Memorial Day is the unofficial kickoff to summer, so it’s not surprising this is the time of year when many home cooks start dusting off their gas or charcoal grills and power-washing their patios.
Summer is peak grilling season for the 80 percent of Americans who own a grill or smoker, according the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, with Memorial Day — which honors the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military — ranking as the third most popular day for a cookout after July 4 and Labor Day.
Summer also is when backyard barbecues, graduation parties and other gatherings kick into high gear. For the cook, that means finding recipes that are both easy, seasonal and crowd favorites.
Traditional sides like baked beans, coleslaw, macaroni salad and corn on the cob are synonymous with outdoor cooking, and we love our potato salads, too, be they made with mayo, sour cream, salad dressing or a simple Dijon vinaigrette. Proteins with bold, meaty flavor — think burgers, hot dogs and brats — also are key players when you’re cooking on a grill.
Some like to go all-out on this first holiday of the season with a multitude of dishes. But if you’re easing back into entertaining after our pandemic recess, simple can work just as well if you go with big flavors. This sample menu features three of my family’s favorite recipes: My son Jack’s pan-fried smash burgers with a bold horseradish aioli, a quick-and-easy potato salad studded with salty, crisp bacon and crunchy green onion, and, for dessert, an old-fashioned strawberry-rhubarb bar that tastes like summer.
With regards to the burgers: While they’re technically cooked on the grill, it’s inside a cast-iron skillet instead of the more tried-and-true method of directly on the grates. This is for two reasons. One, smash burgers continue to have a moment on the food scene. And two, cooking in cast-iron is a growing trend, according to Eric Davis of HPBA.
“People are experimenting with different dishes beyond the everyday items — think scrambled eggs, quesadillas, veggies, pies and more,” he says. “The trusted cast-iron skillet is the perfect accessory to grill these and other items to perfection.”
Cooking in a pan also eliminates flare-ups, meat accidentally falling through the grates and any number of other grilling mishaps. You want to start summer on the right foot, after all.
The entire country seems to be crazy for smash burgers these days, but they’re difficult to cook on a grill because the fat drippings that make them so delicious slip through the grates. The solution: using a cast-iron pan on top of the grates.
The key here is to get the pan smoking hot (directly over the heat source) and to remember the pan will be very hot. You’ll need leather grilling gloves or layers of towels to protect your hands.
My son Jack, who cooked professionally during college, loves this burger recipe. Instead of the standard ketchup and mustard, accouterments include a spicy horseradish aioli and plenty of pickle and onion.
Smash Burgers With Fried Cheddar
Makes 6 burgers. From Jack McKay
For horseradish aioli
½ cup mayonnaise
2 heaping tablespoons horseradish, or more to taste
Pinch of granulated garlic
Salt and pepper
ν For burgers
1½ pounds 80/20 ground beef
Salt and black pepper
12 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
1 large tomato, sliced
½ white onion, diced or sliced
Sliced dill pickles
6 regular or gluten-free hamburger buns, divided
In a small bowl, combine mayo and horseradish. Stir until smooth and then season to taste with salt and pepper. If it’s not spicy enough, add a little more horseradish.
Prepare a charcoal grill for grilling. When coals are hot, place a heavy, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet directly on the grate and let it heat up for 10 minutes. It should be pretty hot (400 to 500 degrees). Loosely divide ground beef into 6 portions, and gently form into large, loose balls.
Place 3 meat balls on the hot skillet and smash with a spatula for several seconds to form thin, flat patties. Don’t worry if they are not perfectly round, but they should be wide and flat. Sear the bottom of the patty into the heated cooking surface for 10 seconds.
Liberally season patties with salt and pepper and cook, without touching, until the outer edges are brown and caramelized, about 2-3 minutes. Flip patties, season with more salt and pepper, cook another minute or so, until burgers are medium-rare. Remove to plate and cover with foil to keep warm. Repeat with 3 remaining patties.
Using half the cheese, make 3 wide piles on hot skillet. Once it starts to bubble and brown around the edge, it’s ready for the burgers.
Spread a generous amount of horseradish aioli on bun bottoms, then top with a burger. Using a spatula flip a portion of fried cheese on top, followed by a slice or two of tomato, onion and pickle chips, plus a little more aioli if you like your burgers messy. Fry the rest of the cheese, then finish assembling the remaining three burgers in the same manner.
Top each burger with a top bun, and serve immediately, with lots of napkins to dab the drippings off your chin.
Bacon Potato Salad
Serves 6. Gretchen McKay
2 pounds baby gold potatoes, halved
6 slices bacon
½ red onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
3 green onions, diced
¼ cup fresh parsley (regular or Italian flat-leaf), finely chopped
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground
Prepare potatoes: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, then add potatoes. Allow potatoes to simmer until done and fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and rinse potatoes under cold water to stop the cooking process; set aside.
While potatoes cook, fry the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat until crispy. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, and when cool, crumbed or chop into small pieces and set aside.
Add red onion to the skillet with bacon fat, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, stir to combine, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, then remove from heat.
Prepare dressing: In large bowl, combine mayonnaise, mustard and vinegar. Whisk to combine, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Taste again, and add of mustard, mayo or vinegar to desired taste.
Add cooked potatoes, and stir to combine. Add the crumbled bacon, onion mixture, chopped green onions and parsley to bowl. Toss to combine. Serve immediately, or chill in refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Strawberry-Rhubarb Picnic Bars
Makes 12 to 16 bars. Adapted from smittenkitchen.com
1 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup plus up to 2 tablespoons extra all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Heaped 1/4 teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
2 medium stalks rhubarb, diced (about 1 cup)
1 cup diced strawberries
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line bottom and two sides of 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper (this allows for easy removal).
Place oats, 3/4 cup flour, brown sugar and salt in medium bowl and mix. Pour melted butter over, and stir until clumps form. If the clumps feel soft or look overly damp, add the remaining 2 tablespoons flour.
Set aside 1/2 cup of the crumble mixture. Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan.
Spread half the fruit over the crust. Sprinkle it evenly with cornstarch, then lemon juice, and 1/2 tablespoon of granulated sugar. Spread remaining fruit over this, and top with remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Scatter reserved crumbs over fruit and bake bars for 30 to 40 minutes (mine took the full 40 minutes), until fruit is bubbly and crisp portion is golden and smells toasty and amazing.
Let cool in pan. (If you cool in the fridge instead of at room temperature, they will be crisper). Cut into squares. Store leftovers in fridge.