Creative Cooking

5 Dishes to Switch it Up With This 4th of July

Truffle Yellowtail bowl from Seaside Poke
Truffle Yellowtail bowl from Seaside Poke Photo by Carlos Brandon

click to enlarge OK, we're celebrating, now where do we get something good to eat? - PHOTO BY BRYAN WILLIAMS
OK, we're celebrating, now where do we get something good to eat?
Photo by Bryan Williams
Independence Day, it’s an American tradition. Some might even say the first. Sure, there will be fireworks, and you may even belt out the Star Spangled Banner after enough Coors Light. But what this holiday, like all holidays, is truly about is food. So, what’s for dinner? Now you’re probably thinking you'll fire up the grill and throw some red meat on that bad boy. And who could blame you? You’re an American after all. But how about this year you switch it up?

America is a melting pot after all. This is a nation of many cultures and languages, and what better time to celebrate those cultures than on its independence day? These five exciting (and not all that difficult) dishes are sure to elevate your 4th of July game this year, and might even impress a few house guests.

click to enlarge Truffle Yellowtail bowl from Seaside Poke - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Truffle Yellowtail bowl from Seaside Poke
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Homemade Poke Bowls

Poke is a full blown craze right now. In Houston a new poke shop seems to open its doors every month, and for good reason. This simple and healthy dish of raw tuna or salmon, tossed with seaweed salad, rice, shoyu or soy sauce, and whatever fresh and trendy toppings are available at the moment, is taking the food world by storm. It’s a Hawaiian twist on sushi that is both more affordable and more filling than your favorite happy hour roll.

Poke is only slightly more difficult to make than it is to order. If you can figure out the complexities of boiling white rice, and the intricacies of chopping up raw fish and veggies, you’ve basically got it down. Just let the rice cool in the fridge for about 20 minutes before throwing in the fish. When buying tuna and salmon to eat raw, it’s recommended to purchase vacuum sealed pre-packaged fillets rather than anything behind a glass case. If you can find it, sushi grade is the way to go.

Of course, if all this talk about tuna and salmon has you gassed up for poke, but you’re not feeling the work load, check out one of the several Houston area poke eateries. Seaside Poke in EaDo boasts a menu of sophisticated and multi-layered bowl creations that will put your homemade poke to shame.

click to enlarge Tacos al Pastor From 100% Taquito - PHOTO COURTESY OF 100% TAQUITO
Tacos al Pastor From 100% Taquito
Photo Courtesy of 100% Taquito
Tacos al Pastor

This is Texas, friend. Fourth of July can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Right up near the top of that list is tacos and cervezas. If you’re firing up that Weber dome and cooking meat this independence day, why not try your hand at this Mexican staple food. The al pastor taco is the end all be all of authentic street tacos. Marinated pork sliced thin, chopped cilantro and onions, with the characteristic addition of diced pineapple, all wrapped gently into a warm corn tortilla for safe transport into your mouth.

The key to that beautiful red tint in the meat of an al pastor taco is the spice blend in the marinade. An online search will yield thousands of unique recipes and variations, but one thing is key to the whole process; time. Do not rush the preparation of this dish. You will need at least 4 hours to marinate your pork, so think about making that marinade the night before.

All that prep time is an ironclad excuse to drink more Dos Equis, but if you really don’t have the patience for it then stop by 100% Taquito (Houston’s closest thing to a Mexico City taco stand) any day of the week to get your fix.

click to enlarge Baked Lemon Garlic Butter Salmon - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Baked Lemon Garlic Butter Salmon
Photo by Carlos Brandon

Lemon Garlic Butter Salmon

If cooking with fire is an American tradition you refuse to break from on the day of your Independence, then by all means break out the Kingsford. But, do consider that it’s likely going to be about 178 degrees in Houston, so maybe using the oven isn’t such a bad idea. Whatever method you settle on, consider swapping that red meat out for a slab of red fish. Salmon to be specific. Whether baking or grilling, this recipe takes only 5-10 minutes of prep time and 15-20 minutes to cook.

Garlic butter is a two ingredient game changer. Garlic and butter. Finely chop the first, mix it in with the second, and maybe use the microwave to help you out along the way. If you’re going the lemon garlic butter route, well, you guessed it. Squeeze a lemon into that mixing bowl and you’re literally done. The salmon part is only marginally more difficult. Get yourself a few nicely sized fillets at your local fish market (skin on of course) and liberally smother them with that butter sauce. If baking, set to 375 and bake for 15-20 minutes, depending on how cooked you want your fillet. It’s not unwise to slightly under cook a salmon for an elevated flavor profile. If grilling, 10-15 minutes ought to do it, but check it occasionally to be sure.

click to enlarge Pork Banh Mi from OUI EATS - PHOTO BY MATTHEW ROOD
Pork Banh Mi from OUI EATS
Photo by Matthew Rood

Banh Mi's

Here’s one you can really make your own. The banh mi is a traditional Vietnamese sandwich made by slicing a single serving sandwich baguette lengthwise, and filling with either chicken or pork, an assortment of sliced veggies, and some kind of spread; traditionally a spicy mayo blend. Of course, the preparation of the protein and ingredients of the spread are what give the sandwich its traditional Southeast Asian flavor. Though, like any sandwich, the beauty of this dish is that it is ultimately customizable.

How you prepare your protein, whether you decide to chop up a pre-roasted chicken or go full throttle and slow roast your own pork like a champ, is entirely up to you. How spicy you want it, what kind of veggies you want, it's you call. Celebrate your freedom by making the sandwich of your dreams. Banh mi literally translates to bread in Vietnamese, so, that’s really the only concrete instruction you’re working with. Google a recipe, grab a beer, and have fun.

If you passed on this DIY meal for the fourth but still crave that crunchy porky goodness, stop by OUI EATS in the Galleria, or Oui Banh Mi in Montrose any day of the week and kick that craving to the curb.

click to enlarge Lamb Gyro from Gyro Kings - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Lamb Gyro from Gyro Kings
Photo by Carlos Brandon
#5 Homemade Gyros

Who doesn’t love a gyro? People who have never eaten gyros, that’s who. While it’s highly unlikely that you have a rotating spit roast in your home, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to whip up some authentic lamb and pita sandwiches without leaving the house. Again, a simple google search will provide all of the recipe options you could possibly need. But in the end, a gyro is a sandwich, and originality is a good thing.

Ramp up the spice level with your choice of hot sauce, or leave out the heat entirely and go full tzatziki tang. For a protein, anything will do, even vegetarian options. The gyro flavor is in the seasoning, which will be absorbed by whatever medium you cook it into. Pita choice is crucial. If you can find it freshly baked, that’s the ticket. Or, try your hand at baking some yourself. Who knows, you might be a natural. If you mess it up you can always swing by the Gyro King food truck in the Med Center to save the day.

Whatever you settle on this 4th, do it with friends, bring plenty of booze, and have fun.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon