Summer is a time for relaxing. Especially in the Okanagan where it feels hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk most days, most of us aren’t too keen to cook often.
When people are gathering, it can be a lot of fun to have everyone contribute a bit of something. Then no one works too hard, and everyone enjoys the benefit. Potluck is an old word, first recorded in the 16th century. Back then it was said to mean: "food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot".
In many cultures the concept of feeding one more soul is an expectation of good will—we can always make a plate of something for one more person at the table.
The modern notion of everyone bringing something to share is thought to have become more common during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when many people didn’t have much but they still wanted to share good will and good food. Nowadays, a potluck may be more to define. People might be designated to bring a certain course for a progressive meal, or assigned a dish to prevent too much of the same thing. I remember in the 1980s, the joke in my group of friends was that a potluck was often just a collection of pasta salads.
This week, I offer a few tips to avoid a boring or lacklustre potluck event. I will even offer suggestions for those who don’t like to cook but have been invited anyway (no judgement, this is a “more the merrier” environment, remember.)
General potluck rules are important. The definition of this thing is that everyone brings something, so don’t arrive empty-handed. If it’s a smaller event, your dish should provide everyone a taste. If the event is bigger, like a church supper, then usually there is plenty of choice, so you offer a family-size portion to the total.
One other note for the host—disposable plastic cutlery and plates are becoming a thing of the past, so plan to rent cutlery and possibly plates if necessary. You can use compostable plates, but many compostable utensils are not strong enough for tasks like cutting beef or chicken.
On the topic of utensils, remember to bring one for your dish. If the event is a large one, put your name on your dish and utensil so you can easily find them once the party is over.
So, here we go with the secrets to being the king or queen of the potluck:
• Plan smart – Don’t go thinking you can make a complicated Ottolenghi appetizer at the end of a busy work week for that potluck Friday night. Save that recipe for a day you can enjoy all those steps and work on a simple salad you can dress at the event, or perhaps a favourite cookie or square that you bake.
• Ask the host for details—Is there a theme or are they providing multiple dishes themselves? It’s good to know the expectations of the host beforehand, so you can decide if another main course item is appropriate, or a side dish might be better. If you are the host, guide your guests so you can have a meal with some consistency (not with multiple pasta salads).
• Choose something you’re good at—This is not the time to practice that recipe you saved on the Internet or watched Jamie Oliver prepare on last week’s show. Show off your signature dish, even if it’s a simple devilled egg or chocolate chip cookie.
• Dress up your dish—Presentation counts. You are “selling” your contribution to the masses, so make sure it is appealing. Choose a nice container if possible, and if that means a Tupperware dish, think of a nice garnish to gild the lily, as my Grandma used to say. As a guest, don’t be like Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail” and eat all the garnish. That will make you stand out in entirely the wrong way.
• If you cook, find a local specialty to bring—Even local grocery stores will have featured items like a local condiment you could bring with crackers and cheese. There is always a neighbourhood bakery or deli – ask a colleague, friend, or family member for suggestions. Your thoughtfulness will be noticed by the host and other guests.
If you are a foodie, then here is an easy Ottolenghi salad recipe I used recently to share with friends (I swear, it is easy – took me 20 minutes to make). (link: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/feb/12/spiced-chickpea-salad-vegetarian-recipe )
It’s early for many garden veggies to come from my house, but in a few weeks, I could supply most of these ingredients, which is my summer specialty.
My hacks to make it easier include using rinsed canned chickpeas instead of cooking dried ones, and feel free to substitute other veggies if you prefer (I used a yellow zucchini as the farm market had those instead of red peppers).
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.