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4th of July Cookouts Are Easy If Someone Else Does the Cooking

Americans will spend tomorrow’s Fourth of July holiday celebrating at family picnics, fireworks displays, water parks and beaches, old-fashioned festivals, and patriotic celebrations. And don’t forget the all-American cookout. Close to 80 percent of Americans plan to go to or host a gathering at which meat is grilled and eaten outdoors. You can't get more American than a Fourth of July cookout or party offering traditional Independence Day staples like burgers, dogs, ribs, wings, and chicken, along with sides like baked beans, potato salad, pasta salad, and everyone’ favorite, chips and dip. But unlike past celebrations, cooking in our time-challenged world is a bit different.

Instead of spending all morning peeling potatoes, we can stop by any number of restaurants and supermarkets for a pound or more of “almost homemade” potato salad or pick up a smoking slab of ribs over which someone else slaved. Baked beans, macaroni salad, grilled chicken and other Fourth of July favorites can also be purchased and if you’re lucky, your guests or family won’t know the difference. This creates more time for you to sit back, relax, and enjoy your guests instead of toiling in a hot kitchen or over a grill.

Following is a short list of some of my favorite supermarket and restaurant food items when cookouts are on the menu but time is short. Call ahead to check on restaurants’ policy on take-out. If you miss the window for the Fourth of July, just extend the holiday to the weekend. Happy Independence Day!

1. Get the party started – An easy and inexpensive dip to serve with chips is Sabra Classic Hummus, found at Kroger, Walmart, Sam’s, and most supermarkets in the prepared foods section. It's best served with Stacy’s Pita Chips, also available at most stores. One of my favorite vegetable dips is Marzetti’s Southwest Ranch Veggie Dip, found in the dairy section of most supermarkets. If you can’t find either of these, mix a jar of salsa with eight ounces of softened cream cheese and serve with tortilla chips or vegetables. It's delicious!

2. Spectacular sides - Mama Hamil’s (Madison) red skin potato salad, baked potato casserole at Dickey’s Barbecue (12 locations in Mississippi) Fresh Market's (Ridgeland) pasta and vegetable salads, Walmart’s red skin potato salad and Kroger's Southern potato salad are some of my favorite store-bought salads and sides.

3. When it comes to baked beans, it’s hard to beat the offerings from the Hickory Pit (Jackson) and Murky Waters (Hattiesburg, Gulfport, and Ocean Springs), to name just a couple of restaurants that know a thing or two about smoky, meaty beans. In the supermarket, pick up Kroger’s own home-style baked beans in the deli section.

4. Barbecued ribs, chicken, wings, pulled pork, and brisket – the list of great barbecue places is as long as the Mississippi River, so please, don’t hate me if I omit your favorite. However, just a few of my go-to places include the ribs, wings, pulled pork and smoked chicken inside the Fast Lane gas station (1157 E. Northside Drive at I-55 in Jackson), burnt ends and ribs at Murky Waters (Hattiesburg, Gulfport and Ocean Springs), Leatha’s (Hattiesburg) smoked chicken and ribs, and the Pepsi-glazed wings and ribs at The Pig and Pint (Fondren in Jackson).

If you don’t live near any of these places, pick up a slab or two of Corky’s or Jack Daniels' Tennessee honey baby back ribs at the supermarket. They may not top the above-mentioned ribs, but they're surprisingly good, especially when you add your favorite sauce before heating.

If you decide to do the cooking, are some of my favorite Fourth of July recipes:

Old-Fashioned Potato Salad

2 bags of fingerling potatoes (Yukon Gold, Peruvian Purple or Red Fingerling)

3 boiled eggs, chopped

1/4 cup bread and butter pickles, diced (reserve juice)

3 ounces chopped olives

2 stalks celery, diced

3 ounces Dijon Mustard

2 cups mayonnaise

salt and pepper to taste

2 teaspoons dill

1 small red onion, finely diced

Cut the potatoes into medium pieces, then boil in salted water until soft. Drain and let cool. In a bowl, mix the Dijon and the mayonnaise, then mix in the eggs, pickles, olives, onions and celery. Stir in the cooled potatoes. Add the dill, pickle juice and salt and pepper to taste. Place in a bowl and chill for 1 hour, then serve.

Almost Guilt-Free Barbecue Ribs

Serves 4

1 rack baby back ribs (1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pounds), trimmed of all visible fat

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoons smoked paprika

2 tablespoons liquid smoke, such as Stubb’s

3/4 cup reduced-sugar ketchup, such as Heinz

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 large Vidalia onion, roughly chopped

12 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 425 degree F. Lay a 2-foot-long piece of aluminum foil on a baking sheet, and set it aside. Cut the rib rack in half: season it generously with salt and pepper. Place the ribs on the prepared baking sheet.

In a medium bowl, combine the paprika, liquid smoke, ketchup, and red wine vinegar. Pour the sauce over the meat, turning to coat it completely. Scatter the onions and garlic over the sauce. Place another piece of foil on top, and fold up the edges of the foil to make a tightly sealed package. Roast the ribs for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 275 degrees F, and bake until the meat is tender, about 1 hour.

Slicing in between the bones, cut the ribs into 4 portions, and serve.

Sweet Baby Ray's Crockpot Chicken

4-6 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

1 bottle Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce

1/4 cup vinegar

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Mix barbecue sauce with vinegar, red pepper flakes, brown sugar, and garlic powder. Place chicken in crockpot. Pour sauce mixture over chicken. Cook on low 4-6 hours.

Sweet Baby Ray's Great-with-Anything Baked Beans

3 cans of original Bush's baked beans (drain juice)

1 pound ground round, browned and drained

1 box light brown sugar

1/2 - 1 cup Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce (more to taste)

1 tablespoon yellow mustard

1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brown the ground beef, add the rest of ingredients. Bake in a large casserole dish for 40-45 minutes, or until bubbly. Add extra liquid as needed to keep beans moist while cooking.

Firecracker Pasta Salad

3 boxes DiVinci tortellini

1 small red pepper

1 small green pepper

1 small orange pepper

1 small yellow pepper

3 ounces of chopped Kalamata olives

2 ounces sun dried tomatoes

1 bunch asparagus

1 small red onion

4 cloves garlic

2 cups olive oil

2 ounces strawberry-chipotle balsamic vinegar

1 ounce Dijon mustard

2 ounces honey

Salt and pepper to taste

Dice all the peppers, onion, and asparagus and place in a bowl. Boil the tortellini until tender, drain and cool.

For the dressing add the Dijon, honey, garlic, and balsamic into a bowl, then slowly whisk in the olive oil. whisk rapidly until the oil is emulsified into a creamy texture. Next add the pasta and the onion and peppers mix. Then add the olives and the sun dried tomatoes. Chill for 1 hour then top with Parmesan cheese and serve. If you can’t find this balsamic, use a regular balsamic.

Easy Blueberry Cobbler

1-1/2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter

Cooking spray

Pillsbury pie crust

Extra butter and sugar for topping

Stir water, sugar, butter and berries together in saucepan over medium-high heat. (If you have more berries like I did, just increase the other ingredients a little; taste it to make sure it’s sweet enough.) Heat to boiling, lower heat and let simmer for a few minutes, stirring often.

Spray a deep pastry dish or 9x13-inch casserole dish (a regular pie plate will not work) with cooking spray or grease with butter. Cover bottom of dish evenly with one prepared pie crust and then pour blueberry mixture over crust, spreading to cover. Place the other crust over top and pinch dough against edges to keep “majority” of juice from seeping out during cooking.

Sprinkle top with sugar and add small dots of butter over the crust. Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes.

Tip: I bought an extra box of pie crust (I used a cheaper store brand crust for the bottom since it absorbs the juice) and rolled two Pillsbury crusts out on a floured surface, with ends touching. I rolled the edges of the crusts together with a rolling pin to make an extra-long crust. When I placed it over the berries, it was too big, so I used a knife to trim it down. This way, you have extra crust to work with – you want the berry mixture to be covered well).

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