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How to Have a Potluck Dinner with Panache

The best “spontaneous” potluck parties are the result of skillful guest-list and menu planning

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the term “potluck” has been used since the 16th century to refer to an unexpected dinner guest’s good (or bad) fortune of being served whatever was in the pot. Quaint as that sounds, when I’m hosting a potluck dinner, I don’t want to leave that much to chance. Even though the fun is in the surprise mix of different people’s contributions, a successful potluck dinner requires some invisible, skillful hands guiding the menu to keep it balanced.

Start With the Guests

Not merely a feast, a potluck supper is a social event and should never be confused with a business meeting with food. When you walk into a room where most of the guests are in one profession, conversation typically turns to shop talk, and those not in that field are left out. By mixing friends or acquaintances from unconnected areas of your life, these casual encounters stimulate conversation and make the event livelier and more festive.

A carefully chosen guest list is as important as the menu. A key component is at least one skilled conversationalist who easily mingles with people he or she doesn't know. My friend Moira Crabtree is a former IRS attorney and a passionate cook. I frequently invite her because equally as important to her as the food is finding out about people's backgrounds. Genuinely curious, she listens when others speak, then picks up the thread and asks questions back. I’ve seen her engage on topics as divergent as knitting, transvestites and where to go for the best yard sales.

I also try to invite a fellow foodie or professional chef, who are kind of rock stars at events where everyone has contributed a dish. I love to include my butcher, Sal Biancardi, a former trader who left Wall Street to work in his family’s meat store on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. He’s sure to bring an exceptional meat dish, and he’s wonderfully conversant about travel and economics. When people hear his career trajectory, they grill him for advice on cooking techniques and investing.

Foreign visitors who are comfortable speaking English also make terrific guests. Nuno Guerrero, a Portuguese-born friend and colleague of my daughter Nicole at Google, brings a lot more than great Douro wines to a party. Being a passionate 30-something, he tells entertaining and hilarious stories about his travels and life at the Googleplex.

Often I’ll throw a potluck in honor of someone visiting from overseas. When Ingrid Petermann, my guide in Nuremberg a few years ago, came to see me, I did just that to introduce her to friends. She is steeped in her city’s history, both bad and good, so I prevailed on her to share some of her experiences at the Museum of Tolerance, on Hitler’s former parade grounds, where she is a volunteer. Guests were riveted by her tales of teaching young children about prejudice and how the younger generation is coming to grips with Germany's past.

When it comes to mixing up age groups, I find it similar to shuffling professions and interests: We can all engage and learn from one another. If a group is composed of mostly younger people — or seniors — however, then the one or two guests from a vastly different age bracket might feel out of place. Of course, it depends on the individual. I have friends in their 80s who actually prefer socializing with much younger people, and vice versa.

In a large gathering, I’ll continue to introduce guests to one another throughout the party, being sure to include an interesting fact about each of them. For seated meals, I’ve had guests change places from one course to the next to give them a chance to meet even more people.

Plan the Menu Carefully

Good conversation is important, but it can’t sate our hunger. People come to potluck suppers ready to eat heartily, so having plenty of food is essential. Even more critical is a balanced menu. I remember showing up at a potluck with my killer mac ’n’ cheese only to discover that two other guests had brought their killer mac ’n’ cheese. And there were four salads (only one of which was worth a return trip) and not enough main courses. No one lingered and many went home hungry.

To avoid such scenarios, start by organizing the general menu into categories: appetizers, starters/salads, main courses, sides, desserts. Once you’ve created your guest list and know your final head count, divide that number by the number of categories to determine how many dishes you’ll need in each group. While you want to encourage people to do their own (favorite) thing, it makes life easier — and for a better party — if you assign each guest a specific category.

Start with strongest cooks and get their, then everyone’s, suggestions for what they’d like to bring (it’s their party, too), but tread lightly: You don’t want to offend anyone. Give the main courses to the best and most enthusiastic cooks. Remember to ask about dietary restrictions then notify the entire group. I once made what I thought was a vegetarian soup only to discover that there was fish sauce in the Thai curry paste. The lesson in that is to instruct everyone to read labels carefully.

If someone has a specialty or expertise in a certain area, start there and see if you can build a menu around that. A few general tips: Remind guests that the best potluck dishes come completely finished and, better yet, on a platter only needing minor attention once they arrive. People should bring the proper serving utensil, as well as containers to cart home leftovers. And while many people will automatically bring the host a bottle of wine, if you don’t want to supply it all, give guests guidance on what kind of wine will nicely complement the meal.

If you must err on the side of one category, choose hors d’oeuvres. This casual course allows guests time to put the finishing touches on whatever they have brought and it lets me wrap up last-minute details. If a guest is uninterested in cooking or not particularly adept, I suggest they buy a dessert, cheese, bread or drinks. Even napkins, ice and plates can be assigned.

Be sure to inform guests how many people each dish should serve. If you’re expecting 12 and have two main courses, figure at least two-thirds a serving per person per dish (enough for eight) so everyone can taste everything. People tend to eat smaller dessert portions, but you can be sure that even if there are four or five choices, they’ll sample most of them. There should be enough for seconds, but it’s a real no-no if a platter is empty before most everyone has been served the first time, so reserve a little of each dish in the kitchen just to be safe.

Now Pull It All Together

While it’s not essential, a theme can unify the food and enhance a party. My niece Dana Mahoney, who lives in Montana, hosted a potluck Mexican fiesta. To ensure success, along with suggesting recipes, she emailed online sources for hard-to-find ingredients as well as a little history of the cuisine. Her table décor included Mexican crockery, a colorful serape and a small piñata in the center of the table. Short on matching dishes, she alternated two patterns: one yellow, the other blue.

Last Thanksgiving, my son Justin and his wife, Lindsey, were the only family members able to make it home. My favorite holiday was looking decidedly nonfestive until my downstairs neighbors suggested that the three apartments in our building split the work and celebrate together. Because this feast hangs on personal traditions, we talked through the menu to be sure we were all comfortable with everyone else’s choices.

So accompanying my traditional oven-roasted turkey and roasted butternut squash soup with Mexican mole, one neighbor made his Aunt Sissy’s tangy cranberry-orange relish and whipped sweet potatoes. His Bavarian girlfriend made an apple strudel, and our vegan neighbor contributed stir-fry (with vegetarian sausage bites), all of which added up to one memorable Thanksgiving.

My one absolute rule for potluck suppers is to get as much done ahead of time as possible. Do you have enough cutlery, plates, glassware, serving utensils and toilet paper? (Don’t laugh. That could be a disaster.) I always leave a clean stack of plastic containers to guests to bring home food in case they don't bring their own. Ask guests ahead of time what their stove, oven and equipment needs will be. How about refrigerator/freezer space? Mother Nature might work if it’s cold out, but be mindful under all conditions of safety issues and always cover dishes left outdoors. Should you bring in extra chairs or move the tables? Map out in your head where all the food will be placed.

The following two recipes are original creations that I’ve served at numerous parties. They're simple to prepare, and no matter who’s in attendance, I’ve found them to be virtually foolproof crowd-pleasers — with apologies to vegetarians.

Caviar Dip with Potato Chips 
This dip is the ultimate in shabby-chic entertaining. You don’t need expensive caviar (I buy a 2-ounce jar at the supermarket for about $8), and a little goes a long way). Even “non-caviar” people love it, and thicker, hand-cut style potato chips (like Kettle brand with sea salt) make perfect scoopers.

1 (8-ounce) container regular or low-fat sour cream
1 (2-ounce) jar red caviar
2 large eggs, hard-boiled and finely shredded
1 large scallion, mostly white and light parts, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 or 2 bags thick-cut potato chips

Gently mix all the ingredients together. Transfer to a serving bowl, refrigerate until needed, and serve with a basket of potato chips.

Spinach, Mushroom, Scallion and Feta Cheese Frittata
Serves 12–15 as an hors d’oeuvre; 4 to 5 as a first course

Frittatas are flat Italian omelets made with eggs and almost any other ingredient you like. They’re a good way to use up leftovers and are wonderful party fare as you can make them ahead and serve at room temperature.

5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon water
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces white mushrooms, trimmed, wiped and thinly sliced
1/2 cup scallions, green parts included, thinly sliced
4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed very dry
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Pinch of ground red pepper
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Beat the eggs and water in a large bowl until blended.
2. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil on medium until hot. Add the mushrooms and sauté until just wilted, about 1 to 2 minutes, stirring often. Add the scallions and cook an additional 30 seconds. Scrape them into the egg mixture. Add the feta, spinach, dill, nutmeg, salt, red pepper and ground pepper, and mix well.
3. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet over high heat until hot. Pour in the egg mixture and shake the skillet to distribute the ingredients evenly. Immediately lower the heat to medium-low. After 7 or 8 minutes, begin to loosen the edges with a knife or spatula, gradually working under the entire frittata. Shake to be sure that it's completely free.
4. Invert a plate just larger than the skillet over the pan. Using potholders or mitts, hold the plate and skillet together with both hands and flip it over so the frittata falls onto the plate. Slide the frittata back into the skillet and gently pat it down if lumpy. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes longer until it is cooked through. (Alternatively, instead of flipping, you can place the pan in a preheated 400ºF oven and let it finish cooking for the remaining time.)
5. Loosen, if necessary, slide onto a plate, cool to room temperature, then cut into 1-inch squares. Serve with toothpicks, if desired.

Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.

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