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Add Some Food Fireworks to Your Fourth of July BBQ

These recipes take standard barbecue dishes to a new level for any Independence Day celebration.

If it weren't for the food, I wouldn't be much of an Independence Day fan. I find fireworks far too noisy and I get faint pleasure from parades. But light those sparklers and fire up the grill! I do love a good barbecue!

So let’s talk about Fourth of July food, and let’s assume you’re going to be cooking and eating outside at your house or somebody else’s.

Burgers and hot dogs on the grill are as easy as can be, and please nearly everyone (except for the vegetarians in your life; we’ll get to them later). But if you want to get a little fancy with those burgers, you can do that without going to too much trouble. My family loves these Mushroom Pizza Burgers, and you can make the sauce ahead—even a few days before the Fourth—and make it even easier on yourself. I found this recipe in a Cooking Light magazine in 1996, and I’ve been making it ever since. Try this if you’re cooking at home this Independence Day.

Mushroom Pizza Burgers

(makes 4 servings and can easily be doubled)

For the sauce:

Cooking spray

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1/4 cup diced onion

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup canned crushed tomatoes, undrained

Coat a small nonstick skillet with spray; place over medium heat until hot. Add sliced mushrooms and onions, sauté 3 minutes. Add oregano and garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add tomatoes; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and squishing the tomatoes to break them down. Remove from heat. Set tomato sauce aside and keep warm if you’re using it right away. Otherwise, store it in an airtight container for up to a week. (And yes, if you want to make this recipe even easier, you can use jarred pizza sauce and skip making this sauce altogether. It won’t be quite as good, but it will be just fine.)

For the burgers:

1 pound ground round

1 1/2 cups finely chopped mushrooms

1/3 cup chopped fresh basil (or 5 teaspoons dried basil)

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 egg white, lightly beaten

4 slices mozzarella cheese

Combine beef and the rest of the burger ingredients (not the cheese) in a bowl; stir well (using clean hands works the best). Divide the mixture into 4 equal portions, shaping into 1/2-inch-thick patties.

Prepare grill. Place patties on grill rack coated with cooking spray. Grill 5 minutes on each side or until done to your preference. Top each patty with cheese, and place each cheese-topped patty on the bottom half of a hamburger bun. Top with 2 tablespoons of the sauce. Put on the bun top and have at it!

* * *

OK, now for those vegetarians. This is a fantastic side dish you can bring to someone else’s barbecue bash, re-heat in their microwave and serve warm. And it will serve as a main course for someone who doesn’t eat meat. I made up this recipe after reading about a couple of fancier ones involving goat cheese and homemade pasta. My version is easier, I promise. The only part that might seem a tiny bit tricky if you’ve never done it before is charring the peppers. It’s not that hard, and you’ll feel like you should have your own show on the Food Channel after you do it for the first time.

Cheese Ravioli with Red Bell Pepper Sauce

(makes 6-8 servings)

For the sauce:

4 or 5 red bell peppers

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup diced canned tomatoes, undrained

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Char the peppers over a grill flame or in a broiler or toaster oven, turning them every so often with tongs until they’re completely blackened on all sides. Place the charred peppers in a paper bag; seal and let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Then you can easily peel and seed the peppers. Chop them up.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and tomatoes and cook until the onion begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Reduce heat to low; add chopped peppers and cook for a few minutes until the onion is very soft, stirring often. Add vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Stir it all together and it’s done.

For the ravioli:

2 pounds frozen cheese ravioli (Meijer brand is pretty good and use any size you choose)

4 tablespoons butter

1 cup sliced black olives              

Parmesan cheese

Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat until it begins to brown. Cook ravioli following package directions for boiling method (takes 3 or 4 minutes). Drain cooked ravioli well. Toss ravioli in skillet with browned butter.

For serving:

Gently toss buttered ravioli with red pepper sauce (re-heated if you did it ahead of time). Serve sprinkled with sliced black olives and Parmesan.

* * *

Here’s one more side dish worthy of the Fourth, a classic Beef and Bean Barbecue Bake, to take the place of those canned baked beans, although they figure in this recipe. I usually make this with ground turkey instead of beef. It’s good either way. You can make this well before your barbecue, cover it and store it in the frig, and re-heat it when the guests arrive or just before you bring it to share at someone else’s party. I adapted this version from a recipe I found online about 10 years ago. You can easily adapt my version to suit yourself, adding cheese on the top at the end and baking it for a few more minutes, or even mixing in cooked macaroni. I like it this way, however:

Ground Meat and Bean Barbecue Bake

(makes about 6 servings)

2 tablespoons oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic

1 large celery rib, chopped

1 green or red bell pepper, chopped

2 or 3 shakes of dried red pepper flakes (or more if you like the heat)

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef or turkey

1 16-ounce can baked beans, undrained (Bush’s is a good brand)

1 16-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup barbecue sauce

1/4 cup molasses

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, celery and peppers; cook, stirring, for 5-6 minutes or until vegetables are softened. Add in the red pepper flakes, garlic and ground meat; cook, breaking up the meat with a fork or wooden spoon, for about 6 minutes, or until meat is no longer pink. Drain off all the fat in the skillet.

Stir in the baked beans, kidney beans, barbecue sauce, molasses, Worcestershire sauce and mustard. Mix well to combine.

Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Bake uncovered for about 40 minutes.

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Do you have a favorite Fourth of July recipe? Share it in the comments below.

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