Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

For Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

  • As obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Ten iconic foods of summer, and where to find them

Aah, summer. A time for the beach, pool parties, lazy days…and sheep cheese? While many foods are undeniably the essence of summer–watermelon, peaches, and anything grilled come to mind–there are plenty of edibles not identified as seasonal foods.

Most of my favorite things to eat just happen to peak in summer, so I decided to compile a list of both the obvious and not-so. Even the most dedicated city-dweller can find these foods with minimal effort. Farmers markets abound in major metropolitan areas, as do specialty food shops and local produce-focused grocery stores and food co-ops. Just look for the most local product where things like tomatoes or corn are concerned; they degrade quickly, and summer produce is all about freshness.

1. Cherries
I used to work for an organic peach and cherry farmer at several Bay Area farmers markets. Each year around this time, customers would start getting antsy, wanting to know when the first cherries of the season were coming in.

I understood. I also eagerly await their all-too brief appearance. Sweet cherries have a wide growing range, from the Pacific Northwest and Southwest to the Rockies. But Traverse City, Michigan, gets the title of Cherry Capital of the World. Their famous National Cherry Festival is July 2-9th, but should you miss out, there are U-picks pretty much everywhere cherries are grown. FYI: Most tart (“pie”) cherries are grown in Michigan.

[Photo credit: Flickr user dr_knox]2. Copper River Salmon
The first shipment of this Alaskan treasure hit the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma Airport on May 17th. While season and availability depend upon how stable the fishery is during a given year, May 15th to mid-June is when you can usually find this succulent, deeply-flavored species on menus and in the marketplace. If you’re feeling really motivated, take an Alaskan fishing expedition. However you procure it, treat it gently and prepare simply, so you can best enjoy this most fleeting and precious of wild ingredients.

3. Corn
“Knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The first time I heard that old-timey phrase, I was driving with a chef through the verdant farmland of Southern Wisconsin. As with cherries, people get really amped up over the imminent arrival of sweet corn. U-picks and farm stands are a way of life in Cape Cod and other parts of the Northeast (how can you have a clam bake without fresh corn?). And “fresh” is key. Corn starts to lose its delicate, milky sweetness the moment it’s picked; refrigeration converts the natural sugars into starch. Resist purchasing until the day you need it, and don’t shuck it prior (avoid purchasing pre-shucked ears, or those with dry, brown, or slimy tassels). For a real down-home corn hoe-down, check out the Olathe Corn Festival on Colorado’s Western Slope.

4. Blue crabs
A few years ago, I went crabbing for the first time in an estuary on the Florida Panhandle’s “Forgotten Coast.” Those blues tasted all the sweeter because I’d caught them myself (Equipment check list: string, bait, and a net. Go to this site to see what state permits are required, and double-check with local authorities). Alas, BP has utterly screwed the marine and estuary life and livelihood of the fishermen on parts of the Gulf Coast (word is the Apalachicola/Forgotten Coast was spared). An alternative are Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. While commercial harvests are in decline due to habitat loss, it’s still considered a “good alternative,” according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Just don’t be greedy.

5. Santa Barbara Spot Prawns
Spot prawns–actually a species of large shrimp– can be found throughout the North Pacific, but this fishery has a rep for being one of the most sustainable, due to it’s strict regulations, catch-method (traps), and the fact that the small fleet are all small, family-run vessels. Because the cold, deep waters of the nearby Channel Islands are so clean and nutrient-rich , SB spot prawns are revered for their sweet, lobster-like flesh. Supplies are limited, however, due to loss of habitat (if you need to purchase a large quantity, opt for British Columbia spot prawns). While technically available yearround if the fishery is stable, spot prawns are an iconic Santa Barbara summertime treat, especially grilled. You can purchase them from the fishermen at the farmer’s market; at the Santa Barbara Fish Market (live and frozen) or straight off the boat at the adjacent Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor (7-11am).

6. Wild mushrooms
The Rocky Mountains explode with edible fungi such as morels, chanterelles, and boletes (porcini) come early August, which is monsoon season. If you’re not an experienced forager, be sure to go with someone who is, or see if your local mycological society offers forages. Never eat a mushroom you’ve collected without having it identified by an expert, first. If you live in mushroom country, which also includes the Pacific Northwest, and parts of the South and Midwest, you’ll likely find foraged mushrooms at the farmers market. If you want to really geek-out, don’t miss the Telluride Mushroom Festival, August 18-21st. Seminars, forages, special dinners, and a truly, uh, trippy parade are the highlights.

7. Tomatoes
Sun-ripened. Just picked and still warm–preferably from your own garden or container planter. Or just check local farmers markets, farm stands, specialty food stores, and co-ops for local, sustainably-grown heirlooms or hybrids such as Early Girl. Tomato-lovers understand that there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

8. Watermelon
Few can resist a slice or three of icy-cold watermelon, followed by a long nap on a sweltering summer afternoon. Cordele, Georgia, declares itself the Watermelon Capital of the World (Watermelon Days Festival ion June 3rd!), but Arizona, Florida, and California’s Imperial and Riverside Counties are the other major growing regions. My personal favorites come from Northern California’s pastoral Capay Valley, located between Davis and Sacramento. The Valley’s dry, intense heat produces melons with a syrupy sweetness and perfume balanced by fine-textured flesh. Bonus: most of the farms in the area are small, organic or sustainable family operations; look for Capay or North Valley/Sacramento Delta melons at Bay Area farmers markets.

9. Honey
Most folks don’t realize honey is a seasonal food. But during the chilly, wet winter months, bees hunker down in the hive, feeding on honey. Come mid-to-late spring, they again venture out in search of pollen. Seasonal harvests depend upon location, climate, and food source (pollens) but on average, a beekeeper can expect two to four hauls between late spring and late summer/early fall.

If you’ve never tried local, raw (unheated; pasteurizing or heating destroys flavor compounds as well as health benefits), unfiltered honey, you’re in a for a big treat. Honey has proven anti-microbial properties, and studies show consuming local honey helps prevent seasonal allergies (by ingesting it, you’ll build up a tolerance to the allergens). The flavor complexities and textures in local honey are specific to microclimate, and what the bees are eating. Where I live, in Seattle, blackberry honey is treasured. But you can find great local honey anywhere: whenever I’m in New Mexico, for example, I’ll puchase a jar from a roadside stand.

10. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses
As with honey, our urban-dwelling culture has mostly lost touch with the concept of seasonality, especially as it pertains to certain crops and food products. Cheese is of an entirely seasonal nature, especially at the “artisan” level. A small-scale cheesemaker creates product as the milk supply waxes and wanes throughout the season(s). The flavor and chemical composition of the milk also changes, depending upon how lush the pasture, if the animal’s feed is supplemented by hay or grain, and what plants are indigenous to the region.

While cows produce milk for about 10 months of the year, sheep and goats lactate only during the spring, summer, and sometimes early fall months. That makes cheeses produced from sheep and goat’s milk a seasonal specialty, especially when they’re fresh varieties such as tangy chevre or fromage blanc, or sweet, milky ricotta. I know summer has arrived when the first deliveries of cloud-like sheep’s curd arrive at the cheese shop I work at.

We live in a time when we can get whatever ingredient or food product we want, when we want it (usually at the expense of massive fossil fuel consumption, environmental degradation, and pesticide use that affects the health of both consumer and farmworker). Some things are just worth waiting for.

What’s your favorite seasonal food of summer? We’d like to hear from you!

[Photo credits: corn, Flickr user agrilifetoday; all remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

Photo of the Day (09.10.10)

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved eating breakfast on the road. Sure, back then it was simply because I got to experience breakfast buffets that allowed me to eat my weight in bacon, but I still have a passion for the most important meal of the day no matter where I am traveling. From cucumbers in Israel to cheeses in Turkey to beans in Australia, I’ve eaten a wide variety of foods for breakfast. But, after any length of time away from home, what I always end up craving most is a good ol’ fashioned greasy diner breakfast.

This photo by Flickr user Taylor McConnell reminded me of how much I end up craving an omelet with toast, home fries (or hash browns) and, of course, a side of (well done) bacon. As much as I love experiencing local foods when I travel, there comes a point in any trip when I just want a classic diner breakfast.

Have any pictures of your favorite breakfasts from the road? Or just some of the meals that you’ve had along the way? Upload your travel photos to the Gadling Flickr group and we might just use one for our next Photo of the Day.

La Tomatina – The Lovely Tomato Festival

Each week, Gadling is taking a look at our favorite festivals around the world. From music festivals to cultural showcases to the just plain bizarre, we hope to inspire you to do some festival exploring of your own. Come back each Wednesday for our picks or find them all HERE.

By the look of its name, “La Tomatina” might make you think of the word tomato, or in Spanish, tomate. That’s because La Tomatina is currently the largest tomato throwing event (as well as the largest food fight) in the world. Each year on the last Wednesday of the month of August, the Spanish city of Bunol erupts with a riot of dancing, drinking, fireworks and plenty of messy tomato-throwing fun. The name Tomatina is the word tomate altered with the ending “–ina” added to it to mean lovely. So La Tomatina is the lovely tomato festival.

The origin of La Tomatina was during another Spanish festival, Gigantes y Cabezudos or Giants and Big Heads in October, 1944. In this festival, people dressed up with giant masks over their heads. A group of kids wanted to join in and entered the area with their masks on. One of the kids somehow tripped and fell over and landed near a street grocery. Thinking some of his friends tripped him, he started to throw tomatoes at them. This started a food fight and soon not only the kids who started the fight were throwing food but also people from the festival as well.

Even Bunol city officials were provoked into the fray. The store owner eventually called police and the people were forced to all pay the grocer for the food they had ruined. The next year, the kids and others returned with their own tomatoes and repeated the fight but instead three weeks before the Gigantes y Cabezudos festival. Every year the festival grew until the entire town was celebrating on the last Wednesday of each August each year.

Want to participate in this one-of-a-kind Spanish food fight? Keep reading below to learn more.

Over time, La Tomatina has grown to a fight of over 30,000 participants, but not without plenty of government interference. In 1950, the regime of Francisco Franco deemed the festival without cultural or social value and labeled it a violent display of public vandalism. But people still tried to keep the Tomatina alive. From 1950-1954, La Tomatina was attempted every year but the police always intervened and fights always ended before everyone had thrown all their tomatoes.

In 1955, the supporters of the Tomatina from Bunol flooded the streets of the city for the Burial of the Tomato or “El Entierro del Tomate.” The people protested the ban of their town festival, which in five years had become an established tradition. They marched down the streets with a giant tomato in a miniature coffin towards the plaza of Bunol where the festival had always begun. It was a real funeral for the Tomatina. Funeral rites and songs were performed. In 1957, the government relented, agreeing to allow the festival only if the Bunol city government supervised the planning and execution of the event. The tradition of La Tomatina was in place.

The first event of La Tomatina is removing a tethered ham from a lard greased wooden pole. It takes many attempts and more than one person to reach the ham. After the ham is freed, the start of the annual fight is signaled by firing water cannons. Bottles and other objects that could injure participants are prohibited in the fight. Trucks full of tomatoes then roll down the roads of Bunol. People ride in the back and shower the people on the streets with ripe tomatoes. People on the streets then hurl the tomatoes among themselves. The tomatoes must be squashed with the hand before throwing them. A rule that is official but hardly ever followed is that clothes cannot be ripped off opponents. Tomatoes and tomato pulp are flung around and the whole area near the Bunol plaza is dyed pink. The fight ends an hour after the first water cannons with another blast.

In 2002, La Tomatina of Bunol was classified as an International Tourist Festival. The event is currently organized every year by two participants of the original Tomatina. La Tomatina really is an expression of freedom and a protest against powers that seem out of common people’s control. Both the powers of the individual and the group importance are enumerated by the event. The greased pole is an obstacle that everyone must help each other to overcome so that the festival can begin. The ham represents the powers that be. It is impossible to climb the pole alone. After the ham is down everyone is free to do mostly what they want with the tomatoes. Every tomato represents a choice and the choice of a person influences how the individual progresses.

The whole event is a symbolic representation of how the collective people have more power than any man, whether king or peasant, and that one man can not fundamentally rise over another permanently. It is a festival that shows that even the most oppressive of governments can never have ultimate control over the hearts and souls of its citizens. La Tomatina is an act of defiance to the powerful because within the fray of the fight, every man is equal, and ultimately, only armed with a tomato.

Hangover helpers by country

National Geographic has a nifty little chart showing traditional hangover cures by country.

You may have known, for example, that many Americans use tomato juice and eggs to cure the aftermath of a long night out on the town. But did you know that in Romania they use tripe soup? As in cow’s stomach tripe? I don’t know about you, but nothing makes my upset tequila bowels go away better than some cow’s stomach.

Browsing around through the other hangover cures, you can see the stories behind each by hovering your cursor over any of the images. Coffee and green tea, to me, seem to be the only palatable items on the menu. But I guess I’ve always had a pretty weak stomach.

For now though, I’ll leave the fish, pickles and tripe soup go, to the foodies.

Think that’s crazy? Check out our list of the 10 stupidest laws you may encounter abroad!