Here’s a dilemma I struggled with for a long time: I would never show up empty handed to a summer cookout but I don’t always have time to prepare a side dish or dessert. Bringing a bottle of wine or a 12-pack of beer is always appreciated, but I’m always trying to think about what else I can bring that will complement what’s already being served or will take care of any holes in the menu.
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Here are five ideas I’ve come to rely on over the years.
It may be a while before everyone shows up and the meal is served, so appetizers are key. Packaged guacamole or store-prepared salads are never as good as the homemade versions, so I like to bring charcuterie instead. My go-to is Aux Délices des Bois’s hot soppressata which is flecked with fennel seeds and Calabrian hot chiles (I love it paired with a peppery red wine, like this $10 Gouguenheim Malbec 2013.) It momentarily fulfills the need for salty meat and it’s cured and dried, so it won’t go bad as it sits out.
2. Grilling Cheese
Haloumi, Rougette Grill Meister Grilling Cheese, or Carr Valley Bread Cheese can be placed directly on the grill and make for a super easy and unexpected appetizer. They only need about 2 minutes on each side to get charred on the outside and warmed through. Here’s a quick guide to grilling cheeses the right way.
3. Ice cream
Chances are that whatever the host is planning to serve for dessert—pie, cake, cookies, brownies—has the potential to be even better with a scoop of cold, creamy ice cream. Sometimes a host can get so wrapped up in the main course that dessert is an afterthought—but there you are with ice cream to up the dessert game.
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You can’t go wrong by walking into a party with a big bag of avocados. Throw some on the grill for an unexpected creamy, smoky topping or a side that’s great with burgers, steak, hot dogs and more. You can also prep them at home (just make sure to mix in some lime juice so they don’t oxidize).
There’s a good chance that the host will already have some of this cookout staple already, but if there’s a surplus, then the extra can get tossed on the grill. About a minute on each side imparts a smoky flavor and makes the fruit extra juicy. It’s great as a side with grilled steak or as a smoky-sweet dessert. If you don’t want to go the grilling route, toss cubed watermelon with mint leaves and a squirt of lime juice for a quick side salad.