Whether your tailgate party involves a custom rotisserie and team color-coordinated tents, or a simple picnic on an old blanket, no pregame ritual is complete without the spread. This is one party that’s as much about the food as it is about the actual game. And while it’s easy to want a menu just as intense as all that face paint you have on right now, we have a bit of advice: Simple really is better.
“When we tailgate, I don’t do stuff that takes a long time, like ribs and brisket and stuff. I’m pretty pedestrian,” says Meathead Goldwyn, a proud Florida Gator and the man behind the popular Amazing Ribs barbecue website. “I make sure I’m doing simple foods I can cook quickly that are really good.”
Goldwyn offers sage advice with a set of tailgate tips on his site. Suggestions include planning for food that can be eaten with your hands (no one wants to deal with utensils at any party, especially a tailgate). And do as much prep in advance, so you’re not working the entire time.
“Get your stuff done and out of the way so you can enjoy the party too,” stresses Neil Strawder, of Bigmista’s Barbecue. While the former college football player (he played nose tackle at Southwest Texas State in the 1980s) and lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan has catered plenty of tailgates, he prefers to watch the big game from the comfort of the couch. “You don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy a beer” this way, he says, or deal with stiff stadium seats. “What is it they call it? Couch-gating? Driveway-gating?”
Wherever you tailgate, Strawder also stresses sticking with what you know. “Do your guests a favor: Don’t experiment at your tailgate. You don’t know how something may work out or be received.”
Finger foods are perfect — just don’t forget napkins or paper towels. Chipotle-spiced chicken wings can be marinated the night before, so all you have to do on game day is throw them on the grill. The wings are sweet and spicy, the chipotle chiles offset with the sweetness and tang of orange juice. Cumin, garlic, onion and a touch of cayenne round it all out.
Serve the wings as is or alongside a creamy ranch dipping sauce made better with crumbled blue cheese. Like the wings, you can prepare the sauce the night before. Because nobody has time to be in the kitchen when you’re busy packing the car full of tailgate gear like it’s a giant game of Tetris.
For a main dish, Strawder suggests something easy to carry, like chili. Goldwyn suggests burgers. “If I’m going to put out a burger, it’s going to be really tasty.” As with the wings and dip, prep your ingredients ahead of time — make the chili the night before or assemble the burgers so all you have to do later is throw them on the grill.
Finally, plan so you can keep clean-up at a minimum. After eating with your friends, you want to go to the game, not clean up an entire buffet. And keep food safety (proper temperatures, cleanliness) in mind at all times.
Then just sit back in that cardinal-and-gold folding chair, your face the same colors, your 20-year-old unwashed Trojans ball cap on your head — just channel your inner Raiders fan, since we still have no pro football in this town — and enjoy the game.
Place the bacon in a large, heavy skillet and heat over medium heat. Cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and the bacon crisps, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and drain the bacon on paper towels. Drain the bacon fat (save it for sauteeing), leaving 2 to 3 tablespoons in the skillet.
Heat the skillet over medium-high heat until hot and add the mushrooms. Sauté the mushrooms until tender, 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with the salt. Remove from heat and drain the mushrooms, leaving the fat in the pan. Combine the mushrooms and bacon in the bowl of a food processor.
Heat the skillet over medium heat and add the onion. Cook the onion, stirring frequently, until it softens to a rich golden color, about 15 minutes. Stir in the chopped garlic and continue to cook just until the garlic is aromatic, about 1 minute. Stir in the wine, scraping any flavoring from the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and add the onions to the food processor.
Process the mixture until the bacon, mushrooms and onions are finely ground. Remove from the processor and spread out on a rimmed baking sheet. Refrigerate the mixture, uncovered, until cold.
In a large bowl, combine the ground chuck with the bacon mixture, along with the celery salt, black pepper, cumin, paprika and chile powder, working with your hands to knead the mixture until evenly combined. Form the mixture into 12 patties. The patties will taste best made the morning of, but can be made up to a day in advance; separate each patty with a piece of wax or parchment paper and cover and refrigerate until ready to cook.
Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the patties on a lightly greased grill rack and cook until charred on the outside and medium (about 135 degrees) in the center, 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or to desired doneness. If adding cheese, place the cheese on the burger about a minute before removing it from the grill to give the cheese a chance to soften. If toasting the buns, place them cut-side down on the rack to warm and toast slightly for a minute or two.
Place each grilled burger on a bun and serve immediately. Let guests garnish as desired.
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