LIFE-FOOD-TAILGATE-TIPS-RECIPES-4-PG

Taco salad is easy to prepare, transports well and avoids the mess of a handheld taco. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

PITTSBURGH — Football fans love to throw tailgates both big and small before games. Whether it's a humble spread of chips, dip and chicken wings out of a car trunk or a catered smorgasbord feast, the goal is the same: to have a good time while cheering on the home team.

Such is the energy of a tailgate that it's often the backdrop for other important celebrations, like the bachelor party Dave Brandon of Georgetown, Beaver County, threw for his cousin, Daniel Mackall, at the Steelers' preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 21. Organized at the last minute, it featured a simple menu of grilled bratwurst, chicken and shrimp from Costco with plenty of Miller Lite beer to wash it down.

"It's a fun time. I love to entertain and cook," says Brandon, principal at Western Beaver Junior/Senior High School in Industry.

A few spots down the parking lot, North Side native Lamont Copeland also was taking it relatively easy with a pre-season menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken-on-a-stick. His menu stood in stark contrast to the grilled shrimp, steak and crab legs Marissa Corradini of Somerset was feasting on.

"It's my first time [tailgating], so I wanted to really experience it," she says.

Then there are people like Johnny Dusch, who approaches his pre-game parties with such vigor that you might call him a tailgate fanatic.

The Greenfield resident and volunteer diving coach at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a standout diver in 1984-87, has been throwing tailgates ever since the late 1980s, when the Steelers still played at Three Rivers Stadium. It wasn't until 2009 that he figured out how to do it right, after running into a University of Pittsburgh tailgater partying out of the back of a Winnebago.

"He showed me how to do it with class," he says.

Dusch then bought a retired 1980s ambulance and turned it into the Pittsburgh-themed Mobile Tailgating Unit. Upgrades included a 20-inch flatscreen TV and onboard restroom inside the cabin. The vehicle with a custom paint job paying homage to Steel City sports teams quickly became a fixture at Steelers and Pitt Panthers tailgates in Red Lot #6 near PNC Park.

It's got such a wow factor that it's been featured on the NFL Network and KDKA TV's Fan N'ATion. The cast of "Rock of Ages" also visited when the show was in town a few years ago. In 2011, the Mobile Tailgating Unit earned him a spot as the Steeler's rep in the Tailgating Hall of Fame, an organization of premiere tailgaters from across the country.

Dusch created a second MTU in 2013 after crashing the original into a wall Downtown and totaling it on the way to a game. "But we tailgated anyway," he says, noting how all the food and supplies were transported in friends' cars to Heinz Field.

While the old MTU was a vintage ambulance made to look like a box truck, the new unit is a brand-new box truck made to look like an ambulance, with a swing-out back door that allows for easy movement of a gas grill. A side door provides access to a two-room bathroom tent. "And we add new details every year," he says, pointing to the names of the Pirates, Penguins and his various sponsors. He keeps it parked on the street in front of his hilltop house on Montclair Street.

But what really makes the Mobile Tailgating Unit special is the food Dusch dishes up in it before each game. For the Steelers' first home game, he plans to serve his 50 guests five or six main courses, including grilled lobster and steak and mac 'n' cheese with either shrimp or lobster. Per tradition, friends will also nosh on Dave McIntyre's legendary pulled pork, which he smokes the night before, and slices of Mineo's hand-tossed pizza (he's been friends with co-owner John Mineo since they were kids).

"And we'll have two giant containers of the most gorgeous desserts you've ever seen" from Joe Porco's Lincoln Bakery in Bellevue. "A wedding would be jealous," he says of the cupcakes, cookies and other pastries.

Mr. Dusch, who's a human resource director at a plastics company, also regularly serves pierogies, kielbasa and other dishes that pay homage to the city's strong Polish roots.

He loves to go all out on tailgates, he says, because nothing beats a good party. And the people who come together before games at Heinz Field "are a blast."

"It's the atmosphere. We're all like a big team, helping each other out and having a great time."

The moratorium on tailgates in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic was a bummer, he notes with a sigh. "We couldn't do anything, and it was horrible."

There's only one Mobile Tailgating Unit and few of us share Dusch's passion and/or cooking skills. But anyone can create a pretty fine tailgate spread with a few good recipes. We offer four that are easy to prepare, taste great and can be transported from the kitchen to the parking lot without too much trouble.

As my niece Amanda Jandrokovic, who supplied the taco salad recipe, noted, "The atmosphere of Steeler Sunday is too exciting not to tailgate. Everyone is hyped up, and it always gives us a chance to see and connect and party with the opposing team."

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TACO SALAD

PG tested

Who doesn't love crunching on a taco and not having to worry that it will fall apart in your hand? This simple salad has all the flavors of a hardshell beef taco but can be eaten with a fork.

"We love it because it's easy to throw on a plate with Doritos, or eat alone," says Jandrokovic, whose husband, Phil, has made it for every Steelers tailgate since he took over his father's tickets five years ago. "We take it in a crockpot so it's easy to transport."

If you like your tacos a little spicier, simply add salsa or hot sauce. Other optional toppings include diced avocado, chopped cilantro, sour cream or corn. I made the taco seasoning from scratch but there's no shame in using a pre-packaged mix.

For taco seasoning

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

For salad

1 pound lean ground beef

3/4 cup water

1 head of iceberg or romaine lettuce, chopped

2 Roma tomatoes, diced

1/4 cup sliced black olives

1/4 cup chopped green onion

1 15-ounce can pinto or black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 cup Catalina or French dressing, bottled or homemade

2 cups tortilla chips or Doritos, crushed

Make taco seasoning mix: Measure out all the ingredients in a small bowl. Mix well. Taste and adjust salt or spices as desired.

In a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat 6-8 minutes or until it's no longer pink and breaks into crumbles. Drain and stir in taco seasoning and water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 4-6 minutes or until thickened, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.

In a large bowl, toss lettuce with tomatoes, olives, green onions, beans and cheese. Top with beef mixture and crushed chips; drizzle with dressing and toss to combine.

Serves 6-8.

— Philip Jandrokovic, Brighton Heights

BUFFALO CHICKEN EMPANDAS

PG tested

If there's one given at a tailgate party, it's that someone will bring Buffalo chicken dip. Some make it with canned chicken (ugh!) but I wouldn't dream of it; my go-to is shredded rotisserie chicken.

For a handheld twist on this old favorite, I stuffed the dip inside a refrigerated pie crust, creating an empanada-like treat. I also tucked in a bit of chopped cilantro and a pickled jalapeno for some extra zip, with blue cheese dressing for dipping. (If you're not a blue cheese fan, substitute ranch.) I used two dough rounds per empanada, but you also could cut the circles a little larger and fold them over to make it easier.

While I've made this dip countless times with Frank's Red Hot sauce, I discovered Hank Sauce "Cilanktro" this spring in Sea Isle, New Jersey and became a fan. It includes cilantro along with hot pepper and garlic.

3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken

6 ounces ( 3/4 package) cream cheese, softened

6 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

1/4 cup blue cheese crumbles, optional

1/3 cup blue cheese or ranch dressing

1/3 cup of hot sauce, or more to taste

2 packages refrigerated pie pastry

Chopped cilantro and pickled jalapenos

1 egg beaten with a little water, for wash

Blue cheese or ranch dressing, for dipping

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large bowl, mix together shredded chicken, cream cheese, cheddar and blue cheeses, blue cheese dressing and hot sauce. If it's not saucy (or spicy) enough, add a little more hot sauce.

Unroll a pastry sheet onto a lightly floured surface. Using a floured 3-inch round cookie cutter placed halfway on the edge of the pastry, cut dough into circles, or if you want to get really creative, 4-by-3-inch football shapes. Repeat with remaining dough, chilling and rerolling scraps as needed.

Transfer half of the cutouts to greased baking sheets. Place a spoonful (about 2 teaspoons) of chicken mixture in the center of each one and flatten with your finger, being careful to leave room on the edges.

Top with a little chopped cilantro and a pickled jalapeno. Brush edges of pastry with egg. Top with remaining cutouts and press edges with a fork to seal. If using football shapes, cut slits in the tops to resemble football laces. Brush tops with egg wash.

Bake 8-12 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from pan and serve hot, or allow to cool to room temperature. Serve with ranch or blue cheese dressing for dipping.

Makes about 3 dozen empanadas.

— Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette

BLACK AND GOLD BROWNIES

PG tested

Every party needs some sort of dessert, and brownies fit the bill for a tailgate. These get the black-and-gold treatment with the addition of yellow M&Ms. It's a pain to sort them from the bag, but they add a colorful home team touch. I added chopped pecans, but you could sub in walnuts or almonds.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for pan

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Generous pinch of salt

1 ounce semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup and 2 tablespoons cocoa powder

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2/3 cup pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped, or more to taste

1/4 to 1/3 cup gold or yellow M&Ms

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Line bottom with parchment or wax paper, leaving an overhang on two sides. Butter paper; set pan aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

Place butter and semi-sweet chocolate in a microwave safe bowl, and heat in microwave, 10 seconds at a time, until smooth, stirring occasionally. Stir in cocoa powder and oil. Add sugars, eggs, vanilla and flour mixture; stir to combine well. Stir in M&Ms and pecans, if using, then transfer batter to pan with a spatula.

Bake 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out with only a few crumbs attached (or sooner to make sure they're soft). Cool completely before slicing into squares.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days. These also freeze well.

Makes 16 brownies.

— Adapted from marthastewart.com

PINEAPPLE JALAPENO MARGARITAS

PG tested

A season opener calls for a really great cocktail. This pineapple jalapeno margarita offers a perfect balance of sweet and heat, and best of all, serves a crowd.

For pineapple jalapeno syrup

1/2 cup pineapple juice

1/2 cup sugar

1 jalapeno, sliced

For cocktail

9 ounces cointreau (or any orange liqueur you prefer)

12 ounces lime juice

8 ounces water

750 ml bottle of tequila (I like the peppery notes in blanco tequila)

Prepare pineapple jalapeno syrup.

Combine juice and sugar in a saucepan and gently heat until sugar is dissolved. Do not boil. Remove from heat and add sliced jalapeno. Let steep for 10 minutes, longer for more heat. Cool to room temperature.

Combine 3 ounces of pineapple jalapeno syrup with cointreau, lime juice, water and tequila in a container (enough to hold 57 ounces) and stir to combine. If time allows, chill the ingredients. Since you are not shaking the cocktail, there is no dilution so adding water is important for the cocktails to be balanced.

Grab a red solo cup — it is for a tailgate after all! — fill with ice, garnish with a lime wedge and enjoy!

Makes roughly 15 4-ounce cocktails.

— RaeLynn Gigler

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