A few Saturdays ago I was waiting my turn at the deli counter at Zabar's on Manhattan's Upper West Side. In another store I might call it the charcuterie counter, but this, after all, was the fabled Zabar's -- and this is deli.
I clutched a paper number that assured my place in the crowded queue, and prepared for my turn by studying the stacks of hams, salamis, patés, smoked meats and bacons. Behind the counter paced the white-hatted deli men, some who have been slicing Zabar's cured meats for decades, as they took patient care of other customers.
The line moved slowly. Next to me was a man placing a big order and with each selection, he'd ask for a sample. I had a good spot because every time he got handed something to try, so did I; if you're standing in front of a stack of pork products it's assumed you won't refuse a glistening slice of Serrano ham cut thin as to be like a piece of stained red glass in the window of a Spanish cathedral.
Watching his purchase of chorizo, salamis, and hams, I had to ask my neighbor what he was planning. It turned out he was going to a friend's for a potluck dinner. The host had assigned him something to start the meal that could double as a casual hors d'oeuvre with cocktails. His contribution would be a platter of sliced meats that could be eaten with fingers. Some bread. No cheese.
I asked what else was on the menu and he recounted a splendid selection of dishes, including a mole that the host was cooking. It would clearly be a generous meal, but this being potluck, all the work -- and the cost -- would be shared.
Potluck Comes to The City
Potluck dinners conjure an image of church suppers or school picnics where everyone brings something they like to cook, and eat, which means you're relying on luck for what you'll find on the communal table.
The potluck tradition has received some updating thanks to these economic times because let's face it -- it can be costly to host a dinner. Sharing the cooking not only saves money, it also lets everyone who likes to cook share in the pleasure of making the meal; if no one has to do all the cooking, it can make it easier to spend more time and attention on their one dish.
Hosting A City Potluck
Modern potluck doesn't need any luck. Instead the host takes charge, plans the meal, and gives assignments, if only to ensure that you don't face a dinner entirely comprised of warm artichoke dips.
While menu planning eliminates potluck's traditional "make and bring what you want" democracy, this doesn't mean handing out recipe printouts. Instead it's about giving everyone guidelines. Here are some tips for the host:
- Don't be shy to give direction. Make sure every course is taken care of and that there is some coordination of flavors. For example, if the main course is going to be a spicy casserole, encourage the person who's bringing the side dish to make something that's less aggressively flavored. You should also watch for mixing and matching ethnic tastes, distinctive ingredients (would you really like a honey mustard chicken and also a honey mustard salad dressing?), and the colors and textures of a meal.
- It's usually best if the host makes the main part of the meal, such as a roast chicken or paella. There are some foods that just don't travel well and these should be completely cooked in your kitchen. That said, some slow-cooked meats like beef brisket or short ribs travel well, especially with sauce or gravy packed on the side.
- Check your guests for food allergies or important preferences and if there are any, let everyone know so there are no surprises and plenty for everyone to eat and enjoy.
- Tell everyone how many servings to bring. It's important to have enough.
- Even if your guests include talented home cooks, not everything brought to a potluck has to be a showstopper or a complete course. Sometimes the best help is when someone brings fresh strawberries to go with a pound cake, or two loaves of really good bread, or a pint of vanilla ice cream, or 3 pounds of green beans that have been trimmed and washed and ready to go into the microwave.
- Ask your guests about serving pieces and utensils (Salad tongs? Dip dish? Cheese knife? Ice cream scoop?) and any special dishes, such as soup bowls or soupspoons. If you don't have enough, ask them to bring extra serving pieces needed for what they've cooked.
- Check on last minute assembling or cooking or warming of a dish so that you can be sure the kitchen and oven are available.
Potluck Recipes: What's Best To Bring
- Charcuterie. Like the customer at Zabar's, bring pieces of hams, salami and other cured meats that can be served and eaten without fuss or assembly.
- Cheese board with olives and crackers. You can do cheeses all from one country (a nice touch when it's matched to the cuisine of the main course) or a mix of goat, cow and sheep's milk cheeses.
- Bagna Cauda. A warm olive oil, garlic and anchovy dip for raw vegetables. Everything, including the crudité and dip, can be prepared in advance and the pieces will easily travel. Warm the dip and stir to again emulsify after you arrive at your host's. See our recipe.
- Savory Tarts. Quiche or a savory cheese tart can be baked in advance and then carried in a flat box.Grain salads such as ones made with rice, farro, couscous or a tabbouleh made with bulgur wheat.
- Soup. Whether served hot or chilled, soups travel easily. Just check with your host about having a stovetop burner available for re-heating. Any garnishes like croutons, bacon bits or snips of fresh chives can be easily packed in plastic bags and added just before serving.
- Pilafs. Cooked in your kitchen and warmed in the host's.
- Pastas. Bring a pre-made sauce but cook the pasta at your host's just before it's served, or else bring one that's finished in an otherwise not-occupied oven, e.g., lasagna or baked ziti.
- Vegetable dishes like corn pudding, mashed sweet potatoes, or potato salads that travel well.
- Casseroles. There's a reason why one-pan baked dishes like lasagna are traditional potluck favorites. They can be made in advance and frozen and then taken from your freezer to your host's oven.
- Salads. Wash and prep each ingredient but pack them separately in zipper plastic bags so to mix just before serving. Make your vinaigrette or other dressing and carry in a small jar that seals tightly.
- Crowd-Pleasing One-Pot Dishes. Jambalaya, Gumbo, Stuffed Cabbage can all be transported without doing damage to their flavors and can be simply reheated at their destination. We've been given permission to publish a recipe for Chili Mac from America's Test Kitchen's cozy new cookbook, Cook's Country's Best Potluck Recipes.
- Desserts. Choose ones that travel easily like cookies, brownies, loaf cakes that do not need icings, fruit salads, and if you pack them correctly, fruit tarts. Or ice cream that you buy on the way to the dinner and a jar of butterscotch or hot fudge sauce you made yourself.
City Potluck Transport
If you get around by car it's not such a big deal to set a covered dish on the floor of its back seat. As long as you avoid any sudden stops, you and your lasagna will be fine.
But cooking in a city kitchen and then using public transit to carry a finished dish to someone else's apartment can be a challenge. Since not everything travels well on the subway, how you're going to move the food should influence what you're going to make.
As a car-less New Yorker who favors transit over taxis, I've learned some ways to carry food from kitchen to kitchen:
- Don't even think about carrying anything that must be kept in perfect order. Here I'm thinking of a 7-layer dip or a messy custard and fruit triffle. It won't survive the first elevator leg of your transport.
- Use sturdy shopping bags and for extra protection, double-bag everything.
- The glass and plastic-covered Pyrex bake-carry-store dishes are excellent but still need extra wrapping since covers can come off and glass can break. Carry anything glass or ceramic in a flat-bottomed shopping bag on top of a soft kitchen towel to function as a bumper. Wedge other towels or paper towels to secure the dish into place so that it won't shift when you carry it.
- Disassemble as much as you can, meaning carry the parts of a dish in separate and well-sealed containers (I always double-bag those zipper plastic bags), and then put the dish together after you arrive.
- A clean pizza box is a perfect container for dishes like tarts and quiche. Beg or buy one from your local pizza store and then wedge aluminum foil in the corners so to keep whatever you're carrying from shifting. And leave the tart in its metal baking pan until you get to your destination.
- Remember food safety. For things that must be refrigerated, like slaws and mayo-based potato salads, use a small cooler and freezer packs. Hot dishes also need attention because they should not be left at room or outdoor temperatures for much more than an hour, especially on a hot day. Pack any cooked dishes in an insulated bag that's then wrapped in a towel and place into a tote bag that can be safely carried on a crowded bus or subway car.
- If you love to bake and want to bring cake, cupcakes, or something else with icing, invest in a carrying case to make sure your work survives the trip. I've never seen a cupcake survive a journey without being in a frosting-proof box.
No matter what's on the menu, there is a uniquely generous pleasure in a meal that has been shared in its making. So give a toast to one another, regardless who brought the wine. . . .