Mark the start of backyard season with the perfect cookout

Before the weather gets too hot or too buggy, I enjoy spending as much time as possible on my back patio by my small, simple fire pit. There’s something about the smell, the crackling of the wood, and the warmth that brings people together.

Whether the flames are real or artificial, I’ve spent many amazing nights gathered around a fire. When I owned a chimenea, I often lit it on weekend mornings and sat out on the deck with the kids. We would sip hot drinks and prop our feet up on the brick surround to keep them warm. I would read, the kids might be on their phones, sometimes we’d play soft music, but mostly it was quiet as we shared this simple form of togetherness in the cool morning light.

Outdoor entertaining as a new home standard

More and more of us are looking at outdoor living spaces as an extension of our home. Newer homes often feature elaborate outdoor kitchens, and most of us have access to a barbecue grill with multiple racks and side burners. Several of my friends also own smokers and enjoy preparing a variety of smoked meats year-round.

When temperatures heat up, using this outdoor cooking area is a great way to prepare a meal while entertaining without heating up the house. Lots of people going in and out during a party, combined with the use of the oven and stovetop for meal prep can quickly make the inside of your home uncomfortably warm, so utilizing the outdoor cooking space makes sense.

Keep it simple

If I’m serving a meal prepared outdoors, I want as little prep and fuss as possible. Steak and bratwurst, baked potatoes and a fresh garden salad can’t be beat. To add some more veggies, use a foil pan, combine mushrooms, sliced zucchini, and yellow squash, then add a few tablespoons of butter and salt and pepper. Cover and roast on the side of the burner until soft. It’s delicious and so easy to prepare.

As for the meat, if you’ve never tried any of Fantasma’s Finest Meats from Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Mo., you simply must. I get mine through my weekly Shatto Milk Home Delivery service. I grew up on a farm where we raised our own cattle and I’ve never tasted anything as wonderful as Fantasma’s. Although it’s not a grill item, their Braunschweiger makes this world a tastier place.

An excuse to use that serving bucket

I think gatherings like this call for cold beverages, like beer and chilled white wine. If you don’t already have a serving bucket or tub, they are readily available. Plain galvanized buckets from the hardware store are perfect. Add some drinks and a ton of ice and you’re ready to go. Tie bottle openers to the side of the bucket with twine so they don’t accidentally walk away in someone’s pocket.

Please sir, may I have s’more?

The obvious and trendy dessert for an outdoor gathering is a fun s’more bar. You can make these over a fire pit, a charcoal grill or even a lit can of gel Sterno. If you don’t have a fire pit or grill, or live in smaller digs where it’s not practical or allowed, you can easily create a small DIY tabletop fire bowl with Sterno, a concrete bowl and some glass or traditional stones.

As for the fixings, take a platter and add graham crackers, flat marshmallows (available at most local grocery stores) and Hershey’s chocolate and you’re in business. Add peanut butter or Nutella, and finish off with chopped strawberries and bananas to sweeten the deal without so many empty calories. If you really want to show off, bring out large, fresh strawberries and a jar of marshmallow fluff. Dip the strawberries in the fluff and roast slightly.

Safety first

Although they look cute in pictures, I don’t recommend roasting your marshmallows on forks or short wooden skewers. It’s not safe, and wooden skewers can easily burn unless you remember to soak them in water first. I love the extra-long metal marshmallow sticks from Bass Pro Shops as they keep you farther away from the smoke and the flames.

Never leave any fire unattended, or go to bed with live ashes on your deck or patio. You can pour water on the coals and use a fire shovel to turn them over until you’re sure nothing hot remains. (And leftover dried ashes are perfect additives for your garden or landscaping beds.)

It’s the memories as much as the meal

I still remember playing records with my brothers outside one summer night while we burned a ring of citronella candles around us. We ate crackers and smoked oysters from a can. No one spoke. We just looked at the sky and listened to the music.

No matter the meal, joining friends and family for a night under the stars is a simple and relaxing way to create an evening to remember.

A taste of the Old World

In my opinion, a baked potato tastes most delicious after being slow-cooked outdoors on a grill, especially over charcoal. My in-laws often spoke of growing up in Taiwan. Field workers would take large, raw sweet potatoes with them in the morning, create a small fire by the field, then stick the potatoes in the embers to cook until lunch. It was the original portable lunch.

We would repeat the process with our own fire pits and campfires and learned that the top of the chimenea worked just as well (we’d just sit the potatoes on top). There’s nothing like the taste of a slowly roasted sweet potato, blackened and sticky on the outside. You can eat it plain, add some butter and salt, even a bit of soy sauce. Delicious and fun. But be careful because those babies get HOT.