Barbecue Better for Labor Day


Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, when many of us enjoy a long weekend with friends and family and toast the season with a backyard barbecue. The traditional meat-heavy barbecue menu can be hazardous to your health, but it doesn’t have to be. Some of the most popular barbecue foods are well-known to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes (and a number of other diseases, too!), like steak, pork ribs, processed red meats (hot dogs), refined grains (traditional pasta salads, rolls, potato chips), and processed, added sugars (sodas, desserts). But we can help you make over your Labor Day celebration menu with healthy options for a feel better BBQ!

“Pulled” Mushrooms in Barbecue Sauce over Whole Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Pickled Onions and Peppers (Gluten-Free, Vegan)

Maybe you usually go for traditional fare like pulled barbecue pork on a roll, but now you want to do better for your body. Boston-area chef de cuisine Cassidy Salus (Steel and Rye, Prairie Fire) makes a meatless version of this dish using Maitake mushrooms, also known as Hen of the Woods: “They are a much more meaty mushroom because of their lower water content, and have much more flavor… Mushrooms sautéed and then braised in barbecue sauce are delicious.” And it’s true, nothing has more healthy umami than mushrooms! Mushrooms sautéed to tender and simmered in a simple, wholesome homemade barbecue sauce, and served over steaming-hot grilled sweet potatoes and topped with tangy, low-sugar low-salt pickled onions and peppers? Even better! Sweetness comes from nutrient-rich blackstrap molasses, which contains many nutrients, including potassium and iron. As a matter of fact, one serving of this meal gets you all the vitamin D you need for the whole week (over 1,000 times the recommended daily value). Skip your supplement! If you can’t find Maitakes then any mushrooms can be used in this recipe.  The sauce and pickled onions can be made ahead of time.

Barbecue Sauce

  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup dark preferred ((though any will do))
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup blackstrap molasses
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp coconut aminos ((you can also use low-sodium soy sauce))
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper

Pulled Mushrooms

  • 6 cups mushrooms, sliced very thin ((about 2 pounds) )
  • 1 tsp olive oil

Whole Roasted Sweet Potatoes

  • 6 sweet potatoes, about equal size, washed

Pickled Onions and Peppers

  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp honey ((or agave syrup, for vegan))
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 small red onion, sliced very thin
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced pepper of your choice
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh herbs, such as dill

Barbecue Sauce

  1. Mix all ingredients together in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for thirty minutes, until sauce is thickened. This will keep, covered in the refrigerator, for up to a week. 

Pulled Mushrooms

  1. You can use any mushrooms for this vegan recipe– Baby Bellas, Portobellas, or even button mushrooms will work fine.  It may seem a large amount of mushrooms, but these cook way down.

    Heat a large deep saucepan or saute pan and add oil.

    When oil is very hot but not smoking, add mushrooms and turn heat to medium-low.

    Sautee mushrooms, stirring frequently, until quite soft and browned, about ten minutes.

    Add enough sauce to almost cover mushrooms, and reduce heat to simmer.

    Simmer for about twenty minutes, until very soft and sauce is thickened.

    Serve hot, over whole roasted sweet potatoes, with pickled onions and peppers on top. 

Whole Roasted Sweet Potatoes

  1. Aluminum foil

    Wrap each potato in foil and place on a medium-hot grill or an oven at 400 degrees, and allow to cook for about thirty to forty minutes, until very soft. 

Pickled Onions and Peppers

  1. You can make this spicy, or not. For not spicy, use half of a bell pepper. For spicy, use a jalapeno pepper. For super-spicy, use a habanero pepper. For fresh spices, I usually use dill, but you can use cilantro, oregano, mint, or a combination.

    Heat vinegar, honey, salt, and pepper in a small saucepan until simmering.  Add sliced onion, peppers and herbs, and simmer for five minutes, until soft. Turn off heat.  Let sit covered for at least an hour.  These can be served right away, or placed in a covered container and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. 


Cajun Style Shrimp Broil Foil Packets (Gluten-Free, Vegan)

This is a really impressive-appearing and popular healthified barbecue meal that is actually really easy as well. The homemade Cajun seasoning is low sodium, and you will not miss the salt at all, it’s that flavorful. Corn on the cob is a whole grain you can feel good about, especially when paired with summer green beans, and steamed with fresh lemon. And of course, we’re not using sausage in this version. This steamed dish will be a stealth-health hit of your next backyard party!

Homemade Cajun Seasoning

  • 2 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp cayenne powder
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp salt


  • 4 large ears corn on the cob, cut into four rounds each ( (This is easy using a large, heavy chef’s knife. Or you can buy frozen ones already cut.))
  • 4 cups green beans ((a little over a pound))
  • 1 large lemon, cut into six wedges
  • 24 very large shrimp, peeled, deveined ((About a pound and a half))

Homemade Cajun Seasoning

  1. This will make extra, which I serve out in a little bowl with a small spoon so folks can add extra if they like the spice.

    Mix all spices together in a small jar or other container and shake. This will keep for weeks.


  1. I like to use peeled and deveined shrimp, because it’s less messy for guests.

    A large roll of aluminum foil

    Cut a piece of foil about a foot and a half long.

    Place 3 corns, a handful of green beans, and four shrimp in the center of the foil, arranged in a sort of rectangular pile. Lightly squirt with a lemon wedge and then add the lemon wedge to the pile. Sprinkle with about a half teaspoon of Cajun seasoning, or more if desired. Fold edges over so liquid produced while cooking will not leak out, and top is covered.

    Heat grill to high, and place packets directly onto grill.

    Do not flip.

    Cook for about fifteen minutes, until corn and shrimp are cooked.

    Serve in packets, with plenty of napkins!

Red and Green Summer Salad

Grilled red peppers, red onions, and fresh tomatoes are tossed with leafy red lettuce, mint, and cucumber and sprinkled with toasted pistachios. This is a light, bright, fresh salad perfect for accompanying grilled food. Grilling red onion to a nice soft char tones down its strong flavor and brings out its natural sweetness. 


  • 1 red onion, cut into quarters
  • 2 red peppers, sliced into quarters or sixths and seeded ((keeping pieces long so they won’t fall into the grill) )
  • Olive oil (for brushing or spraying)
  • 1 cup tomatoes, sliced ((I like cherry tomatoes, but can use any ripe, red tomatoes))
  • 6 cups red lettuce, washed well and torn into bite-size pieces ((or other leafy green lettuce) (about 5 ounces, or a large head of lettuce))
  • 1 bunch fresh mint, washed well, stems removed, and chopped ((about a cup))
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, chopped into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup roasted unsalted pistachios


  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 finely chopped garlic clove
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes ((optional))


  1. Heat grill to medium high.

    Lightly brush or spray the peppers and red onions with olive oil.

    Using tongs, set the onion quarters and red peppers slices cross-wise on the grill bars (so they don’t fall in. Another option is to use a grill pan, in which case you can chop the onion and red pepper as small as you like.)

    Grill, flipping once, until well-browned or charred, per your preference.

    Remove from heat and allow to cool.

    Place all ingredients into a large attractive bowl and toss with dressing, below.

    Sprinkle with pistachios. 


  1. Mix all ingredients in a small bowl and toss with salad when ready. 

The post Barbecue Better for Labor Day appeared first on Harvard Health Blog.

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