Food to help celebrate dads and grads

’Tis the season of caps, gowns and a world of opportunity and possibility.

Thousands of teenagers are graduating from high school this month, and as any happy parent can tell you, that calls for a major celebration. 

Count me among them: This past weekend, No. 4 and No. 5 received their high-school diplomas, bringing to a joyous end our family’s 20-plus years of public-school education. It’s been a great ride, mostly. But it’ll be even more fun for my husband and me not to have to worry about teacher conferences, class projects that don’t get started until the very last minute, sporting events that start while you’re still stuck at work, and the general drama/angst that define a parent’s existence in the years leading up to age 18.

In other words, time to party!

Oftentimes the last big shindig until someone decides to get married, high-school-graduation parties are a bittersweet rite of passage for many families. You’re so delighted your kid is moving on to the next stage of life, and so proud of her accomplishments. But knowing you’ll soon be saying good-bye as your baby heads off to college, the military or the 9-to-5 grind of the “real world” kinda makes you sad, too. 

Big or small, completely catered or thrown together in your kitchen in a matter of days on a wish and a prayer, a party in your backyard or local community center is the perfect way to say “Congratulations.” (And yes, Mom and Dad, that includes you.) To put it more plainly: Good eats + good friends = one heck of a good time and a lot fewer tears. 

Typically held outdoors and overrun by kids, graduation parties quite often feature picnic food -- burgers, wings, fried chicken and an array of sides that would be very much in keeping with a Fourth of July cookout or family reunion. But the parties can be fancy affairs, too: I remember one front-lawn party after No. 2’s graduation that included Oriental shrimp wrapped in snow peas, roasted beef filet and homemade rum cake.

Like so many other parents I know, I’m doing a combination of both for my daughters’ party this weekend. L.A. Taco, a Kittaning food truck serving Mexican street food, is responsible for the main course of beef, chicken and vegetable tacos. I’ll dish up the various sides, salads and desserts, with an emphasis on “easy.”

Let’s face it. You’re busy, I’m busy, everybody’s busy. So when cooking for a crowd, it’s best to choose recipes that won’t drive you crazy with too many ingredients or complicated preparation. (Well, at least not more than one or two dishes; I plan on wowing the teenaged crowd for dessert with mini cinnamon-dusted tacos stuffed with ice cream and fresh fruit.) Better yet if you can prepare most of the dishes a day or two ahead of time, and simply reheat/assemble/plate an hour or so before the event 

Which is not to say the offerings have to be boring. All of the recipes we offer below  -- some are new dishes, others updates of old favorites --  are packed with flavor. Not to mention a breeze to pull together, and relatively inexpensive to boot. 

You don’t want to be running around like a chicken with her head cut off the day of the party, after all.

Milestone occasions such as this are meant to be savored. It’s been 18 years in the making. Best to enjoy it.

Avocado Citrus Salsa

PG tested

Who says you have to stick to tomatoes when it comes to salsa? Fresh fruit also pairs well with tortilla chips, especially in summer. This also would be terrific with grilled chicken or on top of black-bean burgers. 

1 grapefruit

2 tangerines or clementines

1 avocado, diced

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 small red onion, diced

1/2 jalapeno, seeded and finely minced

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

Combine grapefruit and tangerines in mixing bowl. Gently toss in avocado, cilantro, red onion, jalapeno, lime juice and salt and stir to combine.

Serves 8.

--“Vibrant Food” by Kimberley Hasselbrink (Ten Speed; June 17, 2014; $25)

Louisiana Caviar

PG tested

This Southern classic party snack is a bit on the spicy side, but most find it irresistible. Susan Geist of Ben Avon seasons the caviar-like black-eyed peas with Italian dressing but you also could add jalapeno and chopped garlic. Will keep in the fridge for several days. Serve with tortilla chips.

1 red pepper, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

1 orange pepper, chopped

1 onion, chopped

1 can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed

1 can whole kernel corn, drained

1 bottle zesty Italian dressing

Combine everything in a large bowl and stir.

Cover and place in refrigerator overnight to marinate.

Drain dressing and return to bowl.

Serve with tortilla chips.

-- Susan Geist, Ben Avon


Mojito Fennel Slaw

PG tested

Bright, fresh and crunchy. My dad couldn’t tell the secret ingredient (rum) but he thought it was one of the best slaws he’s ever tasted. A nice side for tacos, it also is perfect paired with burgers, chicken or fish. 

2 fennel bulbs, trimmed of tops and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

1 cup green cabbage, thinly sliced (I used savoy cabbage)

1 stalk celery, thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup)

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 green onion, thinly sliced

1 green apple, thinly sliced and cut into thin strips

3 juicy limes

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

Splash of white rum

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Kosher salt to taste

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

In a large bowl, combine fennel, cabbage, celery, red onion, green onion and green apple. Set aside.

Zest and juice the limes. You want about 1/2 cup juice and 1/2 teaspoon zest. Add to fennel mixture.

Place vinegar, rum, sugar and black pepper into a small pot and bring to a quick boil; stir until sugar is dissolved. Pour dressing over fennel mixture and mix well. Season to taste with kosher salt. Let stand, refrigerated, for 1 hour, mixing at least one more time to allow the flavors of the salad to combine.

Remove from fridge, add freshly chopped mint, mix and serve.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- “Gastro Grilling: Fired-up Recipes to Grill Great Everyday Meals” by Ted Reader (Penguin, 2014, $29)

Broccoli Salad

PG tested

"This is easy to make, easy to transport and very easy to double or even triple for a larger event,“ writes Lara Sees-Schob of this favorite party salad. ”Also, you can adjust the ingredients if there’s something that your family doesn’t like.“

For salad

2 large head broccoil, rinsed and drained

1/2 pound bacon, cooked crisp and drained

1 medium red onion, chopped

1/4 cup raisins

1½ cup red seedless grapes, rinsed, dried and cut in half

1½ to 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

For dressing

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/8 cup raw or white sugar

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and drain broccoli. Pat dry with paper towel. Chop broccoli into medium-sized pieces. You can discard the very bottom pieces if you don’t like them.

Chop bacon into pieces and mix with onion, raisins, grapes and cheese. Add to large bowl with broccoli and mix well.

Mix ingredients for dressing together with a whisk. Pour 3/4 of the dressing over broccoli and mix very well. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours and mix again. Add rest of dressing if needed. You also can add a bit of additional cheese before mixing again to serve.

Serve cold. Because this has onions and mayo, it is best if you are using outside at a picnic that you put the bowl on ice to keep cold.

Serves 8.

-- Lara Sees-Schob

Carrot Salad with Tahini, Crisped Chick Peas and Salted Pistachios

PG tested

As if the tahini dressing wasn’t enough to make these raw carrots shine, there’s also the pizzazz of toasted chickpeas and crunchy, salty pistachios. 

This salad keeps well in the fridge for 2 days, but you won’t want to add the chickpeas or pistachios until right before serving (they’ll get soggy).

For chickpeas

1¾ cup cooked chickpeas or 1 15-ounce can, drained and patted dry

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

For dressing

1 medium clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup lemon juice

3 tablespoons well-stirred tahini

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and red pepper flakes to taste

For salad

1 pound carrots, peeled and coarsely grated

1/4 cup coarsely chopped parsley

1/4 cup shelled, salted pistachios, coarsely chopped

Roast chickpeas: Heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss chickpeas with one tablespoon olive oil, salt and cumin until coated. Spread on baking sheet or pan and roast in oven until brown and crispy, 15 to 20 minutes depending on size of chickpeas. Toss occasionally to make sure they’re toasting evenly. Set aside.

Make dressing: Whisk all ingredients together until smooth, adding more water as needed to thin the dressing slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning; don’t worry if it tastes a little sharp on the lemon.

Assemble salad: Place grated carrots in large bowl and toss with parsley. Mix in 2/3 cup of the dressing, adding more if desired. Salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with a large handful of chickpeas and pistachios and dig in.

Serves 6.


Lemon Cheesecake Squares

PG tested

My daughter Catherine had one request for her graduation party: cheesecake. I was happy to oblige with this easy, make-ahead recipe. Baked in one big pan and the divvied up into bite-sized squares, it’s a sweet end for a sweet occasion. Next time I’ll try it with a graham-cracker crust.

For crust

3/4 cup shortening

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled oats

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam

For filling

4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softenec

1½ cups sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup lemon juice

4 teaspoons grated lemon peel

4 eggs, lightly beaten

In large bowl, cream shortening and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Combine flour, oats and salt; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well.

Press dough into a greased 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes, or until golden. Spread with jam.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and flour until smooth. Beat in lemon juice and peel. Add eggs. Beat on low speed just until combined. Carefully spoon over jam.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until center is almost set. Cool on a wire rack. Cover and store in fridge.

Makes 20 little cheesecakes.

-- Taste of Home

Canela-Dusted Dessert Tacos

PG tested

These take a little time and effort to prepare, but they’re a really fun addition to your dessert table, especially if your party has a Mexican theme. I wanted small portions, so cut small circles (about 3 1/2 inches wide) out of 8-inch flour tortillas with a knife (you’ll get 3 per tortilla).

Make the shells a day or two ahead and store in an air-tight container.

1/4 cup ground cinnamon, preferably Mexican canela

1/4 cup fine sugar

Pinch fine sea salt

8 (6-inch or smaller) flour tortillas

2 tablespoons melted butter

Ice cream, flavor of your choice, softened slightly

Fresh fruit such as berries, pineapple, and/or mango, again up to you

Optional toppings: Warm chocolate sauce, chopped walnuts, pecans or peanuts, and whipped cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Tear 8 6-inch strips of aluminum foil or parchment paper and bend them into a V shape.

In small bowl, combine cinnamon, sugar and salt. Brush both sides of each tortilla with butter and sprinkle generously with cinnamon-sugar. Place each tortilla on a sheet pan and fold over the foil or parchment into a taco shell shape.

Bake until golden on one side, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn tacos over and bake until the second side is golden, another 5 minutes.

Cool completely and then build dessert tacos by filling shells with softened ice cream and adding your favorite toppings.

Makes 8 large tacos or 24 mini tacos.

-- Adapted from “Dos Caminos Tacos: Recipes for Everyone’s Favorite Mexican Street Food” by Ivy Stark with Joanna Pruess (Countryman Press, May 2014, $24.95)

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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