Taking the 'Labor' Out of Labor Day BBQs
Tips, ideas, and recipes for throwing an easy end-of-summer bash.
Camps might be winding down and back-to-school shopping may have started in earnest already—but don’t put away the sunscreen just yet. Summer’s not officially over ‘til you throw that final Labor Day BBQ. The question is, what are you going to serve after three long months of grilled burgers and dogs? Local chefs and food purveyors have come to the rescue with ideas, tips, and mouth-watering recipes to make your Labor Day bash a blow-out.
Ask any grill master and they’ll tell you that the secret to great barbecue all starts with a good cut of meat. Frank Ammirato, butcher and owner of Frank’s Meat Market in Scotch Plains for the past 17 years, provided some solid advice on what to buy.
“As far as steak goes, I personally think rib eye is the best on the grill,” Ammirato said. “Don’t marinate it, though. You want to really taste the meat. If you’re going to make kebabs, the best cut is beef tenderloin. It’s a little expensive, but it’s worth it. You can use top round, but it can dry out on you. I would recommend the tenderloin. Italian sausages or sausage patties are also good on the grill. Another thing about grills: charcoal has the best flavor. I never use a gas grill.”
Once you’ve secured the main event, how are you going to cook it? Patch turned to one of the foremost experts in the field, Famous Dave’s, to find out some tricks of the trade (see photos for two Famous Dave's recipes). They should know; the popular establishment smokes over 400 pounds of ribs four or five times every week.
“Famous Dave’s is definitely the king of barbecue. There’s no doubt about that,” said Paul Krupa, general manager of Famous Dave’s in Mountainside. “Everything is smoked and slow, like barbecue should be. We smoke the ribs for about three hours on a low temp, 250 degrees. We smoke the pork for ten hours at 250 degrees, and we smoke our Texas beef brisket for a couple of hours. Slow-cooking at a low temperature is definitely the key to good barbecue.”
And where does the barbecue master stand on beer can chicken and home grilling?
“I’ve done beer can chicken at my house, but we don’t sell it at the restaurant,” admitted Krupa. “I liked it, and my kids liked it. It was pretty good, and it was easy to cook. My personal tip is to make sure to keep the lid closed so the heat doesn’t escape, and you have to have a thermometer so you know what the temperature is. Then you’ve got to keep monitoring the temperature. You can’t be impatient. The same goes for steak or meats, especially if you’re smoking something. You don’t want to open the doors and let all the hot air out. Then you’ve got to spend all that time getting the temperature back up. Of course, the best tip of all is to let Famous Dave’s do the cooking!”
Instead of grilling yet another batch of corn, Florence Ravioli in Scotch Plains provided one of their own recipes to Patch, a tasty twist on how to use up the last kernels of the season. (Recipe found here.)
“Our Fresh Whole Wheat Fettucini with Shrimp, Corn, and Fresh Tomatoes recipe is a great way to enjoy tomatoes, basil, and corn at their peak as the summer winds down,” said Anthony Losanno of Florence Ravioli.
According to an informal Patch survey, summer drinks followed grill food in order of barbecue importance. When planning any kind of shindig, Park Beverages in Scotch Plains recommends their “Mixologist’s Guide to Cocktails,” an A to Z recipe book which offers a plethora of cocktail options, some of which can be adapted to accommodate a non-alcoholic crowd.
Of course, a party wouldn’t be a party without dessert. John Cioffi, head baker and owner of Scotch Plains’ Swiss Pastry Shoppe, remarked that everyone should take advantage of the end of the summer fruit season when thinking about sweets.
“This time of year you can make fresh peach pies or tarts, plum tarts, apple tarts, strawberry tarts, and blueberry tarts,” Cioffi said. “Rugula is also great for barbecues. These kinds of desserts stand up well outdoors.”
And, contrary to popular opinion, barbecues do not have to be the downfall of dieters and those looking to eat mindfully. It is possible to make healthy choices among the sugary sauces and mayonnaise-based salads. Diane Weeks, registered dietitian at the Robert Wood Johnson Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center in Scotch Plains gave Patch some ideas on how to make healthy selections at the table. Weeks runs a variety of healthy cooking seminars that are open to the public at the Wellness Center.
“As a dietitian, I’m concerned about preventive nutrition. Try limiting the portion sizes of red meat and grill other things besides red meat. Studies have shown that eating no more than eight ounces of cooked meat a week can help prevent colon and stomach cancer. Also, make sure you have plenty of grilled vegetables. Just use a basic Italian dressing, baste the vegetables ahead of time, and then baste them on the grill. In terms of the salads and things, if you’re going to invest in a food group, make it fruits, vegetables, and beans. Try some other kinds of salads instead of the regular macaroni and potato salads. If you’re throwing a party or attending one, you can always go to the deli counter and pick out a wheat berry salad, couscous, and things like that. Or take a can of black beans, add some corn, and add some dressing. It’s also a good time to capitalize on fruits. I would recommend grilling pretty much any fruit, including pineapple. All you have to do to the fruit is add lemon juice, a little bit of brown sugar, and then grill them. It’s been my experience that if you bring tasty, healthy things to a party, they usually disappear. Try a recipe from the American Heart Association or the Mayo Clinic. If you’re going to eat more healthy, number one, you have to plan for it. That doesn’t mean don’t have your favorites, but also offer other options.”
No matter what kind of menu you choose for your Labor Day barbecue, the most important thing is to prep what you can and not sweat the small stuff on the day of the event. Barbecues are supposed to be casual. So if you drop veggies through the grate, pass off store-bought as homemade, chomp down brownies instead of fruit, or worst case scenario, run out of propane or charcoal—fear not. Mix up a tall beverage or pump the keg, cool off with a watermelon margarita ice pop, sit back in your lawn chair, and enjoy these last, fleeting moments of summer.