A great burger is reason enough for a party! For many of us, life just doesn’t get any better than biting into a big, juicy burger. When all the components are perfect—a patty that’s charred on the outside and moist and tender inside, a high-quality bun that’s toasty warm, spreads that are packed with flavor, toppings that are crisp and cool and balance the burger with sweet and acidic flavors—the combination creates a party in the mouth. It’s no wonder that burgers are America’s favorite food and today are more popular than ever.
The celebrations that we’ve created for your pleasure are all centered around some of the best—and most unique—burgers you’ll ever taste. Each was a prizewinner or an outstanding finalist in Sutter Home Winery’s Build a Better Burger® Recipe Contest and Cook-Off. The annual search for the best home-cooked burgers in America has been going on since 1990, and James has been head judge ever since the contest began. Jeffrey has been the culinary director and executive chef for Sutter Home Winery and for the contest since 1999. During those years, we’ve encountered an amazing array of creative burgers from good cooks across the country and have chosen some of the best to star in this collection.
We’ve let the burgers guide us in choosing party themes and offer ideas for creating a festive atmosphere, with suggestions for decorations, table settings, music, and activities. We developed side dishes and sweet endings to complement each burger, along with some spirited wine-based cocktails and wine pairings.
All of us at Sutter Home Winery’s Build a Better Burger hope that this book provides inspiration for fun celebrations that are perfect for today’s emphasis on relaxed, festive, and inexpensive entertaining. Let’s party!
Creating Fun Parties
Put down that spatula! Before throwing patties on the grill to entertain your friends, you need to do some planning to create a perfect party that is fun for everyone, including yourself.
First, you need to concoct a guest list of compatible people and send out invitations. Draft the guest list to include an interesting mix of friends with shared or dissimilar interests, which can lead to sparkling conversation. Limit the invitees to a number that you can accommodate comfortably. Remember the “old days” of mailing written invitations? Such thoughtfulness still makes a great impression and can go a long way in establishing the party theme. Our fast-paced lives, however, allow for invitations via personal phone calls, e-mails, or online invitation websites. Even text messages may be okay for invitations to very casual, last-minute parties such as Flip ’n’ Splash (page 83).
Next, turn your attention to creating the right ambience for the party. “Staging” a party with creative, fun decorations and tableware is important to set the mood and atmosphere; our suggestions go for the optimal experience, but you may choose to elaborate further or simplify.
When planning table settings and linens, keep your parties environmentally friendly by choosing washable real dishes, glasses, flatware, and napkins, or buying disposable products that are eco-friendly and biodegradable. Keep in mind that everything on the table doesn’t have to match, but the pieces should be compatible. Dishes in white, beige, or earth tones can mix and match with just about anything and any theme. A collection of California pottery plates in various colors always go together, as do mixtures of black and white patterns or collections of hand-painted designs. If you have plenty of room and few budget restraints, you might have fun building a party pantry with dishes that work for various themes and seasons that you can use year after year.
Nice glasses influence our perception of wine and make the experience of drinking seem more pleasurable. If you have room for only one or two sets, choose an all-purpose wine glass or one with a large bowl for reds and one with a bit smaller bowl for whites. Don’t forget the European tradition of bistro glasses for wine as an alternative to stemware for casual burger parties.
Be sure to have lots of napkins on hand—the best burgers can be very messy! Dish towels make great oversized napkins for drippy burgers. White napkins are always acceptable, but colorful solids or prints add a festive note.
While it’s impossible to beat fresh flowers on the table, consider other options: seasonal fruits or vegetables, potted herbs or flowering plants, a grouping of candles, a collection of seashells, interesting rocks, or other natural elements that enhance the party theme. The photos in this book will give you lots of good ideas.
Music can play a big role in establishing the mood, and choosing it requires some thought and probably a trip to a music store (check “world music” sections for ethnic music) or ordering from an online seller or downloading. For most of the parties in this book, we suggest theme-enhancing music. It’s always special to have live music, so if someone in your group plays guitar or another portable instrument, ask him or her to bring it along. Or tune up and dust off your piano, and plan for live entertainment at some point in your gathering. A sing-along is always a fun party activity.
Evening parties can be greatly enhanced by lighting that creates a mood appropriate to the party theme. Light switch dimmers can quickly create a romantic feeling. For outdoor parties, pull out the strings of tiny white lights from your box of Christmas decorations. They can add a lot of atmosphere to a garden all year round, as can tiki torches, hanging paper lanterns, and strings of overhead bulbs. And indoors or out, nothing beats lots of candles adding their special glow to the night.
Once you’ve chosen your party theme and made a head count, you need to create a shopping list before you hit the grocery store or farmers’ market. Choose a party menu with recipes that use ingredients in season, and, when you shop, always look for the best ingredients you can find. If a burger calls for sliced tomatoes, choose vine-ripened ones from the backyard garden or local farmers’ market.
When making your shopping list, take note that all the parties and recipes in this collection have been written to serve six people generously. Just scale recipes up for more guests or folks with big appetites. In addition to the shopping list, jot down a quick list of everything that you need to do before the guests arrive so you’re not stressed out when it’s time to party.
When you’re ready to throw the burgers on the grill, you’ll want it to be smokin’ hot! Be sure you’ve got enough charcoal or fuel on hand—nothing spoils a party faster than a raw burger. Our burger recipes are written for cooking all the components on the grill, as required in Sutter Home Winery’s Build a Better Burger contest rules, but feel free to use your stovetop when prepping your party burgers.
When shopping for wine, keep in mind that a 750-milliliter bottle contains five 5-ounce servings of wine, and a 1.5-liter bottle has twice as many. Plan accordingly for the number of guests you expect. For casual parties you may wish to stock up on individual 187-milliliter bottles.
Okay, you’ve got the ingredients, you’ve stocked up on wine, the party site is decorated, and the table is set. Put on an apron and get chopping! Even though many burgers and accompanying recipes in this book have several steps, none of the individual steps is difficult, and most of the prep work can be done well ahead of time. Many of the starters, side dishes, and sweets can be made the day before, allowing you time to devote to the burgers and last-minute details on party day. An hour or so before guests are due, put together the burger ingredients and refrigerate the patties. Just be sure to take the patties out of the fridge half an hour before cooking—throwing a cold patty on a grill can cause it to stick and cook unevenly. (Fish and poultry patties need to stay chilled until just a few minutes before cooking to prevent spoiling.)
Guests are due to arrive soon, so set out glasses and wine, and be sure you’ve got a corkscrew handy. If you don’t store your wines in a wine refrigerator or cool cellar, we recommend following the simple rule of 20/20: thoroughly chill white wines in the refrigerator and remove about 20 minutes before serving, or refrigerate room-temperature red wines for 20 minutes before pouring. Nonalcoholic beverages—water, juice, lemonade, iced tea, or sodas—should also be available with plenty of ice.
Now slip into your party clothes, fire up the grill, start the music, pour yourself a glass of wine, sit down, and relax until your guests arrive.
One last bit of advice: you’ve taken the effort to create a fun party, and everyone’s having a great time, so don’t break the spell. Delay most cleanup tasks until the last guest departs.
Pairing Wine with Burgers
Twenty years ago, most people in the United States viewed wine as serious and intimidating, a beverage reserved for special occasions or for dining out. People were hesitant to buy and serve wine unless they were “experts.” When going out to dinner, some were afraid to order wine because they might choose the wrong one. Often, diners set aside the wine list and went straight for a more familiar beverage. Wine as a regular choice at home was almost unheard of here, although it was commonly enjoyed in the wine-growing countries of Europe.
The wine business was partly to blame. A mystique was cultivated around the enjoyment of wine, and experts touted rules to create an image of sophistication and luxury. Most of the time even the experts did not agree, but it gave everybody something to do. In 1990, Sutter Home Winery decided to put an end to this nonsense when we created the Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest and Cook-Off. We set out to take the fear factor out of the enjoyment of food and wine. And what everyday food is more familiar and less intimidating than the good old hamburger? You now see gourmet burgers in top restaurants, on television food shows, and on magazine covers—usually accompanied by a glass of wine.
Because the Sutter Home philosophy is to demystify the food and wine experience, the last thing we want to do is to suggest that with any particular burger there is one certain appropriate wine. We all have different tastes. That is why for every party in the book we have recommended several wines that we think you and your guests will enjoy paired with the starring burger and accompaniments. The bottom line is, if you like a certain food with a certain wine, that is really what it is all about.
That said, when it comes to pairing wine with food there is one key principle to remember: food changes the taste of wine. Have you ever brushed your teeth in the morning and then had a sip of orange juice soon after? The sweet toothpaste changes the taste of the orange juice, making it more sour, even bitter, less sweet, and less fruity. Certain foods can have a similar impact on the taste of wine.
If the change is profound, then the wine will not taste its best. Foods that are sweet, spicy (such as chiles), or high in umami (meaty or savory dishes) can all make the taste of wine stronger. On the other hand, salt and acidity in food can be a wine’s best friend. These tastes make wine taste milder; they are less likely to impair the taste of wine and may, in fact, bring out its best.
At the Sutter Home Culinary Center, when chefs prepare foods that are sweet, spicy, and high in umami, they balance the taste of those foods with a little salt or acidity, such as a squeeze of lemon juice, to bring the recipe into taste balance with the wines.
Because burgers dominant in sweet, spicy, or umami tastes, often found in Asian or Latin recipes, can make wines taste stronger, avoid pairing them with the stronger wines. Milder wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, are good choices. If the food is extremely sweet or spicy, mild wines with a touch of sweetness, such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or White Zinfandel, are better yet.
Burgers with classic European tastes, such as those with roots in French, Italian, Spanish, or Mediterranean cuisine, are not typically high in sweet, spicy, or umami tastes and thus will not adversely affect the bigger, stronger wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
Use our chart of wine and burger pairings as a general guide. We also list specific wines for appetizers, the main course (burgers and sides), and desserts in each party menu.