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The Cookstr 10: What Can I Bring?

March 3, 2011

These days, hosting a full on event from stem to stern is an anomaly. Sure, sometimes we pull out all the stops, making everything ourselves from the phyllo triangles to the soufflé, but most of the time we’re all delighted to hear (or ask) the welcome question, “What can I bring?”

We like to get together. We like to share a meal. We like to have various and sundry people and kids for impromptu gatherings. What often feels impossible is creating menus that go from hors d’oeuvre to dessert, and executing them with any regularity. And in fact, that’s not nearly as much fun as creating a communal feast, where people bring various parts of the meal, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Not to mention far less stressful.

You might devise a menu and dole out assignments, or you might give people more interpretable suggestions like “vegetable side dish” or  “appetizer” or “chocolate, nut-free dessert.” How regimented or relaxed you want to be is up to you. Conversely, if you are asked to bring a dish, you’ll want to ask a few questions, and see what the host had in mind.

Here are a few basic things to think about:

Myra Goodman's Three-Color Potato Salad

When You Are Bringing the Dish:

-Portability: Choose a dish that travels well, that you can keep hot or cold as the dish requires, or that needs minimal tending to when it reaches its destination. Let your host know if you will need a burner or oven or fridge space when you and your dish arrive.

-Theme: Is the meal going to be Italian or Spanish? Casual or formal? Kids and adults? Ask a few questions, and you can plan your dish from there.

-Amount: How many people? Are you the only one bringing dessert, or will there be more?

Judith Finlayson's Fragrant Lamb Curry with Barley

When You are Hosting the Potluck:

-Make sure you have all the courses covered: As you assign dishes, write them down and make sure you have all the food groups you want.

-Serving platters and utensils: Will your guest bring their own, or will they need to use yours? Have extras on hand.

-Last minute prep: Will a dish need to be reheated or chilled? Will the guest need any kitchen space to do any last minute prep? Be prepared by having some spare space in the fridge, and an extra burner or oven rack available, if possible.

-Plot the timing of all the dishes, so that they can all be ready at the same time. Make as many dishes as possible that can be prepared ahead and served at room temperature (or at the very least find recipes that don’t say “serve immediately”). And plan the serving table or buffet, making sure you have enough space for all the dishes.

-Offer non-cooks an opportunity to bring something like wine, chocolate, bread, or cheeses.

Nigella Lawson's Parma Ham Bundles

And whether you are hosting or attending:

-Dietary restrictions: Don’t forget to discuss dietary allergies and aversions. Better safe than sorry, especially if there are young kids around. Also be aware of any vegetarians at the gathering, and make sure there are options for them.

-Print out the recipe or an ingredient list: Again, the allergy thing is more prevalent than you might think. Having a list of the ingredients at hand cuts right to the chase.

1. Nigella Lawson’s Parma Ham Bundles. This is not the time you want to be filling little hollowed-out cherry tomatoes with trout mousse. These are the kinds of get-togethers where you want an hors d’oeuvre that is as relaxed as…well, as you are, hopefully. Tangy goat cheese and dried or fresh figs are rolled up in a salty-savory strip of thinly sliced ham and served at room temperature.

2. Ken Haedrich’s Raw Vegetable Salad with Blue Cheese Dip. A stunning vegetable platter, or crudites, is always a happy sight at a party, especially if the vegetables are in pristine shape and there is an attractive dip sitting nearby. Blue cheese dip is always a hit, and this one is tangy and tart and creamy and spicy, pulsed up in minutes in the food processor. You may need to remind the kids that double dipping is verboten.

3. Elinor Klivans’ Spinach, Ricotta and Parmesan Potpie. You have to love a potpie that is as good served at room temperature as it is warm, and the fact that this is vegetarian makes this an “everyone option,” which is always a good thing at a potluck.

4. Diane Rossen Worthington’s Pasta Salad with Roasted Vegetables. Beautiful to look at, simple to make, very totable, able to be prepared a day ahead of time, and served at room temperature. Yes, this is perfect potluck fare. Keep it vegetarian or add pieces of cooked chicken or seafood.

5. Judith Finlayson’s Fragrant Lamb Curry with Barley. Spring is coming, but not for another minute or so, which leaves us still well in stew season. This has wonderful Indian seasonings and tender chunks of rich lamb (or beef, if you wish), and the whole thing is finished in the oven. It can be transported warm or reheated upon arrival if that’s a better option.

6. Robin Robertson’s Quinoa Tabbouleh. Another vegetarian option, which is so important these days at gatherings of all kinds. This is one of those great dishes that can happily serve as a side to a meat or fish, and can also star all on its own, especially with its protein-rich grains and the optional beans.

7. Myra Goodman’s Three-Color Potato Salad. A potato salad rounds out many different kinds of menus beautifully, and room temperature is its middle name. You can play around with all of those great varieties of potatoes that fill the tables at the farmers’ markets. This salad goes beyond potatoes with the addition of green beans, tomatoes, olives, capers, and parsley.

8. Daisy Martinez’s Pork Braised in Guajillo Chile Sauce. Braising meat until it is tender and flavorful is a homey and somewhat foolproof cooking method where exact timing isn’t an issue; a boon for a casual party. This recipe has very few components, but little tricks, like toasting the chilies, tomatoes, and onions in a skillet, elevate the collection of ingredients into an impressive main course.

9. Anne Byrn’s Cuban Chicken Legs. It’s surprising that a dish this pretty is so easily transportable, but it is. You pile the salad, gorgeous with papaya, arugula, olives and red onion separately, in the center of a serving platter. Then you surround it with the garlicky roasted chicken legs seasoned up with lots of lemon juice and oregano, wrap it up, and you have yourself a party.

10. Dorie Greenspan’s Lemon or Orange Cake. How nice to be able to choose between lemon and orange depending on what you have on hand, or which flavor speaks to you more loudly that day. This loaf cake is nicely dense and keeps extremely well, which means it travels like a dream, and can be made well ahead of time. There’s a vanilla variation, too.

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