By Noelle Carter

Los Angeles Times

A few years ago, I was in Minneapolis tailgating with friends for the University of Minnesota’s homecoming game against Northwestern. We got to the parking lot around 8:30 in the morning, to party before the 11 a.m. kickoff. Our host, Chad Jaeger, started the festivities with a hearty breakfast chili — rich and creamy, it was packed with crumbled bacon and sausage, beans, cheddar cheese and diced egg. It was the perfect way to warm up a bunch of Gopher fans on a chilly, 45-degree morning.

Breakfast chili, Bloody Mary and French Toast muffin bites. (Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

For those of us who love to tailgate, this is one party that’s as much about the food as it is about the actual game. And while it may be easy to fortify the gang before an afternoon or evening game, how do you plan around an early kickoff? Because not everyone’s ready to tackle a cheeseburger or a rack of ribs first thing in the morning.

And why should they? If anything, breakfast or brunch tailgates should really become a thing. At many restaurants, breakfast is the most popular meal of the day, and brunch itself has become the muse of many a chef. There’s no reason we can’t riff on some of those dishes for our pre-game festivities — particularly for those of us on the West Coast who frequently suffer through early games to satisfy East Coast programming bias. Nothing will set a sleepy tailgater’s circadian rhythm right faster than a filling breakfast and beverage to match.

That breakfast chili is easy enough to make, and one I frequently turn to when I’m planning an early tailgate: Simply combine the ingredients in a portable slow cooker over low heat, so the flavors have time to come together the night before. On game day, plug the cooker into a car adapter to keep the chili warm on the way to the stadium. Once your tailgate is set up, put the chili out with crackers, extra green onions, shredded cheese and hot sauce so your guests can customize to taste.

Breakfast chili not your thing? Get creative. Try cooking shakshuka on the grill — the spiced pepper, onion and egg dish is an easy choice if you’re cooking outdoors. Assemble a stack of croque-madame sandwiches — bread layered with plenty of ham and cheese — then dip them to order in egg and brown them with plenty of butter on a griddle until the cheese just begins to ooze. It’s like a grilled cheese on steroids. A friend once made a pot of congee for an early tailgate, served with a variety of toppings.

For those guests with a sweet tooth, bake your items ahead of time, then warm them up at the game. I’ll fix a batch of sticky buns or French toast muffin bites the night before and refrigerate them until I’m ready to head to the party. At the tailgate, I’ll gently heat them on a closed grill, still in the tin, until the sticky buns slide out easily, and the French toast bites are puffed up and warm, and the streusel topping is fragrant.

As with any great tailgate, the trick is to plan ahead and keep it simple. I try to make as much food as possible before I leave the house, and heat up what I need once I’m set up at the party.

Finally, don’t forget the beverages. Most thermoses will keep hot beverages — coffee, cocoa or cider — warm for hours. And it’s never too early for a cocktail. Mimosas are an easy choice for morning tailgates. If you have fresh fruit, consider making a pitcher of sangria.

If there’s one thing I always fix for an early tailgate, it’s a batch of bloody mary mix. Serve it with vodka or tequila (a Bloody Maria), or combine it with beer for a michelada. It’s easy to put together — combine tomatoes with a bunch of flavorings and blend. My secret ingredient is blending in a few strips of crisp bacon, which gives the mix extra heft and richness. As my friend and fellow tailgate aficionado Chris Erskine likes to say, “It’s like vodka gazpacho.”

———

FRENCH TOAST MUFFIN BITES

45 minutes, plus soaking time. Makes 12 muffins

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup milk

1/2 cup granulated sugar, divided

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 egg, beaten

2 egg yolks, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

8 cups stale bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 8 ounces)

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup chopped pecans

3 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Maple syrup, for drizzling

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the cream and milk, 1/4 cup sugar, cinnamon, egg and egg yolks and vanilla. Stir in the cubed French bread, tossing until the bread is coated. Set aside for 30 minutes to give the bread time to soak up the custard base.

2. While the bread is soaking, heat the oven to 375 degrees and make the streusel topping. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour with the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar and brown sugar, then stir in the pecans. Using your fingers, mix the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture is fully combined and has the consistency of wet sand; it will clump together when pressed.

3. Grease a standard muffin tin (insides and top) and divide the French toast mixture among the muffin cups, filling each about 3/4 full. Drizzle over the streusel mixture.

4. Bake the muffin bites until the bread is well-puffed and the topping is golden, about 30 minutes. The muffins will puff up dramatically while they bake, but will deflate shortly after coming out of the oven; they will puff up again if rewarmed.

5. Increase the heat to 425 degrees and continue to cook until the topping is crisp and golden-brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and serve, or set aside to cool and then refrigerate. Rewarm the muffin bites (still in the tin) in a 300 degree oven or over medium-low heat on the rack of a tailgate grill (watch carefully that they don’t overdarken or burn). Serve with warm maple syrup for drizzling.

Note: From Noelle Carter.

CHAGERMEISTER’S BREAKFAST CHILI

30 minutes, plus cooking time. Serves 6 to 8

1 pound breakfast sausage, browned and crumbled

1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled

9 hard-boiled eggs, diced

1 (10.75- ounce) can condensed cream of chicken soup

1 (10.75- ounce) can condensed cream of cheddar soup

1 soup can’s worth of milk (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 (15.5-ounce) can navy beans

4 green onions, minced

1 (4-ounce) can diced green chiles, drained

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper, to taste

The night before serving, in a large slow cooker, combine the sausage, bacon, eggs, cream of chicken and cheddar soups, milk, navy beans, green onions, chiles and cheddar cheese. Mix well and season to taste. Set the slow cooker to low heat and cook for 3 to 5 hours, up to overnight; the chili will be ready to serve when you wake up in the morning. Serve in a bowl with crumbled crackers, over hash browns or toasted English muffins.

Note: Adapted from a recipe by Chad Jaeger.

BACON BLOODY MARYS

30 minutes. Serves 6 to 12

BACON BLOODY MARY MIX

5 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and seeded (or 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes)

8 slices crisp bacon, crumbled

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

6 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 to 2 teaspoons hot sauce (preferably Tabasco for Bloody Marys, Tapatio for Bloody Marias), more if desired

4 to 6 teaspoons grated fresh horseradish

1 tablespoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper

2 teaspoons celery salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

6 martini olives and 2 tablespoons olive juice

In a blender, purée the tomatoes with the bacon, lemon juice, Worcestershire, chiles, garlic, hot sauce, horseradish, salt, pepper, celery salt, cayenne pepper (if using), ginger, olives and juice (this may need to be done in batches). Adjust seasonings and flavorings to taste. Refrigerate until needed; the mix tastes best made 1 day before using. This makes a generous 6 cups Bacon Bloody Mary Mix.

BACON BLOODY MARY COCKTAILS

6 cups bacon Bloody Mary mix

9 to 12 ounces vodka (or tequila if making Bloody Marias)

Barbecue sauce, for rimming the glasses

Coarse salt, for rimming the glasses

Crisp strips of bacon, for garnish

Martini olives or other pickled vegetables, for garnish

In a large pitcher, combine the Bloody Mary mix with the vodka, stirring to combine. Rim each of 6 glasses with barbecue sauce and coarse salt and fill halfway with ice. Divide the Bloody Mary mixture among the glasses, and garnish away. Serve immediately.