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The Front Burner

Good time to dine on red, white and blue

By Donna Ellis

11:13 AM EDT, June 27, 2012

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What with our reliving the War of 1812 with special zeal this year because Baltimore is home to the "Star Spangled Banner," it's easy to come up with a theme for a seasonal dinner. Whether it be for Independence Day or Bastille Day (July 14), or simply to take advantage of the advertising blitz being mounted by Party City, red, white and blue is certainly the dining color scheme du jour.

This bill of fare, designed to feed eight (and probably a couple more), attempts to take full advantage of our nation's color scheme, not only in the table service we choose to use but, of course, in the food we put on those plates. We attempt to take full advantage of seasonal, regional foodstuffs for our patriotic dinner.

As always, we encourage you to invite good friends and when a couple of them say, "What can I bring," you can offer your guests one of the recipes provided here.

We begin our campaign with shrimp and crab salsa and nacho chips. Wash them down with ginger-lime cosmos, or simply provide a favorite local beer and a Maryland wine, something white, light, a bit on the crisp side.

We march forward with grilled rib eye steaks, sided by a saute of peppers, onions, capers and herbs. Plus salt and pepper oven fries. You can add corn on the cob, if you like, and a tossed green salad, featuring juicy red tomatoes and a blue cheese dressing. A red Maryland wine will go nicely. Ditto, a local beer.

Dessert is a make-ahead — blueberry cheesecake bars. Simple, and a fitting thematic finale to your summertime-casual dinner.

Gingery cosmos

Cool and tangy, these make a pleasant foil for the crab nachos.

2 limes, quartered

3/4 cup sugar, divided

2 cups citrus-flavored vodka

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons freshly grated (peeled) ginger

4 cups ice

8 lime slices

Run 1 lime quarter around the rim of a martini glass. Repeat with remaining lime quarters and seven more martini glasses. Place 1/2 cup of the sugar on a flat plate. Dip lime-rubbed martini glasses into sugar. Set aside.

In a cocktail shaker, combine lime quarters, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, vodka, lime juice and ginger. (You'll probably have to do this in a couple of batches.) Use a muddler or back of a wooden spoon to mash the mixture until lime wedges are crushed. Add ice and shake well. Strain mixture among prepared glasses. Garnish each with a lime slice. Makes 8 cosmos.

Shrimp 'n crab 'salsa'

You can make your own nacho chips, but there are so many good ones out there, just go ahead and buy 'em.

24 large shrimp (about 1 pound)

4 plum tomatoes, finely diced

2 scallions, thinly sliced

2 small garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 pound backfin crab meat

1 large, ripe California avocado, peeled, pitted, coarsely chopped

Fresh cilantro leaves, garnish

Place a steamer rack in a large saucepan, add water (or beer), bring liquid to a boil and add shrimp. Bring back to a boil, steam 5 minutes, remove from heat and let stand 20 minutes. Cool, peel, devein and coarsely chop.

In a bowl, combine tomatoes, scallions, garlic, cilantro, lemon and lime juices, salt and peppers. Stir in shrimp. Cover and chill about 1 hour.

Just before serving, stir crab meat and avocado into shrimp mixture. Spoon into an attractive serving bowl. Set on a large platter and arrange nacho chips around the outside of the bowl. If desired, provide small individual plates for serving.

Grilled rib eyes

We spice up the meat a bit, and add a charming veggie relish. The "relish" can be cooked in the kitchen, ahead. Heat gently just before serving.

The steak

8 (1-inch thick) bone-in rib eye steaks (about 1 pound each)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

Pepper relish

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 small red onions, halved, sliced crosswise

2 pounds mixed bell peppers (red, orange, yellow), cut lengthwise into half-inch wide strips

1/2 pound baby bella mushroom slices

1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes

Sea salt, if using

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh oregano

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh thyme

For the relish, in a large, deep, non-stick skillet, over medium, heat olive oil. Add onions and saute until almost tender, about 6 minutes. Add bell peppers and mushroom slices, along with hot red pepper flakes and sea salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook until peppers are just beyond crisp-tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Add red wine vinegar, capers, fresh oregano and thyme. Increase heat to medium and cook 3 minutes longer, stirring often. Taste for salt and pepper. Remove to a bowl. If not using right away, cover and chill, then heat gently just before serving.

For the rib eyes, prepare grill for cooking steaks. Have steaks at room temperature (about 30 minutes out of the fridge). Combine dried oregano, thyme and coarsely ground black pepper. Pat steaks dry and sprinkle spice mixture onto both sides of steaks to lightly coat, pressing in spices so they'll adhere to steaks.

Grill steaks in two batches on an oiled rack set 5 to 6 inches over heat source. Grill 4 to 5 minutes per side (to 130 degrees for medium-rare). Transfer steaks to the center of a very large platter and spoon the veggie relish around the outside of the platter. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Oven fries

Yes, it may be warm outside, but these spuds don't take all that long in the oven. We flavor them with salt and pepper, of course, but also with shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seasoning that includes dried chiles, sesame seeds and seaweed; get some at an Asian market.

4 large baking potatoes (4-plus pounds), peeled, cut lengthwise into half-inch wide "planks," then each plank cut lengthwise into half-inch wide strips

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons each, sea salt, shichimi togarashi and sugar

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Place racks in top and bottom thirds of oven and heat oven to 400 degrees. Place half the potato strips on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with half the olive oil and toss to coat. Place remaining potatoes on another baking sheet, drizzle with remaining oil and toss to coat. Roast potatoes for 20 minutes. Use a spatula to turn potatoes over. Switch baking sheets on racks. Roast another 20 minutes.

In a bowl, combine sea salt, shichimi togarashi and sugar. Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with sea salt mixture. Serve hot. If not serving right away, keep warm in oven (turned off), loosely tented with foil.

Blueberry bars

Actually, we use blueberry preserves in the topping for these cheesecake bars. We highly recommend putting together a melange of fresh blueberries, raspberries and blackberries macerated with a bit of sugar and/or fruit liqueur to serve on the side.

Make the bars ahead if you like. Cut into bars just before serving.

Crust

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Blueberry-cheesecake topping

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup blueberry (or other) fruit preserves

For the crust, heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut butter into 1/2 inch pieces. In a food processor, combine butter, flour, sugar and salt, and pulse-process until mixture forms small lumps. Sprinkle mixture into a 13x9x 2-inch baking dish and use a metal spatula to press lumps evenly onto the bottom. Bake in the middle of the oven until golden, about 20 minutes.

For the topping, while crust is baking, whisk cream cheese in a bowl until smooth. Add eggs, sugar and vanilla. Have preserves handy.

The moment the crust is done, immediately spread preserves over top of crust, then pour cream cheese mixture over preserves. Return to oven and bake until slightly puffed, about 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool completely before cutting into 24 bars.