It's cookout weather!

Fending off the picnic “fruitcake”
By TODD RICHARD  |  July 23, 2008
FRUIT, BUT NOT CAKE: Watermelon salsa.

Every season has a fruitcake, an obligatory consumable “guest” that invites itself over every year and overstays its welcome. In the spring, it’s those marshmallow peeps that live and seem to breed in the back of my pantry. In the summer, it might just be hot dogs and hamburgers.

How many mediocre mushy dogs and bland burgers have you been forced to endure so far this season? Likely more than the number of peeps that populate your pantry. If you’re attending (or better yet hosting) a cookout, then have a heart and offer your guests something besides the obvious norm. Here are a few ideas that are standouts for your gathering, whether at home or away.

First up is macaroni salad. Everybody eats it, but nobody likes it. Instead, offer this Mediterranean orzo salad. Start with a box of orzo pasta (it looks like unusually large rice, or unusually small pasta). While the water for the pasta is coming to a boil, chop Kalamata olives, preferably with the pits already removed. Chop roasted red peppers and crumble or chop some feta cheese. After the orzo is cooked al dente, drain it and add olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix in the olives, peppers, and feta. Tear basil leaves, add them to the pasta, and mix all the ingredients well. Add more olive oil if it seems dry. You can also brighten up the flavor a little with a squeeze of fresh lemon, instead of icky, oversalted, store-bought salad dressing.

Another great option for a starch is grilled russet potatoes and Vidalia onions. Slice the potatoes into thin rounds and place them on a sizable square of tinfoil, roughly one potato to each square. Top with a pat of butter, salt, pepper, and a thick slice of Vidalia. Wrap up into tight packets and place on the grill. Cook until the potatoes begin to brown and the Vidalia caramelizes. The steam inside is hot, and will definitely burn you! Leave them be for about 15 or 20 minutes and then check carefully. Top them with sour cream or goat cheese and you might not want the ever-present potato chips and dip.

A terrific accompaniment to grilled fish and chicken, I came across this watermelon salsa at Bartlett’s Oceanview Farm on Nantucket. Chop watermelon into half-inch cubes, roughly four cups' worth, and place the cubes in a bowl. Add chopped chives, chopped mint, and chopped grilled jalapeno (well, you should pick another kind of hot pepper until that federal warning about jalapenos is lifted). If you want it hot, leave the pepper seeds in. If you’ve not overfeta-ed, crumble a six-ounce package of feta into the bowl, and add salt and pepper. This is delicious, and stands alone well as a salad, so don’t be afraid to make extra!

And for your alternative to the dogs-and-hamburg thing, try grilled pork loin. Because it often comes packaged in a long, tubelike shape, it slices well into burger-size rounds. Make small slices into the meat and stud the roast with cloves of garlic. Rub it with your fave mix of spices and seasonings, and sear the entire outside on a hot grill, then wrap it in foil and cook over lower heat for 20 minutes or so. The foil causes the roast to baste itself and stay moist. Once cooled, slice and put on a roll such as a grilled ciabatta.

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