PUT THE GUESTS TO WORK: Assembling their own shish kebabs.
Memorial Day has marked the official kickoff of the summer grilling season. While the resources of Maine are ready to offer their seasonal delicacies, my wallet is not feeling as generous. But I have never let a detail like finances get in the way of feeding my friends. Trade a little bit of preparation time for money you would have spent for “convenience” foods and stretch the dining dollar.
The best example of this is polenta, a fancy Italian term for “cornmeal mush.” Polenta is a staple of the Italian diet; they have managed to turn ordinary ground cornmeal into a savory dish. The day before firing up the grill, start the polenta by following the recipe for “mush” on the back of the cornmeal canister. A tip: reducing the water by a cup and mixing that with the dry cornmeal before cooking creates a slurry that, when added to the boiling water, will keep the cornmeal from clumping. When they say stir constantly, they mean it! Dedicate at least a half an hour to standing over the stove, so might be best to get a beer beforehand - you’ll be there a while. Toward the end of the cooking time, adding salt and pepper to taste, a splash of olive oil, fresh chopped herbs like rosemary or basil, and a hard grated cheese like Romano will all add flavor and texture. When the spoon comes close to standing up straight, it’s done. Pour into lightly oiled Pyrex pie plates, and put in the fridge. The next day, when they have fully cooled, slice them into wedges, brush with olive oil, and place directly on the grill. When cooked, the outside should be browned and crusty, while the inside will remain creamy, delicious, and amazingly inexpensive.
One time- and money-saving idea that is guaranteed to work is the kabob-your-own. It gets guests involved, taking the heat off you (and your budget) and putting it on the food. Put out a platter of fresh veggies, cut into three-quarter-inch chunks. Things like zucchini, eggplant, Vidalia onion, peppers, mushrooms, and summer squash are all in-season, inexpensive, and great as-is with a pinch or two of kosher salt and unique cracked peppercorns (like the not-really-pepper pink variety.) For proteins, put out chunks of fried tofu and pre-cooked shrimp, as they are both very affordable and great on the grill. The prep can be done the day before, storing veggies in plastic bags in the fridge, or the day of the party, as people are arriving. Rather than marinating the meat, put out a few basting sauces, like an Asian-themed one with hoisin sauce, fresh ginger, sesame oil, and a splash of Quady Electra orange-infused Muscat. The rest of this bottle, which is much more reasonably priced than its sweeter cousin Triple Sec, can get used up later in a delicious white wine sangria punch.