A truly American feast should showcase celebratory foods from each corner of the United States, says April Fulton. She shares a Fourth of July menu that spans the tastes of New England, the South, the Southwest and the Northwest.
Cooking for friends on the Fourth of July can be as easy as slapping some hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill and icing beer — or as complicated as slowly smoking a side of beef all day and serving it with pitchers of Tom Collins. I've done both with pleasure.
This year, however, I decided that a truly American feast should showcase celebratory foods from each region of the United States. Our cuisine reflects a culture rich in history borrowed from others, plus a dash of our own invention. It just requires a little planning to pull off a meal that touches all four corners.
I grew up in Rhode Island, where no proper summer party starts without steamers. Tender, native littleneck clams are best, although cherrystones work in a pinch. Native Americans probably were the first to pull these beauties out of the ocean and cook them over an open fire, but the English exiles, who boiled much of their food to death, probably added the water and the butter sauce.
You can doctor up the butter sauce any way you like, but the sweet little clams have a pure, briny taste that stands on its own.
These are easy appetizers that can be prepared at the last minute and served as guests settle in with a seasonal summer brew.
I swing down south to New Orleans for my vegetable. Okra is an acquired taste, yet essential in New Orleans cooking. The ridged green pods are crisp-tender outside, but somewhat viscous when cooked. Okra was a staple of African slaves who brought it to America, where it was quickly adopted as a thickener for the classic Creole stew known as gumbo.
I use a recipe that tempers okra's unusual texture with the more familiar taste of a chunky tomato sauce and gives skeptics a good introduction to the vegetable. Choose young, bright green pods, not the woody, browning old ones, or your guests will be picking sticks out of their teeth and never want to try okra again. Ginger is my unorthodox addition, and gives the dish a bit of a zing.
Turning west for my main course, I was inspired to use the abundant fresh corn this time of year and spice it up, Southwestern-style. I developed a simple recipe for corn-cilantro salsa to accompany carne asada, the marinated, grilled meat of Mexico and the Southwest. It is usually skirt or flank steak, prepared in a simple marinade or rubbed with salt and spices, and cooked quickly over a hot fire. Then it can be spread over warm tortillas or served with rice.
I marinated the steak in a combination of citrus fruits and a little tequila to give it some bite. I use warm corn tortillas to complement the corn salsa, and include a simple but wonderful treat — grilled whole scallions — to go on the side.
Finally, no Fourth of July celebration would be complete without berries bursting in their beautiful, finger-staining glory. And in simple blackberry cobbler, no matter how juicy the berries, there's no bottom crust to get soggy, as it might in a pie.
While grown all over the United States, Oregon blackberries are tops in my opinion. Wild blackberries were discovered in the Northwest, picked and canned by homesteaders. They attracted little commercial interest because of their thorns, according to the Oregon Blackberry and Raspberry Commission, until Philip Steffes of Sublimity, Ore., found a thornless plant nearly identical and just as productive as the wild ones.
When dinner's done, all that's left to do is take in the local fireworks display on a full stomach.
It's good to be an American.