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.
The one downside to serving family-style instead of plating portions like in a restaurant," says Michael Chiarello, "is you have to worry about Tom from the softball team putting away 12 ribs before anybody else can grab one." That's where a starch like these simple fried potato patties comes in. Picture crab cakes without the crab, a crunchy brown exterior covering melt-in-your-mouth mashed potatoes. Chiarello recommends using the lid of a wide-mouth canning jar as a mold. You can cook these on a stove-top burner, of course, but the skillet heats up just fine on the grill, minimizing those back-and-forth trips from kitchen to yard and keeping you in the mix at your party.
• 3 lb russet potatoes
• 5 tbsp kosher salt
• 1 tbsp minced fresh parsley
• 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
• 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• 2-3 tbsp butter if cooking at the stove
• 1 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Peel potatoes, cut into large chunks, put in a large pot, cover with cold water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and simmer until potatoes are tender (you should be able to pierce them easily with a fork) – about 10 minutes. Drain.
Transfer potatoes to baking sheet in oven until they've lost most of their moisture (about 5 minutes). Let cool.
Press through a ricer or colander. Add parsley and mix (don't overwork or it'll get gummy). Shape into eight patties of about a half-cup potato each, or 4 inches in diameter. Set aside.
Credit: Photograph by Cedric Angeles
Place cast-iron skillet on stove or hottest part of the grill. Let it get hot. Put flour on a plate. Wipe oil around skillet with a paper towel. Roll the polpette in flour to coat, place as many polpette on the skillet as will fit. Cook until brown crust forms (about 4 minutes). Turn and cook until a crust forms.