If you want a symbol of how much American attitudes about grilling have changed in recent years, consider Labor Day. It used to marks the end of summer barbecue season -- a last hurrah of smoke and fire before you mothballed your grill for the winter.
These days, most of us grill through Thanksgiving and a growing number of Americans (45 percent according to the Hearth and Patio Barbecue Association) fire up our grills year round.
Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, when Congress resolved to honor the achievements of American workers on the first Monday of September. And the best way to celebrate Labor Day? Now as then, with a barbecue.
By this time of year, you've been grilling hard all summer long. So why not serve a menu that's big on flavor, but light on the actual labor? Of course, someone still has to man the grill, and nobody is better at it or enjoys it more than you do. But you don't have to sweat it out on Labor Day either.
Here are five strategies for staging a Labor Day barbecue -- hold the hard work.
- Make your guests part of the grilling. One of my favorite appetizers for a Labor Day barbecue is pa amb tomaquet -- also known as pan con tomate or Catalan tomato bread. Tomatoes are in peak season and everyone loves garlic bread. So set out a platter of ripe tomato halves, half garlic cloves, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a cruet of fragrant extra virgin olive oil. Slice up a baguette or ciabatta and grill until crusty and brown on both sides. Serve the slices hot off the grill. Instruct each guest to rub the grilled bread with cut garlic and tomato, then season with salt, pepper, and olive oil. Serve on napkins -- you don't even need plates. It's the essence of summer on a slab of bread.
- Grill a platter of vegetables. Farmstands are bursting with zucchini, corn, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, and other summer vegetables this time of year. Slice and season them with olive oil (or walnut oil), salt, and pepper. Grill until handsomely browned and arrange on a platter. The vivid colors will make you look like Matisse, and grilled vegetables taste great at room temperature, so you can cook and plate them ahead.
- For the entrée, smoke or grill a large hunk of protein. It's easier to smoke, grill, or spit-roast one pork shoulder, beef tenderloin, turkey, ham, or even whole salmon or striped bass and carve it for a dozen people than to grill a dozen individual steaks, chops, or fish fillets. Plus the timing on a large roast is much more forgiving. You not only can, but should cook it ahead so it has a half hour or so to rest. Plus, carving a large roast to order in front of a hungry crowd elevates you to the status of grill god.
- Smoke-roast root vegetables. About the easiest side dish/starch I know is to fill a foil pan with potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and other root vegetables--use new potatoes or cut larger ones into 1-inch pieces. Break up a head of garlic or two (leave the skin intact) and add it to the root vegetables with olive oil, duck fat, or other favorite fat, and salt and pepper to taste. Indirect grill at 400 degrees until browned and tender, 40 to 60 minutes, stirring from time to time. Don't forget to toss a couple handfuls of soaked drained hardwood chips on the coals to generate wood smoke. Finish with fresh chopped herbs.
- Work less with s'mores. Remember the s'more? If you were a scout or went to summer camp, you sure do. S'mores are a fun way to have everyone at your Labor Day barbecue cook his/her own dessert. Of course, there are s'mores and s'mores and these will take you uptown.
- Instead of commercial graham crackers, use artisanal or homemade cookies, like chocolate chip, gingersnaps, or shortbread.
- Instead of cheap milk chocolate candy bars, invest in some interesting high cocoa-butter content chocolates, like Scharffen Berger or Lindt. Or buy an interesting flavored chocolate bar, like those made by Vosge (flavored with bacon or chiles).
- Make your own marshmallows. It's easier than you think, and you can flavor the marshmallows with rum, bourbon, or other favorite spirit.
- Build a big fire in your charcoal grill, adding a few logs for that campfire experience. Let everyone grill his own marshmallow and assemble his own s'more, vigorously debating whether or not to brown the marshmallow or set it on fire and blow it out. (I guess you know what school I belong to.)
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