- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tailgating is a uniquely American institution. After all, what other activity so well combines our three favorite pastimes: barbecue, cars and professional sports?

A properly staged tailgate party can make great barbecue taste even better and turn a sporting event into a transcendental experience.

But if you think tailgating greatness is a birthright automatically bestowed upon the male members of our species, you’d best think again. Great tailgating requires the detailed planning of a military campaign, the wizardry of an inspired culinary mind and the social skill of a party planner.

I can’t provide you with social skills or even inspiration, but I can share the secrets of a winning game plan.

You might not think it to judge from the elaborate setups you find at tailgate parties — the TV sets and blasting stereo systems, the generators, the turkey fryers and other cooking equipment — tailgating as a custom is neither new nor high-tech. It originated in the age of horses and buggies or, more accurately, horses and buckboards as a provision-filled wagon whose tailgate would be lowered to serve as a staging area for serving food.

The first thing you need for tailgating is a tailgate, which is easy enough if you own a pickup truck (and maybe reason enough for befriending someone who does). A disheartening number of today’s sport utility vehicles have hatches, not tailgates, but you can certainly use the back of your car as a staging area. A folding table or two will do. I’d opt for a couple of lightweight 6-foot hotel tables, which are available at restaurant supply stores.

The next thing you need is a grill. Sure, some people confuse the issue by carting along fish fryers or turkey fryers, but there’s nothing like the thrill of cooking over live fire to give you the testosterone rush required by any self-respecting tailgate party. The grill should be portable enough to throw into the back or trunk of your car, yet powerful enough to cook for a crowd.

Here there are many options. You can’t go wrong with a 221/2-inch charcoal kettle grill. First, because it’s easy to smoke and smoke-roast with charcoal and virtually impossible to smoke on a gas grill. Besides, most guys like to set stuff on fire and mess around with fire. A charcoal grill gives you this experience; a gas grill does not.

If you go the charcoal route (and I personally prefer lump charcoal or natural all-wood briquettes to conventional briquettes), you’ll also want a chimney starter for lighting the coals and a small metal ash or trash can for disposing of the ashes safely.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than melting the bottom of a plastic trash can because the embers you thought were extinguished weren’t.

And while we’re on the subject of extinction, it’s a good idea to have a fire extinguisher on hand, just in case.

So what’s the big deal about charcoal grilling?

For starters, it lets you cook large, tough or fatty foods such as baby back ribs, pork shoulder, beer-can chicken, chicken wings or even bratwurst to smoky perfection without having to do much more than drink some beer and exhibit some patience.

Yes, I know a lot of people prefer the push-button convenience of gas, and here, too, there are some new killer grills on the market.One cool portable gas grill is the Q by Weber. The deluxe version even comes with a fold-up wheeled cart.

One of my favorite new portable new grills is the Woodflame (www.woodflame.com), and it’s made in Quebec. Two things set the Woodflame apart.

• The fuel is hardwood, not gas or charcoal.

• Its unique blower system fans the flames, enabling you to achieve searing temperatures of 1,200 degrees with one or two small chunks of wood.

The beauty of grilling over wood is that you get not only heat but a smoky wood flavor, as well. When it comes to cooking a steak, veal chop or pork chop, it’s simply out of this world.

So what other gear do you need? The indispensables include a stiff wire brush for cleaning the grill grate (Yes, guys, you should clean the grate and clean it often), a set of long-handled, spring-loaded tongs for turning the food, a spatula or grill hoe for moving the coals, and an instant-read meat thermometer for checking doneness.

I cannot overstate the importance of the thermometer. If my years in barbecue have taught me anything, it is that grilling is as much science as art.

The one thing you won’t find on my list is a barbecue fork because it’s dangerous in the hands of the unenlightened. A lot of guys use it to stab steaks, bratwurst and other moist foods, with the net effect of draining all the wonderful, flavorful meat juices onto the coals. Use tongs for turning. Enough said.

Perhaps the most important thing you need for world-class tailgating is a prep list, preferably written or typed out, improved and perfected over years of tailgating and ideally protected from greasy fingers in a waterproof plastic sleeve.

Said list will include all the ingredients you’ll need to cook with (unlike when grilling at home, you can’t just run back into the kitchen), all the planned side dishes and condiments, and all the stuff for serving, from plastic forks to paper plates to paper towels.

Foil-drip pans are great for serving and clearing, not to mention for indirect grilling. I buy them by the caseload. Keep refining that list (I keep mine in my computer), and soon you’ll have everything on it you need.

When it comes to tailgate menu planning, there are two basic strategies. One is to build the meal around a big hunk of meat, for example, brisket, pork shoulder or turkey. The advantage of this method is you only have one thing to cook and that thing is extremely low maintenance and forgiving of split-second cooking times.

The downside is that such cuts of meat typically take eight to 10 hours of smoking, which may be more time than you want to put into that parking lot. One compromise is to do the bulk of the smoking ahead and reheat the brisket or pork shoulder at the game. This deprives the griller of the satisfaction of doing the whole job well at the stadium, but it does ensure the meal will reach the table.

The other compromise is to choose quicker-cooking large hunks of meat, such as beer-can chicken or racks of baby back ribs, both of which need about 11/4 hours of cooking. (To cook a lot of ribs on a small grill, invest in a rib rack. It will enable you to cook up to four large racks of baby backs upright.

The other strategy is to serve smaller, quicker-cooking items that can be multiplied as needed. Likely suspects include bratwurst, hot dogs, Italian sausages, chicken wings (which taste a lot better smoke-roasted than deep-fried) and steaks for steak sandwiches.

These items can be direct grilled or indirect grilled. Just keep knocking them out. Sure, this requires a bit more time at the grill, but, hey, isn’t it better to be manning the grill than just sitting around? That’s where the glory lies.

Which brings me to the following mile-long bratwurst sandwich, which was inspired by some tailgating buddies from Sheboygan, Wis. You can certainly keep adding brats and French breads to make it any length you like. But here’s the 4-foot version to get you started.

Mile-long brat sandwich

3 medium onions, cut in 1-inch wedges

Skewers

2 red bell peppers

2 green bell peppers

2 yellow bell peppers, or more red or green

4 to 6 tablespoons salted butter, melted, divided

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

10 bratwursts of choice

2 loaves French bread

4 cups sauerkraut, drained

Favorite mustard (I like horseradish) in a squeeze bottle

1½ cups hickory or other wood chips, soaked in water for 1 hour and drained, optional

Thread onion wedges onto skewers and set aside. Set up grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Grill bell peppers until darkly browned on all sides, 15 to 20 minutes in all, turning with tongs. Transfer peppers to a cutting board and let cool.

Core, seed and cut lengthwise into strips. (If any of the skins have burned, simply scrape them off.) Lightly brush onion wedges with about 2 tablespoons melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Direct grill onion over high to medium-high heat until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Remove onion from skewers and break into segments.

There are two strategies for cooking the bratwurst. One is smoke-roasting, which is indirect grilling of the brats by tossing wood chips on the coals to generate wood smoke. If you do this, preheat the grill to medium (350 degrees). Indirect grill the brats until golden brown, firm and cooked through (170 degrees inside). Insert an instant-read meat thermometer in one end to check. This will probably take about 40 minutes. The other cooking strategy is to direct grill the brats. In this case, set up the grill for direct grilling and set the heat on medium, with one portion of the grill set on low or turned off to serve as a safety zone. The brats can be moved to this spot if there are flare-ups.

Grill the brats until golden brown and cooked through, turning often with tongs. Do not stab brats with a barbecue fork or the juices will drain out. Cooking time over medium heat will be about 12 to 15 minutes per side. Don’t rush it. Test with an instant-read meat thermometer in one end. Temperature should be 170 degrees inside.

Cut French bread loaves through the side, almost in half so they can be opened like books. Cut off the right end of one loaf and the left end of the other loaf so loaves will butt together and look like one long sandwich.

Lightly brush inside of French breads with remaining melted butter and lightly toast bread on grill. This will take 2 to 4 minutes.

To assemble the mile-long sandwich, lay French breads on a very long platter. (You can make one by overlapping paper plates or lining up several cutting boards.) Or place on a serving table, butting the cut ends together so it looks like you have a single, very long loaf. Line up brats inside and top them with grilled pepper strips, grilled onion and room-temperature sauerkraut. Squirt a decorative squiggle of mustard down the center. To serve, cut sandwich into single bratwurst lengths and get ready to be the star of the parking lot. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

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