Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cooking Something Up

When I first acquired New York Jets' season tickets several years ago, I was excited at the opportunity to see memorable games, a variety of teams and some incredibly talented football players.

What I didn't expect was that it would turn me into a more complete and well-rounded person.

Jets tickets -- a path to a better me?

At the outset of my journey as a season-ticket holder, tailgating sessions mostly consisted of store-bought subs or crashing friends' parties, while tossing in a few dollars to help cover the cost of food and drinks. I had neither the equipment -- nor the expertise -- to conduct a reasonable, self-sustained tailgate.

That time on the sidelines proved to be valuable. Instead of being completely overwhelmed and underprepared, I was able to observe and learn from those who had been partying it up at Jets' games for years -- what to do, and what not to do.


I learned plenty about tailgating in Lot 5A at Giants Stadium

My friends from Giants Stadium's Lot 5A and Section 302 were experts at tailgating. Steak, shrimp, corn-on-the-cob -- even seared ahi tuna -- would occasionally find its way onto the menu. I couldn't help but wonder, "Why can't I someday have an elaborate selection like that?"

On paper, it was a great idea. In reality, there were roadblocks.

The main challenge was obvious. While I was adept at throwing pre-prepared meals into the microwave, I had very few discernible cooking skills at the time. Could I even do it?

Burgers were a staple at early tailgates

Another wrinkle in the potential plan was food selection. How could I come up with dishes that matched my cooking ability, while also remaining appropriate for a standard tailgating session?

The push toward self-sustainability started slowly and modestly -- a small grill here, a table and chair there. The food was predictable -- burgers, hot dogs, store-bought potato salad or macaroni salad and chips. Week after week, my friends and I went through virtually the same process -- only throwing in small changes to try and keep the tailgating sessions fresh.

Eventually, the repetition became boring.

Change wasn't limited to the Jets' move to a new stadium

When the Jets moved across the parking lot from Giants Stadium to New Meadowlands Stadium in 2010, it marked the beginning of a new tradition. For each Jets' opponent, I decided to make one dish that corresponded directly to the visiting team's city.

Suddenly, possessing season tickets became even more exciting. My competitive nature took over, and I started looking forward to the weekly challenges that presented themselves. It was a game before the game.

Cuban sandwiches were a highlight of the 2010 Jets-Dolphins game

During that first year of culinary experimentation, some dishes turned out better than others. The menu was kept mostly simple, to match my budding cooking skills. For the 2011 season, however, I decided to kick things up a notch.

Week 1 -- Jets vs. Dallas Cowboys -- Beefy Cowboy Chili

Prior to this game, I had never made any type of chili in my life. While I followed the recipe closely, there were so many ingredients, hindering my confidence. What if I used too much chili powder? What if I didn't cut enough sirloin steak pieces? Will it even taste like chili when it's ready?

Everything was prepared in the Meadowlands' parking lot. After cooking the steak, onion, garlic and chili powder in oil, I added the beans, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, water, sugar and red pepper to the mix.

Beefy cowboy chili on the grill

Continually stirring, the chili slowly cooked before coming to a slight boil. It was time to find out whether all the effort was worth it.

Fortunately, my group of friends/guinea pigs enjoyed the specialty dish. The aftertaste was even better when the Jets pulled off a dramatic 4th quarter comeback to squeak out a 27-24 win over the Cowboys.

It was a good night all-around at the Meadowlands

With one game and one tailgating session in the books, the season appeared to be quite promising. But this was no time to just sit back and enjoy the results.

Week 2 -- Jets vs. Jacksonville Jaguars -- Jacksonville Orange Rolls

In the days leading up to this game, I started to wonder what I was getting myself into.

The Jaguars would provide a tailgating challenge

While searching online for potential recipes, a theme continually came to mind: citrus. With the Jets playing a Florida-based team, it seemed appropriate to make something with a tangy orange flavor.

One particular item kept popping up, and it sounded very intriguing: Jacksonville orange rolls. With the Jets-Jaguars game starting at 1 pm, the pastry dish would fit right in with the breakfast portion of the tailgate, which includes scrambled eggs, pork roll and cheese sandwiches, and fruit.
Jacksonville orange rolls, fresh out of the oven

There was one small issue, however -- I had never baked anything in my life.

As the orange rolls started to take shape in my kitchen the night before the game, I began to have doubts. My concoction didn't really look like the pictures that accompanied the recipe, and it smelled a little odd. I pushed on, hoping it was part of the baking process.

By the time the pastry was ready to come out of the oven, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. The orange rolls looked presentable -- and more importantly, they survived the taste test.
Homemade pastry finds its way into the tailgate

The next morning at MetLife Stadium, my father reluctantly decided to try one. His initial reaction: "You made these?" Then a smile appeared on his face. At that moment, I knew that this tailgating session was a raving success.

Wearing their throwback "Titans of New York" uniforms, the Jets crushed the Jaguars that afternoon, 32-3, but that was only the second-largest triumph of the day. Overcoming the inability to bake was a much more significant achievement.
Shonn Greene slams his way into the end zone for a Jets' touchdown

Week 6 -- Jets vs. Miami Dolphins -- Cuban Pork Masitas

Miami's annual visit to the Meadowlands brings joy to my taste buds.

With South Florida carrying such a rich Cuban tradition, it only made sense to choose an item from that particular menu. This year, I decided to try my luck with Cuban pork masitas -- a blend of marinated pork, black beans, rice, spices and plantains.

Making Cuban pork masitas

After mixing the ingredients together in an aluminum tray, it was time to heat the masitas on the grill. In the moments that followed, a pleasant aroma of pork, rice and spices filled the air.

When the specialty dish was ready to serve, an enjoyable combination of rich and bold tastes awaited. The pork remained succulent, the rice and beans were flavorful, and the plantains seemed to melt in my mouth.

It was another successful tailgating session, and that provided the backdrop to another Jets' victory. Darrelle Revis had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown, leading New York to a 24-6 win over the Dolphins.
Darrelle Revis had a big night against the Dolphins

Week 7 -- Jets vs. San Diego Chargers -- Fish Tacos

There are certain things that you never thought you'd say in your life. "I need to buy a deep-fryer" was such a sentence for me.

For years, I had heard about San Diego's delicious fish tacos. With the Chargers coming to town, I wanted to see if I could at least provide a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.

This little deep-fryer came in handy for the Chargers game

After finding a recipe online, I set out to buy the right cooking equipment. Finding a small, cheap deep-fryer was relatively easy. Next was figuring out how to use it.

Before putting the deep-fryer to the test, I prepared the beer batter and white sauce for the fish tacos. While beer batter may taste great on fried food, it smells terrible when you're making it. I couldn't help but wonder if I was doing it wrong, because the odor was nearly repulsive.

Once everything was ready, I slowly lowered the beer-battered and floured cod fillets into the boiling oil of the deep-fryer. Within a minute, the fillets became crispy. Same with the corn tortilla shells, except those only took a few seconds to be ready.
Fish tacos, ready to serve

After the deep-fried items drained, it was time to bring everything together. Tortillas, cod, shredded cabbage and white sauce made for a colorful mixture on the plate.

Was it an authentic fish taco? Based on ingredients, yes. Based on taste, I guess I'll find out when I visit San Diego someday. I was extremely happy with the result, however, and that's all that matters.

One could say the same about the game that followed. Late in the 3rd quarter, Gang Green trailed the Chargers 21-10. The Jets refused to fold, however, storming back with 17 unanswered points to manage a 27-21 win.
Plaxico Burress had three TD receptions in the Jets' win over the Chargers

Week 10 -- Jets vs. New England Patriots -- Lobster Stew

With New England so well-known for its seafood, it seemed natural to come up with a dish that reflected its reputation. Lobster stew provided the perfect challenge.

Since the recipe called for a lot of mixing and slow-cooking, I decided to put everything together in the comfort of my kitchen, hours before heading to MetLife Stadium for the Sunday night primetime game.

Lobster stew for the New England game

Using a small pot, I mixed together the lobster meat, butter and milk at first. Next came the heavy cream, to give the concoction a stew effect. Slowly, I stirred it all with a wooden spoon, ensuring that nothing would burn and stick to the pot.

Once the cooking itself was complete, I added salt, pepper, paprika and a small dash of sherry. The lobster stew passed the taste test -- and better yet, it looked exactly like the picture in the recipe!
Great meal, beautiful sunset, but a Jets' loss

Unfortunately, that delectable dish (and a pretty sunset) proved to be the highlights of the night. The Jets faltered at home, losing 37-16 to the eventual AFC Champion Patriots. Despite that setback, it was the wonderful meal that prevented the game from leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
Tom Brady passed for 329 yards and 3 TD's

Week 12 -- Jets vs. Buffalo Bills -- Buffalo Shrimp

In case you haven't noticed, I like seafood. Not only that, but making seafood specialty dishes provides a nice complement to the burgers and hot dogs that come with the tailgate.

Shrimp on the barbie

During the 2010 season, I went with buffalo wings when the Bills came to the Meadowlands, so I wanted to switch things up and test myself yet again.

Since Thanksgiving occurred just a few days prior to the game, it seemed wise to go with a relatively light dish that wouldn't continue the assault on my waistline.

For the first time since Week 6, I was able to fully prepare the meal in the MetLife Stadium parking lot. Using a pan, I sauteed the shrimp in olive oil, butter, salt and pepper. After about 10 or so minutes, the shrimp was cooked and ready to be coated in hot sauce.
All ready for the Buffalo game

It was the first time I ever had buffalo shrimp, and I was really impressed with the result. Coupled with a side dish of bleu cheese and celery sticks, the meal had everything one could ask for. It had just enough kick to tickle the taste buds, but not enough to overwhelm and cause a mad dash for a bottle of water.

The game itself between the Jets and Bills proved to be quite spicy. With three ties and five lead changes, the Jets outlasted Buffalo for a 28-24 win. Quarterback Mark Sanchez threw for 4 touchdowns, despite completing fewer than 50% of his passes. The winning TD was scored by Santonio Holmes with 1:01 remaining, providing drama to the very end.
Mark Sanchez had 4 TD passes, including one on the Jets' final drive

Week 14 -- Jets vs. Kansas City Chiefs -- Barbecued KC-Style Pork Ribs

I'll admit it -- I had this game circled since the schedule came out. One catch, however -- it was not for the matchup itself, but rather the potential menu options that were at my disposal.

Kansas City carries a legendary barbecue reputation, and I only hoped that I could do it some justice in the morning/afternoon tailgate. I had never before made ribs, but I was determined to step up and make it a memorable meal.
The rubbed-up ribs hit the grill

Preparations got under way the night before. Using brown sugar, dry mustard, smoked paprika, black pepper, salt, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne pepper, the dry rub for the pork ribs took form.

After spreading the dry rub onto the rack of ribs, it was time to play the waiting game, giving ample time for the spices to become embedded within the meat.

The next morning at MetLife Stadium, the tender ribs were placed onto the grill. Roughly every 20 minutes, the meat was flipped, so it would properly cooked on both sides. During that process, barbecue sauce was added to the mix, keeping the ribs juicy and tender.
Just about ready

Over an hour passed before it was ready for consumption. During that time, we were tortured by the aroma of barbecued ribs wafting into the air.

Cutting the rack into individual pieces was even easier than I could have imagined, thanks in part to the dry rub and barbecue sauce. As we took our first bites, the meat came right off the bone, with little-or-no resistance.
Couldn't have been more pleased with the result

They were honestly some of the best ribs I ever had, and most of my friends concurred. They requested that I start making that recipe at all games! I had never felt so accomplished as a cook.

The Jets would have no trouble with the Chiefs that afternoon, emerging with a 37-10 victory. Shonn Greene rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown, while Sanchez accounted for 4 TD's (2 passing, 2 rushing).
Shonn Greene had a big day on the ground for the Jets

Week 15 -- Jets at Philadelphia Eagles -- Philly Cheesesteaks

After watching almost 40 Jets' games at the Meadowlands over the years, it was time to take the show on the road.

For my specialty meal, the choice was simple: cheesesteaks. When in Philly, do as the Philadelphians do.

A beautiful day for football in Philadelphia

The prep work started the night before, in the shadows of New York City. After shopping for the necessary items, I spent nearly an hour thinly slicing ribeye steaks on a cutting board. Once that tedious task was complete, the meat went into a storage container for transport.

The next morning, I made the roughly hour-and-a-half drive to Philadelphia, in a car filled with food, ice, drinks and grilling equipment.
Lincoln Financial Field awaits the Jets-Eagles matchup

Arriving over four hours before the opening kickoff proved to be helpful. It allowed me to get familiar with the parking lot layout at Lincoln Financial Field, and take advantage of the open space.

Soon after everything was set up, it was time to get to work. After slicing an onion and some mushrooms, I sauteed the add-ons in oil while keeping the steak nearby. Once that was finished, I tossed the ribeye slices into a separate pan of oil and let the grill do its job.
The sliced steak sizzles on the grill

As the tender meat turned from pink to brown, the pan sizzled. The smells of grilled onion, mushrooms and steak filled the air. Even those parked nearby stopped to watch the process, asking the occasional question or two.

While the cooking was in its final moments, I filled empty hoagie rolls with provolone cheese. For those who preferred Cheez Whiz or American slices, they were available too.
Homemade Philly cheesesteaks in Philly

Did the cheesesteak pass Philadelphia muster? It sure seemed that way, since the hoagies quickly disappeared from plates. Not only that, but those rooting for the Eagles seemed surprised that a Jets' fan could recreate an authentic Philly culinary staple.

In the game itself, the home team was not very hospitable, as the Eagles humiliated the Jets, 45-19. That loss failed to put a serious damper on my spirits, however, because I learned that I could make yet another successful dish. Better yet, I learned that I could do it outside of the friendly confines of the Meadowlands.
A good time away from home, despite the outcome

Week 16 -- Jets vs. New York Giants -- Christmas Theme

With all of the creatures stirring in the MetLife Stadium parking lot on the day before Christmas, it seemed appropriate to have a holiday-appropriate tailgating session.

As Jets' and Giants' fans commingled throughout the morning at the place they both call home, a party commenced in the familiar location of Lot 26D. In addition to the usual breakfast and lunch fare, there was a collection of Christmas treats.
Tailgating on Christmas Eve, a present unto itself

Back by popular demand was the Kansas City-style pork ribs that made their debut two weeks prior, a "gift" to those who requested them. Once again, the ribs were a hit, further establishing them as a mainstay in future tailgates.
The return of the ribs

In addition, it wouldn't be Christmas without ham, right? My cooking experiment for the day featured grilled ham steaks, with an apricot glaze topping.

It was surprisingly simple to make. Mixing together a jar of apricot preserves, dry mustard, lemon juice and ground cinnamon, the glaze quickly formed over the grill. From there, it was simply a matter of cooking the ham steaks and bringing the two elements together.

The spirit of the season finds its way into football

To further add to the holiday cheer, store-bought Christmas cookies and egg nog made for a nice dessert combo.

Roughly 15 people attended our end-of-season blowout extravaganza. Only those wearing blue would emerge from this game happy, however. The Giants topped the Jets, 29-14, putting Gang Green's playoff hopes in peril. The season would end for Rex Ryan and company one week later, with a loss in Miami.
MetLife Stadium clears out after the Jets' loss to the Giants


While the 8-8 record and no playoff appearance is considered a major disappointment for the New York Jets, it was a wildly successful season for myself.

Not only did I attend nine games during the course of the year, but I also managed nine tailgating sessions without incident. Just a few years ago, I was lucky if I knew how to prepare nine meals, period.

Self-sustainability has arrived

The games didn't always turn out as hoped, with the Jets going 6-3 when I was there. Still, the results ended up being secondary to the fun and cameraderie that accompanied the entire experience of attending these events.

Most importantly, the 2011 season provided confidence in my cooking abilities. It was a benefit that was not mentioned in the season ticket brochure, and one that will last a lifetime.
A season's worth of meals and memories

1 comment:

  1. that's so great! man your tailgates must be a blast!