One of the little ironies of what lies ahead this weekend is that labor is the last thing anyone wants to think about, especially in the kitchen. What started as a commemoration of the working life is now all about sloth in the name of a send-off for summer.
Once you start thinking lazy, there's one sure menu that is not only suited to long, languid days but also symbolizes the season. It doesn't even involve dropping by a hot grill. You can make it all in advance; you can take it on a picnic or just set it out at home; you can serve it anytime. And every taste on the plate is designed to go together like ice cream and cones.
This quintessential combination is beef barbecue, coleslaw and potato salad. I associate those three with eating in the Midwest and the Southwest, regions where the best antidote to shimmering heat always seems to be a hearty meal with serious contrasts in taste and texture -- the sweet-tart sauce on the tender meat playing off the crisp-crunchy creaminess of the two salads. It's the kind of feast that makes you feel no guilt in heading off for a nap afterward.
Barbecue beef, of course, does not mean steak on the grill. It's brisket meat that is slow-cooked for so long it all but falls apart at the touch of a knife. Anyone with a Weber, a ton of wood and an excess of patience might be able to approximate what Texans routinely produce over 10 or 12 hours, but some years ago I discovered an ideal method, one that only involves turning on the oven, and at a low temperature.
The meat is simply baked in a tightly sealed pan for up to four hours. An overnight marinade of salt, sugar and Liquid Smoke beforehand infuses the brisket with an outdoor flavor and transforms it the way a brine does turkey.
I found the recipe last century in a book called "Food Festival" by Alice M. Geffen and Carole Berglie (published by Countryman Press and unfortunately now out of print). They pegged it to the Beefiesta in Scott City, Kan., where beef is slow-smoked for 27 hours, and I adapted it over repeated takes (omitting, for starters, the baked beans recommended as a side dish).
Choosing perfect sides
As the festival-goers did, I serve the meat sliced and simmered in a relatively classic barbecue sauce, but mine is less sweet and much spicier, with lots of pure ground chile powder and fresh garlic. It's also excellent plain, sliced for a fast sandwich (you will have enough for leftovers and leftovers). But the sauce just juices it up and turns it into a better partner for the two salads on the side.
The potato salad is one I learned from my mother-in-law equivalent, a very basic combination of diced potatoes, cucumbers and egg whites, with just mustard and celery seed for seasoning. What's singularly appealing about it is that the three main ingredients are all virtually the same color, and every bite is something of a surprise: you can't tell at first whether you're getting egg or cucumber or the main ingredient.
The dressing is also slightly different because the egg yolks are blended with sour cream and mayonnaise, which thickens and enriches the coating and packs all the egg flavor in without the yellow color intruding on the unexpected taste sensations.
This coleslaw is more adventurous, flavor-wise. Green olives, pickled jalapenos and chopped scallions make the usual mixture of red and green cabbage and carrots seem jazzier, and I also add julienned red pepper for color and sweet crunch. As much as I love mayonnaise, only a touch goes in here because the potato salad is so rich. A little brine from the olives supplements the vinegar in the dressing and seems to help the cabbage go soft and stay crunchy at the same time.
I haven't been making potato salad and coleslaw all summer, but anyone who has and is starting to get bored could vary these recipes easily. Crisp bacon or nuggets of blue cheese could be added to the potato salad, or you could leave out the celery seeds and blend in chives or more mustard, or Creole mustard, which is tangier and grainier.
The coleslaw could lose the olives and gain some dill. Or cooked corn kernels could be tossed in. You could also shred some zucchini and add it with or instead of the carrots.
As an appetizer for this tribute to the fading of summer, deviled eggs are the only imaginable option. But they don't have to be the usual flavor. Horseradish is a lively change, and curry powder, the aromatic Indian kind, goes surprisingly well with the all-American seasonings on the plate.
Cornbread is perfect with this combination too, but if you don't want to bother making it, fast and two-step as it is, slice up a good baguette or a few ciabatta to soak up the sauces. Bread -- real bread, not that spongy white stuff -- is essential.
For dessert, a crisp made from peaches or blueberries, or both, is the lazy way out. Unless you want to go for ice cream. From a carton, not even a cone.
Total time: 15 minutes plus up to 4 hours cooking time and overnight marinating