Eating together outside is one of life’s elemental pleasures. Often these gatherings convene in backyards and center on the grill–the all-American barbecue. Every grill enthusiast has their own set of preferences. Some insist that only charcoal can impart that essential grilled flavor to a burger or steak, while others are devoted to the convenience of their gas grills.
Those grills, whatever type, are cooking up a limited range of summer cookout classics, for the most part. Hamburgers and hotdogs; bone-in chicken basted well and often with a sweet barbecue sauce; Flintstonian rib-eyes checked often to avoid overcooking. Perhaps the stray batch of lamb chops or pork chops or the rarer-than-it-should be whole fish grace American grills as well. But generally speaking, you know what you’re getting when you go to a typical backyard barbecue.
The excitement is in the side dishes. This is how one host distinguishes himself from the pack. These accompaniments are where we see culinary creativity and adventure writ large across the patio furniture. Will you serve a painfully basic potato salad, pasta salad, or corn on the cob? Is that who you are, as a home cook? I didn’t think so.
Here are 11 recipes to turn to for inspiration when you want to level up your side dish game. Make a few of these, and your neighbors will know whose food cred runs deeper than good grass-fed burgers and homemade barbecue sauce. Show them how it’s done.
Brussels sprouts can be a polarizing vegetable. But shredding the little guys and serving them raw, tossed with a creamy, horseradish-spiked dressing leaves you with the kind of Brussels Sprouts Slaw that wins friends and influences people.
Everybody loves a tomato and mozzarella salad, it’s true. But they will love a Grilled Halloumi and Tomato Salad even more. Depending on your friends’ exposure to the squeaky Greek cheese, they may even think you invented this sweet-and-salty, hot-and-cold combo. Let them!
What could possibly be better than cornbread? Coconut Cornbread. Using coconut milk instead of the usual dairy brings a sweet, subtle, tropical flavor to this cookout classic. It may look like cornbreads you’ve had before, but the flavor and texture are both memorably different thanks to the secret ingredient.
A Carrot Raisin Slaw is de rigueur at Southern gatherings. The fresh crunch of jicama and plenty of punch from fresh citrus give this salad-slash-slaw an edge over the competition. Pro tip: Mix this salad in advance and chill for a few hours to allow the flavors to get to know each other and really come together.
Corn on a stick, coated with delicious stuff like chilies and cheese, is classic Mexican street food. Serve Elote con Queso in your backyard for a spicy if slightly messy way to enjoy that primo summer corn.
Potato salad is kind of shy and hates coming off as extra. A few small tweaks–like the addition of hard-cooked eggs, spicy mustard, and sweet pickles–can make your version a standout without violating the potato’s personal boundaries. Try this Potato Salad with Sweet Pickles to see what I mean.
Yes, you can fancy up your mac and cheese. How? Manchego Mac and Cheese. The hard sheep’s milk cheese from Spain makes all the difference.
Some home cooks buy their barbecue sides in tubs from the supermarket. Others use it as a reason to bust out the deep fryer. If you are the latter type, don’t sleep on this Fried Okra recipe. Make a lot–it will upstage any other dish at the party.
Move over, cauliflower steak. It’s watermelon’s turn. Yup, you heard me right. Grilled Watermelon Steaks are here, and they’d like to be served with arugula, feta, mint, and a balsamic glaze, please and thank you.
Are vegans coming? You know they are. Feed them something filling and interesting with this Rainbow Quinoa Salad with Cashew Tzatziki. They will thank you, as long as the carnivores don’t eat it all first.
Bold simplicity is always a way to stand out. Exhibit A: these three-ingredient Charred Cabbage Wedges. The crisp, blackened edges accentuate the tender, sweet centers. These reheat well, so grill them in advance and warm just before serving.