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.
Baby Back Pork Ribs With Milanese Rub.
Ribs take forever and a day on the grill, but ribs from the oven lack a certain smokiness. Michael Chiarello combines the two techniques for killer flavor and party-day efficiency. The trick is cooking the ribs all the way through in the oven, before anybody arrives, and then, at the last minute, searing them hard on a hot grill. "That way, in like 10 minutes of work, you're pulling fall-apart-tender ribs off the grill and passing them around, and everybody thinks you're a hero," says Chiarello, who got the idea for this pork-infused rib seasoning during a trip to Italy. But don't pull them off the grill too soon: "I think those little charred bits – those sort of burnt ends on the bones or those nasty bits that fall apart in your mouth – are really important."
• 4 full racks baby back pork ribs
For the Milanese Rub
• 3/4 cup coarsely chopped garlic
• 5 tbsp chopped lemon zest
• 3/4 cup kosher salt
• 1 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves, stemmed
• 1 cup fresh rosemary leaves
• 1 1/2 cups finely minced pancetta
Tip: Put pancetta in a freezer for a half-hour, but not longer, before mincing, to stiffen it up and make it easy to cut.)
• 2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
Make the dry rub. Put garlic and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add salt and blend until smooth. Add sage and rosemary; pulse again. Finally, add pancetta and pepper, and process until the mixture looks like a very coarse, moist salt rub. (Don't overprocess, or it will turn gummy.)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Sprinkle the rub all over rib racks and press it into the meat with your fingers. (Tip: Leave rub on for 30 minutes or so before cooking.) Stack the racks, one on top of the other, on a roasting pan or baking sheet and put in the oven. While they cook, rotate the stack every 15 minutes by taking them out of the oven and moving the bottom rack of ribs to the top of the pile.
After one hour, check doneness with what Chiarello calls a "shake test." Using tongs or a kitchen towel, pick up a rack by one end and give it a shake – if it curls over and wiggles, the ribs are cooked; if it remains stiff, put back in the oven and try another shake test in 15 minutes.
Remove ribs from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
Credit: Photograph by Cedric Angeles
Place ribs on hottest part of the grill for five minutes per side. Remove from grill, cut into individual ribs, pile on a platter, serve immediately.