by Mel Paradis
enerally, the mention of “potluck” does not cause my mouth to water. I see a long table lined with four kinds of chips and salsa, three spinach dips, two bowls of guacamole, and a seven-layer-something. Alongside are a smattering of the same green, pasta, and potato salads (regardless if it is 4th of July or Christmas), and a variety of casseroles. The end of the table is piled with sweets, Jell-O molds, and lemon bars galore.
It is not the idea of potlucks—a traditional communal dinner—that I do not love. It is the execution. Few can afford to throw an interesting and creative dinner party on their own these days, but we all want to be invited to one.
Feeling stuck? Here are some ideas to get your juices flowing, followed by recipes sure to inspire:
Get organized. Ask people to bring specific courses so you don’t end up with too much of one thing. Spread courses out so that your table does not look like my potluck nightmare described above. Turn it into a theme dinner (see sidebar) and have your guests bring a dish or a drink inspired by that theme.
Step up your game. If you are a guest, steer clear of the standard dishes or change them up. For instance, try a new flavor by adding curry powder to your guacamole. If you are given little to no direction, you can’t go wrong with interesting finger foods. Remember to stay seasonal. Although people love bruschetta and green salads, tomatoes have little flavor in the winter, and who wants to munch on three bowls of lettuce when it’s ten below outside?
In a pinch—go for kitsch! If you find yourself headed to a party on very short notice, pick up a box of frozen White Castle Cheeseburgers or Little Debbie Snack Cakes instead of chips and salsa. They may not be gourmet, but they’ll rustle up old memories and are guaranteed to be the first dishes to disappear.
Caramelized Onion Dip
An old standby made with fresh ingredients. Serve with gourmet crinkle-cut potato chips, root vegetable chips, jicama sticks, breadsticks, fancy crackers, naan, or homemade pita chips. Make it a day in advance and store in the refrigerator for maximum flavor. Yield: 2 cups of dip
- 1 very large yellow onion, diced, about 4 cups
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, or 1/4 teaspoon dried salt to taste
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3/4 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
- cayenne red pepper to taste
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and butter. When butter is melted, add the onions, thyme, and a pinch of salt. Cook on medium-to-high heat, stirring frequently until the onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until onions are dark and caramelized, about 35-45 minutes (do not rush this step). Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. In another bowl, mix mayonnaise, sour cream or yogurt, and cayenne pepper. Once onions are cooled, add them to the mayonnaise mixture. Combine, taste, and adjust seasonings.
Devils on Horseback
These fast and easy finger foods are an oldie but goodie. Everybody loves bacon! Make some with a filling and some without. Love oysters? Try Angels on Horseback—canned oysters wrapped in bacon. Yield: Make as many as you need
- pitted whole dates (preferably Medjool), dried figs, or prunes
- bacon slices
- blue cheese, ricotta, and/or fruit chutney (filling)
Preheat oven to 400°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut a hole in the dates, figs, or prunes that you want stuffed and place a bit of filling inside. Cut bacon into pieces big enough to wrap around the dates. Wrap each piece of dried fruit with bacon and secure with a toothpick. Bake for 15 minutes. Turn dried fruit over and bake until bacon is crispy, approximately 10-15 minutes longer. Serve warm.
Best Brussels Sprouts Ever
In the dead of winter, little in terms of food is less comforting than a cold green salad. Why not skip the salad all together and bring cooked greens instead? Yield: 6-8 servings
- 1 pound Brussels sprouts
- 1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
- 2 large shallots, sliced thin
- 2 tablespoons walnut oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400°. Remove outer leaves and stems of Brussels sprouts. Slice sprouts very thin with the shredder attachment on a food processor, a mandoline, or a sharp knife. Toss Brussels sprouts, walnuts, and shallots with walnut oil, salt, and pepper. Spread out in an oven proof baking dish or large skillet. Place in oven and roast, tossing occasionally for 25-35 minutes or until tender and golden.
Deviled Egg Casserole
Be the hit of your next 1960s potluck with this play on two classic dishes. This casserole can be served as a brunch dish or as a dinner side. It is extremely rich, so remind guests to keep their serving size small. Also delicious with bacon, rather than ham. Yield: 12 servings
For the deviled eggs:
- 6 hard-boiled eggs
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon minced shallot
- 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
- salt and pepper to taste
For the casserole:
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup all purpose flour
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 cup cooked ham, diced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 4 cups broccoli florets (save stems for another purpose) paprika, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375°. Halve the eggs and remove the yolks. In a small bowl, mash the yolk and mix with mayonnaise, shallot, and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Refill the egg whites with the yolk mix. This can be done with a spoon or piped decoratively through a pastry bag. Lightly steam broccoli florets in a covered pan with 1/4 inch of water for 3 minutes.Arrange broccoli in a greased 8-inch square baking dish or 2 1/2-quart casserole dish and top with 8 of the deviled eggs. Set the remaining 4 deviled eggs aside for the garnish. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk continuously for 2-3 minutes. Gradually add milk 1/4 cup at a time, whisking until the sauce thickens. Each addition will take about 1-3 minutes. Once all milk has been added and sauce is thick, remove from heat. Add cheese and ham and stir until cheese is melted. Pour sauce over eggs and broccoli. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the top starts to brown and the sauce is bubbling. Remove casserole from the oven, top with remaining 4 deviled eggs, and sprinkle with paprika.
This potato omelet is perfect for a Spanish tapas party or brunch. Mastering “the flip” is a little tricky. Cut into pie-shaped slices or into 1½-inch squares and place on slices of baguette. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and chives or gourmet tomato sauce. Yield: 8 pie wedges, 12 baguette-topped squares
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds potatoes (6-8 medium), a variety of colors if you have them, sliced very thinly
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried, minced
- 6 eggs
- salt and pepper to taste
Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a 10-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add potatoes, onions, and rosemary and cook until potatoes are translucent and onions are golden, about 15 minutes. Beat eggs in a large bowl. Add cooked potato mixture and season with salt and pepper. Wipe out skillet, return to medium-low heat, and cover bottom with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When oil is hot, pour egg mixture into pan, spreading it out evenly. Cook until the bottom has browned, about 10 minutes. Run a thin spatula around the edges and bottom of the pan to loosen the omelet. Place a plate or small cutting board over the pan and invert the omelet onto the plate/board. Return the pan to medium-low heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once heated, carefully slide the omelet back into the pan. Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes or until the bottom is browned and the omelet is cooked through.
Spaghetti Skillet Pie
A potluck just isn’t a potluck unless you have a baked pasta entrée. In addition to its relevance to several themes (the film Big Night, the color red, 1970s), it is simple and easily adaptable to whatever ingredients you like or have on hand. Yield: 6-8 servings
- 8 ounces dried spaghetti
- 3 1/2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
- 3/4 pounds hot Italian sausage (three 1/4-pound sausages, such as Johnsonville, casings removed)
- 1 medium onion, diced, about 1 cup
- 1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
- 1 1/2 cups canned or fresh tomato sauce
- 1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese (about 2 cups)
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350°. Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain, toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and set aside. Heat 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a 12-inch skillet. Add onion and Italian sausage and cook over medium heat, breaking apart the sausage with a spoon as it cooks. Once sausage begins browning, about 3-4 minutes, add sliced mushrooms. Continue cooking until meat is browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce to sausage mixture and cook for 3 more minutes until heated through. Coat a second 12-inch ovenproof skillet with 11/2 teaspoons olive oil. Add spaghetti to bottom of pan to form the “pie crust.” Spread ricotta cheese over the top of the spaghetti. Add the sausage mixture and spread it out to form the “pie filling.” Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Remove cover, top with shredded mozzarella, and cook an additional 5 minutes or until cheese is browned.
Orange Polenta Pound Cake
This classy cake gets its crunch from the cornmeal, richness from the butter and eggs, and a hint of sweetness from the sugar and the orange liqueur. Serve plain, or drizzle with extra liqueur and top with fresh whipped cream. Can be doubled and frozen for your next potluck. Yield: 8 servings
- 1/2 cup yellow polenta or medium-ground cornmeal
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt 12 tablespoons
- (11/2 sticks) softened, unsalted butter, plus extra for pan
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/2 teaspoon orange liqueur such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier plus extra for garnish (optional)
- zest of one orange, about 2 tablespoons
Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the sides of a 9-inch loaf or 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper. In a bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, polenta/cornmeal, and salt together. In a separate bowl, beat sugar and butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy and well blended (about 4 minutes). Add eggs and yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add zest and orange liquor. Mix until blended. With a spoon or rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into egg mixture and mix just enough to combine. Pour batter into prepared cake pan and bake for 40 minutes. Do not open the oven door or your cake will fall. When toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, the cake is done. Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before removing from pan.
Mel Paradis looks forward to throwing her own 1960s potluck this winter with recipes from her vintage cookbook collection. You can find more of her writing at pazzaragazza.wordpress.com and thesinglechef.wordpress.com.