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Kick Off Summer With a Memorial Day Feast

The unofficial beginning of summer is this weekend, so break out the white pants and have a picnic with these creative recipes

By Suzanne Gerber | May 24, 2013

Memorial Day is a bittersweet holiday. We've been honoring our fallen soldiers on this day for 145 years, and many towns commemorate the occasion with parades or marches, and a lot of people pay a visit to a loved one's grave or just fly the flag.

But since it's a national holiday and the first warm-weather three-day weekend of the year, most Americans use it as an opportunity to travel or, more likely, fire up the grill, get some brewskis on ice and have a barbecue.

While you're free to turn to the old standbys (hot dogs, hamburgers, potato and macaroni salads), why not plan ahead and do something a little more creative this year? These four recipes can turn a run-of-the-mill picnic or BBQ into a memorable culinary event — especially if you make the dessert.

(MORE: All-American All-Star Summer Recipes)

Southwestern Chicken Sliders With Mango-Avocado Salsa
Joanna Pruess' succulent pulled chicken tossed with chile mayo and set off with colorful mango-salsa, lettuce and tomato makes tempting sandwiches for any time of the day. Half the fun is eating them. (Be sure to serve with napkins.)
Makes 6 sliders
 
1 3/4 pounds chicken thighs with skin and bones
1 large clove garlic, minced
3 to 4 tablespoons Frank’s (any variety) or other hot pepper sauce, divided
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Vegetable spray
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup mayonnaise
 
Salsa
1 medium firm-ripe avocado
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 ripe medium mango, peeled and cut into small cubes
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
6 whole wheat slider buns
6 small romaine lettuce leaves
6 thin slices tomato

  1. In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the chicken, garlic, 2 tablespoons of the hot sauce, the maple syrup and vegetable oil; seal and turn several times to coat. Refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes, turning once or twice.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375º F. Coat a baking sheet with vegetable spray.
  3. Remove the thighs and blot with paper towels. Discard the marinade. Season the thighs with salt and pepper and bake skin side up for about 40 minutes or until the juices run clear when the meat is pricked deep in the thigh or until an instant-read thermometer reads 160º F.
  4. While the chicken bakes, mix the mayonnaise and remaining hot sauce in a bowl. Set aside. Peel and cut the avocado into small cubes. Toss with the lime juice in a bowl. Add the mango, red onion, cilantro, oil and salt, and blend.
  5. Once cooked, remove the chicken and leave aside until cool enough to handle. Discard the skin and tear the meat into thin shreds.
  6. Open the buns and spread a dab of chile mayo over the cut surfaces. Combine the chicken with the remaining mayo, tossing to coat evenly. Divide among the buns, add the lettuce and tomato slices, and spoon on the mango-avocado salsa, partly closing the sliders before serving.
Chickpea Burgers With Yogurt-Mint Sauce
To freeze uncooked burgers, individually wrap them in plastic wrap, then with foil. Freeze up to 1 month. Thaw the burgers in the refrigerator overnight before using. Recipe courtesy of Kathy Kingsley
Makes 4
 
1 (15- to 16-ounce) can chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
1/4 cup minced scallions
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 1/2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons chopped dry-roasted peanuts
1 tablespoon tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large egg
Olive oil as needed
 
For 2 servings:
2 pita bread rounds, (pocketed or unpocketed) or 2 buns
1/2 cup shredded romaine lettuce
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
Yogurt-Mint Sauce (recipe follows)
  1. In a food processor, combine the chickpeas, scallions, parsley, breadcrumbs, peanuts, lemon juice, tahini and garlic. Pulse the mixture until roughly chopped.
  2. Remove half of the mixture to a medium bowl; add the egg to the food processor and process until smooth. Add to the reserved mixture in the bowl and blend well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Shape the mixture into four patties, each about 1/2-inch thick. Brush each side generously with oil. 
  4. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the burgers until golden brown and heated through, about 3 minutes on each side. Or grill the burgers over a medium heat.
  5. Place the burgers in pita breads or buns. Top with lettuce, tomatoes and the Yogurt-Mint Sauce. 
Yogurt-Mint Sauce
Use this sauce for the chickpea burgers or as a dip for cucumber spears or baby carrots.
Makes about 1/2 cup
 
1/2 cup plain yogurt (low- or nonfat OK)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint (or 1 teaspoon dried) 
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
 
In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, mint and cumin until well blended. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use

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Moroccan Carrot Salad
Despite its complex flavor, this salad is deceptively simple. It’s wonderful made with just carrots, or you can add some grated radish, like daikon or jicama for another flavor dimension. Recipe courtesy of Kathy Kingsley
Serves 2
 
3 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, combine the carrots, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and cumin and toss to mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Jacques Pépin's Quick Almond and Plum Cake
It takes just a few seconds to mix the flour, sugar and almonds for this food-processor cake, then you blend in the remaining ingredients. You can bake the cake in a springform pan or in a loaf pan, like a pound cake. Made without the plum topping, the cake freezes well. For best results, wrap it carefully in plastic wrap and aluminum foil first, and defrost it in the refrigerator while still wrapped.
Serves 6-8

For the cake:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unblanched whole almonds
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 large eggs
1/3 cup milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 350º F, with a rack in the center. Butter a 9-inch springform pan with 1/2 teaspoon of the butter.
  2. Process the flour, almonds, sugar and baking powder in a food processor until the mixture is a coarse powder.
  3. Add the vanilla, the remaining butter, the oil and eggs, and process for a few seconds, just until incorporated.
  4. Add the milk and process for a few seconds, until the mixture is smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
  5. Place the cake on a cookie sheet and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until puffy and nicely browned on top. Cool on a rack to lukewarm.
For the topping:
4–6 ripe plums, preferably Black Friar or Santa Rosa (1 1/4 pounds), unpeeled
1/2 cup plum jam
1 tablespoon plum brandy or Calvados
  1. Using the point of a sharp knife, remove the pit from the stem end of each plum. (If the plums are not fully ripened and feel hard, prick them all over with the point of a sharp knife to soften them.) 
  2. Rinse the whole plums well under cold water.
  3. While they are still wet, roll them in the sugar.
  4. Arrange the plums on top of the cake, spacing them evenly, and push them down into the batter until the bottom half of each is immersed.
  5. Mix the plum jam and brandy together in a small bowl and brush the top of the lukewarm cake with the mixture. Remove the sides of the pan and cut the cake into 6 to 8 wedges, so that each serving contains at least half a plum. Serve warm or just at room temperature.