Memorial Day is a great time to celebrate the all-American hot dog

After that long, cold winter, sure feels good to be outside in the sun, doesn’t it?

Especially since warmer weather and blue skies give you permission to get out of the kitchen and get grilling.

I know, I know: You hearty types have been cooking outside for a while now, maybe even when there still was snow on the ground. (According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, some 60 percent of grill owners use their grills year-round.) But for many, Memorial Day marks the official start of the summer grilling season. In fact, it’s the second biggest grilling day of the year after the Fourth of July.   

If you’re like most backyard cooks, chances are your holiday menu will include hot dogs. And not just because they’re readily available, inexpensive, kid-friendly and perhaps most important for a busy picnic host, easy to prepare. 

Ever since the spiced and smoked meat-stuffed tubes made their way from Germany (where they were called wieners or frankfurters, depending on the city of origin) to New York City in the 1860s, hot dogs have been a beloved, almost revered, American tradition. From the “dirty water dogs” slapped onto buns by street cart vendors and delis in Manhattan, to the chili Coney Island dogs that are a fixture in Michigan, to the pickle-topped Chicago dogs sold at Yovi’s in Pittsburgh’s Market Square, we can’t get enough.

Americans are expected consume some 7 billion hot dogs during Hot Dog Season (defined by the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council as the period between Memorial and Labor days), or 818 dogs every second. That includes more than 20 million at major-league baseball parks alone.

Whereas the first hot dogs in the U.S. were dressed with cheap toppings such as mustard, relish and onions, today’s dog can be a pretty elaborate, and global, affair. Every city seems to call claim to a regional specialty -- the Polish Hill Dog at PNC Park is an all-beef hot dog topped with slaw, mini potato pierogies and onion straws -- as street vendors, diner cooks and restaurant chefs look to create the jazziest, most crowd-pleasing dog.

READ about Memorial Day throughout Pittsburgh’s history

No longer just a snack or cheap eat, the once-humble hot dog has reclaimed its status as “fun food,” Russell Van Kraayenburg notes in “Haute Dogs: Recipes for Delicious Hot Dogs, Buns and Condiments” (Quirk; April 29, 2014; $18.95).

“It’s traveled north to Canada and into the American South,” he writes. “Coleslaw, baked beans and barbecues all found their way onto the hot dog. Farther south into Mexico and west toward California, fresh vegetables, spicy salsa and sauces, and a whole host of other regional toppings joined the game.”

Actually, the entire world is now in on the hot-dog craze, with countries in Europe, Central and South America, the Pacific and Asia putting on their own particular spins. Included in Mr. Van Kraayenburg’s book are the Perro Caliente (Colombian Pineapple Dog) and Tunnbrodsrulle (Swedish Shrimp Dog). The former features salsa golf, a mayonnaise-ketchup sauce popular in South America, and jalapeno-studded pineapple relish; the latter, mashed potatoes, pickle mayonnaise and shrimp salad.

So much for ketchup and mustard, at least for adventurous eaters.

While most hot dogs sold are of the skinless variety -- the pureed meat is pumped, then smoked, inside a cellulose casing that’s removed prior to packaging -- connoisseurs insist nothing beats a dog that comes in a natural casing (made from the small intestines of cows, hogs or sheep) and cooks up to a delicious crisp. 

"You need that snap“ when you bite into it, insists Jessicarobyn Keiser, director of operations for Union Pig & Chicken and Station Street, a gourmet hot dog eatery in East Liberty, where one of the most popular dogs is one topped with egg salad and potato chips. 

She strongly prefers all-beef dogs such as those sold at Station Street because ”beef just tastes better than pork.“ But you’ll find plenty of dog lovers who swear by a beef-and-pork-mix wiener. Definitely steer clear of those super-cheap, copy-cat dogs made with mechanically separated poultry, even if you’re counting calories and fat grams (or pennies). Unless they’re of a gourmet variety, they just don’t taste very good, period. 

Says Chef Jason Capps of Bella Sera Catering in Canonsburg, which on May 30 will host its fifth-annual Grillin' n' Swillin' event demonstrating the season’s hottest grilling tastes and techniques, ”It reminds me too much of bologna, with all those unknown parts and by-products.“ 

He’s a fan of kosher dogs such as those made by Hebrew National, which uses premium cuts of beef. (For the recipes tested below, we used Wholey’s natural-casing beef franks.)

When it comes to cooking, a medium-high grill works best, even if Mom likes them burnt and Junior prefers them more raw, says Chef Capps. Start with a room-temperature dog, and bring the heat up slowly on the grill; while you want a nice char for a crispy skin, too high a heat will cause the dog to blister and break, causing flare-ups. 

Careful attention also needs to be paid to the bun. 

Whether it’s seeded and expensive, or soft and cheap, is really a matter of taste; what really counts is size. If the bun is too small for the hot dog, you chance the entire thing disintegrating on your plate (or shirt). Conversely, if the bread is too big for the frankfurter, what’s supposed to be the main attraction will get lost. 

Finally, don’t go willy-nilly with the assembly.

There’s a method to the madness that results in a perfectly dressed hot dog, Mr. Kraayenburg notes in his book. Remember that condiments and toppings are supposed to enhance the flavor of the dog, not the bun. So that’s where they should be piled, spread or sprinkled on -- the meat instead of the bread.

Order is equally important. 

“Condiments like mustard, mayo or ketchup first,” he writes. “Chilies, sauces and big-ticket items like coleslaw, baked beans or shrimp salad next. Fresh vegetables and spices last. Voila!”

Below, we offer four recipes that will take your dogs to the next level, along with a few fresh takes on the traditional sides of potato salad, slaw and baked beans. They’re all worth raising a flag over. 

New York-Style with Onion Sauce

PG tested

Spicy-tangy red onion sauce is what makes a New York dog a New York dog. The original recipe called for cooking the all-beef dogs in “dirty water” (a warm water bath) but we preferred them grilled. 

For onion sauce

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon cornstarch or arrowroot

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 pinch cinnamon

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large red onions, peeled and thinly sliced

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cloves pressed or minced garlic

For dogs

Sauerkraut from the refrigerator section, not canned

4 all-beef frankfurters

4 buns

Spicy brown Dijon-style mustard

Combine water and cornstarch in bowl and whisk until there are no lumps. Whisk in tomato paste, balsamic, mustard, brown sugar, hot sauce and cinnamon.

Warm oil in a large skillet, not a nonstick, over medium-high heat. Add onions and sprinkle with salt. Move them around occasionally with a wooden spoon so they don’t burn. Cook until edges start to brown. Add garlic and cook for another minute.

Add liquid, stir, and rub pan with wooden spoon to scrape up all the flavorful brown bits on the bottom. Turn stove to low and simmer with the lid on for 1 hour, checking frequently to make sure it’s not burning and water has not evaporated. Add water if needed. Taste and adjust salt.

While onions are simmering, warm kraut in a pan or microwave, cook the franks and prepare the buns. Lovingly place the frank on the bun, squirt on the mustard, add onions, and then kraut. Hum quietly, “I’ll take Manhattan ...”

Makes 4 hot dogs.

-- “Man Bites Dog” by Bruce Kraig and Patty Carroll (Altamira, 2012)

Korean Barbecue-Flavored Hot Dogs with Kimchi

PG tested

Sriracha and kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables, give these soy sauce-marinated dogs an extra kick. Don’t worry about making your own veggies -- kimchi is widely available at larger grocery stores as well as at Asian markets such as Lotus Food Co. in the Strip District. 

For sauce

1/4 cup medium soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

2 tablespoons cooking wine

1 tablespoon cooking oil

For dogs

6 all-beef hot dogs

6 hot dog buns, split and lightly toasted on the inside

Brown mustard

1 cup kimchi, drained


Mix all the sauce ingredients together very well in a wide bowl, so that the sugar is dissolved. Place hot dogs in mixture and marinate for 10 minutes.

Heat a grill until hot, place marinated hot dogs on it, and cook until exterior is slightly crispy and browned (not burnt). Reserve extra marinade, if any, and heat in a pan. Place hot dogs in each bun and top with a strip of mustard and kimchi. Add any extra liquid and Sriracha to taste.

Makes 6 hot dogs.

-- “Man Bites Dog” by Bruce Kraig and Patty Carroll (Altamira, 2012)

Danger Dog

PG tested

Bacon might seem like overkill on a hot dog, especially when you’re also piling on chili, but man, is it good! Originally served in the 1950s in Tijuana, Mexico, the Danger Dog is so named because of its reputation for being made with poor-quality ingredients. Not a problem when it crossed the border in the U.S. 

Classic Hot Dog Chili (recipe follows)

4 classic buns

4 beef and pork dogs

4 slices uncooked bacon

Finely chopped white onion

Prepare chili and keep it warm. 

Heat grill to medium-low heat.

Get out classic buns. Wrap each dog with a slice of bacon, securing it with a wooden toothpick at each end. Cook dogs on the grill, rotating so that all sides cook evenly.(This takes about 5 minutes.) When the bacon is lightly crisp, remove from the heat.

Remove and discard toothpicks. Place each dog in a bun and top with a heaping pile of chili and a handful of chopped onions.

Serves 4.

-- “Haute Dogs: Recipes for Delicious Hot Dogs, Buns and Condiments” by Russell Van Kraayenburg (Quirk; April 29, 2014; $22.95)

Classic Hot Dog Chili

This is a bit on the salty side, but pairs great with bacon. 

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large white onion, sliced

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon ground chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 pound ground beef

1 cup beef stock

8 ounces tomato paste

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add salt, black pepper, chili powder, cumin, cayenne and beef. Cook until beef is browned and no trace of pink remains. 

Reduce heat to medium-low and add beef stock and tomato paste. Stir until evenly combined. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in refrigerator for up to 3 days.

-- “Haute Dogs: Recipes for Delicious Hot Dogs, Buns and Condiments” by Russell Van Kraayenburg (Quirk; April 29, 2014; $22.95)

Colombian Pineapple Dog

PG tested

This piled-high dog is the hot dog version of Colombian actress Sofia Vergara -- colorful, vibrant and totally over the top. Potato chips add a wonderful crunch.

Salsa Golf (recipe follows)

Pineapple Relish (recipe follows)

Classic buns

Beef and pork hot dogs


Yellow mustard

Grated cheddar cheese

Crumbled potato chips

Prepare Salsa Golf and Pineapple Relish.

Preheat grill to hottest setting for at least 30 minutes; is using a charcoal grill, heat charcoal for 30 to 45 minutes, or until coals ash over. 

Place hot dogs on grill grates and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until charred but not blackened. Flip and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. 

During the last minute of cooking, place buns cut-side down on grill to toast.

Place hot dogs in buns. Spread a line each of ketchup and yellow mustard on top of dogs. Add a spoonful or 2 each of Salsa Golf and Pineapple Relish, a handful of cheddar cheese and a sprinkling of crumbled potato chips.

Salsa Golf

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup ketchup

1 teaspoon hot sauce

1/4 teaspoon each salt and black pepper

Stir to combine all ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 weeks. Serve chilled.

Makes 1 cup.

Pineapple Relish

3/4 cup pineapple, fresh and finely chopped, or from 1 can crushed

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped

1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger

Juice 1 lime

1/4 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, stir together all ingredients. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Makes 1 cup.

-- “Haute Dogs: Recipes for Delicious Hot Dogs, Buns and Condiments” by Russell Van Kraayenburg (Quirk; April 29, 2014; $22.95)

Spicy Slaw

PG tested

Go the extra mile and make your own pickled vegetables. It’s so easy, and the results are amazing. I used a combination of green and Napa cabbages. It’s spicy, but not so much that my parents didn’t enjoy it -- they both had seconds. 

5 cups shredded green cabbage, divided

1/4 cup Pickled Jalapenos (recipe follows)

1/3 cup pickled carrots (recipe follows)

1/4 cup pickled red onion (recipe follows)

1/4 cup thinly sliced raw red onion

Finely chopped fresh cilantro

Fine sea salt

Extra-virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, add half of the cabbage, the pickled jalapenos, jalapeno pickling liquid, pickled carrots, pickled red onion, and raw red onion. Stir well to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand, refrigerated, overnight.

Just before serving, stir in remaining cabbage, cilantro, salt and olive oil and mix until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 4 cups.

-- “Sausage Making” by Ryan Farr with Jessica Battilana (Chronicle, May 2014, $35)

Pickled Jalapenos

3/4 pound jalapeno chiles, sliced into thin rings

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

2¼ teaspoons fine sea salt

Place chiles in a 1-quart glass jar. In a medium nonreactive saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar and salt. Bring to simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then remove from heat and let stand for 30 minutes.

Pour liquid over chiles and let cool completely. Cover jar and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 2 weeks.

Makes 2 cups.

Variations: This recipe also can be used for shallots or red onions, carrots, cauliflower and radishes. Thinly slice all vegetables before pickling them.

-- “Sausage Making: The Definitive Guide with Recipes” by Ryan Farr (Chronicle, May 2014, $35)

Drunken Beans

PG tested

Like the state they hail from, these Texas-style beans are bold, with jalapenos adding just the right amount of flavorful punch. I let the bacon cook in the pot the entire time with great results. 

2 slices bacon, diced

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups dried pinto beans, picked over, rinsed, soaked overnight and drained

1 quart chicken broth, homemade or canned, or water

2 cups beer

2 to 4 jalapenos, thinly sliced, with seeds

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

Place bacon in a large pot over medium heat until fat is rendered. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and discard. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add beans, broth or water, and beer. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Stir in jalapeno slices. Cook until beans are tender, about 30 minutes, adding water if necessary to keep beans covered. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in cilantro and serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- Adapted from “The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook,” edited by Peter Kaminsky (Sterling Epicure, April 2014, $24.95)

String Bean and Potato Salad

PG tested

"Bean salads make good picnic food because beans don’t wilt after they’re dressed, the way lettuce does,“ California chef Ben Ford writes in ”Taming the Feast: Ben Ford’s Field Guide to Adventurous Cooking.“ Here, they add crunch and color to an easy fingerling potato salad. You may have to fight your guests for any leftovers.  

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the boiling water

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

6 scallions (white and light green parts), thinly sliced on the bias

1/4 cup large shards semi-dry domestic sheep’s milk cheese or pecorino

1½ pounds fingerling potatoes or other small, thin-skinned potatoes, scrubbed

1 pound fresh green beans, yellow wax beans or mix

Edible flowers for garnish

Whisk the mayonnaise, oil, vinegar, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper together in a medium bowl. Stir in the parsley, scallions and cheese.

Put potatoes in a pot with water to cover. Add 1 tablespoon salt per quart water and bring to boil over high heat. Cook potatoes until they’re tender when pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes. Drain and allow to cool slightly. While still warm, slice 1/4-inch thick. Put slices in a large bowl.

While potatoes are cooking, snip ends off beans. Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl. Bring another pot of water to a boil and salt the same way you did for the potatoes. Add bean and blanch them for 1 to 2 minutes, until they are just tender but still have some snap. Remove beans and plunge them into ice water to cool. 

Drain beans and add to the potatoes. Pour on dressing and toss to coat the beans and potatoes, Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper if you want. If you like, garnish with edible flowers.

Serves 8 to 10.

 -- “Taming the Feast: Ben Ford’s Field Guide to Adventurous Cooking” by Ben Ford (Atria, May 6, 2014, $34.99)

Ricotta Cheesecake with Glazed Strawberries

PG tested

Ricotta makes a lighter, less dense cake than an all cream-cheese one, so you'll feel satisfied but not stuffed. You'll float! This cake feeds a crowd, and it's perfect for picnics and potlucks because it's served from the pan. Make it the day before, or earlier in the morning. Decorate it with the strawberries and glaze it before serving or transporting. In raspberry season, change up the berries and glaze it with seedless raspberry jam. -- Miriam Rubin

For crust

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup granulated sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

For cheesecake

2 pounds whole-milk ricotta (4 cups)

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature

1½ cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, at room temperature

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4  teaspoon salt

For topping

About 1 pound medium strawberries, hulled and halved

1/3 cup seedless strawberry or red currant jam

Make crust: In medium bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs and sugar. Stir in butter, then mix with hands until blended. Press onto the bottom and 1/2-inch up the sides of 13x9-inch glass baking dish. Place in freezer while making filling.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Make cheesecake: In large bowl with electric mixer at medium-low speed, beat ricotta, cream cheese and sugar until nearly smooth, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping sides a few times. Beat in eggs, 2 at a time. Beat in flour, lemon zest and juice, vanilla and salt until mixed. Pour filling into crust.

Bake cheesecake until firm, puffed and lightly browned at edges and it looks cooked in center, 45 to 50 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool. Cover loosely with foil and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before topping and glazing.

Arrange strawberries in rows on cheesecake, alternating pieces pointed ends up and down. Melt preserves in microwave, 20 to 40 seconds until liquid. Brush over cake. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Refrigerate any leftovers.

Makes at least 16 servings

-- Miriam Rubin


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