Fri Jul 1, 2011
The backyard barbecue is a thing of glory. I'm not talking about inviting a couple people over in the afternoon for grilled food—that's lunch—I'm exalting the times we get an ass load of meat, invite over a ton of friends, and spend the whole day by the grill—that's something special.
As the Fourth of July is upon us, there is no better way to celebrate our independence than a full-on, all-American barbecue. Throwing one may seem like a no-brainer, but it actually took me years of work to perfect this type of gathering. A lot of wisdom I'm about to impart may be second-nature to the more seasoned grillers, but there will always be those just starting out and everyone should know how to put together a really killer barbecue.
For Those About to Eat, We Salute You
I'm not here to tell you who to invite and not invite to your barbecue (although passionate carnivores are preferred), but I do have a strong opinion about setting the tone for guests prior to the barbecue. Nothing brings people together more than food, and nothing does that better than a barbecue, which I see as the ultimate way to meet new people and share my passion for grilling. It's because of this that I like to keep a fairly open door policy when it comes to guests. I'm not taking people right off the street, but I always allow my friends to bring their friends and plan on more people coming than were actually invited. Setting up this "everybody is invited (within reason)" feeling will get you off to a good start for a perfect day.
Timing is Everything
Continuing on the casual atmosphere you're setting with guests, giving a good window of time for your barbecue is pretty paramount. A rigid schedule could cause stress, which opposes the fundamental ideals of a barbecue, so I like to make it an affair where people can come and go as they please. My M.O. is an early afternoon kick off, around 1 or 2pm, with people actually showing up about 30-60 minutes after that time. This gives the option for the barbecue to be lunch, a snack, dinner, or all three as the day tending the flames lazily goes on. I also make sure I don't have anything to do after the barbecue, because if people want to still grill after the sun goes down, I want to be down with that too.
Get Ahead of the Game
You know who's coming and when, so its time to set your sights on making sure all those people are happy when the arrive. That means prep ahead as much as possible. Devise your menu well in advance, putting a mixture of things that can be made beforehand and items that need to be grilled. Sides are the best bet for do-aheads and have ready for arriving guests. Also prep the grilled items as much as possible, leaving grilling as the only step that needs to be completed. Usually this means forming burgers, skewering kabobs, and making sauces. I'm guilty of having people show up and still being in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on something when I should be tending to the grill, and that's not a good feeling.
Also make sure you have ample charcoal or gas for the day and factor in the time to light a fire and get the grill heated so it's ready for action when the first person arrives, leaving no initial barrier between your guests and their meat.
Meat, Meat, and More Meat
Not that the last three points weren't important, but onto what we're all here for, the meat! Traditional is my game for big backyard blowouts. My criteria for a menu is: desirable, easy to make, and quick to cook. It's no mistake that standard fare like burgers, hot dogs, sausage, and kabobs fulfill on all three of those traits.
First identify what you're going to grill and only choose a few things. Keeping the grilled menu limited will let you concentrate on the quality of those foods and will be less of headache come grilling time. Give preference to things that are quick to grill, which will allow an almost cook-to-order approach and enable a steady stream of food to come off the grill as people want it, avoiding those burgers sitting out for hours that no one wants to touch anymore.
I'm a bit of a dick to the vegetarians, making them provide their own veggie burgers and dogs (this is the MEATwave after all), but it's a good idea to have some veggie items to grill on hand for those Grade A Morons who have yet to graduate from Bovine University,
Even More Meat
The biggest point of contention in my house is how much food to buy. While my wife likes to be conservative, I always err on the side of caution, which all too often ends up being overboard. That doesn't bother me though, since I'd rather have enough food for everyone, especially if unexpected guests drop in, than ever run out. Besides, anything left over at the end of the day can be eaten during week if cooked, or frozen if uncooked. We've had to make food runs before when the meat ran out, and whatever came out of those was never up to the quality of what I could have prepared beforehand, so I say go extra meat, always.
Choose Your Weapons Wisely
With all that meat, you'll need the right meat delivery system. It took some trial and error for me to finally get this right. We started on a budget, using cheap paper plates, which broke apart too easily and did more bad than good. Then a switch to proper plates and silverware was quickly abandoned when plates broke and forks and knives didn't make it back into the kitchen. We went awhile with high quality plastic or paper plates and plastic cutlery, which was totally fine, but became a money drain and seemed wasteful. Then we switched to deli baskets picked up for next to nothing at a restaurant supply store, lined with red and white checkered paper, some inexpensive bowls from Ikea for desserts and sides, and stuck to the good plasticware. This was the perfect balance between usability and cost effectiveness. For those not having a ton of barbecues like myself, go for the heavy duty toss aways, but if you're looking at more than a couple big backyard bashes a year, I highly recommend having special set of plates and bowls for these meat-a-thons.
A good barbecue calls for good beer and other merriments. Seeing as I'm a control freak on the menu, I like leave this part up to my guests as the best way for them to contribute to the day, and it's been working perfectly. I tend to spend more than I should on food already fir each Meatwave, and adding alcohol into the equation would easily double that. So left to me, I'd pick up the cheapest 24-pack I could to keep costs down, but by asking my guests to bring the beer and other libations, we end up with a variety of high quality drinks to sustain us at least through the day. That being said, I always have a starter 6 pack or 2 to make sure there's a little something to get us going.
So that's the equation that has been working for me at the Meatwave for some time now. I think there's some solid advice in there, but everyone will have to find exactly what works for them as they set out on creating their own killer barbecues. As we head into the holiday weekend, I wish all my fellow Meatwavers out there "Happy Grilling," which is what this is all about.