Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Jun 29, 2011
09:17 AM
Small Dishes

Four for the Fourth

Four for the Fourth


Come Independence Day, it’s a given that most of us will be attending a picnic or cookout; more likely the latter.  The idea of sitting on the ground and eating cold food out of a basket is now more nostalgic than appealing.  Cooking in the backyard—like most everything else—has gone high tech with gas grills than rival a Maserati in both style and cost.  The menu has changed as well and for many a wienie with yellow mustard on a doughy bun is just too pedestrian.


However, the Fourth is a celebration of all things American.  Granted we have become so multicultural than increasingly that gets more difficult to define.  For me the holiday would be incomplete without certain classic summertime favorites.  The list of entrees is long: spareribs, smoked brisket, pulled pork, a thick steak, even burgers.  But the list of essential accompaniments is short.  Here are my four must haves to properly observe the holiday.


Potato Salad.  What’s a picnic without potato salad?  Not much.  I’m really not too picky how it’s made.  I like russet, red and gold potatoes (and sweet potatoes as well). Cubed, sliced or mashed:  all can be good.  The list of added ingredients is endless.


What I don’t like is Miracle Whip and I love mayonnaise.  Growing up, I was incessantly lectured about the danger of eating potato salad in the summer. Back when mayonnaise was homemade and contained raw eggs and refrigeration nonexistent, it did indeed often go bad, especially in hot weather.  This problem was solved for the most part with the advent of the store-bought stuff and the modern refrigerator. Today it’s much more likely that other ingredients such as celery, parsley and eggs are contaminated.


Fortunately this hysteria about eating mayo in the summer was no doubt the inspiration for a great alternative:  boiled dressing.  Since the eggs are cooked, the threat of spoilage greatly reduced.  Boiled dressing enjoyed enormous popular (especially in the South), but is virtually a culinary enigma today.  That’s unfortunate since it’s easy to make (recipe follow) and nothing is better than a simple potato salad made with boiled dressing and green onions.


Baked Beans.  Dried beans are popular the world over in many different forms and prepared many different ways.  Baked beans as we know them, however, are uniquely American. It’s not without good reason that Boston’s nickname is Beantown. Born of New England frugality and Puritan piety, they’re still popular there and throughout the region today.  Originally, dried beans—preferably soldier beans, salt pork and molasses went into the pot on Saturday night. They would slowly cook at the back of the fire to be enjoyed on the Sabbath, a day exclusively devoted to praying and reading the Bible.


In the South, tomatoes and ginger became common additions to the mix.   Canned pork and beans were one of the first and most popular convenience foods. Since was so successful in marketing the product in this country, Heinz introduced them to the U.K. Sold as “Baked Beans” (even though they’re steamed), they now well-liked there as well. It was only natural that some Paula Dean of her day would doctor them up, adding ketchup, mustard, brown sugar and bacon.


I make many types of baked beans from scratch and (I admit it!) using canned beans.  Whether savory or sweet, this homely casserole is one of my favorite comfort foods and perfect with almost anything cooked on the grill or smoker. 


Coleslaw. Okay.  Admittedly the name isn’t American.  It’s the Anglicization of the Dutch term "koolsla", which means cabbage salad. Nonetheless, you’re unlikely to find it outside the U.S. unless you’re dining at the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Coleslaw gets a bad rap because too often it’s badly made and sits around in the equivalent of embalming fluid forever.  Too often it shows up in a baby bowl accompanying a large platter of fried foods, seemingly as a guilt assuager.


I’ve been accused of never making the same coleslaw twice.  Why would I when the combinations are endless? Planning a successful menu requires a balance of flavors, textures and colors and coleslaw inevitably fits the bill.  True to its name, the salad usually includes cabbage, both red and green.  The most common additional ingredient is carrots.  But other vegetables such as napa, jicama, celeriac and broccoli can be shredded and enhance the mix.  Green, red and yellow peppers add color and spice.  The dressing can be simple or complex; creamy or vinaigrette.  Anyone who thinks coleslaw is boring really hasn’t thought about it seriously.

The reason it’s perfect for a summer party is—just like potato salad and baked beans—it can be made ahead and in a quantity to serve a crowd.


Pie. In all its flakiness, it’s a much venerated American icon.  Sure, almost every culture has figured out that encasing food in dough can be quite tasty. However, our own dessert pastry of choice is like none other.  To be sure they make pie crust in Europe, but it tends to be more crumbly than flaky.


The Pilgrims brought with them pie recipes, substituting ingredients they found in the New World. In England, pies traditionally were baked in deep square pans. In America, shallow deep pans became the norm, literally adopted to cut corners.  For whatever reason as the years passed, here the popularity of meat and fish pies waned but the demand for dessert pies only increased.  The invention of the home gas and electric range probably was the biggest boon to pie making yet. 


I can’t think about a childhood family get-together without thinking about some kind of pie: pumpkin at Thanksgiving, mincemeat at Christmas and peach on the Fourth of July.  As I grew older and traveled around the country, sometime the peach became blueberry or cherry, but pie was always in the picture.


It’s always a quandary what pie to make for the Fourth—there’s no kind of pie I don’t like (if you need further evidence, checkout the photo album on pies on my Facebook page!).  Of late, peach-blueberry has come to be my likely choice.  Though, then again, what could be more appropriate and patriotic than both red cherry and blueberry pies with vanilla ice cream?  I guess I’ll have to make both.


I’ll end with four recipes for the fourth.



Old Fashioned Boiled Dressing


This is good for both potato salad and coleslaw.


4 large eggs, beaten to combine

¼ cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

½ cup water

½ cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoon olive oil or butter

6 tablespoons cream or sour cream

Tabasco to taste


Put the eggs, flour, sugar, mustard and salt in a heavy saucepan.  Whisk together until smooth. Slowly whisk in the water and vinegar.  Add the oil or butter and set the pan over low heat.  Cook stirring constantly until the mixture is very thick.  Remove from the heat and continue beating until the mixture is absolutely smooth.  Add the cream and Tabasco.  Cool before using and store in a covered container in the refrigerator.


Makes about 2½ cups.



Wisconsin Baked Beans


6 thick slices of Neuske’s (or other good smoked bacon), chopped

4 15-ounce cans of vegetarian baked beans

½ cup honey

1 cup diced red onions

1 cup diced red bell pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 cup strong brewed coffee

2 teaspoons dried mustard

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

2 tablespoons brandy or bourbon


Preheat oven to 275 degrees.


In a 7-quart Dutch oven, sauté the bacon pieces over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Do not over brown the bacon or burn the drippings! Remove the pieces and drain on a paper towel.


Add the onions, bell peppers and garlic to the bacon drippings. Cook over medium-high heat until wilted—about 5 minutes. Add the beans, honey, coffee, mustard and tomato sauce. Stir to combine all the ingredients.


When well blended, bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and then stir in the brandy and cooked bacon. Bake uncovered for approximately 2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure the beans are not drying out. Additional coffee or water if needed.


Serves 8.



Firecracker Coleslaw


This Southeast Asian-style coleslaw is an explosion of flavor and color.



¼ cup fresh lime juice

¼ cup minced shallot

2 tablespoons dark Asian sesame oil

1½ tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced seeded fresh jalapeño

1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste



5 cups (about ½ pound) thinly sliced napa

2 carrots cut into julienne strips

1 large red bell peppers, seeded, ribs removed and cut into thin strips

1 large yellow bell peppers, seeded, ribs removed and cut into thin strips

½ cup thinly sliced green onions



¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped unsalted peanuts

1 tablespoons lightly toasted sesame seeds

2 teaspoons coarse salt

Sriracha hot sauce to taste


Mix together the dressing ingredients in a large jar with a lid or other covered container.  Cover and refrigerate (this can be done several hours ahead of time).


Mix together the cabbage, carrots, peppers, and green onions.  Cover and refrigerate (this can be done a couple hours ahead).


Shortly before serving, add the cilantro, peanuts, sesame seeds, salt and hot sauce to the slaw.  Toss well with the dressing and let stand 10 minutes.  Transfer to a serving bowl.


Serves 6.



Door County Cherry Pie


Rich pastry for a 9-inch double crust pie


1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ teaspoon salt

5 cups whole pitted sour cherries (about 2 pounds unpitted cherries)

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

¼ teaspoon almond extract

1 egg separated (yolk refrigerated)

2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes

1 tablespoon cream or milk


Vanilla ice cream (optional)


Whisk 1 cup of the sugar with the cornstarch, and salt in a large glass mixing bowl until blended. Stir in the cherries, lemon juice, and almond extract and set aside.


Roll out half the dough and use to line a 9-inch pie pan. Trim the dough so the overhang is about ½ inch.  Transfer the pie shell to the freezing compartment of the refrigerator.


Roll out the remaining dough until it’s a 12-inch round. Use a large knife or pastry wheel to cut the dough into ¾- to 1-inch wide strips.


Beat the egg white until well combined.  Remove the pie shell from the freezer and lightly brush the bottom of the pastry with the beaten egg white.  Add the filling to the pie shell, mounding it slightly in center; dot with the butter.  Carefully arrange dough strips atop filling to form a lattice, trimming off any excess. Fold the bottom crust up over ends of strips and crimp edges to seal. Chill the pie for 1 hour.


Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425 degrees.


Beat the egg yolk and cream or milk together. Brush the top of pie lightly with egg mixture and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.  Bake in center of the preheated 425-degree oven for 30 minutes.  Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and cover the edge of pie with foil or a pie shield and bake for another 50 to 60 minutes or until golden brown. 


Transfer to a rack and cool completely—3 to 4 hours. Serve with vanilla ice cream if desired.


Serves 6 to 8.


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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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