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.
Build a four-hour fire.
Whatever fuel you choose – wood, briquettes, or gas – get more than you think you need (leftovers don't go bad). If working with real wood, Michael Chiarello – the Northern California chef behind the grill-centric Napa restaurant Bottega and the new cookbook 'Live Fire: 125 Recipes for Cooking Outdoors' – says get your fire going a good hour before you want to start cooking and never put food over flaming logs: "Flames are for fireplaces; coals are for cooking," he says. This requires maintaining two separate halves of your fire: one for burning fresh wood, the other as a place to collect the burning embers with a small shovel, over which you'll do all of your cooking. Here, you want to maintain a smooth bed of hot coals without active flames, hot enough that you can only hold your hand above the grill for about three seconds before pulling away. If burning hardwood charcoal or briquettes, use a chimney starter to ignite the first pile 30 minutes before you want to start cooking and keep refilling the chimney at regular intervals – or simply toss fresh charcoal right onto the embers every 10 to 15 minutes.
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