Want to throw a low-stress, low-cost, minimal-labor party for a crowd? Do what East Hampton, N.Y., photographer Ellen Watson did when she invited 80 friends to help celebrate her husband's 44th birthday. "I just grilled some chicken," said Ms. 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."
Ms. 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, Ms. 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 pot luck; 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," Ms. 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," Mr. Allison said. "I generally ask people to bring an appetizer, salad, vegetable, wine or dessert." Mr. 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). Mr. 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," Mr. Cowie said. To avoid that kind of snag, Mr. 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 Tupperware expecting you to provide the proper serving plate, bowl or casserole? Ms. 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," Ms. Powell said.
In the more old-fashioned variation of the potluck party, the covered dish dinner, people simply bring the food in the dish in which it will be reheated. Chef Michael Meehan (of Tupelo Honey and Old Glory) and his wife, Veronica, are die-hard "covered dish" aficionados, having celebrated Michael's birthdays that way for several years. "I once read that every year, Bill Monroe (the late bluegrass legend) would invite his friends over to play music and bring a covered dish," Mr. Meehan said. Accordingly, friends of the Meehans come with food and acoustic instruments. "Actually, we do potlucks a lot," Mrs. Meehan said. "We're Quakers, and when we get together for a discussion group, the meal is potluck. Whenever a friend has a new baby, we do potluck. For us, sharing food is a kind of body, mind and soul kind of thing."
The following are recipes that experienced potluck participants swear by, because they travel well, reheat easily and are real crowd pleasers.
This recipe is adapted from one Lori Walther Powell created for Gourmet.
Roasted Vegetable Napoleons
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound eggplant, cut crosswise into -inch-thick slices
1 1/4 pounds zucchini, cut crosswise into -inch-thick slices
2 medium red onions, cut into -inch-thick slices
1 pound medium red potatoes, cut into -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 two baking sheets with some of the olive oil. Arrange as many vegetables as possible in a 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 in a 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.
2. In a small bowl, stir together ricotta, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.
3. 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.
4. 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 5 minutes, or until mozzarella is melted and vegetables are heated through. Makes 6 servings.
Veronica Meehan's Bean And Mushroom Soup-Stew
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 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. Makes about 8 servings.