Packed with more than two centuries of tradition and steeped with small-town American ideals, the Fourth of July is a mix of fireworks and fireflies, parks and parades, hot dogs and hamburgers.
If you haven't done so already, clean up the barbecue and stock up on charcoal for a backyard cookout. Or put together a picnic and visit a park. It's not a time to go fancy.
Simple, however, doesn't have to be plain. We've chosen 10 staples of this patriotic holiday, then given them a twist or two to transform the customary into the sensational.
One word of caution: When taking any perishable foods to a picnic, surround them with ice in the ice chest. And don't keep the leftovers.
* Even though many of us barbecue chicken these days, fried chicken is traditional to the holiday. To save on calories and fat, remove the skin and eliminate the flour coating. The chicken will still fry up golden brown. For a Caribbean twist, marinate the chicken first in lime juice for about 4 hours, then sprinkle it with cayenne pepper before frying.
* Fried chicken salad is easy and tasty. The chicken can be hot or cold, with skin or not. Drain the hot fried chicken well. Shred or cut 3 fried half chicken breasts into cubes. Toss with 4 cups of assorted greens (the packaged "International" mix is perfect), 1/2 cup chopped fresh chives and a dressing of 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.
* Fried chicken coleslaw is another great mixture. Remove 1 pound of fried chicken meat from the bones and toss with 2 cups of shredded cabbage, 1 shredded carrot, 3 sliced scallions and 2 teaspoons of orange marmalade that has been mixed with 1 teaspoon of honey. Whisk in a dressing of 1 tablespoon mayonnaise, 1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons ketchup, a -- of hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper.
* Instead of traditional buns, serve the burgers on focaccia that is brushed with more extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with chopped fresh herbs. Select focaccia from your favorite bakery, being sure it is the real thing: a large, flat round that has been liberally brushed or drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Cut focaccia into triangles to hold the burgers.
* Put the cheese inside the burger instead of on top of it, where it melts and slides off into the coals. Mix a pound of lean ground beef with 3 tablespoons of ice water, salt and pepper. Form into 8 thin patties; top 4 of the patties with 1/4 cup shredded sharp Cheddar each; top each with one of the remaining patties, and mold into burgers. Grill until well-done -- or at least 160 degrees internal temperature, for food safety -- about 10 minutes. This tip is from "Fifty Ways To Cook Most Everything" by Andrew Schloss.
* Ketchup and mustard aren't the only garnishes for hamburgers. Try topping them with sauteed onions and bell peppers, guacamole, chutney or salsa. And vary the cheeses. Brie and blue are smashing with hamburger.
* Make chili mustard to slather on the dogs. In a skillet, cook 2 tablespoons of chopped onion in 1 teaspoon oil until soft. Add 2 tablespoons chili powder (less if you want it tame) and 1 teaspoon each ground cumin and coriander. Cook for a minute; remove from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of brown mustard.
* Think something other than packaged franks: Wisconsin-style Thuringer bratwurst is a tasty substitute; so is smoked bratwurst. And instead of traditional hot dog buns, select round
German rolls, sesame or poppy seed.