We are lucky to be invited to a big July 4th bash each year, held in the large, wrap-around yard of the harborfront home in Gloucester of friends Annie and Richard. The party includes everything you need to celebrate our nation’s anniversary: a location that overlooks a classic scene that artists love to paint, a large group of professional and amateur musician friends who volunteer to perform on more than one stage, and a large group of interesting people who gather to eat, drink and watch fireworks.
The food is part traditional summer cookout and part potluck.
The hosts provide a professional cookout team who keep the dogs and burgers cranking, as well as wine and cold beverages, while under the large tent (in case of less than great weather), party guests lay out the food they contribute in what offers a fascinating array of options. In recent weeks, my Gloucester friends have been buzzing about the big event and what they’re planning to bring. “What are you making?” is the question of the day.
I always enjoy the whole salmon that seems to make an entrance every year. Cold, poached and accompanied by all the trimmings like cornichons (baby pickles), a tasty mustard dip and a variety of thinly sliced baguettes. Ethnic dishes are favorites in this crowd. Spanakopita, moussaka, grape leaves and Greek salads topped with chicken are standard Mediterranean fare. Asian salads with crisp veggies stacked high in giant bowls seem to deplete quickly. Lasagna and cold pasta dishes are favorites, of course, as well as a tray or two of meatballs — Italian style, or maybe the Swedish variety that were very popular years ago. There are endless options at a shindig that generally has about two or three hundred guests. The dessert table is also packed with multiple takes on chocolate chip cookies, brownies and Key Lime Pie, along with dozens of other sweet options. Many of us keep an eye out for friend Barbara’s pies, which are always scrumptious. Last year, someone brought mini cannoli shells with a giant pastry tube of sweetened ricotta to fill your own. I thought that was brilliant. They stayed crisp and it was festive.
It’s great to have the huge variety of foods — many of which are not expected on the Fourth — along with the grilled meats. Their approach reminds us of how great if is to have guests bring something — it adds an element of surprise, and it sure makes the party easier on the hosts!
I feel a lot of pressure to make something Italian as lots of people remember my restaurant and some of my former students are always there. I’ve made Pizza Rustica in past years — a rustic pie with layers of ricotta, salami, hard boiled eggs and roasted red peppers which Italians serve at Easter but I serve anytime; baby meatballs with tomato sauce in mini sandwiches; a giant frittata with a base of crispy cooked noodles and sauteed summer veggies; and lots of cheese accompanied by a nice bread basket to make your own sandwiches.
I made a jar of pesto so I was thinking rings of grilled sausage, pasta from Pastaio, a favorite pasta shop in Gloucester, tossed with swiss chard that I cooked with garlic and olive oil and a generous sprinkling of Pecorino Romano from The Cave, a great local cheese shop. How lucky are we to have such delicious resources. Back in the day, we had to go to Boston to get the good stuff!
Fredericks Park in Beachmont, where I spent my early years, will always fill me with joy just thinking about the Fourth of July. Wheelbarrow races, strollers and bicycles decorated in red white and blue crepe paper, and a pie-eating contest. A race to see who could devour a blueberry pie the fastest! The year I won was one of the happiest days of my seventh year. I still love blueberry pie and God was good to me when the doctor gave me a list of the fruits that my body could still tolerate and pears and blueberries were there. Although these days, when making something with blueberries, I’m more inclined to make a blueberry cake, which is easier to make big for a crowd. A sheet cake with a flag motif is fun to make, especially with and for kids. The Stars and Stripes with blueberries and strawberries, you can mix it up, and plenty of cans of whipped cream at the ready. With kids, it’s good not to expect perfection. It’s all about having fun. Actually, I take the same approach for adults. I’ve never understood the compulsion to make desserts, or any food, perfect. Perfection strips the sense of love and family from food — it just isn’t realistic. I prefer rustic to pristine. The cake and the berries will taste good no matter how funky the presentation. Happy Fourth!
PASTA with SAUSAGE and SWISS CHARD — serves eight side dishes
Good at any time, not only on July 4
You can make this the day before in steps.
Grill or saute a pound of Italian sausages. You can make more sausages if you want more meat versus pasta. Cut into half inch rings and set aside.
Wash a few pounds of swiss chard twice to remove the sand. Drain and cut into two inch pieces, including the ribs.
In a large saute pan heat four tbsp. olive oil. Add three cloves of chopped garlic to the pan and sweat the garlic a few minutes. Do not brown the garlic as this will lock in the flavor. Add the swiss chard and gently stir fry for a few minutes.
Cover the pan for another few minutes and check for tenderness. Season with salt and pepper. If you make this for a crowd keep it mild. Some people cannot tolerate too much heat as in red pepper flakes. The ribs should be tender. Set aside.
Step three: Pesto!
Wash about three cups of basil leaves and dry in between paper towels. Place in food processor with four cloves of garlic, a half cup of toasted pine nuts, a quarter cup of olive oil and a half cup of Pecorino Romano, a tsp. salt.
Pulse to combine and with machine running and pour in a little more olive oil to help puree. Set aside.
Cook a pound of your favorite pasta and drain and set aside.
Step four: Assemble
When you are ready to assemble, in a large bowl place the pasta, the sausage and veggies and three tbsp. of pesto in layers with a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano and toss gently. Do this twice.
Cover and toss when you are ready to serve. Don’t mix the pasta too early with the rest of the ingredients as it will absorb too much liquid.
Sprinkle with Pecorino Romano. Place a sprig of basil leaves on top to decorate.