PAIRINGS September 2002

Sophisticated food and drink options for outdoor, automobile feasts.


Published:

Tailgating in Style

Sophisticated food and drink options for outdoor, automobile feasts.

A stylish tailgate picnic owes more to Jay Gatsby than to Joe Six-pack. Well-heeled alumni returning to their alma mater for the classic autumn rivalry, clusters of elite fans watching polo, or pink-jacketed members of a hunt club gathering after a morning's ride are fortified by the contents of handsome, leather-trimmed wicker hampers.

I recall visiting the University of Virginia for homecoming years ago, and being served milk punch and Bourbon sours while nibbling on crabcakes on the grassy lawns of the Jeffersonian campus. For me it was the gold standard of tailgate parties.

Then I attended the Millbrook Hunt in Millbrook, New York, as one of the scores of spectators. They had an actual tailgate contest that could have been staged by Tiffany's. Members and guests tried to outdo each other, not just with the food and drink they'd brought, but also in the accoutrements with which to serve it and even the vehicles used to transport it. Impeccable vintage cars and station wagons, their chrome and burled-wood trim shined to a fare-thee-well, lined the grass. Tables were unloaded and covered with cloths. Grills were lit. Tiny quiches and deviled eggs were passed. And drinks, from Champagne and Bloody Marys to super Tuscans and exotic Belgian beers, were poured and shared.

Wines? Chill By The Grill

A tailgate party is no time (or place) to explore the subtleties of what wine goes with buffalo. Any wine served outdoors has to cope first and foremost with—guess what?—the outdoors. It's hot out there, or wet, or windy or humid or loud or all of the above. The wine has to cut through. Begin with a well-chilled, dry and fruity domestic sparkler from Domaine Ste. Michelle, Chandon or Gloria Ferrer. Want another white wine with your salad or smoked salmon? Pinot Gris is the slam-dunk choice. Try something young and crisp from the Veneto like Kris or Elena Walch; or a fruity Oregon bottling such as Bridgeview or King Estate. Now, about those buffalo burgers. They're smoky, they're chewy, they're a bit dry. Think red wine with plenty of acid. A Dry Creek Zin is perfect; Pedroncelli, Seghesio and Alderbrook are delicious, inexpensive choices. Feeling adventurous? Grab the 2000 Mourvèdre from Jade Mountain, a spicy, peppery wine bursting with berries. Remember, whether red, white or bubbly, the number one rule for tailgating with wine is: chill 'em, chillens!

—Paul Gregutt

Participants in the annual Millbrook tailgate event put as much effort into what they serve and how they serve it as they would for a formal dinner at home. But regardless of whether it's a football game or a fox hunt, devising an alluring menu is relatively easy, especially if certain practical considerations are maintained. The most important point to remember is that it is not a formal dinner. I think of a tailgating feast more like a brunch buffet—most tailgate events are held in the late morning after the hunt, or in the early afternoon before kick-off. Your guests should be able to manage comfortably with plates on their laps, or even while standing around and mingling.

These days, finding everything you need is a cinch, thanks to the Internet. Many foods and most equipment is a click away. (See "Where to Buy".)

I would start with simple luxuries, enough for guests to nibble with drinks while a main course is being assembled or grilled. If the Jay Gatsby spirit prevails, then why not serve deviled eggs? But use organic eggs, and good mayonnaise. Top them with a dollop of salmon or sturgeon caviar if you like.

Smoked salmon has become a more commonplace treat these days, but it's still a treat, even though it is now conveniently presliced in sealed packages. It's easy enough to arrange on squares of thin dark bread. Consider a film of horseradish mayonnaise on the bread before the salmon is laid on. It's just what it sounds like: mayonnaise mixed to taste with prepared horseradish. Add some minced fresh chives or dill. All this can be done in advance, and wrapped on a platter ready to serve.

Though the salmon works best as premade canapés, a foie gras terrine or country pâté can be put right on the table, with a knife and a basket of crusty baguettes so guests can help themselves. A jar of cornichons is a must alongside. A bowl of tiny tomatoes and another of chilled French breakfast radishes, along with a container of sea salt for dipping, add nice touches.

Brake for Cocktails

Since the car is your restaurant for the afternoon, why not sip some automobile-related cocktails when you're tailgating in style? A Rolls Royce Cocktail, for instance, is perfect for martini lovers. Made with gin and a few dashes of sweet vermouth, dry vermouth and Bénédictine, this drink will work well with almost any salad dish. The Bentley Cocktail, on the other hand, is a good choice to accompany fruit and cheese platters—simply mix equal measures of Laird's Applejack and Dubonnet Rouge. And what will you drink when the burgers make it from the grill to your plate? Sidecars, of course. Mix together two ounces of fine Cognac with half an ounce each of Cointreau and freshly squeezed lemon juice to make this classic. And make sure the designated driver sticks to root beer.

—Gary Regan

Hot dogs, hamburgers or even filet steaks (tender and easier to manage than other steak cuts) for sandwiches are typical tailgate fare. But instead of beef, consider bison. The meat is rich and tender, beefy enough, but with a characteristic touch of sweetness. It's best cooked no more than medium-rare because it is extremely lean—and also low in cholesterol. Dozens of ranches around the country ship bison fresh or frozen. Fresh is best. Most buffalo meat is $6 to $12 a pound, depending on the cut.

Sourdough bread and buns go with the meat. As for seasoning the filet, there are now terrific dry rubs available at some supermarkets, like hot or medium Salsa Dust, Cajun Dust and Fajita Dust. Another terrific sauce or marinade, especially if you decide to grill chicken or jumbo shrimp instead of meat, is garlicky Cajun Power. But when it comes to ketchup, forget about fancy brands. There's no substitute for everyday Heinz.

A somewhat different main course option would be barbecue, such as the pork ribs from Sticky Fingers, a South Carolina-based restaurant group that ships anywhere. A slab of succulent hickory-smoked ribs is $19.99. Just reheat them on a grill.

As a side snack, potato chips are the simple solution—but not just any potato chips will do for this picnic. Organic rosemary and thyme potato chips, or perhaps sprightly black-pepper olive-oil potato chips add a touch of class. They're made and distributed by
Good Health Natural Foods in Northport, New York.

The ingredients for a salad of fresh arugula are widely available, but they can also be ordered for overnight delivery. Make a simple vinaigrette dressing in advance, put it in a screw-top jar so you can shake it up at the last minute and dress your salad on the spot. Chef Michael Chiarello's company, Napa Style, sells first-rate California extra-virgin olive oil, both filtered and unfiltered, for your salad dressing, along with a robust Zinfandel vinegar.

Auto Brews

Just as you wouldn't entertain without offering a choice of red or white wine, neither should the wise tailgater arrive at the stadium without at least one selection each of ale and lager. And since burgers, sausages and other tailgating classics tend toward greasiness, you'll want a decent amount of offsetting hop bitterness in each.

For an ale, try Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a well-hopped, medium-bodied beer that combines fruitiness and bitterness in beautiful balance. On the lager side of things, rattle convention with Czechvar, the superbly complex and quenching Czech lager known around the rest of the world as Budweiser Budvar.

To round things out with a third choice, pick up a roasty, barbecue-friendly stout like Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, Bell's Kalamazoo Stout or Deschutes Obsidian Stout.

—Stephen Beaumont

As for dessert, brownies always the crowd-pleasers. Mini crème brûlées, available from Haute-at-Home, add an elegant touch. The fixings for s'mores—just graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate—are sold in every supermarket. And as long as the grill is lit, they're easy enough for guests to assemble. Coffee, made at home, can be kept in an insulated jug (and it will stay hotter if the jug is filled to the brim). In warm weather, iced tea is a better option.

As for the grill, the best are fueled by charcoal, not gas. But with Red Envelope's sleek, compact, stainless-steel suitcase grill, with a grilling surface that measures 13 by 19 inches, you have your choice of gas or charcoal. For gas you'll need a small propane tank and with charcoal, hardwood charcoal, not briquets, and a chimney starter (Red Envelope sells one of those, too, also in stainless steel). Both the grill and your cooler can go on a portable roll-top utility table that comes with a carrying bag.

As for serving, brand-new checked dishtowels make excellent, generous buffet napkins. A gracious picnic requires china, glassware and metal utensils, not plastic. Bring the Riedel from home (available from Wine Enthusiast Catalog). And for a further touch of glamour, you can set out Laguiole flatware handmade in France. The flatware is available in service for six—24 pieces in forged stainless steel with polished olivewood handles.

For the cleanup, have two cartons, each lined with a plastic garbage bag, ready. One will hold disposable debris. But until someone invents a portable dishwasher to plug into the car's cigarette lighter, the other will be for the dirty dishes.

And of course, once you've invested in all the equipment for the ultimate tailgate party, you'll have to take advantage of it on other occasions as well. Organize a hike along a wooded trail with friends with the promise of lunch afterwards, or a morning of cross-country skiing in winter rewarded by a hearty tailgate brunch, or a late afternoon party at the beach. Jay Gatsby, to say nothing of F. Scott, Zelda and the Murphys, would certainly approve.

Florence Fabricant is a food columnist for The New York Times and author of five cookbooks, most recently The Great Potato Book (Ten Speed Press, 2000).

Where to Buy

The following items (in addition to Riedel Crystal Stemware) are available from the Wine Enthusiast Catalog, 800/356-8466; www.wineenthusiast.com

· Laguiole Pocket Knife/Corkscrew
· Guy Buffet Rapid Ice (encircling bottle)
· BYO Chiller (in car)
· Spiegelau Vino Grande Chardonnay Glasses (on front table)
· Spiegelau Vino Grande Bordeaux Glasses (on rear table)
· Portable Hot and Cold Wine Cooler (can heat food or cool beverages, as needed)
· Weekend Wine Bag on Wheels
· Wine Throw
· Pocket Pepper Mill
· Laguiole Spreaders
· Laguiole Flatware

To find some of the food items mentioned in this story:
Foie gras and country terrines, www.dartagnan.com
Fresh bison meat, www.bighornbuffalo.com and www.heartlandbuffalo.com

Salsa Dust, Cajun Dust and Fajita Dust, available at Whole Foods supermarkets
Cajun Power sauce, 877/876-8748;
www.cajunpowersauce.com
Pork ribs from Sticky Fingers, 800/784-2579 or www.stickyfingersonline.com.
Organic rosemary and thyme potato chips, available at Whole Foods; www.e-goodhealth.com.
Arugula salad ingredients, www.nextdaygourmet.com
California extra virgin olive oil and Zinfandel vinegar, 866/776-6272; www.napastyle.com
Mini crème brûlées, 888/466-3992; www.haute-at-home.com
For more information on how to obtain the beers
recommended by Stephen Beaumont:
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, www.sierranevada.com
Czechvar, www.czechvar.com
Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout, www.avbc.com
Bell's Kalamazoo Stout, www.bellsbeer.com
Obsidian Stout, www.deschutesbrewery.com
To obtain some of the gear featured in the story:
Suitcase grill from Red Envelope, www.RedEnvelope.com
Rolltop utility table, www.frontgate.com.

 

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