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Grilling chicken

Ramona King

Grilling chicken

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How to throw the best cookout ever

We're a week away from Memorial Day, the unofficially official first day of summer and the best time of the year. It's time to pull out our Webers and Big Green Eggs and get grilling, smoking, barbecuing and outdoor partying.

Whether that means a small family gathering or a big neighborhood bash, here's our guide to how to make your cookout shine.

Food
As with all great gatherings, food will be the center of each and every cookout you throw this summer. Embrace the fact that all of your guests will likely crowd around your grill for most of the party. Make sure you've got dishes on your menu that can come off the grill quickly for those early arrivers, as well as bigger, showstopping mains that may take a bit longer to cook.
 

Appetizers

On the grill: We love these grilled oysters because of the amazing smoky flavors they take on while being poached on the grill in their own liquor and garlicky Parmesan butter. For non-shellfish fans, chicken wings, such as this classic recipe or these coffee-rubbed wings, are always a winner. This easy-to-eat handheld food can act as an appetizer or be the main entrée on the menu.

Southern Kitchen’s chef Jeffrey Gardner recommends creating a brine, rub or marinade for the wings before cooking them on the grill, so they will remain flavorful throughout the cooking process. He also recommends keeping an eye on the temperature of the grill. “Make sure the heat doesn’t get too high, or else the skin will burn before the meat is cooked,” he explained. “A temperature of 350 degrees or lower is optimal.”

Off the grill: Leave behind the salsa and serve a Vidalia onion dip at your next outdoor gathering. Our Southern take on a French onion dip is easy to make from scratch and will take your party to the next level. For a richer Vidalia onion flavor, we recommend taking the time to caramelize the onions, so their sweetness carry through the entire dish.

Another favorite appetizer we love snacking on at a Southern cookout are boiled peanuts. Seasonal, boiled peanuts have a baseball/summer feel and are easy to make and serve in a slow cooker. Country ham n’ peach bites are ultra easy to put together – you only need five ingredients. You can serve these little bites on mini wooden skewers so your guest’s hands don’t get sticky from the honey drizzle. 
 

Mains

Burgers are an obvious and delicious choice for any cookout, and they work especially well for smaller gatherings. To help you cut down on prep time the day of the cookout form the patties the night before. For the perfect burger, Gardner recommends using an 80/20 ration of lean to fat which will keep the burgers from drying out during the grilling process.

As for the actual grilling process he recommends starting with a very hot grill and lightly brushing the exterior of the burgers with oil before placing them on the grill. And once they are on the grill move them as little as possible and let them cook with the lid closed. We're loving both this classic recipe as well as a lamb burger, with feta cheese and arugula, that you can easily adapt to the grill.

If you'd prefer a little less red meat, whole chickens are particularly well-suited to a low-and-slow grilling approach. While we prefer grilling Anne Byrn's lemon-scented chickens or this smoke-roasted chicken on a Big Green Egg, you can grill this recipe on any type of grill.

Another classic choice are grilled pork chops, which we love to brine in apple juice and bourbon before smoking. Or for a boozier take, try our grilled beer brined pork chops. Or go hog-wild and try your hand at Virginia Willis' grilled gumbo — it may raise eyebrows at first, but is sure to be a winner once all of your guests try a bite.


Sides

Some of the most appetizing salads feature grilled veggies. In our grilled eggplant and summer fig salad, the smoky char on the eggplant helps to highlight the sweetness of the figs. Peppery arugula and creamy ricotta balance all of the ingredients together into a tasty, harmonious bite.

For those of us who prefer grilled asparagus but are looking to dress it up look no further than our grilled asparagus with country ham. We’ve paired it with country ham, tomatoes and a mustard vinaigrette to create a salad that can be served while it’s still warm or chilled. Bitter asparagus and salty country ham are a match made in heaven. Having mustard as the dominant flavor in the vinaigrette limits the sweetness in the dish, keeping the asparagus in check. You’ll also find us grilling zucchini and yellow squash, which make a surprisingly good warm salad base. To add more depth to the flavors of the dish lightly toast the pecans to bring out a more intense nuttiness, which shines through against the lightly charred flavors of the veggies.

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Desserts

When it comes to sweets, you'll want to think make-ahead. Make sure your desserts are also well-suited to sit out in the heat — you'll be far happier if you skip things topped with delicate frostings or meringues. If you want to go full-on patriotic for Memorial Day, get on the flag cake train. Our recipe is made with a sturdy, pudding-based topping and is bursting with flavor, thanks to a strawberry Jell-O syrup. Get your kids in on the fun by asking them to help decorate.

Our fruit pizza is also a popular choice on the Southern Kitchen team — not only is it tasty, but it is also very easy to eat out-of-hand. Or bake up a big batch of bourbon bacon chocolate chip cookies for a true crowd-pleaser. If you're up for a challenge, you can also try your hand at a classic Southern caramel cake. It's sure to impress.

Drink

Beer
We really can’t imagine a cookout without a beer in our hand. Everyone has their own preference and taste when it comes to beer, but we’ve got a few recommendations if you’re not a beer connoisseur. Session IPAs, like Three Taverns’ A Night on Ponce IPA, are full of flavor and have lighter body (and lower ABV) while still being slightly richer than regular pale ales, making it the perfect beer to sip on throughout the day.

We also recommend craft lagers and pilsners, like Creature Comforts Bibo pilsner. Anything with a low ABV will allow you to enjoy a day filled with drinking without getting too intoxicated to enjoy the fun and games at a cookout. 

Wine 
We love sipping on frosé to keep us cool while we’re enjoying the Southern sun. The #millenialpink hued frozen cocktail has a smooth blended texture paired with a low-ABV making it the perfect day drinking and cookout cocktail to consume. When choosing other wines to serve at your cookout you want to think about light white wines and rosés that can be chilled. Another great way to drink wine is by creating sangria. You can use red wine, white wine or even sparkling wine to create a refreshing party drink.  

Cocktails
We’ve got a Coca-Cola slushie (for adults only) that you can make in your own home. Dubbed the Frola, it's the perfect slushie you’ll want in hand at every outdoor occasion, all summer long. Along with refreshing Coca-Cola, this easy recipe does include a couple of splashes of bourbon and butterscotch schnapps. 

For an easy-to-make batched cocktail, look no further than Southern Kitchen’s Punch. Once thought outdated and boring, punch has been making a serious comeback. Our take on a Southern punch will liven up the party with the flavors of the South, like citrus and bourbon, mixing together in a punch. To save time you can make the night before your outdoor gathering and keep it cool with an ice ring made by freezing a bottle of water in a ring-shaped cake pan. 

Strawberry season is in full swing in the South. Blend these brightly-colored little bites of heaven with tequila and triple sec to create a frozen strawberry margarita — your guests will be begging for seconds or even thirds. 

Set-up and logistics
If you are throwing a large event, you'll likely want to source an extra grill or two. Ask around when you start sending out party invites; easy-to-move kettle grills, such as those from Weber, are likely going to be your best bet here. Set up all of your grills in a cluster to make your life easier, and be sure to stock up on lots of charcoal.

If you can't get your hands on extra grills, you'll likely want to plan on some of your menu being cooked indoors. Prepare appetizers, such as boiled peanuts and Vidalia onion dip, in advance, and put them out on a large table in the backyard. Focus on grilling your entrees.

To make sure your guests flow throughout the party, we also suggest setting up a couple of different drink stations. We love using steel and enameled tubs to hold ice, beer and chilled wine. Large drink dispensers can serve water, lemonade or Arnold Palmers. And if you'd like to go the cocktail route, consider stocking up on enameled pitchers and tumblers for a classier alternative to plastic cups.

Activities
While you and your guests will certainly be doing a lot of eating and drinking, you’ll also want some activities to keep the party flowing and guests entertained. Weather permitting, outdoor games like cornhole and backyard Jenga are fun for guests of all ages. See if anyone has a bocce ball set or two and turn a side yard into a bocce ball court. If you don’t have a big pool think about setting up a kiddie pool or a Slip 'N Slide® so your tiny guests can stay cool in some refreshing water throughout the day. 

No party is complete without great music in the background. Using wireless Bluetooth speakers have music playing and guests dancing throughout the cookout. 

After the burgers have been consumed keep the grills going and start making s’mores. Create a s’mores station near the grills so people of all ages can keep their sugar high going with the toasted marshmallow, melted chocolate treats. 


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Rachel Taylor is a staff writer at Southern Kitchen. She moved to Atlanta earlier this year after graduating college in Maryland, and has been a digital audience specialist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Politically Georgia, as well as a freelance writer for publications such as USA Today and the Delmarva Daily Times on Maryland's Eastern Shore. She has lived in France and Italy, and loves to travel.


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Kate Williams is the editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She is also an on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She has been working in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.

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