Expert Menu Tips for Your Last-Minute Cookout

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If you’re like me, the notion of hosting a swanky dinner party, twirled up to resemble a magazine shoot, is sort of like imagining yourself quitting your job and embracing off the grid #vanlife. Nice to think about; unlikely to occur. Especially after the last year, gatherings that require too much effort are likely to be abandoned in favor of takeout, which is why I love the phrase, “Come on over, we’ll fire up the grill!” The laid-back nature of grilling and an alfresco dinner diffuses the usual expectations of entertaining.


That’s certainly what I learned while developing my last two cookbooks devoted to the subject. The first, “Any Night Grilling,” contains recipes easy enough to grill on weeknights. The second, “Thank You For Smoking,” continues the conversation with an added whiff of wood smoke to the fire. Sure spontaneous, cookouts rule out certain slow-smoked options (not tonight, brisket!), but not big flavors and fun. Lucky for all of us, ALDI—the grocery store with a cult-like following and habitually low prices—makes grocery shopping for a delicious and affordable grilling session a done deal. With the following tips (from my experience and acclaimed pitmasters who know their way around the grill) and groceries from ALDI at the ready, you’ll be firing up summer’s best flavors with ease.

Start with a toast

plates of bread, meats and vegetables

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With sangria, perhaps, but also literally with grilled slices of a French baguette rubbed with garlic, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with flaky salt. There are few appetizers easier or more satisfying, particularly when paired with an assortment of cheese, cured meats, and pickled vegetables.

Temp your meat

“Pull what you plan to cook out of the refrigerator an hour or so before you plan to grill,” says Ben Ford, a Los Angeles chef and the author of “Taming the Feast.” “The cut will cook more evenly, and the meat will have a tendency to relax, as oppose to tighten up, as it cooks,” he explains. If you’re adding a smoke source to the fire, “use wood chunks instead of chips,” Ford adds. “And don’t soak them. The water can cause grill temperatures to fluctuate.”

Ease up on embellishments

One of the major benefits of grilling? The crisp textures and complexity of the charred, caramelized flavors you create over the fire mean you don’t need much else. In other words, there’s no need for lengthy marinades or time-consuming sauces. A grilled sirloin, pork chop, or tuna steak atop a pile of peppery greens needs little more than a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and drizzle of great olive oil. Store-bought staples like Park Street Deli Fresh Cut Salsa, Simply Nature Organic Hummus, or Park Street Deli Tzatziki Dip are other easy allies.

Choose quick-cooking cuts and sides

Boneless cuts like chicken breasts, pork tenderloins, or any kind of fish cook in a matter of minutes. Drizzle the proteins with enough olive oil to lightly coat and season them before you light the grill, then set them aside to marinate at room temperature while you build the fire. Round out the table with sides that are just as speedy—think corn on the cob, asparagus, and sweet mini peppers—that need little more than a spin over the grates.

Make it a brat-fest

bavarian octoberfest dinner with beers, sausages and snacks

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“My best tip for a last minute cookout is grabbing sausages from a local supermarket,” says Evan LeRoy, owner and pit master at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in Austin. “I like to get a variety of different kinds, and pair them with different mustards, sauces, pickles, and garnishes.”

“Also, if I get word a couple friends are coming over last minute, I’ll just pick up one thick, one-pound plus juicy ribeye to share, and a couple of heat-and-serve sides.” Take it from LeRoy, there’s no shame in picking up mac-and-cheese, coleslaw, potato salad, or baked beans from the grocery store.

Embrace the one-skillet grill

I call it “beach house cooking,” meaning easy, one-skillet meals that come together quickly and feed a crowd. On a grill, this translates to cooking everything in a 15-inch paella pan or cast-iron skillet over direct, medium-high heat. To get an instant “sear,” allow the pan to preheat for ten minutes before you start cooking. The rest comes together quickly: Consider a few fillets of salmon or tilapia, for instance, finished with blistered cherry tomatoes (use a couple varieties for color), cilantro, and lemon. Sizzle peeled and deveined shrimp in the skillet, then add cooked macaroni, olives, and feta to feed a crowd.

You can also take this approach sans-skillet. Just choose a protein (say, chicken thighs) and vegetables that you can fire up in a flash, while the cooked meat is resting. Drizzle the veggies with enough olive oil to lightly coat, season with salt and pepper or your favorite seasoning blend, fire them off, and finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Hoard hardwood

“These days keeping a small stash of dry mesquite wood [away from the elements] has proven to be helpful with all the recent rain,” says San Antonio chef Johnny Hernandez (owner of La Gloria and Burgerteca, among others). “Any variety of hardwood that you grill with should be dry, because even a bit of humidity will make it burn with too much smoke. For that reason, I’ve never been a fan of soaking wood chips; it provides a bitter finish on your finished product.”

Have par-cooked steaks (thick ones) at the ready

sliced steak ribeye with corn and tomatoes

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“My first thought is having a par-cooked honkin’ steak or two in the fridge, ready for a grill off!” says Aaron Franklin, the pit master of Austin’s legendary Franklin Barbecue. He’s referring to the “reverse sear” method of grilling thick (1½ to 2 inches thick) massive steaks, like a Black Angus ribeye, slowly over low fire and then finishing them directly on a bed of hot, glowing coals (you can use the technique for just about any substantial, well-marbled cuts like tri-tip or filet). You’ll find a substantial spread to choose from at ALDI.

“My first thought is having a par-cooked honkin’ steak or two in the fridge, ready for a grill off!”

It’s great for entertaining because you can cook the meat in advance, hang with friends, and then finish the meat on the grill (dinner theater!) just before serving. To do this, cook the steaks over direct heat with a low fire, flipping every few minutes, until they register between 110˚F and 115˚F, about 45 minutes. Remove the steaks from the heat and allow them to rest for 30 minutes or up to 3 hours at room temperature. To finish, fuel fire as needed and place the steaks directly on glowing embers until a nice, dark crust forms and the steak reaches 135˚F (about 5 minutes per side).

Let your sauces do the heavy lifting

“Blender-type sauces, raw and cooked, are always my go-to for anything coming off the grill,” says Hernandez. “Last Sunday I wrapped a couple heads of garlic in foil, grilled fresh jalapeños, and blended the mixture with lime, and cilantro. It was perfect on my bone-in ribeye.”

“Also, something we do at home is to always have an evolving chimichurri/salsa verde type-sauce in the fridge; it lasts for months!” Franklin says. “Before serving, I top it off with a fresh hit of cilantro or carrot fronds. Use whatever greens you have on hand, and then balance the mixture with salt and/or acid, depending on the protein that you’re serving it with.”

Get by with a little help from your friends

You’re hosting the meal. They’ll be more than happy to pick up wine, cold beer (many of which are under $10 at ALDI), beverages for kids, pie and ice cream, or a cold watermelon for dessert. The silver lining of the last year is that we’ve learned to rely on each other a bit more, which is a very good thing. Look at that, something we can all agree on.

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