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Mansfield Magazine

From Tailgate to Buffet: Great Ideas & Recipes for Creating a Party to Go

Dec 11, 2017 10:50PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
By Carol Ritchie
Fall is always a busy season in the kitchen. From comfort foods, to holiday entertaining, there are many reasons to keep great aromas wafting through the house. It’s also the time of year when many of those foods are packed to go, only to be enjoyed as you celebrate your favorite team with family and friends in the parking lot of the next big sporting event.

Yes, it is tailgating time! Whether it’s the local high school football playoff, or the professional sports team filling a rowdy stadium of cheering fans, you’ll want to fill your tailgate with a picnic of tasty treats to keep your gang of hungry fans energized for the big game. And with the holiday season upon us, why not take advantage of the opportunity to celebrate those occasions as well?

From grab-and-go snacks, to comforting meals, here are some ideas that are equally at home on a holiday entertaining buffet as they are when bursting forth from the tailgate in a crowded parking lot.

I Need It Now!

For the impatient tailgate travelers - and the holiday guests who just can’t wait to grab a bite to eat from the buffet - have plenty of ready-to-eat snacks on hand. Favorite bags of potato chips, tortilla chips (with salsa), popcorn, crackers, mixed nuts, dried fruit or fresh fruit, sliced fresh vegetables (with ranch dressing dip), granola or a tasty flatbread, like focaccia (with ground black pepper and extra virgin olive oil to dip it in), are quick and easy to grab and go.

I like to make a batch of spicy pita chips that hold up well for dipping or appetizer spreads. Using one package of pita bread, cut the breads into eighths. Carefully pull each pita triangle apart at the fold to make two single pita chips. In a large mixing bowl, combine 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 clove minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/4 teaspoon chili powder and a pinch of salt and pepper. Place the pita chips in the mixing bowl and toss gently to coat with the spicy melted butter mixture. Spread the pita chips in a single layer on a large baking sheet and bake in a preheated 300-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until the chips are lightly toasted and crisp. Cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Another annual family favorite is perfect on the holiday buffet, and works well for a tailgate treat: a pineapple-cheese ball. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat two 8-ounce packages of cream cheese until smooth. Add 1 cup chopped pecans, one 16-ounce can crushed pineapple (drained), 1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper, 2 finely chopped green onions, and 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, mixing on slow speed until combined. Mix well with a spoon and form the mixture into a ball. Chill the pineapple-cheese ball in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Roll the pineapple-cheese ball in 1 cup chopped pecans to thoroughly coat the outside. Chill for 8 hours or overnight. Serve with crackers or the spicy pita chips, mentioned above.

Keep It Cool

Packing a cooler (or two or three!) is likely the best option for traveling meals. It can’t get much quicker or easier than opening a cooler to a selection of delightful homemade treats to enjoy at a pregame party. The obvious option is a selection of sandwiches, choices that are easy to grab and easy to eat. Party subs are great to share, and that’s the idea behind my highlighted recipe, Braided Bread Wreath with Turkey, Swiss and Cranberry-Horseradish Spread (see recipe). It’s a festive sandwich for all to share, whether it’s fresh from the tailgate table, or a decorative centerpiece for the next holiday gathering. The focus is the homemade braided bread and the fresh cranberry sauce spread - fill this sensational sub with your favorite choice of meats, cheeses and vegetables.

For the more adventurous party planner, a selection of one-dish wonders might be your preference. The common barbecue sides, like potato salad and coleslaw might fill the bill, or a fresh fruit salad might be a better option. Ambrosia is a simple fruit and coconut salad that serves well as a side to a fresh-off-the-grill hot dog or hamburger slider. Simply combine thinly sliced oranges, diced pineapple and sliced bananas in a large bowl and top with 1/4 cup sweetened shredded coconut.

A healthful and colorful vegetable salad option celebrates the holidays or your favorite team colors. Combine any color bell pepper slices from two sweet bell peppers, 1 cup cooked snow peas (or sugar snap peas), 1 thinly sliced red onion, and 1/2 cup fresh mushrooms, tossing together in a large bowl (or zip-top bag to go). Combine 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar, 1 minced clove of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste and 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in small sealed container. When it’s time to serve, top the fresh, colorful veggies with the Dijon dressing. Sprinkle 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley over the top and garnish with red leaf lettuce (or use for salad lettuce wraps).

There are also plenty of cool bites for easy out-of-hand enjoyment. Shrimp with cocktail sauce, tortilla pinwheels (tortillas spread with chopped ham, finely chopped bell pepper, sliced olives, softened cream cheese and prepared horseradish, then rolled and sliced into bite-size pinwheels), or any Spanish tapas idea (banderillas, marinated olives, garlic shrimp) will keep them coming back for more. Try a vegetable, cheese and sour cream layered bean dip fashioned in an oval bowl to resemble a football - just finish the layers with refried beans and pipe a design of sour cream football “laces” on the top. Serve with tortilla chips and this tailgate treat will surely score a touchdown with your party pals.

And speaking of dips, chutneys are great to serve with cream cheese and crackers. Any combination of fruit flavors can create a wonderful fresh chutney. I like these seasonal choices: orange-cranberry, apple-mango or apple-pear. Just combine the chopped fruit with 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1 small diced onion, 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 hour. Serve hot or cold.

Some Like It Hot

The tailgating professional usually travels with a portable grill for the ultimate choices in parking lot dining. (Of course, make sure that the venue allows backyard chefs to share their talents from the tailgate.) Beyond the typical burgers and brats, you might consider something more adventurous like marinated steak, served in hot slices fresh off the grill or prepared at home and chilled for sandwiches (slices of chilled meatloaf are great for cold sandwiches, too!).

Marinate a 1-pound flank steak for at least two hours in the refrigerator in a combination of 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons dry sherry, 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste, 1/4 cup vegetable oil and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Grill the steak on both sides until the desired doneness is reached (about 3 to 5 minutes on each side over medium heat will cook it tender, juicy and pink in the center). Allow to cool slightly and slice across the grain into thin serving slices for sandwiches, topping a salad or simply on its own.

Other grilling options might include chicken tenders (or strips of chicken breast) on skewers to serve with a peanut dipping sauce, grilled vegetables or beef and chicken kebabs. These are all easy to prepare at home in zip-top bags (and your choice of marinade) and then throw on the grill when the gang is together before the sporting fun begins. For colder weather tailgating, maybe a pot of stew simmering on the grill is the preferred choice. A good Texas chili will warm the body and soul before you cheer on your team, or consider a hearty soup, like this easy-to-throw-together hamburger soup: Brown one pound of ground beef in a stockpot over medium heat. Add 1 chopped onion, 1 cubed potato, 3 thinly sliced carrots, 1/2 small cabbage (shredded), 6 cups water, 1/4 cup uncooked rice, two 16-ounce cans of stewed tomatoes, 1/4 teaspoon dried basil, 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Pack plenty of bowls and a big ladle!

If heating onsite is not an option but you want to serve food warm, use hot-food travel containers, like a thermos. All the hot, homemade goodness will travel well to your tailgate party without worry. In addition to soups and stews, use this method to carry queso for tortilla chip dipping or to freshly dress a platter of nachos. And don’t forget the most obvious use for the thermos - warm drinks, like coffee and hot chocolate.

Treats From the Tailgate

Any dining experience, whether at home or from the tailgate, needs a tasty treat to end the meal. Don’t forget to pack sweet indulgences like chocolate biscotti, sugar cookies, quick-breads or the holiday-themed gingerbread men, decorated like your favorite sports figures.
There are countless food options to consider for a portable party. Your dining desires and imagination are your only limit. While many might go “all out,” bringing along the backyard patio and dinner for a dozen, others might be satisfied with a bag of chips and a few sodas.

Either way, enjoy your time with friends, family and food before a favorite outing. This is the time for gathering together, whether it’s at the big game, or at home for the holidays. It’s nice to know that many of the same dining ideas work deliciously well for either setting. Celebrate and party on.    

Carol Ritchie is the host of “Cookin’ with Carol.” She has taught cooking classes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for 25 years.

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