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Freedom for the cook Skip the grill and enjoy the party with this make-ahead Independence Day menu

Traditionalists hold that any proper Fourth of July get-togethers start with a few early fireworks. That it's almost unpatriotic to skip sparking up the flames in the backyard barbecue, and grilling for the masses.

Which is fine, as long as you don't want to actually talk to your guests. If you have to choose between catching up or charring dinner, duty-bound cooks tend their fire.

On this Independence Day, consider a menu that can deliver freedom. Here's a menu of dishes that can be reheated without compromising flavor, or pulled from the refrigerator an hour before guests arrive and prepared with a minimum of fuss.

Braised fillings for tacos or burritos, surrounded by a colorful, tasty assortment of toppings, let eaters dabble safely in adventurous bites. Marinated vegetable salads can be prepared the day before, and they actually improve in the time before they're served. Quick tart crusts can become tasty stages for the freshest berries, or cherries, you can find.

Set a table accented in red, white and blue, and relax. If anyone really needs to see smoke and flames, hand them a box of sparklers.

Build your own menu if you like, but here's why I chose these dishes.

Sumptuous braised tacos can be built around fillings of beef, chicken, sausage or vegetarian options like greens or beans. I chose the classic Mexican pork dish of carnitas, chunks of pork shoulder simmered with orange zest, cinnamon and garlic until soft, then browned in their own fat. The tacos are kid-friendly because no one has to put anything gross on their own taco.

The marinated cucumber salad below can be made from cucumbers sliced with a knife. But slices from a mandolin or food processor are more even, ensuring a more consistent dish.

The easy tart crust for the berry tart was wonderfully sturdy yet tasty for a first-time tart baker. Resist the temptation to pile the berries high unless you don't mind a puddle of juice running with each slice.

>Tacos de Carnitas

3 pounds pork shoulder, either butt or picnic

7 strips orange zest

5 garlic cloves, minced

1 large onion, chopped, plus finely chopped onion for garnish

1 1/4 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1 cinnamon stick, preferably Mexican canela

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed dried oregano leaves, preferably Mexican

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

24 small corn tortillas, warmed, for serving

Chopped cilantro, sliced radishes, crumbled cheese, salsa for garnish

Trim any thick fat from surface of pork. Cut meat into 1-inch cubes, discarding any that are pure fat. Put pork in a large pot. Add enough water to cover by 2 inches, orange zest, garlic, chopped onion, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, bay leaves, oregano, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and the cloves.

Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Skim off any scum that forms on surface. Simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours, until pork is very soft. Set aside one cup of cooking liquid. Season with salt, then continue to cook until water has evaporated, about 30 minutes.

Cook a little longer to fry meat slightly; cook even longer if you prefer crisper meat. Stir often and add a bit of water if meat sticks or seems about to burn.

Remove bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Refrigerate in a covered container. Add reserved cup of broth, a little at a time, to ensure moist meat when reheating in covered dish in oven or microwave.

Spoon a few tablespoons of carnitas onto each tortilla. Top each taco with cilantro, finely chopped onion and salsa. Serve. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. (Source: Tara Duggan, San Francisco Chronicle.)


>Marinated Cucumber Salad

2 seedless cucumbers (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds total)

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar

2 teaspoons grainy mustard

Bibb or Boston lettuce leaves

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Cut cucumbers into thin ( 1/1 6-inch) rounds with slicer. Toss with 2 teaspoons salt in a colander, then drain 30 minutes. Squeeze excess liquid from cucumbers.

Whisk together sugar, vinegar and mustard in a large bowl, then stir in cucumbers. Marinate, chilled, at least 2 hours, or overnight.

When ready to serve, drain cucumbers, reserving marinade, and mound on lettuce. Whisk oil into reserved marinade and drizzle over salad.


>Fresh Summer Berry Tart

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 stick cold, unsalted butter, cut up

2 tablespoons cold water

For the filling:

2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon fresh lime or lemon juice

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Fresh berries (such as raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9- or 10-inch removable-bottom tart pan with baking spray.

In food processor, pulse together flour, sugar and salt. Add butter and pulse, adding cold water as needed, until it's mealy and sticks together easily when squeezed. (Or use pastry cutter in bowl.)

Press mixture into tart pan, making sure to press the dough up the sides. Pierce bottom of crust with fork. Bake until edges start to turn golden and center is slightly firm to touch, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool on rack.

As crust cools, make filling. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese, vanilla, lemon or lime juice and powdered sugar. Crust can be stored in an airtight plastic bag overnight, and filling in a covered bowl.

Spread filling evenly in shell. Top with berries and serve. Makes 8 servings. (Source: Associated Press.)


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