Keep July Fourth easy on cook, taste buds

A red, white and blue salad of watermelon, blueberries and feta cheese is festive and tasty for the Fourth of July.

Sometimes it's fun to move away from the traditional holiday foods — in this case, a whole pig or ribs — when you want to have a different type of party, perhaps one that would move indoors out of the heat. But we all want easy, with few ingredients, and dazzling, too. Who doesn't love the "what is this?" question when people are oohing and aahing?

Recently, I've stumbled on a few foods I never met before, like "Southern hummus" made with butter beans or English peas, which make interesting dips. I've also encountered some "new " meats lately.

But in fact, the "new" meat, a beef tri-tip roast, has been around in California since the 1950s. It was introduced to me this past year by the National Beef Council. It's a "new" meat because the method of cutting the whole beef has changed, with more tender cuts being carved out, making many of the roasts smaller. The tri-tip, for instance, is the bottom of the sirloin roast. It is much more flavorful than tenderloin, but it is nearly as tender.

Watermelon salad is a new twist as well, saving the bother of dealing with seeds sprouting in the yard in mid-August. In a nod to tradition, though, a strawberry or peach shortbread is as American as it can get, particularly made with biscuits.

The trick to this meal also is that everything may be made in advance: the watermelon "sticks" cut and refrigerated in a plastic bag, to be tossed with the other ingredients at the last minute; the tri-tip cooked and refrigerated; the shortbread resting in the freezer or on the table in a plastic bag. It's easy on the cook, as well as the eyes and taste buds of the guests! But be prepared to tell the guests what everything is.

Figure about 4 servings per pound for a tri-tip roast, which may vary between 2 to 3 1/2 pounds. Leftovers keep well, so there is no problem in cooking too much; the meat excels in sandwiches. It is important to cook this meat only to 135 degrees, as it goes up at least 10 degrees while resting. The tip ends are well-done for those who prefer it that way, and the center is succulently rare.

The tri-tip does well with no marinade and no seasoning, so try it that way sometime when just serving family.

Pepper Tri-Tip Roast

Serves 6-9

1 (2 to 3 1/2 pounds) beef tri-tip roast

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

1 to 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

2 garlic cloves, crushed with salt

1 teaspoon fresh or dried thyme

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Rub the roast with a mixture of the olive oil, brown sugar, pepper, garlic cloves and thyme. Move meat to a roasting pan and roast 20-25 minutes, until 135 degrees. Remove from oven, tent loosely with foil and let rest 10 minutes. Remove foil, move to a board and slice against the grain in thin slices.

To grill: Move roast to grid over medium heat. Grill, uncovered, 30 to 40 minutes, checking occasionally for temperature. Remove roast when thermometer registers 135 for rare, 150 for medium.

Tent with aluminum foil and let rest 10 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise. Slice against the grain.

Watermelon has always been a staple at Southern cookouts, and with a crumble of salty feta and a handful of the fresh, sweet blueberries that are in season right now, it makes a beautiful red, white and blue salad that's delicious and healthy.

Watermelon Salad

4-6 servings

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Snipped fresh herbs to taste (basil, thyme, rosemary, etc.)

For the salad:

2 cups fresh watermelon, cut into cubes or sticks

1 pint fresh blueberries

6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled or grated

1 (5-ounce) package fresh mache or baby spinach

Whisk the Dijon mustard and honey with the balsamic vinegar in a small bowl. While whisking, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add fresh herbs from the garden if available. Toss the greens with the dressing (you may have some leftover) and divide onto 4-6 serving plates. Sprinkle with the watermelon, blueberries and feta cheese. (If using for a cookout, assemble salad ingredients together in a large serving bowl and dress just before serving.)

New Southern chefs have taken to creating "Southern hummus" as a nod to vegetarians who make the Middle Eastern version of the dip from chick peas. Although chick peas also are grown profusely in the South, they are most often seen canned. Butterbeans, however, are sold fresh (now coming into season), frozen and canned, and are found more often in the Southern larder. Any one of them may be used in this recipe, with the caveat that the canned beans will require less cooking, and should be drained before using. Seasoning always will vary, according to the bean, so the measurements are just a guideline.

This dip is significantly better the next day.

Butterbean "Hummus"

Makes 6 cups

1 (32-ounce) package frozen butterbeans

2 medium Vidalia or other onion, chopped

8 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tablespoon salt

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves or "Charleston cilantro" (see cook's note)

1/4 cup tahini

2 teaspoons ground cumin seed

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

3 ounces lemon juice

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Toasted pita triangles or crackers for serving

Cover with water and bring the beans, chopped onions, garlic cloves and salt to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and simmer about 10 minutes or until beans are tender. Drain the bean mixture and move to a food processor bowl or blender. Add the cilantro, tahini, cumin seed, cayenne, lemon juice and olive oil.

Puree until smooth. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Variations: Add fresh dill or mint.

Cook's note: Charleston cilantro is a commonly used name for the herb also known as "Thai cilantro." It has a rounded leaf quite different from the leaf of a cilantro plant, but the plant is similar. Regular cilantro does not like the heat of the Lowcountry in the summer, so I frequently use the other.

This is another dip that Charlestonians call "hummus" but is made with what we call English peas and other regions call green peas. Best made a day or two in advance so the flavors marry and develop.

Green Pea Hummus

Makes 3 cups

3 cups frozen green peas

1 garlic clove, smashed

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons tahini

1/2 cup sliced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Optional garnish: spring lemon grass or lemon thyme

Add the peas to a pan with several cups of boiling water. Cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Refresh with cold water and drain. Move to a food processor or blender with the garlic clove, cumin, lemon juice, olive oil and tahini. Puree. Add parsley, salt and freshly ground pepper. Garnish as desired.

Variation: Serve butterbean hummus and green pea hummus in a dish together, showing the contrast in colors and flavors.

A pretty dessert that's perfect for a hot summer day!

Strawberry Shortcake

1 pint whipping cream, cold

1/4 cup powdered sugar

12 freshly baked biscuits

1 small jar strawberry preserves

1 pint fresh blueberries

Whisk the cream and powdered sugar together in a medium bowl or whip in a mixer until it forms medium-stiff peaks. Split biscuits in half and spread the bottom half with the strawberry preserves, then top with whipped cream. Sprinkle on a handful of blueberries and replace biscuit top.

Note: For a pretty sparkling top on your biscuits, brush with cream and sprinkle with raw sugar before baking.