Both college football and the NFL regular seasons are here, which means one thing: tailgating season is here, too. Firing up the grill is a time-honored tradition for tailgating, but grilling and barbecuing for hungry friends before a game can drain your wallet if you try to impress them with expensive ribs, briskets, shrimp and pulled port.
There’s good news, however, if you want to put out a championship tailgate menu without breaking your piggy bank. The secret to a fun, satisfying parking lot buffet on a budget is to focus just as much on how you serve your food as you do on what you serve. And because we care about you sticking to your personal budget each month, we have some tips on how to wow your friends with your tailgate spread without blowing a hole in your wallet.
Plan A Gourmet Sandwich Buffet
Tailgating is often synonymous with BBQ, but it’s OK to switch it up and try a gourmet hot and cold sandwich buffet, too. Start with old favorites like burgers, hot dogs, brats and deli sandwiches, but take them to the next level with hand-made breads, special condiments and kicked-up sides. You can do almost all of the prep work for a Super Sandwich Spread at home, putting in just a little grillwork once you’re at the stadium.
Start With The Right Proteins
For the best burgers, choose an 80/20 grind or chuck. This means the beef is 80 percent lean — the grind most restaurant chefs choose for their gourmet burgers. Any leaner than that, and your burger might be dry. Your grocery store meat professional can grind your beef and package your patties while you do the rest of your shopping.
Since everyone won’t want a large burger or dog, give them options by serving burgers as smaller sliders so your guests can try different combinations of toppings. Add some turkey sliders along with your 80/20 burgers, hot dogs and brats.
Offer your guests a choice of sausages, including big, beefy hotdogs, pork bratwurst and hot or mild Italian sausage. Check the prepared meats section of the grocery store for other options like Polska kielbasa or smoked sausage. Serve beer brats and kraut, and Italian sausage sandwiches covered in marinara sauce, melted provolone cheese and peppers and onions. You can cut sausages and buns in half to let friends try more than one without getting stuffed.
As for tailgating with deli meats, offer only a few favorites, but have enough options so that people can pile their pastrami, honey ham, roasted turkey breast or corned beef high to create Dagwood sandwiches. Make sure to display your meats on prepared serving platters. Laying a bed of lettuce on the plate first and then arranging the meats adds an upscale touch.
Buy Fresh-Baked Buns, Rolls And Breads
Once you’ve decided on your meat selections, visit the bakery section of your grocery store for fresh-baked buns, rolls and breads. This is one place where you don’t want to skimp. Good choices include:
- Marbled rye
- Potato buns
- Buns with sesame seeds
- Hard and soft rolls
- Whole wheat
- Wraps (including gluten-free)
- Pita pockets
Choose Interesting Condiments While Tailgating
The key aspect of a gourmet sandwich bar is the toppings, which lets people create exotic and upscale burgers, dogs, ‘po boys and deli sandwiches. You’ll need to serve common toppings such as lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, ketchup, mustard and relish, but add other topping treats to create almost infinite combos of sandwiches:
- Avocado wedges or fresh guacamole
- Fresh-cooked bacon •Julienne-cut purple onions
- Garlic aioli
- Pesto sauce
- Olive tapenade
- Remoulade sauce (for po’ boys)
- Bacon and tomato 1,000 Island dressing (“secret sauce”)
- Grilled onions and bell peppers
- Flavored mustards
- Thin-sliced cucumbers
Present a plate of different cheese slices, too, so your grillmaster can add to burgers on request; or have one or two pots of melted cheese.
Serve Interesting Sides
Think about how you can elevate standard sides to complete your tailgating buffet. Add crumbled bacon and fresh peas to potato salad, or stir in some curry powder for extra zing. Just before serving pasta salad, add crisp, diced red and green bell peppers, carrots, radishes and celery to keep it crunchy. Add crushed walnuts and raisins to coleslaw. If you’re serving chili, add some spaghetti noodles and put diced tomatoes and onions, shredded cheese and sour cream next to the pot.
Check out the deli case at your local supermarket for a wide variety of deli salads that are made fresh daily, or buy pre-packaged salads that you can upgrade by using your own creativity. Whatever type of sides you serve, present them in decorative bowls lined with romaine lettuce wedges around the entire circumference for the bowl for a restaurant-style presentation.
Don’t forget to check the grocery store apps and websites for downloadable coupons on meats, breads, condiments, prepared salads and other tailgate promotions that run through the fall, as these cater towards tailgating crowds.
Lead image via Getty