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.
Grilled Oysters With Prosciutto Mignonette.
Oysters aren't all that expensive, but they make people feel like you went big. And throwing all those shells onto the grill is an impressive way to kick off the evening. Grilling them also takes shucking out of the equation: They steam open, letting you pop off the lids without a hassle.
• 24 oysters (or 3 per guest)
• 2 oz chunk prosciutto, not sliced
For the mignonette
• 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
• 3 tbsp red onion, diced
• 4 tbsp fresh lemon juice
• 1 tsp grated lemon zest
• 1/4 tsp red-pepper flakes
• 1//4 tsp coarse sea salt
• 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Make the mignonette by combining oil and parsley, and then adding the other ingredients. Refrigerate.
Clean oysters by immersing in cold water. Drain and refrigerate, cupped side down and covered with a damp towel.
Grill prosciutto in one piece, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Cut into 3/4x1/4-inch sticks. Let cool.
Place oysters on grill, in a spot where they're easy to pull off. "Only put on as many as you can take off quickly," says Chiarello. "And don't start bullshitting with your buddies – they'll start popping."
As soon as they open, snatch them off the grill and put on the next round. Then use tongs in one hand and a towel in the other to remove each cooked oyster's lid. Use a paring knife to scrape gently beneath each oyster, releasing the meat.
Credit: Photograph by Cedric Angeles
Set oysters on the half-shell on a plate; top each with prosciutto and mignonette.