Once the Minnesota snow and cold move out, the grass turns green, and the trees bud to show their leaves, we become heir to a new and spacious area to add to our home. I always look forward to this time of the year, because we’re able to expand our home. We love to entertain, but have limited space, so when the doors are open, and the backyard is warm, we double our living space and entertaining area.
The first gathering of the year is the birthday of our daughter, Heather. Usually on the last day of April, we plan a backyard party with friends and family. Because it’s a birthday, we make a cake. In past years, I baked and decorated SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby-Doo, and even a bust of Harry Potter. Recently, Heather asked to decorate her own cake. She’s very good at anime characters and drawings, so she became an anime character on her last two birthday cakes. It was stylish and fun, but she also got to be a part of the creation.
I keep the menu simple and uncomplicated. I start with plain hot dogs, but the best: Nathan’s Hot Dogs purchased from Morelli’s in St. Paul, which has the best prices on meats for grilling parties. One of my favorite recipes is Bravo Hot Dog. Begin by slicing the hot dog down the middle, but not all the way through. Stuff the sliced hot dog with slices of cheddar cheese. Wrap the cheese-stuffed hot dog with a slice of your favorite bacon. Secure the ends of the bacon with toothpicks. Place on the grill. Then, grill all sides until the bacon is crisp, and the cheese begins to melt. It’s the perfect hot dog for any outdoor party.
Another favorite at our outdoor parties are my Potato Fritters. It’s an old family recipe that works well indoors as well as outdoors. Basically, steak fries are placed in a grilling foil bag, and cooked. Once they’re ready, I place a napkin in a plastic Solo cup, and fill it with Potato Fritters. Some guests sprinkle the potatoes with sea salt or freshly ground black pepper, and add honey mustard or ketchup. It’s an easy way to transport your potatoes around the backyard along with your hot dogs. I call it easy-access eating.
Finally, I like to serve an additional dessert to my guests besides birthday cake. Not everyone is fond of birthday cake, so I prepare a very simple Frozen Yogurt Sundae. Everything can be made in the microwave, so while the hot dogs are roasting, and the potatoes are crisping, you or a friend can prepare the chocolate sauce and nut topping in seconds.
The beauty of this menu is that it will satisfy everyone young and old. But the real beauty lies within its simplicity. Preparation time is minimal. Cooking time is minimal. “Watching the grill” time is minimal. The message here is to keep it simple, spend as much time as possible with your guests, and get out of the kitchen.
If hot dogs are not your style, grill steaks, chops, ribs—or my Inside-Out Cheeseburgers. The latter are extremely popular at our outdoor gatherings. You can stuff them with blue cheese, smoked Gouda, fontina, or any favorite cheese.
When it comes to libations, I get all sorts of questions. Start with the basics—you never can have too much ice, or too many napkins, straws, and cups. Plan ahead, and have everything ready. We have a libation table that my partner, Chad, sets up even before the umbrella is unfurled out on our patio table. Make sure you have a corkscrew for wine, and a bottle opener for beer or other bottles. When it comes to pouring, everything depends on how conservative or generous your guests are at serving themselves. I never play server, because as host, I need to “work the room.”
Here are some general rules:
Liquor (based on 1.5 oz. per drink)
• 750 ml. (25.4 oz.) • 17 drinks
• 1 l. (33.8 oz) • 22 drinks
• 1.75 l. (59.2 ounces) • 39 drinks
Wine and Champagne (based on 4 oz. per drink)
• 1 bottle (750 ml.) • 6 glasses
• 1 magnum (1.5 l.) • 12 glasses
• 4 bottles • 24 glasses
• 6 bottles • 36 glasses
• 12 bottles (1 case) • 72 glasses
Of course, the best rule is to drink responsibly. If your guests don’t follow that rule, have them stay over instead of driving. As with any gathering, everyone should wake up the next day with a smile on their face, remembering the wonderful time they had at your outdoor party.
535 Tedesco St. (at Payne Ave.), St. Paul
Bravo Hot dog
8 all-natural franks, fat-free hot dogs, or Nathan’s hot dogs
8 slices of your favorite bacon or lean turkey bacon
8 oz. of Cheddar cheese, sliced
Hot dog buns
Carefully make a slice down the middle of each frank, being sure not to cut it in half. Stuff sliced frank with Cheddar cheese. Wrap bacon around stuffed frank. Secure with toothpicks if necessary. Place on grill for 15 to 20 minutes. Flip frank around until bacon is cooked through on all sides. Remove from grill. Place in bun with condiments. Serves 8.
3 lbs. Russet potatoes
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or Hawaiian salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven, or grill to at least 400° Farenheit. Cut each potato in half. Place each half, cut side down, on cutting board, and slice in half. Carefully hold together and slice each side of newly cut half to create lengthwise wedges. Place sliced potatoes in large mixing bowl. Drizzle with oil. Sprinkle with a good deal of salt and pepper. Freshly ground cracked pepper makes this recipe absolutely come alive. Place potato mixture in a foil bag, 13 x 9 baking pan (for the grill), or large jelly roll pan (for the oven), sprayed with cooking spray. Cook for 50 to 60 min. depending on temperature. Shake bag or pan to redistribute every 20 min. Place in plastic cups or glasses lined with napkins or paper towels. Sprinkle with additional sea salt. Accompany with malt vinegar, mayonnaise (regular, low-fat, or fat-free), and tomato ketchup. Serves 6 to 8.
Frozen Yogurt Sundaes
1/4 c. walnuts or pecan, coarsely chopped (optional)
1/4 c. semisweet chocolate chips
1 tbsp. smooth peanut butter
1 tbsp. skim milk
1 (16 oz.) container nonfat sugar-free frozen yogurt (chocolate, vanilla, or coffee)
Toast walnuts or pecans. Line microwavable plate with paper towel. Place walnuts or pecans in a single layer on plate. Microwave on high until fragrant—1 to 2 min. In 2 cup microwavable bowl, mix chocolate chips, peanut butter, and milk. Microwave on medium (50% power), stirring once, until chocolate is melted and smooth—30 sec. Stir in walnuts or pecans. Top frozen yogurt with chocolate sauce. Serves 4.
2 lbs. ground beef
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/2 tsp. kosher or Hawaiian salt, divided
1 large onion, diced
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 cup blue cheese, crumbled (smoked Gouda or fontina may be substituted)
4 oz. cream cheese (regular, low-fat, or fat-free), room temperature
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
Onion, thinly sliced
6 buns or bread rolls
Preheat barbecue grill to medium heat. In mixing bowl, combine ground beef, pepper, salt, onions, and Worcestershire sauce. Form 12 patties about 1/4 inch thick. Set aside. In medium mixing bowl, beat cream cheese with electric mixer until fluffy. Stir in blue cheese and mustard. Spoon 2 tbsp. of cheese mixture on middle of 6 meat patties. Place remaining meat patties on top. Press edges together to seal in cheese mixture. Place hamburgers on grill—about 15 min. per side. Turn once. Remove from barbecue grill. Place on buns. Top with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. Serves 6.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, “lifestyle guru,” and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, and private events, as well as culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCountyCooking.com. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras at LavenderMagazine.com.