10 Ways to Host a Better Potluck

20160623-potluck-dishes-lentil-salad-zucchini-poblano-peppers-vicky-wasik-1.jpg

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik unless otherwise noted]

Editor's Note: Please welcome Kristin Donnelly, author of the new Modern Potluck cookbook. She's joining us today to share some of the best tips and tricks she picked up while working on her book.

When my daughter was born, four years ago, hosting my usual dinner party—you know, the kind that involves shopping and cooking all day—became nearly impossible. If I wanted to maintain a social life, I discovered, I'd need to ask friends to share some of the work. Essentially, I started hosting more potlucks. As I thought about potlucks, I realized it was a genre in serious need of an update. While the food world obsessed over farmers market produce, house-fermented sauerkraut, sprouted-grain breads, and za'atar, people still turned to the same old ramen salads (those curious "Asian" slaws with broken instant ramen noodles) and green bean casseroles for bring-a-dish gatherings. I wrote my book, Modern Potluck, to give cooks some fresh recipe ideas that are more in line with the ways many of us aspire to eat today. In the process, I learned that by adopting a handful of general approaches, we can all make our potlucks a lot easier, more interesting, and more delicious. Here are 10 tips to keep in mind the next time you participate in a potluck, whether as the host or as a guest.

1. Batch Your Booze

20160623-potluck-dishes-sparkling-rose-sangria-aperol-peach-vicky-wasik-7.jpg

Unless you've recently had a baby or endured some equally huge, stressful life change, bringing a bottle of wine to a potluck doesn't count as bringing a dish. Sorry. But do just a little bit more, like adding an infused syrup and some citrus juice to your wine, and you've got yourself something that's potluck-worthy.

One of the advantages of mixing up a big batch of a cocktail or sangria is that you can prep the ingredients days ahead. For example, in the case of this peachy rosé sangria I'm sharing here, you can make the vanilla syrup a week ahead, squeeze the lemon juice up to one day before, and then mix it all together at the party.

Helpful hint: If you're bringing the drink, check to see if you're responsible for the ice and cups as well.

Read more about batching cocktails here.

2. Skip the Precut-Veggie Tray

Premade vegetable trays have their place (kids' softball games, for instance), but now that most of us have access to a wide array of beautiful seasonal vegetables, crudités deserve as much love as any cooked dish. In Modern Potluck, I devote three pages to preparing veggies for dipping, but here are my main tips:

  • Limit the choices: To avoid overwhelming yourself, choose two or three best-quality, in-season vegetables, and prep them with care. A small number of absolutely beautiful and flavorful vegetables is way better than a glut of ho-hum stuff.
  • Think about color: For a more stunning presentation, use vegetables with less common hues (like purple cauliflower), or choose vegetables that are different shades of the same color.
  • Consider blanching tough vegetables: Sure, they're called crudités, which by definition means they're raw, but some things, like asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower, taste better and are easier to digest when slightly cooked.

3. Think Beyond Potato Salad

20160623-potluck-dishes-lentil-salad-zucchini-poblano-peppers-vicky-wasik-2.jpg

Don't get me wrong: I love potato salad so much that I include four different recipes for it in my book, one for each season. But recently, I've gotten into making other sturdy salads, using lentils or chickpeas as a base. The advantage of these protein-packed, pulse-based salads is that vegetarians or vegans can eat them as a main dish, and your carb-eschewing friends won't avoid them the way they would the spuds or macaroni. Depending on the ingredients, you can usually assemble the salad at least one day ahead, and cook the legumes themselves up to three days in advance—just remember to re-taste everything before serving in case you need to adjust the seasoning, since beans and lentils have a way of soaking up salt as they sit. (See more on this at tip #5.)

One example is the lentil salad here, which I load with grilled (or broiled) vegetables, including zucchini, Poblano peppers, and charred scallions, along with just a touch of smoked paprika.

4. Doctor Your Mayo

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Mayo gets a bad potluck rap. That's largely because mayo classically contains a raw egg yolk, and is thus often thought to be the cause of food poisoning at potlucks—which is rarely the case (see tip #10). Mayo adds creaminess and glossiness to salads, dips, and, of course, deviled eggs in ways that vinaigrettes can't. Really, if there's a problem at all, it's a heavy hand with mayonnaise, which leads to salads that are unappealingly gloopy, with one-note flavors.

You can make your own mayonnaise or reach for a jar of store-bought. Either way, when using mayonnaise in a dish, the key is to mix it with powerfully flavored ingredients; I like chili sauces, herb sauces, or even just an extra-assertive blast of a common mayo ingredient, like lemon juice or mustard. Don't be afraid to be bold: Against a neutral backdrop, like hard-boiled egg yolks or potatoes, the mayo will taste just right.

For some inspiration, take a look at the aioli flavor variations here, perfect for dipping grilled vegetables.

5. Season, and Season Again

Have you ever made a fantastic grain salad only to have it taste flat at the party? Starchy ingredients, including grains, pasta, potatoes, lentils, and beans, have an unquenchable thirst for salt, so what tasted well seasoned several hours before may not taste as spot-on when you serve it. To make matters worse, food that's been refrigerated and is still cold can taste especially dull. Before you serve any dish that's been sitting around for a while, make sure you taste it and season again if necessary.

6. Garnish, Garnish, Garnish

Fresh herbs, toasted nuts or seeds, crumbled bacon, and sliced crunchy vegetables all add extra pops of flavor and texture to food. Much like good seasoning, thoughtful garnishes turn good dishes into great ones. They also make dishes more visually appealing. (You know, for your Instagram photos.) To keep garnishes fresh and vibrant-looking, I like to add them at the last minute.

7. Make a Killer Sauce

20160623-potluck-dishes-herb-garden-pesto-vicky-wasik-4.jpg

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I often make the same dish over and over again...but none of the eaters know it. From late fall to early spring, I roast a tray of vegetables. From late spring to early fall, I grill them instead. Then I arrange them on the platter and serve them with a sauce. Sure, I mix up the vegetables according to the season and my mood, but the general approach is always the same. I go into veggie-by-veggie detail in my book, and you can find more about roasting and grilling vegetables here and here.

But there's no reason to limit this to vegetables; it works just as well with grilled, roasted, or any other preparation of meat—change up the sauce, and you've just reinvented the dish. Take this savory miso pesto as an example. It's a riff on the classic, but by using a blend of delicate herbs, reaching for a different nut (walnuts in this case), and using miso in place of grated cheese, you can give it an entirely new personality. It's delicious on just about anything you throw it at. It's also vegan, which is a plus for creating as many dishes as possible that are friendly to a variety of diets.

8. Step Away From the Grocery Store Desserts

20160623-potluck-dishes-apricot-jam-bars-vicky-wasik-5.jpg

Look, I understand. Life happens. There may be times when you can't make something from scratch for a party. But please, for the love of all things delicious, can we all agree to stop buying the oversize trays of crappy cookies, cakes, and pies from the supermarket?

Instead, it's worth remembering that there are a lot of dead-simple desserts that even a time-strapped potluck-er can whip up. These crowd-pleasing jam bars, for instance, are made from ingredients you probably already have in your house (flour, sugar, butter, jam, nuts) and take very little effort to throw together.

9. Buy Better Plates

Another secret: I recently signed up to bring the plates to a potluck at my daughter's school. Me! The author of a book about potlucks! Why? Because I knew I'd overthink the options left on the list (mac and cheese and chicken fingers), so I made it easy on myself and bought the paper plates at the supermarket. When I'm hosting adults, however, I usually spring for the eco-friendly (and photo-friendly!) disposable plates made from bamboo or fallen leaves. If it's a small gathering, I go with outdoor-safe enamelware.

I'm a fan of the natural-material products from Leafware and the reusable enamelware from Crow Canyon Home.

10. Think About—But Don't Obsess Over—Food Safety

Headlines about people getting sick at church potlucks are enough to make anyone nervous. While we need to be attentive to some basic food-safety best practices, we also need to remember not to get freaked out. Sometimes the biggest culprits in food poisoning incidents are the ones you'd least suspect. For example, low-acid starchy foods, like potatoes, beans, and rice, can breed bacteria at room temperature, and it's often not because of the mayo.

To prevent poisoning your friends, follow these tips:

  • Avoid cross-contamination: Wash any tool or surface (including your hands) that comes into contact with raw meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, or eggs, using hot soapy water, immediately afterwards.
  • Keep hot food hot (over 140°F) and cold food cold (below 40°F): To be honest, there are plenty of foods that I'll personally eat even if they've been sitting out at room temperature for several hours. But when I serve food at a party, I'm a little more vigilant. The conservative rule says prepared food can safely remain at room temperature for up to two hours, but if it's over 90°F outside, then it's better not to leave the food out for more than one hour. (To extend serving time, put out hot foods in a slow cooker or set cold foods over a tray of ice.)
  • If you're really worried, take refuge in sweet foods and tart ones: Sugar and acid are hostile to microbes, so sweets and tart foods can safely stay at room temperature longer than many other dishes.