Summer Chilln’ and Grilln’

By Randy Graham

It’s summertime, and I am chillin’ and grillin’ in the backyard. I was thinking about what I should make for friends who will celebrate the July 4th holiday with us. I like to think they come to see us. Sure, they enjoy seeing Robin and me, but they absolutely come for the food.

I will be grilling brisket (low and slow) for my friends, along with hot dogs and hamburgers topped with my Dad’s BBQ sauce. And that is just the beginning. See below for what else I will make for our backyard 4th of July feast. For additional summer grilling recipes, see my “Ojai Valley Grill It Cookbook” on Amazon.

Dad’s Secret BBQ Sauce

I wasn’t always a vegetarian. I was a red-blooded youth raised on hamburgers, pot roasts, and occasionally grilled steak. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I became a vegetarian. But that’s a story for another time. This story is about Dad’s secret BBQ sauce.

I remember Dad grilling hamburgers on his charcoal grill on Sunday. I was probably eight or nine at the time. He took the grill off the round barbecue and asked me to get a paper bag. I ran into the kitchen, grabbed a bag, and ran back out to Dad. He told me to hold the bag while he scooped out the old ashes. When the ashes were entirely out of the barbecue, I ran to put them in the garbage can. I ran because I didn’t want to miss any of Dad’s barbecue rituals.

Dad poured charcoal briquettes into the middle of the barbecue, letting them fall where they may, and doused them liberally with lighter fluid. He lit a match, and that was when the magic happened. He flung the match at the coals and stepped back as the coals erupted in flames.

We retreated to the kitchen, waiting for the coals to burn to ash. While in the kitchen, I watched Dad prepare his secret BBQ sauce. “What is your secret?” I asked. Dad said, “Can’t tell you. That’s why it’s a secret.” Dad never did tell me his secret, but a few years after he passed away, I found his recipe written on a scrap of paper. It was tucked in with my mom’s handwritten recipes. She used 3×5 index cards.

When the sauce was ready, my brother, John, and I dipped potato chips and munched away while Dad patted the ground round into burgers. Dad let me carry the tray of burgers out to the grill. He followed with the bowl of BBQ sauce and a basting brush.

I watched Dad as he brushed a little sauce on each burger. He then placed the patties carefully on the grill and turned each one over after a few minutes. After another few minutes, the burgers were perfectly grilled. Dad let me brush a little more BBQ on top, and then he carried them inside where Mom had set the table and put out potato salad, pickles, thick slices of tomatoes, thin slices of red onion, and fresh leaves of head lettuce. Dad put four hamburgers on a plate at te table and returned to toast the buns. When he returned with the buns, he also brought the bowl of extra BBQ sauce.

Makes 3 cups of sauce.


¾ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1½ teaspoons garlic powder

1½ teaspoons celery seeds

1½ teaspoons chili powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

½ teaspoon black pepper (finely ground)

¾ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons yellow mustard

2 cups ketchup

1 cup water

½ cup apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1¼ teaspoons liquid smoke

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into half-pint jars with tight lids. Refrigerate until ready to use.

 Grilled Eggplant with Red Pepper Sauce

My friend, Vicky, came to the house the other day, lugging a large box. I hurried out to the porch to lighten her load. “I have all these peppers left over after making a wonderful spaghetti sauce,” she said. “Would you be able to use the leftover peppers before they spoil?” I accepted the box from her and replied, “Would I? You bet I would.”

What a great community. I had other plans for that morning, but when given a gift such as this — well, I rose to the challenge. Although I roasted and used all of this super-ripe mix of peppers, here’s how I used some of the sweet peppers.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Sauce ingredients:

6 to 8 whole sweet peppers (or 4 bell peppers)

2 tablespoons pine nuts (roasted)

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ medium onion (finely diced)

8 cloves garlic (roasted)

½ cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Sauce directions:
Preheat the grill to medium-high heat (about 450 degrees).

Grill the peppers with the cover open until the skins bubble and peel. Turn the peppers every 3 minutes or so. When they are ready, they will almost be all black. Transfer to a large bag and carefully close the top (the peppers will be hot). Let them steam in the bag until cool enough to the touch — approximately 15 minutes. Peel, seed, and skin the peppers. Using a blender, puree the peppers with pine nuts. Set aside.

In a skillet or pot over medium heat, drizzle in olive oil. Add onions and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Pour in pepper puree and stir together. Reduce heat to medium-low and pour in the cream. Stir to combine, and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and turn off the heat, leaving the pot on the same burner to stay warm while you grill the eggplant. Cover until ready to spoon over eggplant.

Eggplant ingredients:
2 large round eggplants (cut lengthwise into half-inch-thick slices)

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Eggplant directions:

Preheat the grill to medium-high heat (about 450 degrees).

Lightly coat eggplant slices with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill for five minutes on each side or until tender. Remove from grill and immediately place on a serving tray. Drizzle red pepper sauce over eggplant and serve while still warm. Bring additional red sauce to the table!

Grilled Chili-Lime Shrimp 

This is my favorite barbecue side dish for summer grillin’! It is easy, relatively quick to make, and doesn’t heat the kitchen. The smoked paprika, chili powder, lime juice, and honey are the perfect combination for marinating the shrimp.

Makes 4 servings.


16 ounces medium shrimp (peeled and deveined)

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon red chili powder

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 garlic cloves (minced)

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

Lime wedges (as a condiment)

4 to 6 skewers

Directions: Preheat the grill on high heat – about 550 to 600 degrees.

Combine the shrimp in a large bowl with all the other ingredients, except lime wedges. Cover tightly and set aside to marinate for 15 to 20 minutes. Skewer the shrimp and grill for two to three minutes per side. They are done when they turn opaque and pinkish on both sides! Serve with lime wedges on the side.

Grilled Corn with Tri-Colored Peppers

It was from the Native Americans that the first European settlers learned about corn. Native Americans had spent hundreds of years developing what we now know as corn from seed-bearing grass. Long before Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain, Native Americans cultivated this grass in North, Central, and South America. Native American farmers in the Ohio River Valley had been growing corn for more than 1,700 years before the first white men crossed the Appalachian Mountains, and there is evidence that they used corn to brew beer before Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Today, corn is essential in the preparation of many recipes. But nothing can come close to the timeless appeal of simple grilled corn on the cob. When paired with fresh bell peppers, it is elegant. It is colorful, nutritious, and an excellent accompaniment to any barbecue entrée. My recipe for corn and peppers is a great summertime side dish.

Makes 6 servings.


2 red bell peppers

2 yellow bell peppers

2 green bell peppers

9 ears of corn (husked and broken in half)

Extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup unsalted butter

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh basil (chopped fine)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the grill to medium-high heat (about 400 degrees).

Soak husked corn in a pot of cold water, ensuring the ears are completely immersed. Set aside to soak for 15 minutes.

Grill peppers until charred on all sides. Let cool in a large, closed plastic bag for about ten minutes, then seed and cut into ½-inch-thick strips. Set aside.

Remove corn from cold water and pat dry. Brush with olive oil and break into two pieces each. Grill for 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until charred in spots. Transfer to a large serving platter and cover to keep warm.

Melt butter in a heavy, large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pepper strips. Sauté until heated through, stirring often, four to five minutes. Stir in ¾ cup basil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the pepper mixture onto the serving platter with the corn. Garnish with the remaining two tablespoons of basil and serve while still warm.

Grilled Summer Veggie Salad

Looking for a tasty side dish to accompany your end-of-summer barbecue fare? This vegan salad is easy to make and can be prepared hours ahead. Whether you grill it for vegetarians or omnivores, it is versatile enough to complement any entrée. In addition to dinner, I like to serve this salad with fresh French bread as a filling lunch.

Makes 3 to 4 servings. 

½ cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1½ teaspoons Ancho chile powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 red bell peppers (seeded and cut into quarters)

1 medium eggplant (cut into ½-inch rounds)

4 medium zucchini (halved lengthwise)

Ground black pepper to taste

2 cups baby arugula

3 tablespoons fresh cilantro (chopped)

Lemon wedges

Preheat the grill on medium-high heat (about 450 degrees).

Whisk together ½ cup of olive oil, lemon juice, coriander, chili powder, garlic powder, paprika, cumin, salt, and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. Set this dressing aside.

Place bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini in a large bag with the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil. Add ground pepper to taste. Close the bag and shake vigorously until the veggies are well coated with oil.

Grill the veggies for four minutes on one side. Then, turn them over and grill for another four minutes on the other side. This will give them a nice char and ensure they’re cooked throughout. Once they’re done, remove them from the grill.

For a beautiful presentation, arrange the arugula on a large platter. Cut the eggplant rounds in half and place them in concentric circles on top of the outside edge of the lettuce, leaving the center empty. Then, cut the bell pepper and zucchini into 1-inch pieces and mound them in the center. Drizzle with half of the dressing and garnish with cilantro. Serve with lemon wedges and additional dressing on the side for those who want a little extra flavor.