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The playbook for a perfect tailgate

8 crucial tips to ensure a parking-lot party you won't forget

The season is upon us.

Football season, sure, but what really matters is tailgating season.  Because any garden-variety lunatic can slather himself in body paint and accessorize with foam rubber.  It takes a special variety of lunatic to haul a truck's worth of cooking paraphernalia to his favorite team's parking lot, then ignore the team so you can focus on cooking the perfect slab of meat.

Backyard food obsessions are one thing; asphalt food obsessions deserve their own special chapter of the DSM-IV.

This fall brings not one but two new cookbooks devoted to the tailgater's art. David Joachim's "The Tailgater's Cookbook" (Broadway Books, $14.95) scrimmages against Bob Sloan's "The Tailgating Cookbook" (Chronicle Books, $15.95). An extra point to the reader who can remember which is which.

They've got an ample audience. The American Tailgaters Association estimates 27 million fans tailgate annually. The recipes in both books signal that tailgating culture has grown far beyond brats and beer. You're just as likely to find Jamaican-style leg of lamb or maple-rosemary planked salmon, though you certainly can't go wrong by sticking with the classics.

Even so, it's crucial not to go overboard. Prepare much of your food in advance and treat your afternoon in E Lot as you would a camping trip: The more you plan beforehand, the more fun you can have in the wild.

"You don't want to be slaving over the food while everyone else is enjoying themselves," says Joachim, a Pennsylvania-based author who previously penned "A Man, a Can, a Plan" and is partial to Penn State's 80,000-strong tailgating bonanzas.

Both books feature recipes that separate at-home prep from those last steps you perform on site. Final touches range from lifting the lid off Tupperware to hours of low-heat barbecuing.

Some key considerations:

(1) Choose one masterpiece for the grill.  No rulebooks say you have to grill at a tailgate, but it's certainly what separates the casual grazer from the true have-charcoal-will-travel gourmet. True grill skill is the source of tailgate bragging rights. And it's not for nothing that Weber's most recent Tailgating Study found 96 percent of tailgaters say grilling is at least occasionally part of their plans. Forty-six percent bring more than one grill to a tailgate.

That said, resist the temptation to plan your entire menu around the open flame.  A single, perfect dish will make more of an impression with your guests than a whole host of second-string entrees — and will hopefully leave fellow fans drooling with envy.  "I think you should make your fellow tailgaters as envious as possible, and hopefully you have some bulky guys to have the velvet rope in front of your area," says Sloan, a New York-based teacher and writer.

(2) Don't forget the sides. One perfect main course may cement your reputation as a pre-game perfectionist, but a proper tailgate meal requires snacks, salads and dessert.

These are the easy parts; most can be prepared up to a week in advance and served up in a flash.  Salads rarely need more than some dressing poured over, while most desserts can be passed around on a paper plate.

If you're more ambitious, you can even prepare soups and stews at home and reheat them right before the game. Joachim proposes items like venison stew, while Sloan suggests burgoo, that Kentucky tradition made nowadays with lamb and chicken. (Squirrel's hard to find at the meat counter.)

(3) Or the drinks. Beer is the obvious choice, almost canonical, but by no means the only one. Decent wine is now available in 187 ml single-serve bottles and , which is important because it's essential to leave breakable glass at home and bring disposable plastic containers and cups. (Many venues prohibit glass containers.)

Soda or hot cider are good choices too, and it's essential to bring water — for cooking and to keep your guests well-hydrated, especially once the beer starts flowing. On that topic...

(4) Feel the chill. Nothing's more important than ice, ice and more ice. Joachim has an entire ice strategy: Keep your cooling ice and your ice for drinks separate.  You can buy a bag of ice for drinks and an ice block to keep your food cool.  Bring different coolers for raw foods that need to be cooked and for prepared foods.  Cooling packs may be even better, since they don't melt and leak water into your food.

Vinegar-based salads can probably sit without refrigeration for a couple hours — though it wouldn't hurt to cover them with plastic wrap — but Joachim recommends dairy-based salads be eaten within two hours of being taken off ice. (Both books devote ample space to food-safety issues, which tailgating is fraught with.)

One handy tip from Sloan: Part of your advance planning should include a schedule so you have time to chill your cold items before you pack them into the cooler.  Food that's already been chilled in the fridge will melt ice far slower than if it's placed into the cooler at room temperature.

(5) Remember the essentials. You'd be amazed what people forget on their way to the stadium. Tailgating means Boy Scout motto time, and it's worth making a list well in advance. Some items that are easy to forget: enough chairs; adequate ice (because you know the convenience store only runs out when you need extra); a full bag of charcoal, if you're using it; weights to hold down tablecloths or canopies.

Sloan's "survival kit" list includes: cutting boards, mixing bowls, serving platters, a can opener, paper towels and more.  Among the items on Joachim's frighteningly comprehensive checklist: antacid, jumper cables, sunblock.

And unless you've got a portajohn with a trailer hitch, check in advance where the facilities are located in relation to your moveable feast.

(6) Location, location, location. The modern tailgating lot has its own cliques, so it pays to know the layout in advance. Keep an eye out for groupings of people. If you aren't feeling comfortable surrounded by shirtless men headbutting each other, check where the kids and grandparents are hanging out. "Even though they're ferociously attached to the team, they're not going to be burning anything in effigy," says Sloan. So we hope.

If you're tailgating at an opposing team's stadium, Joachim suggests checking out fan Web sites for tips in advance. It's like visiting eastern Europe: You're more likely to get a warm reception if you know a few local customs.

(7) Did you bring enough for everyone? The way to a tailgater's heart — and ego — is through his stomach. Even sharing your snacks will help you make friends with your neighbors, and a great plate can help build a grudging respect, especially if you're on hostile ground.

"I think if you're a visiting team fan and you bring a good brisket over to a home team fan, they dont care what team youre cheering for," Joachim says. 

(8) It really is about bragging rights. The helpful tips are all well and good, but the tailgate is a chance to prove your open-fire skills.  So which guy has the better tailgating chops?

"I think I could take him," insists Joachim.

Sloan doesn't blink: "I'll meet him on a grill of his choosing."

We're awaiting a firm date for the inevitable grill-off — and we'll gladly lend our stomachs to help decide this grudge match. Joachim nominates his . Sloan proposes his .

Judge for yourself. lifestyle editor Jon Bonne is still out at the grill.  He can follow the game on the radio.

Beer and coffee steaks
Makes 4 big steaks

The concept might sound odd, but cooking with coffee is an underused technique, and can add a robust roast taste to your beef. Joachim swears by it: “Whenever you mention beer and coffee to tailgaters, their ears perk up.”

12 ounces dark beer, such as Negra Modelo
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp Tabasco
4 boneless strip steaks (1 1/2 to 2 pounds), trimmed of fat
3 tbsp finely ground espresso or dark roast coffee
1 tbsp pure chile powder (such as ancho)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp cayenne, or more to taste
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Before you go: The night before, mix beer, Worcestershire and Tabasco in large freezer-weight zipper-lock bag. Put steaks in bag, seal and chill in refrigerator or cooler overnight.

The next morning, mix remaining ingredients in small bowl. Remove steaks from marinade and discard marinade. Pat steaks dry with paper towels, then scatter spice mix over steaks, patting it in with your fingers. Slip into clean zipper-lock bags, seal and chill in cooler.

When you get there: Remove steaks from cooler about 20 minutes before grilling. Heat grill to high and let rack get good and hot. Brush and oil rack, then grill steaks until darkly crusted and done wht way you like, about three minutes per side for medium rare (about 145 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer), or four to five minutes per side for medium (about 160 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer). Let meat rest off heat five minutes to redistribute juices.

From "The Tailgater's Cookbook," by David Joachim (Broadway Books).

Southwestern-style baby back ribsServes 4

Most of the heavy lifting here is done at home. It's Sloan's compromise between the sort of cook-and-reheat scheme that inevitably robs meat of its flavor, and slow barbecuing until your behind is tired from sitting on your pickup bed. "Just have plenty of napkins," he warns.

1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp chile powder
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp salt
3 racks baby back ribs (about 5 pounds total)
3 cups Homemade Barbecue Sauce (see below)

At home: In a small bowl, mix together the thyme, garlic, onion powder, brown sugar, paprika, chile power, rosemary, salt and pepper. Rub the spice mixture over both sides of the ribs. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.

Preheat the over to 325 degrees F. Unwrap the ribs and place them on a baking sheet. Cover completely with aluminum foil. Bake for one hour and 10 minutes. Remove the foil and let the ribs cool. Refrigerate them, wrapped in plastic, until you are ready to pack, up to 24 hours.

Just before leaving, cut the racks into individual ribs and place them in a large, sealable container. Add one cup of the barbecue sauce and stir so all the ribs are coated.

At the tailgate: Prepare coals for a medium fire. When the coals are ready, grill the ribs for 10 minutes, until they are lightly charred and heated through, turning them several times and applying several more moppings of sauce.

Serve the ribs hot, accompanied by more sauce.

Homemade barbecue sauce
Makes 3 cups

1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups ketchup
3/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp molasses
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp chile powder
1 tsp liquid smoke
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp Tabasco or other hot sauce

At home: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, mix all the ingredients together and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Let cool and refrigerate for up to one week.

From "The Tailgating Cookbook" by Bob Sloan (Chronicle Books).