When it comes to food, there’s a right way and a wrong way to tailgate. Sure, you can ask a five-star chef what would be good to serve and prepare in the middle of a parking lot, but unless they’ve actually hosted a tailgate party out of the back-end of their SUV, their advice might only be as good as the paper the recipes are written on. Steven Sylvester would be definitely considered an expert tailgater with more than 20 years of tailgating under his belt. When Sylvester is not busy keeping Valley Region High School up to code, you can find him on the weekends cooking up a storm in the parking lots of concerts and sporting events.
Sylvester offers simple tips and techniques for successful tailgating fare that he’s learned over the years, in addition to two easy tailgating recipes that are sure to please a crowd.
Keep it simple.
“Burgers, sausages, BBQ chicken, ribs and hotdogs are pretty standard and that’s because they’re simple to prepare and travel well.” The more complex the food, the more you need to bring when it comes to condiments and accessories. Steven likes to dress them up with toppings like cheese, onions, peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. “A nice sharp cheddar or pepper jack brings a lot of flavor to a dog or burger. A grilled bun also adds a nice texture and more stability to handheld food.” That’s not to say Sylvester hasn’t grilled outside of this comfort zone, “I’ve served lobster with drawn butter, glazed shrimp kabobs and tuna steaks. It’s great to try different things but if you’re just starting out, I’d keep it simple.”
While it’s one thing to man the grill and feed the masses at a tailgate, it’s also quite another to not have time to partake in the fun. “Whatever can be done the day before should be done the day before like potato salad, homemade relish, cole slaw and dips. And marinades of all kinds should be done overnight.” Sylvester is a fan of Italian dressing, teriyaki and BBQ sauce with Coke for his marinades. “Anything that needs to be sliced, diced and mixed should also be done the night before or morning of.” Space is limited for a tailgate chef and “cross flavor contamination as well as cleanliness is always an issue.” Sylvester suggests putting all accessories like sliced/diced onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, jalapeños, avocado and whatever else you’re building with in separate sealed baggies. “Also have one knife for meats/poultry and one for everything else. The last thing you want to do is get someone sick.” He also recommends wearing gloves when handling raw meat or poultry.
Check your equipment.
A chef is only as good as the tools he has at his disposal. “A typical rookie mistake is to not check your equipment beforehand. Things break, it happens, and you have to improvise, but always check to make sure your equipment is working at least the day before to avoid a tailgate disaster.” This includes a sturdy ice chest that isn’t leaking, a full propane tank (when allowed) and a good grill. “And make sure it’s clean. Yeah, you’re cooking in the middle of a parking lot but that’s no excuse for a dirty grill or sticky cooler.”
Consider the weather.
Most games and concerts continue on without hesitation during a light shower, but for a tailgate chef, a little sprinkle could spell disaster. “I once went to a Rutgers game and it rained all day. The food got wet and soggy as it was cooking. It was a horrible tailgate.” Avoiding a catastrophe could be as simple as checking the weather forecast. “I have a friend with one of those small cooking tents I can borrow when there’s a chance of rain. It’s always better to be over prepared than the alternative.”
Accidents happen and preparing for them beforehand is the sign of an experienced tailgater. “There’s no worse feeling than not having enough food for everyone. Plates get dropped, things get burned, it’s all part of tailgating. You should always have extra of whatever you’re serving just in case of accidents or unexpected people.” With extra on hand, you can also barter if you run out of something or if you see something interesting cooking a few cars down. Sharing with other tailgaters is also a great way to make new friends. While tailgate parties can be a little cliquey, for the most part everyone is there to have a good time. “The tailgate is part of the experience. Having fun and making memories with friends and family is what it’s about.”
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- adobo seasoning to taste
- 12 (10-inch) flour tortillas
- 1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 (6 ounce) can sliced black olives, drained
- 1 (7 ounce) can diced green chilies, drained
- Place the chicken on a plate and sprinkle with adobo seasoning on both sides. Let it marinate for 15 minutes.
- Heat grill for medium-high heat.
- Lightly oil the grill grate. Place chicken on grill, and cook for 10 minutes per side, or until juices run clear. Remove chicken from grill, and cut into bite-size pieces.
- Place one or two tortillas on the grill and sprinkle with a thin layer of cheese, chicken, onion, olives and chiles. Top with another tortilla and grill until brown and crispy on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
- Repeat with remaining ingredients. Cut into wedges to serve.
- 2 pound (1 kg) ground beef
- 1/2 cup (4 oz/125 g) ricotta cheese
- 1/4 cup (1 oz/ 30 g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup (1/3 oz/10 g) Panko bread crumbs
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 Tbsp minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt
- Oil for grill
- 1 large baguette
- 8 oz (250 g) thinly sliced Provolone cheese
- Arugula Pesto
- In a large bowl, combine the beef, ricotta, Parmesan, bread crumbs, eggs, parsley, garlic, red pepper flakes and 2 tsp salt. Mix gently just until combined; you don’t want to overwork the meat. Form the mixture into 12 meatballs about the size of golf balls, putting them on a lightly oiled baking sheet as you work. Set aside at room temperature.
- Build a hot fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill to high. Using a grill brush, scrape the heated grill rack clean. Rub the rack with oil. Arrange the meatballs on the grill rack without crowding. Using tongs, grill until browned evenly on all sides and cooked to medium, 8-10 minutes total, depending on grill temperature. Move any meatballs to a cooler area of the grill if they threaten to overcook. Transfer to a platter or clean baking sheet as they are finished. Let rest for 5 minutes while you assemble the sandwiches.
- Cut the baguette crosswise into fourths and split each piece horizontally. Lay the pieces, cut side down, on the grill. Toast until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Lay the provolone slices on half of the baguette pieces. Place 3 meatballs on top of the cheese-lined baguette slices. Garnish with the pesto and serve immediately.