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Fourth in a Flash: Three Quick Ways To Add Sparkle At A Holiday Picnic

Photos by Nora Edinger Melon, mint, tomato and strawberry are among the ingredients in this unexpected salad. It tastes even better than it looks, particularly if your guests eat dairy and crumbled feta is included.

WHEELING — If more than a year of dining COVIDly has left your skills at cooking for the masses rusty, here are a trio of recipes from the Wheeling Newspapers’ test kitchen that will help you face all manner of picnickers on the coming holiday.

And, do it quickly. Seriously.

A note that applies to each of these recipes and anything else you might fix: As COVID has left a number of people with an impaired sense of taste and smell, it’s more prudent than ever to post a card listing the ingredients next to any dish left unattended on a potluck table.

Get as fancy as you want, but simply folding an index card in half will do. Put common allergens — think wheat, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, seafood — under the recipe’s party-dress name. Those with food intolerances or allergies will thank you.

This first recipe is courtesy of Phyllis Sigal, longtime design editor for this publication.

“Watermelon just screams picnic and the Fourth of July is the perfect day for picnic food,” Sigal said. “And, this cool, refreshing watermelon salad is great for a crowd. It’s easy to make and really healthy.”

The mix of savory, sweet and aromatic ingredients might sound odd, but the balsamic vinegar makes it work, she noted. “I like that you take a bite and you really don’t know if you’re going to get watermelon or a tomato.”

Melon-Berry-‘Mater-Mint Salad

Cube one seedless, red watermelon, removing all the rind. (For maximum speed: Wash the melon hull thoroughly. Cut in half across the thickest part of the middle with a chef’s knife. Cut each half, length wise, into quarters. Working one quarter at a time, cut off and toss the rounded end, then cut what’s left in half width wide. With each smaller piece lying flat, slice off the rind and discard. Chop the flesh into slabs, then rotate the slabs and cut again to make cubes.)

Place cubes in a very large mixing bowl and set aside.

Wash and halve one pint of red cherry or grape tomatoes Add to the bowl. Wash, hull and slice 1 pound of strawberries. Add to the bowl.

Add 1-2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, the juice of one lemon, 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and several grindings of black pepper to the bowl. Gently stir to coat and mix. Top with a handful of fresh, de-stemmed mint leaves just before serving.

Extra zip: If your picnic crowd eats dairy, throw in a cup of crumbled feta cheese for the most amazing salad you’ve ever eaten. Just remember to list dairy on your ingredient card.

Or, riff the same basic ingredients and put them on skewers for a “handy” snack.

This next recipe — from my own blog collection — tastes like you worked a lot harder than you actually did. It’s the thing from which potluck dreams are made.

Double Chocolate

Mocha Brownies

Prepare one box inexpensive brownie mix according to package directions. Add one extra egg and 3 Tablespoons instant coffee granules and mix until moistened throughout. Pour mix into prepared 9- by 13-inch pan.

Sprinkle the top generously with 1/2 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips. Bake as directed on the box. Cool completely. Cut into 12-18 pieces for single servings.

Extra zip: If someone in your crowd is dairy free, use a dark chocolate chip. (Read the label to check for dairy. Not all “dark” chocolate is dark enough.) If you like nuts, sprinkle a cup of chopped walnuts over the top, as well. Just remember to change your ingredient card to reflect whatever you do.

For “handy” appeal, wrap each brownie in waxed paper and tie with a yarn bow.

You can brine them. You can soak them in plain old water. You can cook them for hours. Or, you can make “faked” beans (also from my blog) starting with the canned stuff. Shhh! No one will know.

Faked Beans

Wash, seed and coarsely chop about ½ pound sweet peppers (yellow, orange or red makes the prettiest end product, but green is fine) and one jalapeno pepper. (It also works to use a tablespoon or so of diced, pickled jalapenos right out of the jar.) Halve and peel one yellow onion then dice or slice it.

Put 1 Tablespoon olive oil in an iron skillet and slowly cook (not burn!) the peppers and onions until they are so soft they look melted. Add 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar. Stir and turn off heat.

In a large iron skillet or a Dutch oven (an enameled iron cooking pot), empty one 28-ounce cans of prepared baked beans. (Vegans and vegetarians need to check ingredient labels here.

I like Bush’s “vegetarian” blend.) Open and rinse a 16-ounce can each of cannellini and butter beans (don’t substitute another bean for the latter or you won’t get the right level of faux salt-pork creaminess).

Add the cooked peppers and onions, stir. Do a fancy pattern on the top with bottled ketchup. Put on a lid or some aluminum foil and bake up to one hour in a 300 degree F oven. Ten minutes before serving, take off the lid, turn off the heat and let a slight crust form.

Extra zip: This recipe doubles well. Just increase the size of your pot. (A deeper pot will require a longer cooking time. Go wider.) Leftovers can be frozen in small portions and added to soup at a later point.

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