There's a time and a place for burgers, ketchup, and paper plates. But there are also warm summer nights when the backyard grill has to anchor something more ambitious; when even the most accomplished pitmasters need to step it up and orchestrate a great outdoor dinner party with style. And that's where Michael Chiarello comes in – the Northern California chef behind the grill-centric Napa restaurant Bottega and the new cookbook 'Live Fire: 125 Recipes for Cooking Outdoors.' "The trick to throwing a terrific outdoor dinner," says Chiarello, who entertains regularly around the open fire pit in his backyard in Napa, "is getting everything set up so you can be a guest at your own party." You want to be drinking beer and talking to friends while calmly delivering a great spread to a well-laid table. Friends come to hang out with you, to enjoy your company, not just to watch you bolt back and forth between the Weber and the kitchen.
The key to a Chiarello-style cookout lies in chef's tricks like offering just one great, self-serve cocktail to set the mood without stressing yourself out; creating an easy-to-execute menu that still feels impressive and generous; and turning the grill itself into a social hub, to anchor the whole party. Most of all, it's about making everything look easy: Chiarello breaks the evening down, with an easy-to-follow action plan that takes you from marinating the beef to sitting down with your own plateful.
Baba Ganoush With Grilled Pita.
It's key to have something on the table, ready to eat, when people walk through the door," says Chiarello. "But you also want starters that carry all those grilled flavors and colors, giving people a little preview of the dinner."
• 8 pita-bread rounds
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/4 cup pine nuts
• 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish
• 2 Italian eggplants
• 1 large yellow onion
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
• Coarse sea salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
For the baba ganoush, heat a sauté pan over high heat. Add olive oil. When hot, add pine nuts. Don't overcook – the second they begin to show color, slide onto a paper towel to cool.
Toss rosemary into hot oil to crisp. Take off heat, let cool, and mince 1 tbsp.
Mash pine nuts until they form a paste.
Roast eggplant and onion by placing directly onto a very hot grill (pierce eggplant several times first). Rotate regularly until skins are charred and a skewer passes easily through (about 15 minutes). Remove from grill, let cool, peel. Purée eggplant flesh and onion in food-processor, transfer to a skillet with 1 tbsp olive oil. Simmer, stirring until mixture looks almost dry. Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, fold pine nut paste into eggplant purée, and stir in the garlic, lemon juice, and 1 tbsp of the minced, toasted rosemary. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Credit: Photograph by Cedric Angeles
Brush pita lightly on both sides with olive oil. Set onto the hottest part of the grill until lightly toasted, about 1 minute; turn to toast the other side. Remove. Once pitas have cooled, cut into rough triangles.