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Fourth of July is coming up soon, which reminds me of that time we almost set the house on fire. No, not the time my little brother got into the fireworks when we were vacationing in Nags Head in the early ’80s. I mean last year.
I’ll back up and remind us all: No one is perfect. Even a Food Network star will hit a snag in the kitchen every so often. But the savvy cook knows how to deal with these mistakes and smooth over a tiny hiccup so that no one will even notice. Overcook a roast and I’ll show you how to turn it into French dip sandwiches with lots of au jus.
But what about the bigger blunders? The ones that can’t be covered up with an extra ladle of sauce? I invite you to think about your biggest culinary mistake, ever. And now, prepare to feel better about yourself in the kitchen.
Picture this: It’s 4th of July, 2013 — the biggest holiday celebration here in uber-patriotic Coronado, Calif. Last year, we were the hosts, making our home the central meeting point for a day of long-awaited festivities: watching the annual parade, concert in the park, a barbecue at our house and watching fireworks over the bay. Tired and hot from cheering at the parade, we made it back to our house, everyone hungry and eager for the 4th of July barbecue. I had my perfect summer burgers all formed, seasoned and ready to go, sitting in the fridge next to what my family calls “magic sauce” (see recipe here). I had cute plastic baskets all lined with festive red-white-and-blue checkered wax paper liners, and the buffet table had been set with dishes and empty serving platters since 6 a.m. I was holiday-ready.
I lit the grill as everyone arrived into our backyard, grabbing a cold soda or beer and nibbling on crostini and dips I’d made in advance (spoiler alert: turns out taking the edge off their hunger was a good thing). I loaded up the burgers onto the hot grill, pulled down the cover, and went inside to set the timer and finish the rest of the meal. Four quick minutes later I made my way outside with my trusty metal spatula and a plate of assorted cheeses, ready to flip and cheese up the burgers. Alas, this was not to be. Smoke was billowing out the tiny cracks along the side of the grill, so I grabbed my handy spray bottle to address what appeared to be heavy flare-ups. I opened the grill cover to find the entire grill on fire. Not just the burgers, but the whole grill appeared to be coated in flaming grease, creating a large, threatening column of orange flames and black smoke that quickly turned a nearby wall charcoal gray. There’s an eerie sound to fire — quiet yet commanding, a little like Darth Vader’s breath. This was not a job for a spray bottle. But I kept calm (having a large audience watching has that effect!), turned off the gas and smothered the flames with the cover.
Once the fire was out, I gingerly approached the grill and opened the top. Inside, shriveled black pucks of charcoal sat neatly in rows, as if they were just waiting patiently to be lifted onto a soft buttered bun, grilled golden brown (au jus, anyone?). Even my ever-positive husband abandoned his usual willingness to eat just about anything. One guest cheerfully offered a seven-layer salad she had brought — “a family recipe,” she assured the other guests. Perhaps we could order pizzas, another suggested. Now, I love a traditional side dish as much as anyone, and what kid doesn’t love pizza delivery? But we couldn’t deny what we were all thinking: 4th of July meant barbecue to us all in our hearts and heads. So my daughters set out another round of dips to buy me a few minutes. While my husband did his best to clean the grill, I searched my freezers to find something — anything — that we could throw on it. I needed something that would thaw quickly and that could feed a lot of people. I found it: leftover hot dogs from a soccer party.
Yes, a whole slew of party goers came to my house for dinner, and I gave them something a five-year-old could make. But you know what? It was fine. Turns out, hot dogs are fantastic with “magic sauce” too. And I was reminded that truly the most-important thing you serve at a party is the company. Our friends were visiting us — our family — not a “Food Network star.” Plus, my complete and utter failure will make your mistakes seem small in comparison. (You’re welcome.)
Here are some dips to go with whatever you decide to make this July 4th, because you never know:
Have a happy and safe 4th of July!