Focusing on backyard fun
Photos by Shannon Cornman
We can be our unkempt selves in the backyard. If the front yard is our best-dressed self presented to the world, then the backyard is our pajamas-and-dog-cuddles-on-the-couch self presented to those we actually want to spend time with (mostly). This is not to say that you can’t have a fantastic backyard party, though, and with the availability of remarkable amenities from outdoor kitchens to high quality sound systems, the backyard can feel very much like a combination of the den, the kitchen and the gameroom.
We begin with something that has probably never occurred to you: the American Cornhole Association exists. According to its website, the ACA considers itself “the governing body of cornhole since 2003,” and while it’s difficult to imagine the beanbag (cornbag?) game actually needs a Hoyle-esque rules committee similar to card games, the fact that the ACA even exists is a testament to how popular this “family backyard game” has become.
Summer means more time outdoors, and for the past decade, in parks and yards and outside bars, that has included the simple beanbag toss game with the moderately offensive name. Without delving into its indelicate etymology, it’s safe to say the name’s meaning has undergone such a transformation in recent years that parents now use it without hesitation around their children. For a primer on the rules – it’s a beanbag and a hole in a board, so the concept should be simple – consult the ACA website, which is too fun not to include: playcornhole.org.
Honestly, we don’t care what gets you outside during the summer months, but we do think everyone should spend time in the sun (protected, of course), eating and drinking with friends and family, swimming, telling stories and enjoying the sunset at the end of a day – one of the few rewards we in Oklahoma get for enduring desert heat with swamp humidity during the summer months. The best place for that is often the backyard, a haven for families who live on patios and pool decks because the dogs can roam freely and the small children can’t wander out into the road.
The Most Popular Backyard Food
(According to a Very Informal Poll)
Everyone we talked to mentioned one thing when we asked about backyard entertaining: grilling. They didn’t just say grilling, though. Most of them said “grilling burgers.” If the hamburger is the quintessential American food, and it probably is, its popularity only grows during the summer months. Sure, a burger on a flattop tastes fine, but one cooked on a grill is an American holy object.
Chef Kurt Fleischfresser talked to us about some finer points of burger creation, and since he’s one of the founders of Irma’s Burger Shack, and because one of the German nouns in his last name actually means meat (fleisch = flesh = meat), he knows what he’s talking about.
“There are so many considerations in what seems a simple dish,” Fleischfresser says. “The meat can be a blend of different meats – beef, pork, lamb, bison – and if you add cheese, you think about which. What kind of lettuce or greens? Where are the textures going to come from? Onions? Tomatoes? Lettuce? You need acid from pickles or some other source.”
Against the “simple” meat and cheese and bread construction, Fleischfresser believes that a burger is a combination of flavors and textures. This is how chefs think about food, after all, so burgers are not exempt from construction and deconstruction. The general things to keep in mind, according to Fleischfresser:
Fat content needs to be about 20 percent. That helps keep the burger from drying out, and fat adds flavor. The leaner the meat, the more difficult it is to keep the burger juicy.
Bison is typically the leanest burger meat, so it’s usually best to add fat content from sausage or fatty beef.
Pickles. You need them. They add acid that cuts through all the fat from the meat and the cheese. If you hate dill pickles, there are dozens of options beyond the classic pickle chip. “They are a foil,” Fleischfresser says. “They offset and highlight the other flavors, [and] a burger is a balance of all these offset and highlighted flavors.”
Lettuce? He said iceberg is fine, but he prefers mizuna. Again, think in terms of texture, crunch and counterpoint.
► More for the Grill
Patrick Clark II is the chef/owner of The Red Cup, and if you ask vegetarians and vegans around the metro, they’ll tell you he’s maybe the best vegan chef in OKC. We asked him about vegetables for the grill.
“Summer is squash season,” Clark says. “I like zucchini and yellow squash, as well as beets – red or gold. The gold ones add a little sweetness. For amateur cooks, they’re simple to skewer and grill. Blanch them first, and finish them on the grill.”
As for the blanching process, Clark said to boil them to the point they are still a little firm, and then plunge them in cold water. That will stop the cooking process until you’re ready to throw them on the grill.
For something totally different in your vegetable lineup, Clark suggests kohlrabi, a vegetable in the cabbage family that is slightly sweeter than cabbage and turnips. The German word literally means cabbage-turnip, and like its namesakes, it can be eaten raw or cooked. Slice it thin to make wraps or add to salads. Many European restaurants cube it and use it much like turnips, parsnips or potatoes, and it works really well on the grill, too.
► Booze for the Backyard
No glass on the patio or pool deck is a common, sensible rule. That typically means ugly plastic tumblers from pizza joints or other local eateries.
For the wine drinkers, cans are making inroads, but most people are still skeptical of the quality. One way to fix this is to buy wine in cans from Alloy, Fiction and Method Aluminum.
The quality is excellent, and the price is slightly above the competition, mainly because of that quality. They even make sparkling wines. If that’s not your thing, then consider purchasing some GoVino plastic wine glasses. They’re top-rack safe, and they are shaped like real wine glasses to maximize aromatics. The thumb notch makes them easy to hold, even for pool-wrinkled fingers.
Wine in a box has become a staple, such that people no longer hang their heads in shame while carrying it from a liquor store. Summer is rosé season, so you can pick up the brand-new Domaine Roger Perrin at your favorite wine shop and enjoy the equivalent of three bottles of French rosé. For backyard drinking, simply remove the bladder from the bag and drop it on ice.
Hoxie Spritzers are relatively new to Oklahoma, and they hit two important marks: they are low-cal, low-sugar refreshers with low alcohol, and they can be enjoyed as they are – in the can – or blended into a delicious cocktail. Ryan Goodman at R&J Supper Club used the Lemon Linden Hoxie Spritzer with 1.5 ounces of blanco tequila and a splash of fresh lemon juice to make a simple, quaffable patio cocktail.
► The Bad News
Mosquitos exist to ruin your backyard fun.
Keeping mosquitos away is critical to everyone’s happiness. Some of us are basically mobile Golden Corrals for the tiny parasites, and we will stay outside only until the first mosquito finds us. There is no sense in pretending they are not an issue, which leads to this critical point: Most (all) non-chemical remedies do not work.
Citronella smells wonderful. I’m sure mosquitos feel the same as they fly through the smoke of the citronella candles on their way to feast on my pale flesh. Some things we just have to be honest about: Local honey does not help allergies; Chacos are leftover tire rubber and seatbelt nylon, not shoes; and citronella is a better air freshener than mosquito repellent.
According to the State Department of Health, there are approximately 60 mosquito varieties in Oklahoma. The overwhelming majority of the bites are the work of three species with long, unpronounceable names, and they have one very important thing in common: DEET, a common insect repellent, works against them, and DEET, because it’s based on science and not wishful thinking, also functions with mathematical simplicity. A product that has 20-50 percent DEET will provide five-eight hours of protection, plenty of time for a backyard party.
While we’re on the subject of science, no one seems to know why mosquitos prefer some humans to others. Scientists believe it’s related to our unique smell, but how or if diet or other factors affect this is a mystery. Be leery of people who tell you that the secret is garlic or some other natural remedy. You can put cloves in your ears or pour coffee on your feet (this is easier if you’re wearing Chacos), but they aren’t likely to be the key.
► Smoke for the Fire
Finding someone in Oklahoma who knows more about backyard entertaining than Kamala Gamble would be nearly impossible. The chef, gardener and catering genius was a pioneer in the fresh, local produce market in Oklahoma restaurants, and she continues to drive the industry with her products and ideas.
We asked her for a favorite summer dinner menu for the grill – the grill part was her idea – that requires very little prep time. Her executive chef Barbara Mock helped with some of the answers, too.
“Smoked okra,” Gamble says, right out of the gate. She then deferred to Mock: “I use pecan wood,” Mock says. “After the smoke gets going, throw the okra on the grill on indirect heat. Dry; no oil or seasoning. Leave the caps on; they make good handles. Five minutes on each side, and then toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s it. The best part is that smoking them means no slime.”
Corn is one of summer’s most iconic dishes, and Gamble likes it on the grill, too. Mock said to grill it five minutes per side, with the husks off to get grill marks. She melts butter ahead of time, and adds cayenne powder for a little heat.
“You don’t have to overcomplicate summer produce, though,” Gamble adds. “A sliced heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, like a Cherokee Purple, with a little salt is delicious. I also love Armenian cucumbers. I think they work well even for people who don’t normally like cucumbers.”
The Armenian cucumber can get as big as a small human’s arm, and they pack a ton of flavor. For the salad course, Gamble’s favorite summer salad is a traditional Panazanella with Armenian cucumbers, fresh basil, a touch of feta cheese and a drizzle of excellent balsamic vinegar.
For the entrée, Gamble likes pork tenderloin, and for dessert, grilled peaches. “We grill them with skins on, halved, on indirect heat,” she says. Mock adds, “You only need about two minutes per side or they will fall apart.” They finish them off with a drizzle of local honey, a sprig of mint and a bowl of homemade ice cream.
Alternately, try Gamble’s grilled watermelon: Use flat wedges or cubes and grill for one minute per side on direct heat. Finish with a touch of feta cheese, mint and balsamic vinegar, or a lemon vinaigrette that Mock calls their “top-secret proprietary blend”: Mix three parts oil to one part fresh lemon juice, with one teaspoon of high quality maple syrup, and salt and pepper to taste and whisk. The maple syrup tones down the astringency of the lemon and adds a touch of sweetness.
► Have a Seat
Unless you intend to plop down on the ground or patio, furniture is an important component of backyard entertaining.
Beverly Hayden of J.C. Swanson’s Fireplace & Patio in Edmond offered some advice on patio furniture, beginning with the idea that seated conversation occupies far more time than actual eating, so it’s a good idea to think beyond the old table-and-chairs motif.
What’s a good starting budget for a nice patio set? “For a nice iron, dining table and four dining chairs, the starting point would be $1,000. However, there are so many different styles of collections from the different manufacturers that if you begin with a collection that is popular and in a finish that is considered standard, additional pieces can be obtained year to year until the amount of furniture needed or wanted is complete.”
What kinds of fabrics work well, especially in terms of cleaning? “The best fabric to use outdoors is from Sunbrella, which makes solution-dyed acrylics that are fade resistant and that can be cleaned with a variety of solutions, even Clorox.”
Any attractive and practical ways to tie stuff down for windy Oklahoma days? “I know of nothing that can tie down furniture on our windy days. It’s all about selection of frame material: from tubular aluminum, the lightest weight, to cast iron, the heaviest weight, and everything in between.”
Metal, wood, plastic, glass? What’s best for patio furniture and why? Any downsides to these materials? “Again, it’s all about placement. Everyone loves the look and durability of wood, especially teak; however, to keep its golden color, teak requires a little sanding and the re-applications of solutions to keep that color. If you favor the wood look but don’t want the upkeep, the Envirowood/plastic furniture is the best alternative. Aluminum requires the least amount of maintenance; however, is not maintenance-free. A little Pledge or clear wax goes a long way to keep the frames looking good.
“You can’t ‘kill’ wrought iron with its weight and durability, but you have to be ready to deal with a little rusting should the metal become exposed through the paint. Again, a little maintenance in finding and re-sealing those areas with a little paint or new foot glides, and you’ll be good to go. Glass is just not sold as much any more, however, it is inexpensive and easy to maintain, and it is replaceable in case of breakage.”
Savory Spice Shop demystifies the entire process of seasoning food for the grill. For the amateur, the alchemy that goes into seasoning mixes and rubs might as well be complex logarithmic equations. Gamble herself spoke highly of the quality of products coming from Able Blakley’s shop on Western Avenue. We asked him what products worked best with the food we were writing about.
Long’s Peak Pork Chop Rub. Made with hickory sea salt, the rub works as well on tenderloin as chops. It’s one of Blakley’s go-tos.
Park Hill Maple Pepper Spice. Works for the tenderloin, and Blakley uses it for grilled sweet potatoes, too.
Makrut Lime Sea Salt. “It’s awesome on grilled corn, and it’s the proper name of the racially offensive kaffir lime,” Blakley says. Bonus: this one makes a great salt for margarita rims.
County Clare Blend. A delicious combination of onion, lemon peel, thyme and other herbs and seasonings.
Fumee de Sel. Wood chips from French Chardonnay barrels are used to smoke the salt in this blend. What else do you need to know?
Great Plains Bison and Beef Rub. This one was created in Blakley’s shop. A rich blend of coffee, coriander, thyme and other ingredients. Mix it in with the meat and then sprinkle a little more on top.
Mount Olympus Blend. A Greek-style seasoning with citrus and mint. Perfect for lamb burgers with tzatziki.