Food We Love

Picnics and cookouts are once again expected to be the top activity for Americans on the upcoming July 4th holiday. Those get togethers are so popular, in fact, that the National Retail Federation consumer survey estimates we’ll be spending nearly 7-billion dollars on those burgers and corn on the cob.  Yes, you read that correctly. 7 billion.

With all that picnicking and grilling going on,  the “Food We Love” team at the Sun-Times reached out to a few Chicago experts for their advice how about to prepare your July 4th favorites plus some ideas for how to put a new twist on some of the standard fare like watermelon and corn on the cob.  Here’s what they had to say:

Grilling is a hallmark of Chicago July 4th celebrations. | Provided by Ursula Adduci of Sazon Chicago

Grilling is a hallmark of Chicago July 4th celebrations. | Provided by Ursula Adduci of Sazon Chicago

Light up the grill!

Artango Bar and Steakhouse: Maria Alferov

  • Make your own charcoals. Start the fire. Make a stack of dry wood, preferably apple or cherry for a good flavor.
  • When the flames and smoke of your initial fire have relented, you will have a pile of smouldering charcoal. Keep the fire low.
  • Introduce the biggest cuts first, starting with the short ribs.
  • The steady cooking process – fiddling is frowned upon – will give you plenty of time for the social element of the grilling, conducted over a glass of Malbec and a few picadas (cheese/ham/salami/olives). A perfect way to celebrate July 4 surround your friends and family
  • The most favorite cuts to grill in Argentina: flank steak, skirt steak and rib-eye. The secret is to keep the meat on the grill on one site to mark 60% of all time. Transfer the meat far from direct fire and keep it until desired temperature.
  • No plate of meat is complete without the ubiquitous chimmicurri, an oily chilli and spicy sauce. Everyone has their own secret ingredient, but essentials are olive oil, garlic, dried chilli, oregano and salt. It is a rare excursion into spicy foods for Argentines, but much loved and dribbled on most cuts.

Band of Bohemia: Michael Carroll

  • Have a good bed of coals. You don’t want flames but good heat.
  • Rotate what you are cooking to allow for even cooking.
  • If cooking a protein (meat), allow it rest for at least 5 minutes once you’ve taken it off the grill. This allows the juices to redistribute into the protein.

Savory Spice Shop: David Trout

  • Chicken thighs are your friends! They’re way easier to make than breasts, and it’s nearly impossible to over-grill them — especially good for big get-togethers.
  • Use marinades with the meats, vegetables and fruit you’ll be grilling. (Our Cuban Island Marinade recipe with Pineapple Rings is always a hit! Surprisingly savory and refreshing.) It’s a super easy way to get the flavors you love. Experiment, be adventurous. You’ll impress.
  • Don’t buy fancy equipment. Be crafty. You really don’t need a $35 grill brush that is kind of dangerous anyway. Crumple up some aluminum foil, grab it with your most trusted pair of tongs and scrape away. Recycle, of course!

The Warbler and Gather: Ken Carter

  • Use indirect heat: Some items need to be cooked longer to be enjoyed better! Don’t just leave it on the hot spot, because it will burn before it can reach its potential Move it to the back or the side of the grill.
  • Whatever you are grilling, make sure the food is not cold. If it goes on to the grill cold, the outside of the food will overcook before the insides can cook evenly.
  • Season, season, season. Don’t be afraid to season your food, or even marinade it for extra flavor. Adding something a bit sweet will really enhance the flavor and charred qualities.

What’s in season at the Farmers Market?

Linda Yu and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken at the Green City Market. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Linda Yu and Chef Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken at the Green City Market. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Artango Bar and Steakhouse:  Maria Alferov

  • Asparagus
  • Tomatoes

Ellis Family Farms: Rene Gelder

  • Sweet cherries
  • Blueberries
  • Red raspberries

Savory Spice Shop: David Trout

My favorite vegetable dish to make on the grill is a mixture of diced sweet potatoes, zucchini, and onions tossed with a bit of olive oil and our Mt. Elbert All-Purpose Seasoning. Throw them in a grill basket over indirect heat until fork tender with a little bit of a char. I always make too much in anticipation of grilled vegetable quesadillas the next day. Double-bonus!

The Warbler and Gather: Ken Carter

When it comes to farm-fresh food, I have one rule: If it looks good, it will taste good! Anything you get seasonally from your local farmers will be a crowd pleaser, but if you’re unsure, just ask the farmer what’s good!

One of my favorite items to grill for 4th of July is zucchini. The best way I know how to do it is to cut it on a wide bias but around an inch thick. This will ensure it won’t overcook before it’s nicely charred. I season it with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, tomato paste, salt, pepper and dried basil, then grill it on medium heat until nice grill marks are on each side and it’s tender to the touch.

And don’t forget the sweet cherries! Local sweet cherries are a treat and are great with almost anything, in a salad, pureed or made into a sauce for grilled chicken — or sweet cherry pie for dessert after all the grilled food!

Corn on the cob ideas

Street corn. | Jennifer Schulze \ Sun-Times

Street corn. | Jennifer Schulze/Sun-Times

Band of Bohemia: Michael Carroll

I like to soak the corn for a good hour before in the husk, and then on the grill with the lid on, rotating often to ensure even cooking. I cook them until they have a little give if you squeeze one. Allow to cool to the touch and peel off husk. Rub generously with butter and salt.

Lark: Sean West

Grill it whole, with the husk, until it is charred. Chop off the stalk end and slip the cob out. Easy to prep and the grilled flavor really gets into it. Lots of butter and salt.

Sazon Chicago, Ursula Adducci

We love corn on the cob grilled and topped with smoked paprika mayo and cotija cheese.  Also, corn pudding is a crowd pleaser with steak or ribs!

Wisconsin Fermentation Company: Seth Armour

Peel back husk, remove silk and recover corn with husk. Soak in water. Put whole cobs (wrapped in husk) on the grill. Melt butter in a pan, cut heat and add black garlic puree. Remove corn from grill, pull back husk and slather in black garlic butter!

Artango Bar and Steakhouse: Maria Alferov

In Argentina, we make grilled corn on the cob with butter, lime, and cayenne pepper.

The Warbler and Gather: Ken Carter

Take the entire piece of corn (husk still on) and dip it in water for a few seconds before grilling it. Then place it directly on the hot spot of the grill and cook it until the husk gets very dark. The corn will cook through on the inside and take on a chargrilled flavor, but it won’t burn. After the husk is charred, remove it from the grill and then peel the husk and brush the corn with some butter and salt and place it back on the grill to char the corn just a bit. Then enjoy!

Watermelon Ideas

Crab cakes topped with small diced watermelon and more. | Provided by Ursula Adduci of Sazon Chicago

Crab cakes topped with small diced watermelon and more. | Provided by Ursula Adduci of Sazon Chicago

Koval Distillery: Sonat Birnecker

I’d recommend watermelon in a cocktail with Koval White Rye. Muddle basil and lemon slices and add white rye and fresh watermelon juice. So refreshing! (Recipe below.)

I also love to drizzle Koval Ginger Liqueur over sliced watermelon for a really unique treat.

White Rye Watermelon Refresher Recipe
1 ounce Koval White Rye
4 ounces fresh watermelon juice
1 slice lemon
2 basil leaves

Muddle lemon slice and basil in mixing glass. Top with white rye and watermelon juice; fill with ice. Strain into coupe glass or serve over ice in low ball glass.

Sazon Chicago: Ursula Adduci

I like it as a drink with vodka.
In a recipe, I use it in berry watermelon salsa for crab cakes.  My favorite recipe (see photo above) combines  small diced watermelon, tomatoes, red onions, blackberries and blueberries with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.

The Warbler and Gather: Ken Carter

My favorite way to eat watermelon is cubed up in a salad with feta cheese, red onions, grapes, basil and tomato! It’s a nice refreshing alternative to all the grilled meats!

Savory Spice Shop: David Trout

I didn’t believe it at first, but then I tried it. Hawaiian Black Lava Salt lightly sprinkled on a wedge of watermelon!

It’s also confirmed that watermelon tastes better if you sit on the front steps of the house to eat it. True fact.

Grilling extras:

Grilled chicken is popular at July 4th picnics. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Grilled chicken is popular at July 4th picnics. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Savory Spice Shop:  David Trout

With all the grilling going on, I always gravitate to the cold sides to balance it out. They should be light, bright, and a bit acidic to cut the richness of the meat, bbq sauces, rubs, etc. Don’t overdo it. This isn’t an individual endurance event. Do a potluck — it’s more democratic! Remember you are there mostly to spend time with other people, not the corn dogs and slaw.

Sazon Chicago: Ursula Adduci

Definitely choripan, the Argentinian version of the hotdog. It’s a delicious pork sausage in a demi-baguette topped with Chimichurri. If you want more, tomatoes, onions, pickles, mustard and even avocado are available!

Also, Corvina Ceviche. Costa Rican ceviche is made with ginger and lime and the best fish for it, Corvina from the bass family.

The Warbler and Gather: Ken Carter

July 4 is just the perfect time for family and friends to get together and enjoy the year’s best food — and most of it can be grilled.

Lark: Sean West

Don’t burn the bread! Every year, my grandmother would forget about the bread.

Todd Lucas grilling for a family BBQ on July 4th at 53rd Street. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times Archives

Todd Lucas grilling for a family BBQ on July 4th at 53rd Street. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times Archives

Share your grilling advice

We’d love to hear from YOU about your grilling tips, favorite dishes to serve for July 4th celebrations and more.  Send us an email at and we may add it to this story.

Watch “Food We Love” episodes

Food We Love is a new video series for the Chicago Sun-Times hosted by Chicago journalist, Linda Yu.  Each week, Linda talks to Chicagoans about their family food traditions, special recipes and more.  Check the links below to watch Linda’s #foodwelove videos. Each one has a great story plus recipes for you to try at home.

WATCH:  Linda Yu shares her family recipe for Chinese Rice Stuffing

WATCH:  Best friends Linda Yu & Sylvia Perez cook up something special

WATCH:   Who knew prunes could be so amazing? Learn two recipes from Koval Distillery.

WATCH:  Grandma’s zest for life inspires Ambitious Kitchen’s Monique Volz.

WATCH: Risotto is music to the ears of Ravinia’s Welz Kauffman.

WATCH: A zesty coffee recipe from Vicki Reece of “Joy of Mom.”

WATCH: A pasta recipe from her childhood still inspires Chicago foodie

WATCH:  ABC7’s Jim Rose shares his favorite pot roast recipe.

WATCH: Celebrating Ramadan with a favorite family recipe

WATCH: Chef Tony Priolo shares a recipe inspired by his grandmother

WATCH: Chefs Sarah Stegner & George Bumbaris teach us how to cook fish

WATCH: Ursula Adduci shares a favorite Costa Rican cooking tradition

WATCH: Chicago Chef Christine Cikowski find inspiration at the farmers market 

Happy 4th of July everybody!

Happy 4th of July everybody!