We are creatures of habit, and in spite of the abundance and diversity at our high-summer farmers' markets, it's a likely default to think of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad and watermelon for a July Fourth cookout. And why not? It's an easy and delicious fix, and locavores have the option of grass-fed beef and "hog dogs" (a hot-dog-like sausage made with the good pork meat, not scraps) from nearby sources. There are bakery kaiser rolls, fresh tomatoes and farmstead cheeses to garnish the sandwiches. Watermelons are coming in just in time, and new potatoes are already in the markets. Fourth of July is an American holiday that calls for American food (minus apple pie, since that fruit can't be harvested yet).
But supposing you're not feeding a crowd, just need a starter, and want something a little zestier for a special meal over the three-day weekend. I noticed this is exactly what our friend Mark Day does for parties he caters at this time of year. Mark's food and event style are well loved in the Triangle; I have seen brides show up in his studio kitchen soon after the wedding reception begging him for the Bourbon Shrimp recipe he gave us this week.
Mark prepares this shrimp on his gas cooker when grilling isn't an option. With his signature panache, he does it at such high temperatures he's able to heat the shrimp through and create a glaze from the marinade all at once without the shellfish getting rubbery. His method also creates a memorable flambé moment as the bourbon hits the pan. Most of us with humbler stovetops and less boldness cook the dish in stages: Marinate the shrimp, grill or cook it (I've done it both ways, and they're equally good, but I'm a big fan of open-fired seafood, so that's my first choice), then reduce the marinade to a glaze and pour it over the shrimp to serve. Serving it with grill-roasted corn on the cob is not only easy, but the flavors marry well and are reminiscent of coastal combinations of shrimp and grits or hushpuppies or corn off the cob in seafood salads. Summery indeed! Add watermelon, sliced tomatoes and icy drinks (tasks delegated to your other dining companions), and you've got a relaxing outdoor meal for any hot weather holiday.
Mark Day's Bourbon-Lime Shrimp
1 pound N.C. large or jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined with tails intact
Juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons bourbon (Mark insists on Maker's Mark)
Half an hour before cooking time, light your charcoal grill and make a marinade by combining lime juice, honey and bourbon. Add shrimp and marinate for a half-hour while the coals burn down to white-hotness. If you're making the corn recipe that follows, place on the grill at the half-hour point, and cover. Meanwhile, remove shrimp from marinade and skewer, leaving a little breathing space between each one. Brush with a mild oil to prevent sticking. Set aside. Cook marinade in small saucepan at high heat for 7 to 9 minutes or until reduced to glaze. Keep it warm. Remove corn, add shrimp skewers to grill and cook 2 to 4 minutes a side (depending on your fire). Alternatively, you can sauté the shrimp with a little oil in the same pan in which you then cook the marinade. You'll know the shrimp are safely cooked through when you fork the space between two of them on the skewer and there's no evidence of gelatinous liquid. Remove from grill and set aside while the rest of the meal is assembled. Serves 5 or 6 as an appetizer, 3 or 4 as a main dish.
Grill-Roasted Corn on the Cob
My husband Jim once traveled to Guatamala with Habitat for Humanity to work in the village of Chejbal. The residents served him open-fire-roasted corn with fresh-squeezed limes. After many years of fixing it this way over a backyard grill, someone pointed out that this is the same basic method used to serve corn at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh. Only difference? The ears there are dressed with salt and butter, not lime juice. More than the coincidence of a small world, this approach is testimony to working with what you've got: hot fire and a freshly picked crop. Corn roasted this way is so easy, it's no wonder the idea is handed down in the oral tradition. Get just-picked corn from farm to table as quickly as you can for best taste and nutrients. We always cook extra and shave the kernels for other dishes.Un-shucked corn on the cob, 1 to 2 ears per person, soaked in water for an hour
Light your charcoal grill half an hour in advance. When coals are white-hot, place soaked corn on grill in a single layer and cover with lid. Turn the corn once, after 15 minutes, and cook another 15. Some of the ears may be quite toasted, and others less. It's nice to have both. Since the charred husks come off in papery pieces, it's a good idea to have someone shuck the corn before bringing it to the table. It also keeps well un-shucked for up to 30 more minutes while you get the rest of the meal together.