What's the key to a tailgate? Good music, hot food, great people
"There's going to be a cornhole tournament. Repeat: There's going to be a cornhole tournament."
Statesman publisher Patrick Dorsey is on the mic in the courtyard of the building that has been the home of the newspaper for nearly 40 years. Even though the site has been in the news lately for proposed redevelopment plans, on this day in late August, the only news he's here to deliver is that the lawn games will be starting soon.
Last week, the Statesman hosted an employee tailgate to kick off the Longhorn football season and to celebrate our own work family. Even though we weren't drinking beer and we weren't in a parking lot and it wasn't technically a game day, we wanted to bring everyone together in the spirit of the tailgating tradition. We weren't celebrating anything in particular, just the fact that we're still here, doing what we do best, with people we spend as much time with as our own families and in the middle of a city that is changing almost as fast as the media business.
I've been at the newspaper for 13 years, a far cry from the 46 years that Kirk Bohls celebrated earlier this year, but I've been here long enough to know that it's easy to get stuck in the day-to-day routine of work. As in any company (or family or friend group), each department has its own personality and its own ways of doing things, so it's nice to get everyone together now and then to mix and mingle and marvel at your boss's ability to toss a beanbag into a hole over 20 feet away.
That's essentially what a tailgate is, with or without the beer. Sure, there's a game to get excited about — the UT vs. LSU game this weekend is expected to draw more tailgating fans to the area around the stadium than any game in recent memory — but more importantly, there's a group of people with shared values who are looking for an excuse to get together and catch up, usually over hot dogs, hamburgers and potato salad.
Freddie Buentello, an account coordinator who has been at the Statesman for 28 years, was in charge of the grilling. Like many tailgate cooks, Buentello says there's nowhere he'd rather be at a get-together than right in front of the fire. "I love to grill on the weekends, especially after I cut the grass," he says.
He cooked more than 100 burgers and nearly as many hot dogs for the Statesman cookout, and he also smoked some of his famous pork ribs. His technique? Rub them with salt and pepper the day before you want to cook them, then wrap them in foil before smoking for about 1 1/2 hours. He'll then finish them on the grill, slathering them with barbecue sauce as they finish.
He often makes ribs and burgers when he's cooking for his family and friends, which can often mean more than 50 people gathered in his backyard. "All I have to do is call my sister, and she invites everybody else," he says. To feed all those people, he starts cooking long before anyone arrives so everything can be mostly finished when they get there, and then he'll store the cooked meats in a cooler so they stay warm.
"The most important thing, though, is to have a team spirit and come with a good attitude," he says. "And have music."
Belinda Olivas used to work at Pizza Hut when she was a teenager, but she's worked in human resources at the Statesman for more than 32 years now. She was one of the people who helped coordinate the tailgate, including the small details, like slicing the lettuce, tomatoes and onions so everyone would have the toppings and condiments they wanted for their burger. Her best tip: You can crack into a head of iceberg lettuce by slamming it, stem side down, onto a cutting board, which will break off many of the leaves and make it easier to serve. She also stored the lettuce leaves in a tray with ice so they stayed cold and crisp while everyone was in line for food.
Watermelon salads have become a popular tailgate dish in the past 10 years, an evolution of the watermelon slices that have long accompanied picnics and outdoor parties. We had several salads made with cubes of watermelon mixed with tomatoes or feta cheese. Emma Rice-Tanner's version included cucumbers and balsamic vinaigrette, which makes the dish a little richer while keeping it refreshing, while Amber Rebold's included a spiced simple syrup that she also uses when making cocktails.
Queso has been a staple at any tailgate Karlee Steele has ever been to, so she brought an El Paso-style queso made with grilled jalapeño peppers that she grew in her backyard. Although she sometimes adds chipotle peppers to her queso, this time she included Hatch chiles from her parents in El Paso.
Potato salads and pasta salads are popular tailgate foods because you can serve them at room temperature and you can adapt them to whatever specific ingredients you do or don't like. Michael Barnes brought the famous County Line potato salad, whose recipe we originally ran in the newspaper in 2011. Klista Love Lewallen made a classic mustard-based potato salad, and Morgan Wright used a few boxes of Betty Crocker's Suddenly Salad mix to make a flavorful pasta salad with cubes of colby jack, a small tub of tomatoes and zesty Italian dressing.
Macaroni and cheese isn't exactly a pasta salad, but it's a good dish for serving a crowd. Ashley Dusek doesn't use a recipe to make her mac 'n' cheese, but she always uses both Velveeta and shredded cheese. "I serve it at most events because I feel like everyone loves mac 'n' cheese," she says.
Beans and barbecue go together like "Hook 'em" and "Horns," and in Nick Campagna's house, you can't make beans without adding French's Fried Onions, a trick he learned from his mom, so that's how he makes them now, including using Bush's Baked Beans.
As for desserts, cookies and brownies are among the most popular sweets you'll see at a tailgate because they don't require a separate plate or a fork to eat, but that didn't stop Tiffany Carley from bringing a coconut cake that ended up being one of the favorite dishes at the potluck.
Managing editor Andy Alford brought a sentimental treat: chocolate chip cookies from former staffer Denise Gamino, who is such a good baker that her cookie recipe ran in the paper in 2003 and quickly became a reader favorite. It's a newsroom favorite, too, and a reminder that for all the things that change — on a football team, in a workplace, in a family — many things remain the same. One of those truisms is that food brings people together, no matter which team you're rooting for or which department you work in or if you came in last place in the cornhole tournament.
Ashley Dunn says she loves to make this low-carb broccoli salad for picnics and potlucks because it's a lightweight dish that complements the main course. "The almonds and broccoli give the salad a satisfying crunch, and it's super easy to make," she says.
— Addie Broyles
6 cups broccoli, cut into small florets
8 slices cooked bacon, chopped
1/3 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup almonds, chopped
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons red vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, combine broccoli, bacon, onion and almonds. In a separate bowl, mix mayonnaise, vinegar, salt and pepper, in a small bowl.
Pour dressing over broccoli mixture and stir until evenly coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until ready to serve. Serves 8.
— Adapted from a recipe by Andres Regalado
This corn pudding casserole is a much-loved staple from Nell Carroll's recipe box. It's good for serving warm or at room temperature, and it goes well with hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue.
— Addie Broyles
1 1/2 cup (1 can) creamed corn
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 sticks melted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 medium onions, chopped
2 eggs beaten
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
3 hot peppers, seeded and diced (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the corn, cornmeal, butter, buttermilk, onions, eggs and baking soda. Then place half of the batter in a baking dish. Layer with cheese and chopped peppers, if using. Top with remaining batter and bake for 1 hour.
— Nell Carroll
County Line's Secret Potato Salad
When it's time to host or attend an outdoor party, Michael Barnes and his husband, Kip, almost always make a potato salad. But not just any potato salad. In 2011, we ran the County Line's famed potato salad recipe, and that's been the go-to ever since. Barnes says that they season generously and usually add extra dill pickle relish, celery and yellow onions. "The main trick is to chop the ingredients down to manageable sizes," he says. "Too many potato salads challenge your teeth with giant chunks of potatoes or other ingredients." Another tip: Use your biggest soup pot to boil the potatoes. Check them after 30 minutes. They might still need more time to reach the right texture; cool before chopping.
— Addie Broyles
5 1/2 pound russet potatoes
3/4 pound yellow onions, finely chopped
3/4 pound celery, finely chopped
1 pound dill pickle relish
1 1/2 pound sour cream
3/4 pound mayonnaise
2 heaping tablespoons coarse black pepper
1 heaping teaspoon garlic salt
1 heaping teaspoon celery salt
1 tablespoon salt
Paprika, for garnish
Parsley, for garnish
Boil potatoes with skin on until you can stick a knife through them. (Watch out so you don't stab your hand.) Put in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and allow to cool. (While you're in the fridge, grab a cold beer to knock back while you wait.) Carefully peel each potato, cut into 1-inch cubes and set aside. In a separate mixing bowl, blend together remaining ingredients; the mix should resemble tartar sauce. Add potatoes and gently mix. Place in refrigerator until ready to serve. When serving, dust with paprika and garnish with a sprig of parsley. Serves 15 to 20.
— From Skeeter Miller, County Line co-owner
Amber's Esquites Salad
This salad gets better with time, so make it 24 to 48 hours ahead, when possible. Amber Rebold says you shouldn't play around with the mayo: Use Hellmann's.
— Addie Broyles
5-pound bag of frozen corn, off the cob
Black pepper and salt, to taste
1/2 stick butter
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
1/2 large red onion, diced
1 large bunch of cilantro, chopped
15 ounces Hellmann's mayo
10 ounces cotija cheese
Juice from 2 small limes
Mrs. Dash Fiesta Lime Seasoning
Place the frozen corn in a large pot or a wok. Add butter and turn the heat on medium-high. Season aggressively with garlic powder, cumin, salt and pepper and stir frequently until the corn thaws and gets warmed through.
Heat the broiler or the oven to 500 degrees. Using a slotted spoon, remove the corn and place kernels on a cookie sheet, leaving the butter and any liquid in the pot or wok. Broil or bake until the corn is a little dried out and getting some black and brown spots. Cool the corn, using a fridge or freezer if necessary.
Meanwhile, use the leftover butter and liquid to cook the poblano pepper and the diced onion. Once soft, remove from heat to cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, mix the corn and pepper and onion mixture, as well as 3/4 of the cilantro and the mayonnaise. Add 8 ounces of cotija cheese, lime juice, paprika, lime seasoning and additional cumin, garlic powder and salt, to taste. Mix well and then, before serving, top with the remaining cilantro and 2 ounces of crumbled cotija cheese. Finish with a dusting of Mrs. Dash seasoning and serve. Serves 10 to 12.
— Amber Rebold
Amber Rebold makes a special simple syrup to make old fashioned cocktails that she also uses in this watermelon salad. You'll have extra simple syrup leftover after you make the salad, which you can use to sweeten cocktails or tea.
— Addie Broyles
1/2 thinly sliced red onion
64 ounces cubed watermelon
12 ounces baby yellow tomato, halved
12 ounces baby red tomato, halved
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup pomegranate or red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
4 tablespoons simple syrup (recipe follows)
For the simple syrup:
2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1/2 cup water
2 capfuls of almond extract
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1 orange peel, charred
In a medium saucepan, bring simple syrup ingredients to a boil, and then cool to room temperature. Mix together the salad ingredients in a large bowl, reserving extra simple syrup for another use. Serves 10 to 12.
— Amber Rebold
Denise's Killer Chocolate Chip Cookies
Former Statesman staff writer Denise Gamino made chocolate chip cookies that are so good, we're still talking about them years after she retired. Managing editor Andy Alford used Gamino's famous recipe for our recent tailgate, which gave us an excuse to tell stories about Gamino's kind heart and penchant for picking up littered aluminum cans.
— Addie Broyles
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup softened salted butter
1 cup Crisco (white) vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar, sifted
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
2 to 3 teaspoons Mexican vanilla
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
2 cups walnut halves or very large pieces
Sift flour, soda and salt together. Put aside.
Place butter, shortening, sugars, eggs and vanilla in a large mixing bowl and mix on low until blended, about 30 seconds. Then mix on high for 3 minutes. Stir flour mixture in by hand with a wooden spoon. When well mixed, alternately add chips and nuts, twice, stirring well after each addition.
Chill dough overnight, covered, in mixing bowl. Then, on ungreased cookie sheet, place scoops of dough that are about 1/3 or 1/2 cup in size. You'll get about six cookies to a pan. Don't ball the scoops tightly or mash them down. Leave them free-form.
Bake immediately at 375 degrees in the middle of the oven, only one pan at a time, for 10 to 12 minutes, until cookies are brown about 1/4 to 1/2 inch around the edges but undercooked in the center. Carefully transfer to baking rack to cool. Repeat baking with remaining dough, refrigerating the bowl of dough between pans. Makes about 2 to 2 1/2 dozen cookies.
— Denise Gamino
Coconut Dream Cake
Tiffany Carley says that this cake is great for a tailgate because it's just as good at room temperature as it is when served straight out of the fridge. On a warm day, the coconut mixture melts into the cake layers, but that makes it taste even better, she says. "It's also easy to whip together, so you can focus on grilling and spending time with friends during the day because dessert is already done," she says.
— Addie Broyles
For the coconut mixture:
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 (16-ounce) bag sweetened shredded coconut, divided
1 (8-ounce) container sour cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
For cake layers:
1 (15.25-ounce) package butter golden cake mix (such as Duncan Hines)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
1 (8-ounce) container frozen whipped topping (such as Cool Whip), thawed
Prepare the coconut glop: Stir together the sugar, 14 ounces coconut, sour cream and salt in a bowl; cover and chill 2 hours.
Prepare the cake layers: Using 2 (8-inch) round cake pans, prepare the cake layers according to package directions. Let cool completely.
Cut each cake layer in half horizontally using a serrated knife, making 4 layers. Place 1 cake layer on a serving platter. Stir the chilled coconut glop; remove and reserve 1 cup for icing. Spread the remaining coconut mixture between the cake layers, about 1 cup per layer.
Prepare the icing: Stir together the whipped topping and the reserved coconut mixture. Spread the icing on the top and sides of cake. Decorate with remaining 4 ounces coconut. Chill the cake for at least 24 hours or up to 2 days. Serves 12.
— Adapted from "What Can I Bring?: Southern Food for Any Occasion Life Serves Up" by Elizabeth Heiskell (Southern Living, $30)