They fashion rotisseries from Radio Flyer wagons. They weld custom grills into elaborate setups complete with coolers and keg compartments. They festoon tents with floral vines and adorn them with chandeliers. They’ve got huge buffets, big-screen satellite TVs and tons of charcuterie.
You could say the unofficial mascot of football and tailgating is the pig. There’s the perfectly grilled tenderloin, fat links of succulent sausages and racks and racks of ribs. And then there’s that whole suckling pig, gleaming as it turns on a huge, wheeled-in rotisserie. (And don’t forget the pigskin on the field.)
I didn’t really start watching football until after I graduated from USC, when a good friend patiently explained the sport over a season of pregame tailgates. My first forays were modest affairs with just a couple friends -- grilled chicken, a salad, a glass or two of wine at home before heading to the Coliseum. Before too long, I was hooked. I fell in love with the sport and, just as much, the tailgating.
The next year, I got season tickets. A few years ago, as the Trojans began to regain their greatness, I was just finishing cooking school. My tailgates became more elaborate, as my friends now expected to be wowed. I’d start the first home game with jerk chicken. In following weeks came sausages, carne asada, fajitas, tandoori chicken, Greek or Mediterranean grilled lamb and barbecue ribs. I’d prep everything at home, coming up with my own sauces, rubs and marinades, then haul it all to the game and finish it on the grill.
My tailgates have grown over the years, and now my crowd sometimes swells to 20. Friends bring chips and homemade salsas, mojitos, salads, mac ‘n’ cheese, brownies, cookies.
The Big Game -- USC versus UCLA , with Rose Bowl potential for both, in case you just arrived from the moon -- makes me crave pork chops. An overnight brine -- spiked with bourbon, maple syrup, mustard and rosemary -- infuses them with flavor and keeps them moist on the grill. For the extra point, we’ll stuff them with a mixture of goat cheese, bacon, spinach and roasted garlic. Brine the chops the night before the game, stuff them the morning of, and all you have to do at the game is throw them on the grill. First and 10.
How about some slow-cooked black beans? The day before, simmer them with some caramelized onions, and throw in a smoked ham hock or shank. When the beans are done, shred the tender meat from the hock and stir it in. On the big day, reheat the beans with some chopped tomato before or at the tailgate. Touchdown!
Now we need a two-point conversion. Finesse it with rustic corn bread. Bake it the night before in a cast-iron or oven-proof skillet; the light crunch of the coarse-ground cornmeal is perfect against the sweet corn kernels hidden in the grain. It’s great as is on game day but even better if you warm the pieces on the grill and serve them with whipped maple butter.
Here’s a surprise maneuver: celery root and apple slaw, with toasted pecans and currants -- now that oughta sack the quarterback. Dress it lightly with sour cream, cider vinegar and a touch of horseradish.
For appetizers and dessert, bring on the special teams -- your fellow tailgaters. The shutout is yours for the taking. Really, can there ever be too much food?
Place the mustard seeds in a medium stock pot over medium-low heat. Toast the mustard seeds for a couple minutes, just until they start to pop. Remove from the heat.
Add 4 quarts water to the pot, and stir in the salt, maple syrup and bourbon. Add the crushed rosemary sprigs and place the pot over high heat. Once the brine comes to a boil, remove from the heat and allow it to steep until it cools to room temperature.
Place the pork chops into two gallon-size sealable bags (four pork chops in each bag). Divide the brine between the two bags, and then squeeze the excess air out of the bags before sealing them tightly. Place the bags in the refrigerator overnight.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut off the end of the garlic head, exposing the tops of the cloves. Drizzle the cut top with the olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Wrap the head in foil and place in the oven for 1 hour to roast. After an hour, remove the garlic and allow to cool before removing the foil. Squeeze the roasted cloves from the bulb and set aside.
While the garlic is roasting, place the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered and the bacon starts to crisp. Remove from the heat to a paper-towel-lined plate and allow to cool. Pour out the fat, leaving 1 tablespoon in the pan.
Reheat the bacon fat in the pan over medium heat. Stir in the spinach in bunches, adding another bunch as the spinach wilts, until all is added. When just wilted, remove the spinach to a cutting board lined with paper towels. Allow the spinach to cool slightly and pat off the excess moisture with the paper towels, then roughly chop it. Set aside.
Place the goat cheese in a medium bowl. Add the spinach, roasted garlic cloves, bacon, thyme and the half teaspoon of chopped rosemary. Season with a few grinds of black pepper. Refrigerate the stuffing until needed.
Remove the pork chops from the brine. Using a boning knife, slice a pocket (no more than 2 inches wide) into the side of a pork chop. You will cut a pocket through most of the chop, but leave a half-inch border all around to prevent the pocket from ripping when stuffed. Repeat with the remaining chops. Divide the stuffing into eight portions. Stuff each of the eight chops, using a little of the stuffing at a time and distributing it evenly into the pocket with your fingers. Close the pockets with a toothpick or two.Wipe any excess stuffing from the outside of the chops.
Heat a grill over medium heat. Oil the grill rack and place the chops on the grill, leaving a few inches between each for even cooking. You may have to do this in batches. Cover the grill and cook the chops, 6 to 7 minutes on each side, until a thermometer inserted reads 140 degrees for medium, about 8 minutes per side for well. Remove the toothpicks before serving, and serve immediately.
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