The Gourmet Potluck
Gourmet Potluck is a gem of a book. It did not have large sales, but that was not because the recipes are not fantastic. It just didn’t get a lot of notice through marketing. It is a small handbook for food that is appropriate to take to a potluck, a type of entertaining that is increasingly popular these days as an alternative to restaurants and catering. There are 50 recipes and lots of photos for inspiration. The Filo Green Tart with Fresh Dill and Feta on the cover is easy for a beginning cook to have it turn out just like it looks. As a caterer for twenty years, I know a lot about the foods that are most appropriate for group meals and how to carry them to a site outside your own kitchen. So this is a book perfect for the new cook who wants to know the ins and outs of entertaining cookery. The front material is very detailed on how to plan, cook, store, transport, reheat, and the final presentation of dishes at serving. The menus are divided by season. The recipes are slightly more fancy than every day cooking and suitable for holidays. Here are some quick tips:
- Contact the person co-ordinating the event to assess if you can bring anything you want or if there is a theme or special category to guide your choice.
- Always ask how many guests to prepare for. Since there are many dishes on a potluck table, a small casserole will feed double the amount than if you were preparing it at home as a main dish.
- Be sure to also ask about guests' special dietary needs and known food allergies. Ingredients like pork, shellfish, coconut, garlic, or peanuts can be disastrous if someone is allergic. If you are on a special diet, bring a dish you can eat in case you cannot eat anything else on the buffet.
- Go for a dish that is appetizing to a wide range of palates. When in doubt, simplicity is the best strategy for cooking for crowds. Don't pass up straightforward, savory, down-home food--or one of your special favorites-- just because you want to impress.
- The most successful potluck creations have been those in which all the ingredients and flavors are easily recognizable and not messy to eat; even the hungriest buffet guest will pass up a dish that mystifies. Some of my favorites: Tortellini pasta salad, baked corn pudding, scalloped potatoes, cold sliced filet of beef with a cold sauce, stuffed-under-the-skin boneless chicken breasts (cut in half), a big pile of chicken drumsticks (great for kids), cold prawns with the tails on, layered vegetable and/or meat casseroles with cooked rice, any manner of enchiladas, baked beans, great big crudite plate with one or two dips, and for dessert, an oversized platter of homebaked cookies.
- Consider contributing a fully-prepared dish that is served at room temperature so you will not have any last minute on-site preparation.
- Search out and purchase basic, practical serving platters, casserole dishes, and bowls in advance for your favorite dishes. For over-sized rectangular casserole dishes that are also able to go into the freezer, I prefer the French Emile Henry line, as their glaze is so heavy it is virtually non-stick and they come in lovely lush colors.
- Transporting food is a tricky business. You need to plan carefully, pack well, and often, drive carefully as well.
- Be prepared to give the recipe for your dish is someone asks.
- After placing your dish on the buffet, enjoy yourself and eat hearty!
Gourmet Potluck How-To Guide: What Can I Bring? (Excerpt)
At some point each of us has been called upon to either organize a buffet for a crowd or bring a prepared dish to a gathering of friends. Holiday celebrations, New Years' Eve buffets, office parties, baby showers, professional committee meetings, sports events (from tailgates to little league victory parties), Friday night card games, school or church gatherings, barbecues, and countless other get-togethers usually have one thing in common: good food.
When asked to provide food for a gathering, you might quickly brush over the details of the invitation, categorizing it in the back of your mind as simply one quick stop at the supermarket. But in reality, selecting the right dish for a potluck requires a multi-step process of elimination and decisions.
This isn't a difficult or time-consuming thing to do, but the success of your edible contribution is dependent upon making the right choices. No one wants to see their culinary creation languishing on the buffet table at the end of the party, untouched by the other guests.
1. Type of Event and Time of Day
In order to identify the type of event your host envisions, do a little detective work. (If you are the host, be sure to offer this information to your guests bringing food.) Food served at a fancy black-tie buffet should differ significantly from that chosen for an outdoor tailgate party in the parking lot of the local sports arena. It seems guests are usually hungriest during the 4 to 6 p.m. time frame (after lunch and before dinner), so plan accordingly.
- Is it a brunch, lunch, dinner, office party, birthday party, bridal shower, or an evening dinner buffet?
- Will this be held in a private home (indoors or outside?), or in an office, public recreation center, a skating rink, or church hall?
- Is it a buffet where guests will be able to sit-down meal or will some be expected to hold on to a plate while standing? (These awkward balancing fetes call for "fork foods" that require no knives.)
- Are you familiar with the other guests, and what is your common bond? (A room full of long-haul truck drivers may not appreciate a cannelloni when they can have chili. You don't want to bring a cold roast of veal to a group of predominantly vegetarians.)
- Will the group all exclusively adult, or will there also be children? (Grandmas usually have different party-food expectations than 6 year olds.)
2. Number of Guests
You will prepare food for a specific number of guests. The host should let you know if your contribution will be part of a casual taste-of- this-and-that, or a dish that is the proper size to adequately feed all of the guests. What you choose to serve 10 will differ markedly from what you might offer a crowd of 50.
3. Time of Year and Availability
For both economy of cost and maximum flavor, try to cook according to the seasons. Consider the season of the year and the foods that are readily available at that time. The tomatoes that your friends raved about in August would be an anemic, flavorless choice for a February potluck. Hard winter squash, brussels sprouts, and chestnuts are rarely available-or appropriate-for a summer gathering; nor is fresh corn or asparagus available for Thanksgiving. Fall and winter dishes, roasted root vegetables and creamy turkey rice casseroles, are generally heartier than the composed main dish salads and room temperature foods favored in the spring and summer.
4. Balancing the Existing Menu
It's okay to be a little nosy. Ask the host what else is being served as side dishes and complement what is already on the menu. There's no point in bringing your famous Mexican green chile tortilla casserole if three other people are bringing their special Mexican casseroles. If the host is providing a substantial pasta salad, this is definitely not the time to show up with a pot of ravioli or your signature Tuna Wiggle casserole. Nor does anyone need two glazed hams. Use your knowledge of composing a balanced meal and fill in the blanks. If you have a particular specialty, be polite and ask whether the host considers it appropriate for the occasion. Be sure to also ask about guests' special dietary needs and known food allergies. Ingredients like pork, shellfish, coconut, garlic, or peanuts can be disastrous if someone is allergic.
5. The On-Site Facility and Last Minute Preparation
Ask in advance whether refrigerator space, a cooktop, microwave, oven, or even counter space is available to you. This is imperative if your dish requires any special handling to store, heat, slice, or otherwise finish before serving. There is nothing worse than bringing an ice-cold casserole that needs to be reheated for 45 minutes and suddenly learn there is no room in the oven, or that the oven is too small to accommodate the roasting pan you made it in. Next to the heating arrangements, the next most calamitous cooking condition is lack of refrigerator space for your salmon pasta salad or jumbo shrimp, especially in summer months. In many instances, you may want to contribute a fully-prepared dish that is served at room temperature and generates no kitchen angst.
6. Your Time Frame and Level of Ability
If the potluck is scheduled during a very busy time in your life, don't feel obliged to show off with an overly-complicated dish that requires hours of preparation and leaves you frazzled. There are times that minimalist food--clean, plain, and non-taxing--is the perfect choice. Choose something best suited to the time you actually have available; maybe something like a simple composed salad or roast turkey breast. Consider the tastes, style, and preference of a given dining group; cosmopolitan diners recognize smoked salmon and dried porcini mushrooms while casual diners may like an old-fashioned Ground Beef and Noodle Casserole or enchiladas. Don't pass up straightforward, savory, down-home food just because you want to impress your guests. One-dish casseroles and dishes, such as chili, stews, baked lemon chicken over couscous, or paella, are great because they can be made ahead of time and reheated, as well as eliminating complex cleanup and clutter.
A tip to the wise: Unless this is a casual gathering of close friends, it is best not to experiment with complex new dishes. (In other words, save that Crown Roast of Veal Prince Orloff or Chicken Wellington recipe to try on your family first.) If you love to experiment with new dishes, allow yourself some "oops" time. If you make a mistake, be prepared to improvise a last-minute cosmetic makeover, such as masking a less-than-gorgeous entrée with a quick sauce, or disguising the bumpy lunar surface of a casserole with lots of cheese. Or, in the worst case scenario, starting over from scratch at the eleventh hour, even if it means making something completely different, that you know to be tried and true or pick up a shrimp platter at the seafood counter on your way to the party.
Easiest Dishes: Pasta, cold sliced filet of beef, stuffed chicken breasts, chicken drumsticks, layered casseroles with cooked rice, couscous, enchiladas, canned bean chili.
Most Difficult Dishes: Anything with puff pastry on the outside and meat on the inside, pasta or vegetable casseroles with multiple sauce preparations. Fussy sauces that can lump or curdle when reheated, or must be served quickly or at a specific temperature.
Least Expensive Dishes: Chicken, beans, canned tuna, pasta, tortillas, polenta, sauces with canned tomatoes, seasonal vegetables, and crépes.
Most Expensive Dishes: Veal, beef, lamb, sushi, prawns, or salmon. Wild rice, dried mushrooms, and any specialty vegetable out of season.