The drifts of snow last week confirmed the reality that is winter. And if there ever were a winter to dive under the covers and not come out until mid-May, it would be this one. Though memories of summer — balmy air, mosquitos, light persisting late into the evening, eating and drinking around a backyard fire — are now definitively distant, they can inspire a cold-weather cookout that will get you and yours through to spring.
You know this part: any plans start with making sure everyone is on the same page about staying far apart, even outdoors, and keeping masks at the ready should wandering indoors be needed. I limit get-togethers to my “pod” (we don’t socialize beyond our circle).
Next, there are things you can do to make the event flow comfortably within those rules. Set up the space before you do anything else. Get it out of the way early, so you’re not putting out napkins while your garlic is going from fragrant to burnt. Blankets are a necessity, so drape your own over the backs of chairs or implement a B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Blanket) policy. If you live with someone who works outside for a living, like I do (my boyfriend is a fisherman), you probably have a stash of hand-warmers. If not, it’s worth laying some in for the occasion. Leave a few on each chair, just in case.
If you have small side tables or even stools, they can be scattered strategically amongst the chairs for your friends to place their drinks on and to hold small charcuterie boards. Since you won’t be gathering around your dining table, it becomes a place for a stack of plates and for glasses with napkins and utensils placed in them for each person. Or use it to display the delicious things your friends contribute.
Your focus will be the fire. I’ve learned this year that a fire built up big and hot will keep guests warm as it burns down and then provide perfect coals for cooking. Letting guests grill their own foil packages (or anything on a stick) is a joy.
If you have a camping stove, it can be just as useful in your back yard as it is on a camping trip. Set up those flaps to keep winter gusts from blowing out the flame, gather your ingredients, and sauté away, to free up the fire for your guests.
I am not normally one for splurge purchases, but if you’re serious about outdoor cooking, consider a paella burner. These dual-ring propane burners are traditionally used to heat massive Spanish paellas so they develop their characteristic socarrat — that crispy rice at the bottom of the pan. While I do sometimes show off and make a paella, I use mine for everything from making steamed clams to deep frying jelly donuts. The burner can handle large cookware, but the inner ring is compatible with most cast-iron skillets or sauté pans. Just be sure to protect the surface underneath, as the flame can get quite hot.
Think of this winter’s cookouts as serving to liberate us from the confines of an ordinary dinner party. Eat things as they come off the fire, when they’re still hot. Fry something really stinky that would have permeated your whole house if you were inside. Hold your hot toddy close, give each other lots of space, and let the fire keep you warm until summer comes again.