A few years ago, I was in Minneapolis tailgating with friends for the University of Minnesota’s homecoming game against Northwestern. We got to the parking lot around 8:30 in the morning, to party before the 11 a.m. kickoff. Our host, Chad Jaeger, started the festivities with a hearty breakfast chili — rich and creamy, it was packed with crumbled bacon and sausage, beans, cheddar cheese and diced egg. It was the perfect way to warm up a bunch of Gopher fans on a chilly, 45-degree morning.
For those of us who love to tailgate, this is one party that’s as much about the food as it is about the actual game. And while it may be easy to fortify the gang before an afternoon or evening game, how do you plan around an early kick-off? Because not everyone’s ready to tackle a cheeseburger or a rack of ribs first thing in the morning.
And why should they? If anything, breakfast or brunch tailgates should really become a thing. At many restaurants, breakfast is the most popular meal of the day, and brunch itself has become the muse of many a chef. There’s no reason we can’t riff on some of those dishes for our pre-game festivities — particularly for those of us on the West Coast who frequently suffer through early games to satisfy East Coast programming bias. Nothing will set a sleepy tailgater’s circadian rhythm right faster than a filling breakfast and beverage to match.
That breakfast chili is easy enough to make, and one I frequently turn to when I’m planning an early tailgate: Simply combine the ingredients in a portable slow cooker over low heat, so the flavors have time to come together the night before. On game day, plug the cooker into a car adapter to keep the chili warm on the way to the stadium. Once your tailgate is set up, put the chili out with crackers, extra green onions, shredded cheese and hot sauce so your guests can customize to taste.
Breakfast chili not your thing? Get creative. Try cooking shakshuka on the grill — the spiced pepper, onion and egg dish is an easy choice if you’re cooking outdoors. Assemble a stack of croque-madame sandwiches — bread layered with plenty of ham and cheese — then dip them to order in egg and brown them with plenty of butter on a griddle until the cheese just begins to ooze. It’s like a grilled cheese on steroids. A friend once made a pot of congee for an early tailgate, served with a variety of toppings.
For those guests with a sweet tooth, bake your items ahead of time, then warm them up at the game. I’ll fix a batch of sticky buns or French toast muffin bites the night before and refrigerate them until I’m ready to head to the party. At the tailgate, I’ll gently heat them on a closed grill, still in the tin, until the sticky buns slide out easily, and the French toast bites are puffed up and warm, and the streusel topping is fragrant.
As with any great tailgate, the trick is to plan ahead and keep it simple. I try to make as much food as possible before I leave the house, and heat up what I need once I’m set up at the party.
Breakfast tailgate checklist:
GRILL: It’s not just for burgers. Your grill can double as an oven or stove. Top with a griddle or skillet for stove-top cooking. Or heat one side of the grill and add food you’d like to warm to the other; the indirect heat will warm the food up gently without burning.
GRIDDLE: A great tool to have if you’re whipping up pancakes, cooking hash browns or toasting English muffins or bagels. It also works well when cooking sausage patties and other fatty foods that might flare up directly over flames.
SKILLET: Also good for pancakes, country potatoes or one-dish meals such as hash.
PROPANE BURNER: An easy, smaller option if you don’t want to carry around a large grill.
PORTABLE SLOW COOKER: Available at most home goods stores, these are built to be transported, so you can cook and carry your dish anywhere.
COOLER: A must for keeping foods and beverages cold before serving.
THERMOS: Perfect for storing hot items including coffee, or water if you’re packing an Aeropress for the coffee aficianados — and gravy.
Don’t forget the drinks:
Finally, don’t forget the beverages. Most thermoses will keep hot beverages — coffee, cocoa or cider — warm for hours. And it’s never too early for a cocktail. Mimosas are an easy choice for morning tailgates. If you have fresh fruit, consider making a pitcher of sangrias.
If there’s one thing I always fix for an early tailgate, it’s a batch of bloody Mary mix. Serve it with vodka or tequila (a bloody Maria), or combine it with beer for a michelada. It’s easy to put together — combine tomatoes with a bunch of flavorings and blend. My secret ingredient is blending in a few strips of crisp bacon, which gives the mix extra heft and richness. As my friend and fellow tailgate aficionado Chris Erskine likes to say, “It’s like vodka gazpacho.”
12 breakfast tailgate ideas:
DEVILED EGGS: Halve hard-boiled eggs and mash the yolks in a bowl with mayonnaise, mustard, cayenne pepper and seasoning. Spoon or pipe into the egg whites.
STUFFED FRENCH TOAST: Batter two slices of French toast and stuff with bacon, cheese, spinach or other greens. Griddle until crisp and gooey.
BREAKFAST BURRITOS: Fill tortillas with hash browns or country potatoes, scrambled eggs, cooked bacon or sausage. Warm and serve with salsa.
HASH: Par-cook diced potatoes and chill. On a griddle, heat up leftover diced roast beef or other meat and add potatoes, diced peppers and onions. Cook until potatoes are crisp and hot, seasoning as needed.
STICKY BUNS: Prepare sticky buns in muffin tins, bake and cool. Before serving, heat the buns, still in the tins, until warmed and sticky coating oozes easily.
FRITTATA: Saute diced onions, vegetables and bacon or sausage until browned, then whisk in beaten eggs and cheese. Bake in a hot oven until puffed and set. Cool and serve at room temperature or rewarm on grill.
BREAKFAST BURGERS: Cook fresh breakfast or country sausage patties, then top with cheese and grilled onions and serve between sliced toasted bagels or English muffins.
STUFFED PEPPERS: Stuff peppers with hash, rice or other grains flavored with bacon or sausage, cheese and vegetables. Cool, then rewarm before serving.
BREAKFAST QUESO: Flavor queso with diced sauteed onion and peppers, sausage and bacon. Serve with chips.
GRILLED CHEESE: Layer two slices of buttered bread with cheese, crumbled cooked bacon or sausage, or hash browns. Cook on griddle until well-toasted.
BAKED OATMEAL: Bake oatmeal in a metal pan or in muffin tins. Cool, then gently heat over grill until warmed through. Serve with maple syrup.
SHAKSHUKA: Cooked sliced onions and peppers with cumin and other spices until softened. Add diced tomatoes and potatoes, cover and cook until softened. Make four indentations and break an egg into each gap. Cover and cook until eggs are just set. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.