At its essence, a hot dog is just a mild sausage in a bun. Nothing terribly complicated about that, until geographic preferences are considered, some so strong that they might bring dissenters to blows.
A Jersey dog is deep-fried and piled with fried potatoes. In Cincinnati, they like them dripping with thin, spicy chili without beans. Chicagoans pile on the toppings — mustard, sweet pickle relish, onion, tomato, pickled sport peppers (hot yellow chiles), celery salt and a dill pickle spear on a poppy-seed roll — and hope they don't tumble out and down the front of their shirts. Out West just about anything goes, including nacho cheese and avocado.
A Florida hot dog doesn't have much distinction, but we could start a tradition with a Cuban sandwich-style dog dressed with melted Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and a dill pickle. Or maybe a Tarpon dog piled with tomatoes, cucumbers, green pepper, kalamata olives and feta cheese. Still, just like the rest of America, we like hot dogs, especially at outdoor parties and baseball games.
We are thinking about hot dogs because the Tampa Bay Rays are back at Tropicana Field, opening the season against the Baltimore Orioles. Our Pavlovian response to the crack of the bat is a hot dog piled with toppings, a cold beer and peanuts.
Besides the toppings, many people are loyal to a brand, and among the most popular are Nathan's, Oscar Mayer, Hebrew National, Ball Park and Vienna. It's such a beloved treat that even nonmeat eaters have demanded vegetarian varieties, often called "tofu pups."
There are a number of ways to cook them, including boiling, steaming, pan-frying and even microwaving. Each enhances the flavor in a different way. Grilling leaves those appealing char-stripes, and that's the preparation method we are recommending today to go with some innovative topping ideas.
How about it, slugger? Ready to trade your relish for pickled jalapeno? Or transform your sauerkraut dog into a Reuben on a bun by adding Swiss cheese and Thousand Island? Remember, if you want the cheese to melt, shred it finely and place it on top of the hot dog as soon as it comes from the grill or melt it on the bun under the broiler or on a closed grill.
The drippier the toppings, the sturdier the bun needs to be.
Here are some ideas, inspired by foodnetwork.com and other Internet recipe sites, to get you started:
Wrapped in bacon and grilled; topped with pinto beans, tomato, onion, avocado and cilantro.
Sauerkraut heated with caraway seeds, Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing and dill pickle chips.
Sauteed peppers (red and green), onions and garlic stewed with diced tomatoes.
Swiss cheese, mustard and dill pickles.
Chili beans, shredded cheddar, pickled jalapenos and crushed Fritos.
Far East Dog
Brush with hoisin or plum sauce before grilling. Garnish with sliced cucumbers, scallions, cilantro and more sauce.
Guacamole, sour cream, diced tomatoes and onions.
Brush dogs with barbecue sauce before grilling then top with coleslaw.
Real Hot Dog
Shredded jalapeno Jack cheese and sliced pickled jalapenos.
Turkey dog or tofu pup with mustard, ketchup and dill pickle relish. Whole wheat bun, of course.
Saute 1 sliced onion in vegetable oil; add 3 tablespoons ketchup, ¼ cup red wine vinegar, 1 ½ cups water and cayenne and paprika; simmer until thick.
Philly Cheesesteak Dog
Melted cheese (Velveeta!), sauteed peppers and onions and a dash of hot sauce.