It's also a course that many believe can't be oversubscribed, a category for which extras are encouraged.
But interesting salads and appetizers are also welcomed, as even accomplished cooks are happy to have alternatives to accommodate a panoply of tastes and appetites.
The challenge here is to offer dishes that can be prepared and transported to a picnic easily, served cold or at room temperature. These dishes can complement a range of menus, whether old-fashioned picnic or contemporary cookout, all-American or ethnic.
If the Fourth of July menu you expect to savor next week is predictable down to the mustard-tinged dressing on Aunt Adeline's potato salad, contributing a culinary sparkler, something showy and special, or a tad spicy or different, could make you a star.
If you don't have far to travel or will have time to assemble a platter when you arrive, an arrangement such as the fresh Fruit Starburst looks great, tastes great, yet requires no cooking and only about 10 minutes to put together. Use watermelon slices cut in triangles for the star points, and fill the center with berries and other fruits in bite-size pieces.
The Fresh Berry Crostada - filled with red and blue berries in rich white mascarpone cream - is a more elegant offering to be made ahead and chilled.
It calls for a half hour of baking - if you make the shell from scratch. But a time-pressed cook can substitute a prepared tart base or adapt the recipe using individual tart shells or chocolate cups. Yum.
Angel food cake is another excellent - light and low-calorie - foundation for a patriotic topping of mixed berries and cream. Make your own, use a mix, or buy the cake ready-made.
As for side dishes for the main meal, there's always room at the table for another salad, another vegetable. But some guidance in choosing the right one helps.
Hosts are responsible for coordinating the menu, providing parameters while tactfully asking for or accepting contributions and giving guests a heads-up on the basic menu and what is needed, such as appetizers/nibbles or salads (light greens or hearty potato, pasta, rice or beans).
If the host's special fried chicken is the main course, you don't want to bring chicken salad. But a pasta salad tossed with shrimp or mixed seafood could be the perfect complement.
Offering something new and different in no way disrespects or detracts from the season's first farm-fresh corn-on-the-cob (perk it up with an herb butter blend) or heirloom tomato slices layered with mozzarella and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Still, a fresh take on those classics - corn salad or stuffed cherry tomatoes - can't hurt.
For a change, try a different grain in lieu of or in addition to rice or pasta salad. Couscous, barley, quinoa, or simply brown rice all are nutritious alternative grains that mix well with dried fruits and nuts as hearty vegetarian dishes or as sides for entrees of poultry or pork. (See recipe for Tabbouleh with Dried Fruit, made with couscous.)
For color and flavor, add a vegetable side: Roasted Beet and Orange Salad (see recipe). Or a platter of tender asparagus spears, steamed and chilled, with Mustard Herb Vinaigrette.
(For the vinaigrette, mix 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon chopped flat leaf parsley, and a pinch each of chopped tarragon, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Whisk in 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil.)
Cool liquids, as soup or beverage, are especially welcome on a hot summer day.
Refreshing Chilled Cucumber and Yogurt Soup (see recipe) is based on a familiar food pairing of India and the Middle East. Serve it from a pitcher in convenient cups.
Procrastinators take heart.
If you come down to the wire with no time or desire to make even an easy dish from scratch, a stop at your favorite deli or bakery could save the day.
Fresh Berry Crostada
Makes one 10-inch tart, 8 to 10 servings
For the Crust:
1 cup unbleached flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
1/4 cup ground hazelnuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 large egg, lightly beaten
For the Filling:
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1. For the crust, mix the flour, sugar, cornmeal, hazelnuts, salt and butter in a food processor with metal blade. Pulse to resemble coarse meal. Place in a large bowl and stir in the lemon zest. Add the egg and toss with a fork until dough holds together when lightly pressed.
2. Gather dough and press into the bottom and up the sides of a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Pierce the bottom of the dough with the tines of a fork. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.
3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line crust with aluminum foil; fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 20 minutes. Remove weights and foil. Pierce crust again to deflate it. Bake to light brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Cool on wire rack.
4. For the filling, in the mixer bowl, whip the cream at high speed until stiff. In a small bowl, mix the mascarpone, powdered sugar and liqueur. Fold in the whipped cream; spoon into the crust, smoothing the top. Scatter berries on the filling. Dust with powdered sugar. Remove sides of pan.
5. Serve at once or refrigerate for up to 12 hours.
- From The Garden Entertaining Cookbook (Chronicle, 2001)
by Barbara Scott-Goodman and Mary Goodbody.
Per serving (based on 10): 280 calories, 5 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 68 milligrams cholesterol, 212 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 pounds cherry tomatoes, preferably with stems
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 ripe avocado
Dash of Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 sprig mint, leaves chopped
2 tablespoons minced chervil
1. Remove tomatoes if on the vine, leaving the stem attached. Put in an airtight container. Refrigerate.
2. Prepare fillings as desired; store in separate jars.
3. Before serving, slice off about 1/4-inch of the tomato tops, with stem. Use a small melon baller to hollow out the tomatoes and stuff with your choice of fillings.
4. For Guacamole Filling, pour the lemon juice into a bowl, reserving 1 teaspoonful. Pit and peel the avocado; slice it into the bowl. Add Tabasco, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons oil and mash coarsely. Store airtight.
5. For Cottage Cheese Filling, mash the cheese with 2 tablespoons each of chervil and mint. Add the reserved teaspoon lemon juice, tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper.
- From Alfresco Dining by Marie Abadie (Hachette, 2001)Per serving (based on 8):
119 calories, 4 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 66 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Tabbouleh with Dried Fruit
Makes 6 servings
21/2 cups coarse couscous
1 bunch mint
1 large bunch flatleaf parsley
6 dried apricots, chopped
2 tablespoons walnut pieces
1/2 cup raisins
Pinch of grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (2 large or 3 small lemons)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1. Cook the couscous (see Note) as directed on package.
2. Chop the mint and the parsley. In a bowl, mix the herbs with the apricots, walnuts, raisins and nutmeg.
3. When the couscous is cooked, let it rest for 10 minutes before stirring. Add the fruit-nut mixture; mix well. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, to taste.
4. Mix the lemon juice and oil; stir into the tabbouleh.
5. Serve warm or at room temperature.
- From Alfresco Dining by Marie Abadie (Hachette, 2001)Note:
Quinoa (or Inca rice) is the best grain for this recipe. It can be found in natural food and specialty shops.
Per serving (based on 6): 447 calories, 11 grams protein, 76 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, no cholesterol, 16 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Roasted Beet and Orange Salad
Makes 8 servings
8 beets (mixed red, golden, candy-stripe), green tops trimmed
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Pinch cayenne pepper
40 orange segments, skin removed (see Note)
1/2 cup red onion julienne
1/2 cup walnut halves
1 cup crumbled goat cheese
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Place the beets in a baking dish, add about 1/4 inch of water, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast the beets until tender, about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly, then slip off their skins. Cut the beets into quarters.
3. Blend the oil, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and cayenne. Toss the beets in the dressing while they are warm.
4. Divide the beets into 8 portions and plate each with 5 orange segments, 1 tablespoon each onion julienne and walnuts, and 2 tablespoons crumbled cheese.
- From Vegetables by the Culinary Institute of America (Lebhar-Friedman, 2007) Note:
For citrus segments, cut away both ends of the fruit. Using a sharp paring knife, follow the curve of the fruit and cut away the skin, pith and membrane to expose the flesh.
Per serving (based on 8): 270 calories, 7 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 453 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Chilled Cucumber and Yogurt Soup
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped mint
4 cups plain yogurt
1 cup whole milk
4 medium cucumbers, peeled, seeded and finely diced
Salt and pepper, as needed
1. In a small bowl, mix the garlic and the mint.
2. Beat the yogurt and milk together with a wire whisk or handheld blender on medium speed until smooth. With a rubber spatula, fold in the mint and garlic.
3. Combine the cucumbers and the yogurt mixture. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and chill for a few hours or overnight. Adjust seasoning. Serve in chilled bowls or cups.
- From Vegetables by the Culinary Institute of America (Lebhar-Friedman, 2007).Per serving (based on 8): 118 calories, 6 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 76 milligrams sodium, trace grams dietary fiber.
Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or firstname.lastname@example.org.