WEEKEND - Keep it Fresh & Local: Chefs offer suggestions for Labor Day cookouts

LAKES REGION — This Labor Day, many of those who have a day off from work will find themselves playing backyard chef, cooking food on a grill to serve to friends and family. For professional cooks, a day away from the job doesn't necessarily mean a day off from cooking.

Local chefs who spoke with The Daily Sun this week said that while they will also grill the usual burgers and hot dogs, the end-of-the-summer cookout is the perfect occasion to celebrate the fruits and vegetables found in local gardens and farmers' markets.

Annie Bridgeman of Annie's Cafe and Catering on Union Avenue in Laconia said if she were cooking for her family she'd be roasting some local corn.

"You can get your protein anywhere," she said. "But now is the time to eat fresh vegetables."

Bridgeman suggested a roasted corn and tomato salad, some veggie burgers, and some black bean and spinach enchiladas.

"The corn is wonderful this year," she said, adding that leafy greens are also readily available.

Bridgeman and Meredith's Moulton Farm's head chef Jonathan Diola both said the local peach crop is going to be a good one.

"I like a grilled peach salad," said Diola who also said grilled corn and veggies are on his family menu.

Diola said he likes pork and chicken on the grill and using as much local produce as possible.

"It's always nice to visit your local farmers," he said.

One of his suggestions is heirloom tomatoes, currently at the height of their season, picked ripe and served in a Caprese salad, tossed with balsamic vinegar, some fresh basil and mozzarella cheese. It's a dish named after an Italian island but, at this time of year, also perfectly illustrates the terroir of New Hampshire.

Diola said the melons at Moulton Farm are just starting to ripen and he suggests fresh watermelon and cantaloupe as easy and simple dessert options.

"Very simple," he said.

Diola's secret to cooking is to keep it simple and let the ingredients shine. "That's my principal."

At the Downtown Deli in the Laconia Antiques Center, Drew Seneca said he has a big family filled with some picky eaters.

"I need something for everybody," he said.

One of his suggestions is steak marinated three ways. "It's very traditional," he said.

"The first place I look for the sides is my own garden," he said. "That's the best tasting stuff."

This year he plans to make a low-acid yellow cherry tomato salad.

"Look local and keep it traditional," he said.

Hector's (Laconia) head chef Peter Cullen also likes a traditional Labor Day cookout but with his own flair.

"I like pizza on the grill," he said. Grilling a pizza is much more dramatic than cooking it in an oven, he added. "It's fun to see if it will work or if it will burn."

On a more serious note, he said one of his family's favorites is grilled steak, sliced and sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil.

"I cut it up so people don't have to fight with it," he said.

Cullen also heads for the local growers for fresh vegetables he will cook on the grill and season with local herbs.

He said some of his family members also make and bring homemade relishes and that's always a treat.

J.P. Hobby isn't a professional chef, though as the Laconia Fire Department's in-house culinary expert, he often finds himself cooking on the job.

"If it's not in my garden then it will come from the Laconia Farmers Market," he said, saying at work and at home he likes to incorporate fresh vegetables with his cooking.

Hobby said he'll cook chicken and steaks and if he has the time, he'll pull out the smoker for some ribs and brisket. He said he also likes to make potato salad and macaroni salad.

He grows tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash and likes to grill or toss them into a salad with the herbs that grow well in central New Hampshire like chives, basil and rosemary.

So as Labor Day looms, take the advice of some of the area top chefs and shop local, make it traditional, and keep it simple.