I am gleeful. There, on the last line for May, is the gateway to summer: Memorial Day. This is the weekend that changes our cooking — kitchens are transformed as we uncover the backyard grills and take the heat outside. With longer days and warmer temperatures, I am drawn to traditional southern and spicy Southwestern dishes. If you’re planning a party, why not greet your guests with a tray of watermelon margaritas? I can guarantee the cookout that follows will be memorable.
1. Lemonade with fresh mint
Mix together the juice of 10 lemons, 6 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, 3 sprigs mint. Adjust to taste and add 8 sprigs of mint. Refrigerate and serve in tall glasses with a sprig of mint in each.
2. Watermelon margaritas
This recipe is from the late, great Gourmet magazine: Cut up a watermelon into cubes, place in Ziplock bag and freeze overnight. Place the frozen watermelon (5 cups), 1 cup Tequila, 1/2 cup Triple Sec, 1/2 cup fresh lime juice, and 1/4 cup sugar in a blender and blend until the consistency is slushy. Best watermelon margaritas, ever!
3. Crudite with a yogurt-based dipping sauce with chipolte pepper
From Chobani Yogurt’s website: In a blender, puree 2 cups nonfat plain yogurt with 1/2 cup salsa, 1 can chipolte pepper (halved and seeded), with 3/4 tsp salt. Chill overnight.
4. Deviled eggs
Hard boil 9 large eggs for 11 minutes and place in a bowl filled with ice-cold water. Peel the eggs, halve them and remove the yolks. Mash the yolks with a fork and mix with 2 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 tsp mustard, 2 tbsp heavy cream, salt and pepper. Fill the cooked white egg halves and top with a sliver of jalapeno.
A classic from Helen Corbitt who ruled the roost at Neiman-Marcus for years: Mix together 2 cups mashed avocados, 2 tbls lemon juice, 1/2 tbsp grated onion, 2 tbsp chili sauce, 2 drops Tabasco sauce, salt to taste. Serve with a selection of white and blue corn tortilla chips.
6. Grilled, marinated skirt steak
My tried and true preparation for fajitas: Combine 2 cups picante sauce, 1/2 cup vegetable oil, 2 tsp lemon juice, a dash of pepper and a minced clove of garlic. Place a pound of skirt steak in a ziplock bag, pour in the marinade and refrigerate for 3-24 hours. Grill 6-7 minutes a side and slice into thin strips. Serve with warm tortillas on the side.
7. Tequila lime marinated chicken
This wonderful dish comes from Barefoot Contessa Family Style: Easy Ideas and Recipes That Make Everyone Feel Like Family: Combine 1/2 cup gold tequila, 1 cup lime juice, 1/2 cup fresh orange juice, 1 tbsp chili powder, 1 tbsp jalapeno pepper, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 2 tsp kosher salt, tsp pepper. Place 6 boneless chicken breasts, skin on, in a Ziplock bag and pour the marinade. Refrigerate overnight. Grill skin-side down for 5 minutes, flip and grill another 10 minutes.
8. Green salad with corn and tomatoes
Mix a basic green salad, add wedges of tomatoes and corn shaved from the cob. Toss with a simple vinaigrette before serving.
Place the following in a bowl: 1 head green cabbage, cored and finely shredded, 1 English cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced, 2 carrots, shredded. Bring the following to boil: 1/2 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp salt for about 3 minutes. Whisk 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1/4 cup canola oil. Cool slightly. Stir in 1/4 cup heavy cream, 2 tbsp sour cream. Mix with the cabbage, carrots and cucumber.
10. Black beans
Rinse and drain 1-16 ounce dry black beans, soaked overnight in cold water. In a large pot, cover beans with cold water, add 1 peeled yellow onion, 4 cloves peeled garlic, and I bay leaf. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Add Kosher salt during the last 20 minutes.
11. Southwestern rice
Heat 2 tbsp canola oil and saute 1/2 small chopped onion and 1 minced clove of garlic. Add 1 small chopped plum tomato and cook for 4 minutes. Add 1 cup white rice and stir to combine with onion mixture. Add 2 cups water, Kosher salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce to low and simmer 15-20 minutes. Fluff with fork.
12. Vanilla ice cream with berries
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are in season, once again. Wash all, slice the strawberries, and serve along with vanilla ice cream. Adding chocolate sauce, sliced almonds, and whipped cream will transform a classic berry desert into towering sundaes.
Our friend and neighbor, Renee Cohen, is chef/instructor of CuisineArts Cooking School and supplied much of the culinary inspiration for this Memorial Day cookout.