Summer means entertaining, and entertaining often means potlucks.
I love them — I’ve had some really delicious and inspiring food at potlucks. You do run the risk, however, of attending the sad, hungry potluck: three kinds of chips, two liters of off-brand soda and an assortment of packaged dips.
When I mentioned that I was writing this column to a new friend, she was very excited about the subject.
“If you give them ideas, maybe people will stop bringing hummus and baby carrots,” she said. “Or pre-made deli trays.”
Before we get to recipes, however, here are some basic rules for winning at potlucks:
* Label your food. You can get all Martha Stewart with a beautiful hand-lettered sign listing ingredients in descending order, or you can write “salmon loaf, contains fish and dairy” on a piece of masking tape, but you have to label it somehow so the other guests don’t die.
* Another “don’t kill anyone” rule: keep hot things hot and cold things cold. If you can’t, then remember that anything perishable that’s been at room temp for more than two hours should be thrown away rather than saved for later. (It’s generally fine to leave potluck foods out to eat for as long as four hours, but after two hours at room temp you don’t want to save it for the next day — it will sit in the fridge multiplying bacteria and that’s just not good.)
* Take your food in semi-disposable containers. I stock up on tin baking pans at the Dollar Store and ceramic dishes at SPCA Thrift. It’s adding an extra burden to your host to expect him to wash and return your grannie’s Fire King casserole dish.
* Don’t forget serving utensils! Also available at SPCA Thrift for a song.
* If your world-famous potluck dish requires the use of an oven or freezer, talk to your host well ahead of time. They may have plans that make that impossible, and there’s no good way to tell a guest who arrives with a smile and an ice cream cake that the freezer is full of tequila Popsicle molds.
If you’ve got all that, then what should you bring?
If you don’t cook — or don’t have time to cook — but want to bring something better than hummus and baby carrots, consider bringing:
* A couple of nice cheeses
* Homemade tuna salad (tuna, mayo, mustard, minced onion/pepper/pickles)
* Olive oil and vinegar (the Co-op has both in bulk) with a loaf of really good bread to dip
* A green salad (in a pinch, assemble one at a salad bar) (don’t forget dressing)
If you’re short on cash:
* Freshly popped popcorn tossed with salt and spices
* Freshly cut carrot & celery sticks with a sour cream/garlic/dill dip
* White beans cooked with garlic and salt, drained and pureed with a little oil to make the best inexpensive bean dip ever.
And, finally, if you cook, but want something new to make:
You can grill the ingredients a day or two ahead of time, which is nice if you know you have a potluck coming up. Serve this salsa with tortilla chips.
Grilled peach and sweet pepper salsa
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 teaspoon adobo sauce (or to taste)
1 tablespoon lime juice
1-2 chipotle peppers en adobo
2 large peaches, ripe but still firm
1 sweet bell pepper
1 onion, sweet if possible
additional olive oil
Mix together olive oil, garlic, adobo sauce and lime juice. Chop the chipotle peppers and add to the olive oil mix. Set aside.
Cut peaches in half and remove pit. Brush cut sides with oil. Peel onion and slice in thick slices. Brush with oil. Grill peaches, turning once, until fragrant and tender, 3-5 minutes per side. Grill onions, turning once, until golden, about 3 minutes per side. Grill whole sweet pepper until charred, turning frequently, about 8 minutes, then place in paper bag. Let peaches and onions cool, then chop roughly. Peel and seed sweet pepper and chop. Mix all ingredients and let stand for at least 15 minutes. Taste and correct seasonings.
This is a classic, and grand for potlucks. It can be made with a layer of ground beef added if you like, but it’s not really necessary.
2 cups refried beans
½ cup shredded cheddar cheese
(1-2 teaspoon hot sauce)
½ cup chopped green onions
1-2 cups salsa
2 cans sliced ripe olives, drained
1 avocado, diced and salted
1 cup sour cream
Taste beans and add hot sauce if desired. Spread beans in a layer in the bottom of dip bowl. Sprinkle with a few spoonfuls of salsa. Layer avocado on top, and sprinkle with salsa. Continue adding layers and salsa, ending with sour cream. Serve with plenty of chips.
Cheeseballs are so classic that they’re now retro, and people will think you’re very clever if you make one. You can tuck away unused bits of cheese in the freezer to make this, assuming you’re the sort of person who has unused bits of cheese. Serve with a sliced baguette or seeded crackers.
1/2 pound firmer cheese
1/2 pound softer cheese
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 cup liquid — cream, white wine, brandy
1/2 cup ground nuts, shredded fresh herbs or what-have-you
salt, pepper and hot peppers to taste
Remove inedible bits from cheese (plastic, wax, rind, paper, etc.). Whizz cheeses and garlic in food processor. Add liquid as needed to create a firm yet smooth, creamy spread. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. Scrape cheese out on to parchment paper and chill until it can be shaped into a ball. Roll in nuts or herbs and refrigerate. Best if removed from fridge 30 minutes before serving.
Cold salads are nice to take to potlucks. If you make chicken, rice and green beans for dinner during the week, you can cook extra to make this salad. Amounts are all approximate.
Chicken and rice salad
4 cups cooked rice
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons vinegar
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons soy sauce
¼ cup pecans
1 cup cooked chicken
1 cup cooked green beans
¼ cup golden raisins
Place vinegar, soy sauce and crushed garlic in a bowl. Whisk in olive oil a little at a time to form a dressing. Mix rice, green beans, chicken, pecans and raisins. Add dressing a little at a time.
This is a pantry salad, and a good thing to know about if you’re a last-minute party sort of person. If you have basil growing in your yard, you can substitute that for the cilantro.
Sweet corn salad
8 ounces frozen corn, thawed
4 ounces black beans, drained
1 cup roasted sweet pepper, cut into bites
1 bunch green onions, cleaned and cut into 1-inch lengths
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
14 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
(1 avocado, diced, optional)
1 teaspoon honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
few drops pepper sauce, if desired
salt to taste
In a small bowl, mix together vinegar, honey, pepper sauce and salt. Gradually whisk in oil to form an emulsion.
Mix together vegetables. Add dressing and toss.
If you want to take a hot dish, one that will stay warm and taste good at room temperature is best. Both tamale casserole and baked beans fit the bill, although they’re generally gobbled up before they cool down.
2 cups plain pinto beans
1 onion, sliced thin
1 bell pepper, sliced thin
1/2 cup grated cheese
1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn
1/3 cup salsa
2/3 cup masa*
3 tablespoons softened butter
1 cup vegetable broth, mixed with
¼ teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Cream 1/3 of the masa with the butter. Add enough vegetable broth to masa to make a thick batter and beat vigorously. Alternate masa and broth until you have a thick but pourable batter. You may not need all the broth, or you may need additional hot water. Spread beans in greased casserole dish & layer other ingredients on top in the order given, ending with salsa. Pour/spoon batter over top of casserole. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Uncover and bake another 20 minutes until browned.
*don’t substitute cornmeal — it’s not the same.
This is an absurdly simple but delicious recipe.
Mom’s baked beans
2 cans baked beans — Amy’s are good
2 tablespoons tomato catsup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Handful of finely minced raw onion
(4 strips of bacon)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an oiled casserole dish, mix together all ingredients except bacon. If using bacon, lay strips across top of beans. Bake, uncovered, 1 hour, until thick and bubbly, and bacon has crisped.
Cheese scones are very simple to make, but people will think you’re a genius for making them. Use any cheese/herb combination that you like. Cooked crumbled bacon is a fine addition.
1 cups all-purpose white flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 teaspoons fresh herbs
1/2 cup grated cheese
(2 slices bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled)
2/3 cup buttermilk
Melted butter for brushing
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together. Cut the butter into the flour until it has the consistency of cornmeal. Stir in cheese and herbs, and bacon if using. Add milk and stir; add more milk if needed to get a firm but slightly wet dough. Knead a bit, then shape into a rectangle about the size of a hard-backed book. Cut into 24 pieces — we like triangles, but suit yourself. Separate and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Brush tops with melted butter. Bake about 12 minutes, until nicely browned.
This is a beautiful cold soup that is refreshing for hot weather potlucks. Take paper cups along to serve it in.
Curried cucumber soup
2 ¼ cups plain non-fat yogurt
1 ¼ pounds cucumber
1 clove garlic
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon lemon curry powder
Peel, seed and dice cucumber, and reserve ¼ cup diced cucumber. Put remaining cucumber and garlic in blender and puree. Stir salt, cumin and curry into yogurt. Mix puree, yogurt and reserved cucumber and chill about 2 hours. Thin with a little cold water if it thickens too much.