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Pleasures of Potluck; Dinners are a way for folks to get together with friends -- and enjoy some crowd-pleasing dishes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Want to throw a low-stress, low-cost, minimal-labor party for a crowd? Do what New York photographer Ellen Watson did when she invited 80 friends to help celebrate her husband's 44th birthday. "I just grilled some chicken," said Watson, "and everyone else brought the rest. I've done a lot of potluck dinners over the years. It's a great way to entertain a very large group, save time and experiment with lots of new foods."

Watson is not alone in her enthusiasm. These days the potluck dinner, once thought of as suitable mainly for church functions and block parties, is enjoying a major comeback. "It's one of the easiest ways to entertain, and it's something that focuses on your guests," said Allana Baroni, author of "Simplify the Holidays" (Readers Digest, $17.95).

While it's true that potluck dinners have been given a few bad raps in the past, some former critics have become eager proponents. Initially, in "Emily Post's Entertaining" (HarperPerennial, $20), author Peggy Post offered the opinion that the potluck party "does not take the place of the party you truly give for your friends. As long as you can afford to provide even the simplest food and drink, you should accept the entire responsibility."

But more recently, when reached by telephone, Post qualified that view. "I think potluck parties can be terrific," she said. "The potluck dinner enables people who are short on time and short on funds to get together with friends. And that," she said, "is the most important part of entertaining, more important than having a super-fancy whatever."

Today's potluck dinner can be as fancy (or as plain) as the host or hostess likes. That's because it's no longer about potluck; the best potluck parties involve careful planning.

How does premeditated potluck work? Most of the time, said Lori Walther Powell, a food editor at Gourmet, the host or hostess is responsible for the main course. "Decide what it will be," Powell said, "and then tell everybody else, so they can plan around that. Just make sure to monitor everything so that you end up with a sensible meal." Not 12 desserts and one vegetable.

Frank Allison, a professional bridge player who entertains often in his Hempstead, N.Y., home, has his own way of planning. "I don't tell people what to bring; I just give them a category," Allison said. "I generally ask people to bring an appetizer, salad, vegetable, wine or dessert."

Allison said he has one inflexible rule: "Never, ever let anyone else bring the main dish. You can never be sure you'll have enough or that you'll have the right stuff to go with it."

Still, knowing what everyone will bring is not enough to ensure the success of a potluck dinner. There are several pitfalls a well-meaning host can encounter; know how to avert them. "Make sure guests are punctual," said Colin Cowie, author of "Effortless Elegance With Colin Cowie" (Harper Collins, $47.50). Cowie recalled attending a potluck dinner for 40 that was nearly ruined because the person bringing the salad had stopped at another party along the way. "Because of her, 40 hungry guests ate late," Cowie said.

To avoid that kind of snag, Cowie suggests asking guests to drop foods off the day before, preferably with serving containers.

How to serve can give rise to a whole new set of problems. What if a guest brings something in a carrying container, expecting you to provide the proper serving plate, bowl or casserole? Powell suggested you either have your guests come with their own serving dishes or else inform them ahead of time exactly what you will supply. "The key is to know in advance," Powell said.

Last-minute food assemblage can be another stumbling block. One educator found that out when she planned a potluck theme dinner for a group of people with whom she had recently traveled in Russia. "Everybody brought a different Russian dish -- things like caviar, pelmeni, borscht," she said. "The problem was that a lot of people brought labor-intensive things that needed to be prepared on the spot."

Because she couldn't allow guests to flounder in an unfamiliar kitchen, she supervised and helped out. "I remember saying to the last guest, 'Couldn't you stay longer?' " she said. "I didn't get a chance to speak with anybody, and I was exhausted."

In the more old-fashioned variation of the potluck party, the covered dish dinner, the problem of last-minute preparation rarely comes up; people simply bring the food in the dish in which it will be reheated.

Party givers who wonder if they're doing enough for their guests should remember there's more to a party than just the food. The way you set up the buffet table says a lot, according to Baroni. "You can use beautiful centerpieces, fabulous linens," she said. "Use risers, like cake stands or glass bricks, to give things dimension, making some higher, others lower; for small tables, that's a real space-saver."

A monochromatic color scheme can be particularly dramatic, Baroni added. "Use an abundance of the same flower. Try something like a red ceramic bowl with red apples." For a sit-down dinner, make a place card with a personal note for each guest.

Powell likes to do a menu card, printing the name of each guest next to a description of the dish he or she has made. "That way," Powell said, "nobody's asking who made this and who made that." Powell also suggests getting recipes for everything and sending your guests home with them. "People always ask for recipes," she said, "and then they get back home and forget to send them out."

Little touches like that speak volumes. And you can pat yourself on the back for creating an environment in which people can get together to share the very best of their home cooking.

The following are recipes that experienced potluck participants swear by, because they travel well, reheat easily and are real crowd pleasers.

Roasted Vegetable Napoleons

Serves 6

1/2 cup olive oil

1 pound eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices

1 pound medium red potatoes, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices

1 1/4 pounds zucchini, cut crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick slices

2 medium red onions, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup ricotta

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

1/2 pound mozzarella, cut into 6 (inch-thick) slices

6 fresh rosemary sprigs

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and brush 2 baking sheets with some of the olive oil. Arrange as many vegetables as possible in 1 layer on sheets. Brush vegetables with some of the remaining oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables in middle and lower thirds of oven until just tender and lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer vegetables as they are roasted to a tray, arranging them in 1 layer. Roast remaining vegetables in same manner. They may be roasted, cooled and refrigerated, layered between sheets of plastic wrap on trays, and covered before assembling. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.

In a small bowl, stir together ricotta, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.

Put 1 eggplant slice on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Spread 1 tablespoon ricotta mixture over eggplant. Cover with 2 potato slices and then layer with 2 zucchini slices, 1 onion slice, 1 mozzarella slice, 2 zucchini slices and 1 onion slice. Spread 1 tablespoon ricotta mixture over onion and top with 1 eggplant slice. Make 5 more napoleons in same manner.

Insert a metal or wooden skewer through the center of each napoleon to make a hole from top to bottom. Arrange on a baking sheet; cover tightly with foil to transport. When ready to bake, remove skewer and insert rosemary sprig, first removing bottom leaves and leaving about an inch of leaves around the top. Bake in middle of oven for 5 minutes, or until mozzarella is melted and vegetables are heated through.

-- Adapted from a recipe that Lori Walther Powell created for Gourmet

Veronica Meehan's Bean and Mushroom Soup-Stew

Serves 8

1 (16-ounce) package mixed beans

1 tablespoon canola oil

3 cups assorted mushrooms (try to use at least 1 cup shiitake)

1 large onion, chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped

3 sliced carrots

7 cups vegetable or mushroom broth (or 3 vegetable bouillon cubes and 7 cups water)

1 teaspoon thyme salt and pepper to taste

Cover beans with cold water and soak overnight. Drain before using.

Saute mushrooms, onions and celery in oil until tender. Add carrots and beans. Add broth, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for approximately 2 to 3 hours, until the stew is thick and the beans are tender. Add more broth or water if needed.

Mexican Lasagna

Serves 6

1 (15-ounce) can pinto, pink or black beans, drained and rinsed

1 (14-ounce) can diced, crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 clove finely minced garlic

1 (4-ounce) can chopped green chilies

2 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed

2 scallions, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

8 corn tortillas

1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese

low-fat yogurt or sour cream, optional

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine beans, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, chilies, corn, scallions, cumin and oregano; mix thoroughly.

Oil a 2-quart baking dish and line with 4 tortillas, overlapping if necessary. Spread half of bean mixture in a layer over tortillas. Sprinkle with half of the cheese. Repeat with remaining tortillas, beans and cheese.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly. Let stand 1 or 2 minutes, then cut into squares to serve. Top each serving with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream if desired. -- Adapted from Vegetarian Times

Old-Fashioned Cherry Pie

Serves 8

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup juice from cherries

3 cups drained canned, pitted, tart red cherries

1 tablespoon softened butter

4 drops almond extract

homemade or purchased pastry dough for 9-inch double-crust or lattice-top pie

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a small saucepan, combine sugar, flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt; stir in juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring until thick. Add cherries, butter and extract.

Line pie plate with pastry and fill. Top with crust or lattice; flute edges. Bake 10 minutes at 450 degrees. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake about 45 minutes more. -- From Better Homes and Gardens cookbook This is too long for the typesetter and will not be set.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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