July 4th Cookout MUST HAVES!

Ruly entertaining: a drink wagon!

The economy is still terrible. And people more than ever long to congregate over great food. Luckily the two are not mutually exclusive. I wrote last year’s Ruly Ruth on what’s hot food-wise to share. So I think it’s a must that I update this annually!

6 Cookout Food Trends for 2012

1.  A Main Course

People are being asked to bring not just an “extra” food item, as in years past–but often parts of the main course. A friend recently brought a beautiful sausage roll baked in a puffed pastry and sliced for easy serving–lovely! We brought a sliced pork tenderloin marinated and cooked in an Asian sauce over rice with mixed veggies and a teriyaki sauce over the entire dish. You get the picture. Bring foods that are hearty, and can stand alone. These are huge hits these days.

2.  Ethnic Food

A beautiful Korean-style buffet

Ethnic food is HUGE HUGE HUGE! Follow your roots or your favorite cooking style! I LOVE Creole food–although we have zero Creole roots. I can make a mean gumbo (and now that I know a quick microwave roux I can cut the crazy cooking time in half) and blackened anything is fabulous! A Green Thai Curry stir-fry is always fabulous–I have to go to the Asian market to buy my favorite paste to fry up in coconut milk before adding the rest of the ingredients. Greek food/Mediterranean food is as always super desirable–lovely humus dips, fresh tomato and cucumber salads with feta cheese–loving it! Fondues are back in…I had a fondue party recently with cheese as the main course and of course the chocolates–both white and milk melted for dessert dipping. A friend from Nigeria made a mad noodle dish with a lovely sweet-potato and meat topping. Bring it on! I think what’s great about this food is that most of us love to try new things…so this is a way to contribute to a party and have a new tasting sensation at the same time. And also, if you love cooking it–you know it will taste fabulous!

3.  Homestyle Food

Some of North Carolina's best barbecue! You don't have to make it yourself. Take out from a great restaurant is wonderful too!

Homestyle food is back in also. Last year I categorized this as “old fashioned”–times have changed–I swear if I threw a party and had everyone bring their own version of mac ‘n cheese right now it would be a huge hit! (There were years this concept wouldn’t have flown at all!) Truffle oil in mac ‘n cheese is very popular right now–so consider that as a deluxe addition. And the cheeses–white cheeses are making their appearance in this dish with huge avail. Some add meats to it, others keep it plain. Even Kraft’s deluxe version with the breaded topping is fabulously rich. Go figure! Fried chicken, if you’re here in the south, hush puppies–yum! And barbecue–with shows like “Pit Masters” that we can’t take our eyes off of–you know it’s going down! Once you’re in the south you learn of regional specialties with barbecue. In MD and VA you have a more tomato-sauced based barbecue sauce flavored with amazing things. Here in North Carolina, they use a vinegar-based sauce. Which was very interesting, but I’ve grown to love it! And sweet tea–when McDonald’s launched it you know the nation loves it!

4.  Cocktails, Mocktails and Punch

Drinks are still popular to bring along…especially cocktails that have taken time and special ingredients–or mocktails for those teetotalers out there. One friend made a martini with her own homemade blackberry syrup reduction. A lovely treat for all of us! And punches are huge again–you’d think the ’60s and ’70s had maxed those out–but they are back in a big way, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic alike. Presentation is everything–from dry ice to fancy glasses (yes, even guests who want it to look a certain way will bring their own glassware for serving).

5.  Kids

An adorable kids' table starring Ruly Ruth's daughter.

Here’s the deal–family-friendly is THE ONLY way to go nowadays. Even if you don’t have kids! Babysitters are expensive items most of us save for only once-in-a-whiles right now. And we are in an era where kids are to be kept involved and with us…that’s why we had them, after all. A cute little table set apart for kids food is a huge hit. Extra bonus points if you can make even a make-shift table at child-height! Chicken nuggets, the original Kraft Mac ‘N Cheese, carrots and dip and cut-up fruit (apple slices or orange slices or melon) and juice boxes is all you need—relatively inexpensive items that make picky eaters or little eaters very comfortable.

A surefire hit: Chik-Fil-A's chicken nugget tray.

6.  Diet Foods

Trifles are everywhere! Not sure this one is diet-friendly but it was delicious!

Diet is IN! Yes, even with homestyle, we love our “Skinny Girl Margaritas”–which taste even better thanks to my friend Martha’s discovery to mix half of that mix with Crystal Light Lemonade! Light whipping cream in desserts, please! (And trifles are back too–angel food cake, berries and light whipping cream and also light vanilla pudding layered is the first to go.) The ONLY caveat is make sure it tastes good. Life is short, and if it doesn’t taste good, believe it or not, we won’t eat it!

7.  Cake Balls

Desserts have a super popular theme this year: cake balls! Everyone is doing cake balls. It used to be a once-in-a-while thing, now it’s mandatory. I’m not a great decorator, so I am usually the trifle-bringer. But the friends that are make these look amazing! Doctored baked cake usually mixed with cream cheese rolled into balls and put individually on a lollipop stick, hardened in the fridge and then either spread with icing or dipped and often with toppings. Yum!

Another fresh dessert idea a friend brought was so delicious and beautiful in presentation–she bought waffle cones, filled them with mixed berries, arranged them in a circular pattern and put a bowl of whipped cream with a serving spoon in the middle. The first thing to go, that’s for sure! Lovely!

Note from Anne: One of my neighbors brought this gorgeous strawberry roll to a party and it was devoured in seconds. She claimed it was easy to make too.

I hope these ideas are helpful as we approach the 4th of July cookout season! Enjoy, be safe, and bon appetit!

Note from Anne: It has been interesting for me to see how many of Ruth’s trends from last year showed up on party tables throughout the year.  The only trend that may have changed is Ruth’s placing “Store-bought veggie trays” at the top of the “Do Not Bring” list.  Ruly Ruth herself served some Sam’s Club veggie trays at a recent party (below) and they were fantastic.  I served some Wal-Mart ones recently and they were fantastic too.  So, maybe we need to alter that warning to be “Un-fresh-looking store-bought veggie trays.” The one trend I am seeing at Fredericksburg parties is an increased emphasis on healthy, sugar-free food.  Store-bought fruit and vegetable trays are wonderful quick and easy things to bring!

Ruly Ruth's Sam's Club Veggie Tray. It was delicious!


A Sam's Club Fruit tray with cheese, apples and caramel dipping sauce. Lovely!

What food trends are showing up at your local cookouts? Please share in the comments.