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Potluck Perfection

Advice for hosting a community feast from one of America's top cookbook authors.
 

Learning Benefits

When I was a child, potlucks were a strong part of my neighborhood’s social fabric. At the pool or the park, after church or in the yard, this is how we gathered to connect, relax, celebrate, and enjoy. Sharing a meal forms strong friendships and helps to establish a caring community. It also lightens each family’s grocery shopping and cooking duties on occasion, while providing a fun, informal way to sample new foods and collect recipes. Whether you host a potluck or help plan one, the following ideas can help make this great American tradition a success.

 

Time it right. These get-togethers naturally work well on weekends or around holidays when everyone’s more relaxed and in festive spirits. Weeknight evenings can be great, too, because it makes dinner easy to prepare (just one dish!) and gives you something to look forward to. If you have young kids or the potluck is outdoors, keep it early and on the short side so you can stick to bedtimes and the children can play in the daylight.

 

Plan the guest list. My theory is, as many as space will allow. If you’re organizing a dinner in your home, you may only want to invite a family or two. If you’re having a picnic in the park, you can include a whole slew of revelers. Set up a weekly meal with family and friends, and, once a month, get to know your neighbors better by dining with a different group each time.

 

Split the menu. Encourage variety. Kids adore mini portions and finger foods, making grilled chicken tenders, skewered shrimp, or Pad Thai in lettuce cups great options even for picky eaters. For small groups, ask each family to bring an appetizer, side dish, or dessert, and prepare the main course yourself. For bigger gatherings, divide the dishes evenly, including main plates. However carefully you calculate, expect to do a little flying by the seat of your pants. That’s the fun of it!

 

Choose your dish. Salads, sides, and desserts are my personal favorites. Salads change with the season, appeal to vegetarians, and often sit well at room temperature. For sides, I like potato gratin and deviled eggs. The first only requires a quick reheating, and the second is served chilled — both easy to make ahead of time. If you’re hosting, ask about dietary
restrictions so you can select the main dish accordingly.

 

Carry carefully. “Have food, will travel” is pretty much my rule, with the exception of fussy frozen desserts and saucy casseroles that might spill in my car. You can tote almost anything, even soups, when you use secure containers like thermoses or hermetic storage jars. Take salads and side dishes in serving containers covered with a plastic snap-on lid, plastic wrap, or foil. Desserts may need a bit more care in transport. I recommend cake carriers with locking lids and a handle. Cover warm pies with foil, and keep cold pies chilled in a portable cooler with ice. Cupcakes, bars, and brownies are easily carried in the pans in which they were baked.

 

Involve the kids. They can assist with just about every step. Give the youngest simple tasks, such as helping to pick out a watermelon or icing cupcakes. Invite older children to help choose recipes, measure some ingredients, or prepare toppings for chili. If you’re the host, kids can design the invitations, help tidy the home or yard, and help set up chairs and put out silverware.

 

Let the guests roll in. In colonial America, travelers stopping by a tavern or home were served what was simmering in the pot, taking “pot luck.” Borne of a generous spirit and the appreciation for good company, these meals are a time for kicking back, chatting, and filling your belly with a varied, warming meal. They present a unique chance to see your picky eater wolf down zucchini, your son save a seat for his younger brother, or your little girl fill her plate all by herself. Potlucks are like holiday feasts any night of the year: a brilliant way to enjoy the bounty of good food, good friends, and good fun.

 

Anne's Recipes

 

Deviled Eggs

Ingredients

6 large eggs

2 Tbsp mayonnaise, more as needed

2 Tbsp sweet pickle relish, plus some of its liquid (optional)

1 tsp Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Paprika or chopped parsley, for garnish

  1. Hard boil the eggs and peel them under cool running water, starting at the large end. Slice the eggs in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place them in a small bowl. Set aside the whites.
  2. Add the mayonnaise, pickle relish, and mustard to the yolks and mix, mashing the yolks with a fork. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add more mayonnaise or some of the sweet pickle liquid if the yolk mixture is too dry.
  3. Spoon the yolk mixture into the hollows of the egg whites and place them on a serving plate. For a fancier look, spoon the egg yolk mixture into a resealable plastic bag, snip off one corner, and pipe the mixture into the hollows of the egg whites. Sprinkle the tops of the eggs with paprika or chopped parsley.

Makes 12 deviled eggs

 

Boursin Potato Gratin

Ingredients

2 cups heavy cream

1 pkg (5 oz) Boursin cheese with black pepper

2 Tbsp minced shallots (2 medium-size)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tsp olive oil

2 1⁄2 lbs Yukon Gold or red-skinned potatoes, peeled and sliced 1⁄3-inch thick (about 8 cups)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 Tbsp minced fresh chives

1⁄2 cup (2 oz) shredded Parmesan cheese (optional)

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional), for garnish

  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. Place the cream, Boursin, shallots, and garlic in a medium-size saucepan over low heat. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, stirring until the Boursin melts and the mixture thickens.
  3. Meanwhile, brush a 13" x 9" glass or ceramic baking dish with the olive oil. Arrange half the potato slices in the baking dish, overlapping as needed. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the chives on top.
  4. Pour half of the Boursin mixture over the potatoes. Arrange the remaining potato slices on top, season them with salt and pepper, and scatter the remaining chives over them. Pour the remaining Boursin mixture over the potatoes. Scatter the Parmesan cheese on top, if desired.
  5. Bake the gratin, uncovered, until it is deeply browned and the potatoes are tender, 45 to 50 minutes. You can serve the gratin at once, garnished with chopped parsley, if desired, or let it rest 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

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