Whether your tailgate includes a custom grill setup and team color-coordinated tents or a simple picnic on a well-worn blanket, no pregame ritual is complete without the spread. This is one party that's as much about the food as it is about fans and football.
Here are some tailgate ideas to choose from, whether you're thinking main course or sides. No worries, we've got dips covered and even include a few breakfast ideas when you have to plan around an early kickoff. These aren't recipes, really, but ideas to get you started (formal recipes for these and many more dishes, including midnight brownies and brown-butter coffeecake, are available at www.latimes.com/tailgaterecipes). Many dishes can be prepared hours — even a day or two — in advance. A few, such as the pressed muffuletta sandwich, require advance preparation. Nothing too complicated, just a little planning.
You'll still have plenty of time to worry about the other important things, like icing the beer and whipping up a pitcher of cocktails.
Burgers: Simply season ground beef with a little kosher salt and pepper, being careful not to overwork the meat, then divide and shape into 8-ounce patties. Offer a selection of cheeses and toppings and perhaps a flavored mayonnaise or two.
Guacamole: In a big bowl, combine mashed, ripe avocado with chopped cilantro, diced tomato, onion, fresh lime juice, chopped chilies and a sprinkling of salt. Add a little garlic or cumin if desired, and serve alongside a mountain of chips.
Muffuletta: For a perfect portable meal, pile a hollowed-out loaf of bread with purchased or homemade olive relish, lettuce, cheese and a medley of sliced meats, then wrap and weight the sandwich for at least a few hours to compress. Unwrap and slice to serve.
Carne asada: Blend fresh cilantro, a little garlic, onion, serrano chili, salt and a touch of Worcestershire sauce. Rub the marinade over skirt steak and marinate an hour, up to several, before grilling.
Watermelon with mint and lime: Toss watermelon cubes with chopped fresh mint, a touch of olive oil and lime juice. Chill at least 1 hour before serving.
Grilled, stuffed pork chops: Stuff thick, center-cut, bone-in pork chops with goat cheese flavored with roasted garlic, spinach, chopped fresh thyme and rosemary up to several hours ahead of grilling.
Bratwurst: Simmer fresh brats over the grill in a deep pan filled with butter, sliced onion and beer, then grill to order. It's heaven on a roll piled high with sauerkraut, mustard and pickles.
Fennel-and-white bean salad: Toss drained white beans with thinly sliced fennel, crisp bacon, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, olive oil and a dash of hot sauce in this simple bean salad.
Celery root-and-apple slaw: Thinly slice celery root and apple and toss with toasted pecans and currants. Bind together with a dressing of sour cream whisked with a touch of prepared horseradish and Dijon mustard.
Yakitori: Ahead of time, skewer bites of pork belly, peppers, chicken, mushrooms — even tomatoes wrapped in bacon — on soaked wooden skewers, then grill to order.
Avocado-corn relish: Combine sauteed corn with avocados, green onions, bell pepper, roasted chilies, red-wine vinegar and olive oil. Set aside to marry the flavors and serve at room temperature alongside steak or grilled meats.
Roasted potato salad: Roast small potatoes with a little garlic and seasoning, then toss with crisp bacon bits, capers and sliced red onion. Bind with mayonnaise brightened with a little red-wine vinegar and whole-grain mustard in this take on the classic.
Calabacitas: Flavor chopped zucchini, tomatoes and corn with onion and garlic, then add a little diced jalapeno for a touch of heat in this Southwestern classic. Combine everything in a foil packet and steam until tender and fragrant. Sprinkle crumbled fresh cheese over it before serving.
Grilled pork steaks with fennel: Slice boneless pork butt into steaks and dust with a blend of ground fennel seeds, peppercorns and salt. Grill for a few minutes on each side over a hot fire.
Stuffed grape leaves (dolmas): Stuff grape leaves with a fragrant blend of rice, pine nuts, lemon zest and fresh herbs, then wrap them up like little burritos. Pack the dolmas in tight layers in a casserole and slowly simmer them in a broth of lemon juice, oil and water until tender.
Three-bean-and-hominy chili: Black, pinto and kidney beans are slow-cooked with hominy and diced tomatoes in a rich chili flavored with garlic, onion, cumin and oregano. It's so filling your guests might never guess it's vegetarian.
Chicken-and-apple sausage: Flavor ground chicken with fresh sage, dried apples, onions and a fragrant touch of cinnamon and nutmeg. Form patties and grill or saute, then serve in an English muffin. Burgers for breakfast.