When Mario Batali recently blogged about blowing off a family potluck dinner, only a couple of eyebrows were raised in cyberspace. Apparently potlucks have such a dreary reputation that only the most cynical observer could fault him for holding off on eating until he reached a restaurant.
But while he is usually a trendsetter, for once he was behind the times. In reality, potlucks aren’t about casseroles and coleslaw anymore. Lately you’re as likely to encounter charred calamari with avocados, or a farmers market extravaganza of heirloom produce. This is the golden age of food, and for anyone who loves to cook, a potluck is an opportunity, not an obligation -- a chance to bring out your best with minimal effort. Whether the guest list is six or 16, after all, the party starts with a single dish.
And whether you’re giving or attending a potluck, the best course to claim is the big enchilada. The main dish should be the most dramatic, but it can also be the easiest. And once you choose it, everyone else works around it.
The division of labor (and expense) makes potlucks irresistible this time of year, when everyone seems to be in a fall’s-back frenzy with school and sports and the arts and of course the new season on television. Wait around for the perfect time to entertain from soup course to dessert and you could find yourself looking at Thanksgiving. Share the pleasure and you’ll be partying this weekend.
To cook for a potluck, you have to be both competitive and collaborative. You want your contribution to stand out -- the ride home is happiest with a totally empty dish -- but you also have to be sure it works with whatever else turns up on the table. And that’s what makes it fun.
Cook an entire dinner for guests and you can lose interest in the food after all that time alone in the kitchen with it. Cook just one dish to add to many and the novelty factor will make a whole new meal of it. A potluck should be all high points.
Impressive but easy
Two of my greatest hits fit another criterion for perfect potluck-ing: Not only do they taste great and look impressive with minimal work, but they also are conversation pieces. One is built on an ingredient that looks daunting but is absolutely approachable, and the other is a Mexican classic not often seen outside of El Paso, Texas, where I discovered it years ago at a restaurant called Casa Jurado.
Collard squares are like a very dense quiche with no cream and no troublesome crust. You just cook the well-washed greens with salt and garlic until they are soft, chop them up and mix them with eggs, shiitakes and cheese. Lots of cheese. Cut small, they are perfect hors d’oeuvres, but in big squares they are an excellent vegetarian entree.
People love collards. They just don’t know it until they taste this. Cooks would love them, too, but they are perceived as troublesome when all they need is careful cleaning and long, slow cooking. You could substitute Swiss chard or even spinach, but you lose the buzz factor.
Salpic?n, the Mexican salad made of shredded braised beef tossed with chiles and finely diced cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado and cheese, is usually served as a filling for warm corn tortillas. But it makes a very impressive main dish, mounded into a bowl lined with lettuce leaves, with a lime and chile dressing for heat and tanginess. Because it is best made in a large quantity, it is not something you might serve at home. It’s made for a party. (More traditional recipes call for pot roast, but brisket has richer flavor and is easier to shred.)
A new favorite comes courtesy of a friend who brought it to my potluck table: chicken braised with orzo, lemons and black olives. The combination is sensational and the technique so simple. Best of all you, get side dish and protein all in one dish. Her version is enough for four, but the proportions can be scaled up to serve up to 24.
I assumed this was an heirloom recipe, but my friend said she found it online, in that weird world where recipes duplicate themselves into infinity. Substituting fresh oregano for dried and homemade turkey stock for canned chicken broth turned it into something more sophisticated, though.
Another friend has made her reputation on the bread line: She makes amazing sandwiches in baguettes that are heated in the oven or on the grill, then cut into slabs to create a one-handed meal.
Sometimes she stuffs the baguette with roasted or grilled portobellos and mozzarella on a schmear of pesto; other times she uses just tomatoes and mozzarella. Or she makes cold sandwiches on focaccia, such as BLTs with mesclun filling in as the L word or deviled-egg salad (spiced with Dijon mustard and scallions) with smoked salmon diced in for a festive accent.
Another dazzling potluck main course is cooking teacher Karen Lee’s gingered side of salmon. The recipe’s in Susan Wyler’s “Cooking for a Crowd,” but it’s easy to improvise. Marinate a 4-pound slab of the fish on the skin side with a runny paste made with a couple of tablespoons of sesame seeds, half a cup of sherry, a little more than two tablespoons each soy sauce and sesame oil, two tablespoons of minced ginger, one of minced garlic and a little over half a cup of chopped scallions for an hour at room temperature. Broil it for 10 to 12 minutes. Garnished with lemon slices and scallion “brushes,” it’s a stunning presentation with excellent flavor even served cold. (If you need a main course for 16 to 20, you can use two sides of a whole salmon.)
Imagine even the best chef in America walking away from that.