While Labor Day was created as a tribute to the American laborer, it has since also become synonymous with the end of summer—one more weekend, extended by this glorious extra day, to grill, sip cold drinks, and take in some of the (hopefully sunny!) final days of the season with friends and family (the ones you’ve been quarantining with, anyway).
When you plan that perfect picnic dish or BBQ side to share at Labor Day celebrations, you’ll want to use in-season produce to unlock the best flavors in your sides, dips, and desserts. Let’s savor these last days of summer and take advantage of these fruits and vegetables that are still at the top of their game, right now!
You can build a fully vegetarian BBQ menu from these options, or simply offer them alongside traditional burgers and hot dogs (or ribs or chicken or skewers, or whatever else you’re grilling). In any case, they’ll go fast, just like summer itself.
In the U.S., we have easy access to produce throughout the year, but off-season, these foods might as well be called by another name. Have you ever eaten wintertime strawberries? They are nothing like their juicy, bright red summertime counterparts. It’s like comparing apples to…well, potatoes!
Super-flavorful in-season produce can often stand on its own at a barbecue—fresh strawberries are a welcome accompaniment to savory grilled fare. But, if you want to dress up strawberries a bit, a dessert is the way to go. Get our Strawberry Shortcake Parfait recipe, a handheld take on the classic strawberry shortcake, and let the fruit be the star. Try these other sweet strawberry desserts, and/or some savory strawberry recipes too.
And don’t discount grilling fruit—strawberries make great skewers!
BearMoo Stainless Steel Flat Kabob Skewers, 10 for $17.99 from Amazon
The flat design of these skewers keeps your food stable on the grill.
If my latest CSA box chock-full of tomatoes is any indication of what’s in-season, then I’d say it’s prime time for tomatoes! Heirloom, beefsteak, cherry, grape, and so many more—a slice of ripe, red (or sometimes green or yellow) tomato is the perfect addition to any variety of burger (unlike that pale pink tomato-of-the-winter).
A flatbread or tart is an ideal way to showcase tomatoes—so easy to slice and share with friends and family. Get this Cherry Tomato Tart with Anchovies and Garlic Confit recipe (though I know some of you might opt to ditch the anchovies). Or try stuffed tomatoes for individually portioned sides.
Growing up in a Midwestern suburb (the next stop for my family after the Polish Southside of Chicago), I have to admit I did not have much exposure to eggplants. But, as I encountered first eggplant parmesan, then Thai spicy eggplant dishes, followed by baba ganoush, I’ve grown to embrace this funny-looking purple “fruit.”
Approaching Labor Day, you should embrace it, too, as it’s in peak season. If you don’t go full-on baba ganoush at your barbecue, a similarly delightful appetizer can be made with eggplant and hummus (store-bought, if you’re tight on time). Get our Eggplant and Hummus Pita Crisps recipe—or try our Pickled Eggplant recipe and pair with other antipasto.
Since it is a grilling holiday, you can also chuck it on the charcoal and make our Grilled Eggplant Parmesan Salad recipe. But if you don’t have a grill, see how to char eggplants in the oven and turn them into a delicious side or snack.
Nothing says summertime like a sweet, juicy peach! “Cling” to the final days of summer (see what I did there?), with a salad that highlights everything fresh and wonderful about the season. Basil and mozzarella play a co-starring role to two kinds of peaches, all dressed simply with olive oil and white vinegar. Get this Peach Caprese Salad recipe courtesy of Joanna Gaines (and feel free to swap in burrata for extra creaminess).
Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Summer Stone Fruit
Cucumbers—so boring, right? Wrong! Think of all those wonderful Asian salads, those Mediterranean falafel bowls—heck, they’ve got a whole “water” dedicated to them. This Labor Day, bring a tangy salad that allows cucumbers to take center stage. When produce is in season, there’s no need to hide your vegetables —let them shine! Get our Creamy Cucumber Salad recipe (and check out a bunch of other cool cucumber recipe ideas while you’re at it, including the Smoky Cucumber, Tomato, and Onion Salad at the top of this page).
Peak-of-season blueberries are a whole other ballgame. Bursting with flavor, they thoroughly put their bagged, frozen cousins to shame. While frozen berries do have their place (it’s hard to deny the convenience!), fresh blueberries deserve the full attention of your tastebuds
As with the other recipes, a tart allows the produce to take the spotlight—let the blueberries do their thing, and the happy murmurs of munching guests will soon follow. Get our Rustic Blueberry Tart recipe. (If you’ve got raspberries, try them in a tart too.)
Corn is so ubiquitous at summertime barbecues, how could you not include it in your Labor Day celebrations? As is the case with all the other produce mentioned, summertime corn is on a completely different level than its canned and off-season counterparts. And if it’s sweet corn? Forget about it! This is another food I’ve underutilized throughout my life, having only recently learned this quick way to microwave it. When you can prep corn this easily, you have a delicious addition to so many dishes, especially ramen and veggie bowls.
For a barbecue, you can bring back the cherry tomatoes, and put together a salad that lets corn show off. Get our Fresh Corn and Tomato Salad recipe.
Related Reading: 9 Sweet Corn Salad Recipes
Or go ahead and grill your corn on the cob.
Presented without recipe, I give you: watermelon. A crowd-pleaser at any summer gathering, you’re a hero if you remember to bring the sliced watermelon. It’s sweet, it’s juicy, and it’s about 92 percent water, providing lovely hydration to counterbalance any summertime imbibing (that said, you can always make it a vodka watermelon!).
If you’re not sure what to bring to Labor Day’s last hurrah for summer, do yourself (and everyone else) a solid, and make it watermelon. Don’t forget to grill that too. Also, watermelon drinks are ultra refreshing.
Watermelon Cube Cutter, $11.79 from Amazon
This looks like so much fun—and reviews are overwhelmingly positive too.
Related Video: What to Grill Before Summer Fades Away
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