One of my favorite rooms in our new house is the sunroom that looks out over the backyard. It is full of windows and is the perfect place to entertain. Now that we are finally settled in, we decided to throw ourselves a housewarming party and invite all of our friends over for a good old fashion BBQ. Since I have been in Las Vegas, and prior to that San Francisco, for the better part of 10 years, I haven’t had the opportunity to show off my new found cooking skills to a large group of people. For my first big cookout I didn’t want to just buy some Costco patties and call it a day. But I also didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen during my own party. So I put a lot of thought into what I wanted my menu to be, and strategizing how to put together a manageable number of dishes. As it turned out, our party was a great success- all of the guests had a good time, got fed, and Luke and I were able to socialize without having to worry too much about the food. Putting together a comprehensive menu is a task that always ends up being more difficult than anticipated, so I thought I would share my helpful rules for planning a cookout.
Have two different meat options- and don’t make both of them grill dependent
We have all been to cookouts where you have to wait an hour to get a hamburger. One grill + a large number of people means that not everyone can be fed at once. Grilling meat takes a certain amount of time, and there is only so much space on the grill available. So I recommend having an alternative meat that is roasted in the oven in addition to the grill offerings. Preferably offer a couple different types of meat. If you are grilling hamburgers, cook ribs in the oven. If you are grilling hot dogs, slow cook some chicken. For our cookout, Luke wanted to grill sausages served with sweet peppers, onions, and sauerkraut. I decided to braise brisket in bourbon and beer. Once the meat went in the oven, I didn’t have to think about it a whole lot throughout the day while I worked on other things. Plus it made the entire house smell amazing, and got everyone in the mood to eat. My brisket recipe came from the cookbook Smoke and Pickles by Edward Lee, a former Top Chef contestant and chef in Louisville, Kentucky. If you enjoy cooking with bourbon, pickling vegetables, or wondered what would happen if you combined Korean food with Southern cooking, this is the cookbook for you. Originally the brisket was meant to have a peach glaze, but as I mentioned, I really didn’t want to do any additional cooking once guests arrived. Rather than finishing my meat with the glaze, I simply placed the jar of peach jam that I had already purchased out for people to use. It turned out to compliment the meat well, and took me absolutely no extra effort.
Choose two dishes that you can prepare the day before
The day of your party, there is so much to do. You have to cook, you have to clean, and if you are like us, you have to take your children eating terror dachshunds to the kennel where they can’t harm anyone. With so much going on, you do not want to have to prepare everything in a few short hours. I highly recommend preparing a cold side dish and a dessert the day before, so that is already out of the way. Cold salad side dishes work well, because they come together quickly and the flavors have a chance to marinate in the refrigerator overnight. For my dish, I combined Israeli couscous with corn, pickled jalapenos, tomatoes, and black beans for a Tex-Mex style salad. My guests were all on the same page, because two others brought similar salads as well. Great minds think alike, and salad for everyone!
Dessert is also an easy one to prepare ahead of time. I love cookies, but inevitably you have to make several batches, which takes up quite a bit of time. I made blue berry cheese cake crumble bars, which are always a crowd pleaser. The best part is they are forgiving to mistakes, and you really can’t go wrong when a recipe calls for large amounts of cream cheese, butter, and sugar.
Have a signature cocktail in addition to large quantities of beer
Midwesterners are serious about beer, and since I have been gone, Dayton has turned into a hard core brewery town. Local breweries have popped up all over the place, and quite a few of my friends make their own beer on a regular basis. With that said, alongside our beer selection, I thought it would be fun to offer a special cocktail for the party. Keeping in line with the “bourbon” theme I had going on (bourbon was used to braise my brisket as well as used in my jalapeno pickle mixture), I went back to my Smoke and Pickles cookbook and whipped up a batch of Bourbon Sweet Tea. It literally took minutes to make, and I thought it was sort of a classy offering (because adults make cocktails for their friends, right?) My version of the recipe is below:
Bourbon Sweet Tea Recipe- 1 gallon
Combine 9 cups of water with approximately 1 cup of honey. Heat on the stove until the honey is fully dissolved into the water. Taste the water, add more honey if it is not up to your preferred level of sweetness.
Pour the heated water into a large pitcher. Add 9 black tea bags to the water and steep for 10 minutes. (Tie the tea bags together for easier removal).
Remove tea bags and fill the pitcher the rest of the way with bourbon of your choice. The amount of bourbon added should be between 1/3 to 1/4 of the pitcher.
Add orange, lemon, and fresh ginger slices to the pitcher. Place pitcher in the refrigerator to chill for several hours. Serve with ice.
Make flavored popcorn to add a unique appetizer to your table
I thought long and hard about what kind of appetizers I wanted on my table. One of my favorite things to make is crab and cream cheese dip, served with some really good bread. But I really didn’t want people to fill up on bread before it was time to eat all of the meat. Luke found this amazing Jarlesberg cheese dip at the freaking liquor store (because really what liquor store doesn’t have a specialty cheese bar- thank you Arrow Wine and Spirits) which we had to buy because Luke has been singing the praises of Jarlesberg cheese since the day I met him. After getting crackers and a veggie plate to go with the cheese, I wanted one more thing to go on the table. Something light, that wouldn’t take too long to prepare, but that would also stand out. I remembered that I had bought popcorn at the farmer’s market last month, and then the idea of a lifetime came to me. Maple bacon popcorn. It’s sweet, it’s salty, I can produce a whole lot of it with ease, and it is something people can pick at until the main event is ready. Recipe below:
Recipe for Maple Bacon Popcorn
Fry 6-7 strips of bacon, pat dry, and chop into small pieces. This can be done the night prior of desired.
Pour 1/4 of a cup of Canola oil into a dutch oven and heat over medium high. Place 3 kernels of popcorn into the oil and cover with a lid.
Once all 3 kernels have popped, remove and pour 3/4 of a cup of popcorn into the dutch oven. Cover and remove from the heat for 30 seconds.
Shake popcorn around and place back onto the heat for approximately 2 minutes. Once the popping has slowed down, transfer popcorn into a large bowl.
Repeat process if desired.
Combine 6-7 tablespoons of butter with 1 1/4 cups maple syrup. (Divide measurements in half if you want to make a single batch). Once butter is melted, add in bacon, half a cup of slivered almonds, and a few shakes of cayenne (optional).
Combine maple syrup mixture with popcorn and serve.
Put your menu up on a chalk board or white board for people to see
You worked hard to put a special menu together, and people need to know about it, darn it! With so many guests, you aren’t going to have the opportunity to walk everyone through your culinary offerings. By placing everything up on a menu, your guests can take notice of what you made, and it will also give them a better idea of what they might like (or not like) to try. This is also a nice way of letting people know that there is an alternative cocktail available in the refrigerator. As a bonus, if anyone has any allergies or special dietary needs, you can make note of anything you think is important for people to know, such as “nuts in the popcorn.”
We used a giant white board that we had stashed down in the basement. It turned out to be a little larger than I remembered, but it worked all of the same. And yes, I totally misspelled “Jarlesberg.”
So those are my personal tips to putting together a great cookout menu that won’t interfere with your ability to enjoy your guests. Remember, it is a party, so if something is going to be a giant pain, nix it and socialize instead. Nobody is judging you or expecting a professionally catered event. The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy your friends!
Have any favorite go to dishes for a potluck? Let me know in the comments!