Every year, I host a Super Bowl viewing party, and though our numbers fluctuate, suffice it to say the crowd is always ready to eat, especially now that it includes a handful of teenage boys.
I pick a menu that allows for different appetites, the possibility of last-minute guests, and the welcome chance of leftovers for dinners later in the week.
This year, my menu features tacos: a taco bar to be specific.
People can help themselves and customize their tacos. And once I've got the components laid out, I just have to glance over from time to time to see if the toppings need replenishing or the fillings need a quick warmup in the microwave.
Guidelines for planning a taco party of your own:
Offer a combination of hard and soft shells to mix and match. The soft tortillas can be corn, flour or a mix. Before the party, heat the tortillas for 30 to 60 seconds on each side in a dry skillet, until browned in spots, which brings out their flavor. Heat hard shells in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for about seven minutes, until they smell toasty. The tortillas and shells don't have to be hot when you serve them, but you can keep them warm by heating them (tortillas in the microwave, shells in the oven) shortly before serving, and then throwing a clean dishtowel over them to keep them warm.
Offering at least two fillings makes a taco bar feel special. Go for one ground meat, like beef or turkey, and then maybe a shredded meat filling, like pulled chicken or pork. I also recommend a pot of thick, seasoned black or pinto beans, which guests can spoon onto a taco or the side of the plate; the beans also can be the protein in a vegetarian taco. Make fillings ahead of time and re-warm them before serving. You can serve them in a warming dish, periodically reheat them in the microwave, or have a backup dish of each and replenish.
Here's where the fun starts. You'll of course want the classics: salsa or pico de gallo, shredded crisp lettuce, avocado or guacamole, cilantro leaves, onions, sour cream and cheese. Cheeses can include shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack or crumbed quesos.
And then keep going! Sliced jalapenos (fresh or pickled), sliced olives, slivered radishes, other kinds of salsa, sliced scallions, shredded kale, sautéed mushrooms, thinly sliced cabbage, sautéed onions and peppers, fried shallots, fermented pickly things (lots of interesting choices in the refrigerated section of the supermarket; Bao makes some cool varieties.)
Ariel Fox, concept executive chef at Dos Caminos restaurants in New York, suggests adding chopped cooked bacon to the guacamole for a smoky twist, and blending charred jalapeno, pureed avocado and lime juice into your sour cream for a sophisticated crema topping.
Have fun and be creative (and enlist the kids!).
SETTING UP THE TACO BAR
Starting from the left, line up everything the way people would fill their plates: first, the plates themselves, then the shells, fillings and toppings. If there are side dishes like salad or rice, end the buffet with those. Put napkins and forks at the end for guests to grab as they head for their seats.
AND SPEAKING OF SEATS...
Make sure there's one for everyone with a view of the TV. You might want to set up a card table and some folding chairs. Soft pillows for floor seating are also fine.
Use your coffee table, says Mary Giuliani, founder of Mary Giuliani Catering and Events and co-host of Easy Entertaining on Bluprint.com. "I'm a big fan of covering my coffee table with 'Snactivities'" — foods that are fun and interactive — "during any type of game watching," she says.
The drink most commonly associated with the Super Bowl is, of course, beer. If you've got a beer crowd, include some new choices along with the classics, and don't be shy about telling your guests to bring a six-pack of their favorite brew. Giuliani recommends making beer cocktails like a Beergarita (beer with a splash of tequila and fresh lime juice) or Beerbon (your favorite beer with a splash of your favorite bourbon.)
Also provide plenty of nonalcoholic options: flavored seltzers, fun sodas, cold or mulled cider, hot cocoa and of course plenty of regular old water. If you have a house team you're rooting for, make or create a pitcher mocktail (booze-free punch of some sort) and name it after the team.
Before the game or at halftime, provide a football and urge people to get their own game on, if you have the space. Some guests might be happy just stretching during the halftime show and watching Maroon 5, but Giuliani encourages guests to "shake it with the performers" in a halftime dance party.
There are many simple games you can offer up during commercial breaks or the game itself. Raise a glass (it doesn't have to be boozy) or stand up whenever a certain word is said, for example "penalty" or "halfback," or print up Super Bowl trivia cards and give pop quizzes. Offer prizes.
Or have people fill out a form guessing how the game will unfold — completion percentages for each quarterback, total passing yards, Super Bowl MVP and of course final score. Also guess which will be the first ad to play once the game begins.
If you go for disposable plates, cups and utensils, stick with paper (especially recycled paper products), bamboo and other biodegradable materials. Don't skimp on the plates' thickness though: Tacos can be messy, and thin plates can get soggy. Chinet plates, for instance, are compostable and heavy.
Make a waste basket visible for garbage.
And consider rolling up those rugs. Salsa isn't the easiest thing to scrub out of a carpet.
Katie Workman has written two cookbooks focused on easy, family-friendly cooking, "Dinner Solved!" and "The Mom 100 Cookbook." She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. She can be reached at Katie@themom100.com.