I get lots of questions about how to do a potluck and tips on giving a successful end-of-summer outdoor buffet party. Here are some off the cuff Q&As and a favorite recipe for entertaining.
Question: One think I’m wondering is whether there are certain things that show up in a lot of the most popular recipes. I’m thinking sweet, salty and greasy/buttery, but obviously you can’t just do lots of that. It has to be right. Are there rules?
BETH: NO THERE ARE NO RULES BUT TO PLEASE THE PALATE AND CATER TO YOUR GUESTS. SURPRISE AND NURTURE THEM. YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE REGIONAL DIFFERENCES…LOTS OF CHILIES IN CALIFORNIA AND THE SOUTHWEST. THE SOUTH LOVES REALLY RICH FOOD. THE NORTHEAST HAS WONDERFUL POTATOES AND MAPLE SYRUP. THE MIDWEST LOVES GAME AND GERMAN FOOD. HIT MINNESOTA AND IT IS SCANDINAVIAN TIME…PUT OUT THE SMOKED FISH AND RYE CRISPS. EVERYONE LOVES SHRIMP OR DESSERTS OF ANY TYPE…ONE OF MY FAVORITE BUFFET DESSERTS IS BIG PLATTERS OF COOKIES…HOMEMADE. LINED UP IN ROWS ON SILVER PLATTERS. MAYBE 15 DIFFERENT TYPES. IT IS LABOR INTENSIVE BUT YOU CAN BAKE WEEKS AHEAD AND FREEZE THEM. YOU SHOULD SEE PEOPLE KNOCK THEMSELVES OUT GETTING UP TO MAKE THEIR CHOICES. ALL AGE PEOPLE GO CRAZY FOR DELICIOUS HOMEMADE COOKIES.
EVERYONE GETS INTO EATING THINGS THEY NORMALLY DON’T EAT AT A BUFFET…AND THAT IS BUTTERY AND SWEET, THE BIG TABOOS FOR DAILY NUTRITION. AT A BUFFET THERE IS A TYPE OF NONVERBAL PERMISSION TO SPLURGE. YOU STILL WANT TO HAVE A TYPE OF MENU BALANCE BETWEEN THE ELEMENTS-SWEET, SALTY, SOUR, ETC. ALL CREAM-BASED DISHES DON’T WORK AND TEND TO LOOK MESSY AFTER AN HOUR. ALWAYS SOME SALADS. BALANCE THE RICH WITH THE PICANTE. AND SERVE A DESSERT THAT COMPLIMENTS THE MEAL. A HEAVY MEAL DOESN’T DO WELL WITH A BIG RICH LAYER CAKE WHEN A COOKIE PLATTER OR SOME FRESH FRUIT TARTLETS IS A BETTER FIT. CHOCOLATE DIPPED STRAWBERRIES IS A GREAT DESSERT AFTER A BIG MEAL AND A PLATE OF SLICED RIPE MELON SPRINKLED WITH FRESH MINT. WITH SEEDLESS WATERMELON NOW YOU CAN SERVE THAT WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT IT BEING TOO MESSY.
I ALWAYS HAVE A BOWL OF ROASTED NUTS FLAVORED IN SOME WAY ON THE DRINK TABLE. SALTY YUM. AGAIN NOT NORMAL EVERYDAY.
LOOK FOR FOODS THAT EVERYONE CAN EAT. GO FOR BIG MAIN DISHES LIKE WHOLE POACHED
SALMON, ROLLED STUFFED TURKEY BREAST, HAM, FILET OF BEEF. ALL EASY TO HANDLE AND PORTION. I USUALLY SERVE A MEAT AND A FISH AT LARGE BUFFETS OVER 60 PEOPLE TO ALLOW FOR DIFFERENCES IN PALATE. GO FOR FAMILIAR FOOD ITEMS PREPARED A DASH DIFFERENT THAN ONE WOULD CHOOSE TO DO AT HOME. THAT IS THE RECIPE FOR SUCCESS. ONE OF MY BEST PARTIES I THREW FOR MY 40TH BIRTHDAY. I MADE IT A POTLUCK FOR 40 GIRLFRIENDS AND ASKED EACH GUEST TO BRING THEIR FAVORITE SALAD. WE HAD MY WEDDING CAKE MAKER FRIEND DO THE BIRTHDAY CAKE. IT WAS AT A LOCAL WINERY AND WE HAD A FABULOUS AFTERNOON.
IF YOU HAVE SEAFOOD ALLERGIES, DON’T SERVE SALMON AND SHRIMP, WHICH ARE AT MOST BUFFETS THE MOST POPULAR FOODS. IF YOU HAVE VEGANS, NO EGGS OR MAYONNAISE IN A POTATO SALAD, OR CHEESE DISPLAY. STICK TO THE RAW VEGGIES AND HUMMUS. IF YOU HAVE HINDUS ASK IF THEY EAT GARLIC AND ONIONS, WHICH THE TRADITIONAL DIETS AVOID. AND LO, IF IT IS A JEWISH BUFFET NO PORK FOR HEAVEN’ S SAKE, WHICH CAN HAPPEN WHEN YOU ROLL OUT THE BIG ON-THE-BONE HAM, ANOTHER FAV AT MOST BUFFETS. I ALWAYS ASK ABOUT ALLERGIC FOODS (I NEVER USE GARLIC OR NUTS UNLESS SPECIFICALLY ASKED), FAVORITE FOODS (ONE GROOM WANTED RASPBERRY JELLO WITH FRUIT IN IT WHICH WAS REALLY YUMMY AND SOMETHING I NEVER MADE IN YEARS), AND FOODS TO AVOID, LIKE SEEDS IN SAUCES (FOR DIVERTICULITIS SUFFERERS) OR PEANUTS.
I LOVE CASSEROLES OF ANY TYPE, WHICH IS WHY NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO, LASAGNA IS UNIVERSALLY POPULAR; AND THERE IS NOW EXCELLENT RICE PASTA SHEETS NOW SO IF YOU NEED TO MAKE IT GLUTEN-FREE YOU CAN WITHOUT ANY EXTRA FUSS. THERE ARE LOTS OF VARIATIONS THESE DAYS OFF THE PLAIN TOMATO AND CHEESE…ROASTED VEGETABLE, MUSHROOM, WHITE SAUCE AND CRAB, PUMPKIN WITH GOAT CHEESE BECHAMEL. CHICKEN IS ALSO A SAFE BET. CHICKEN DIVAN, CHICKEN MARBELLA, OR A CASSEROLE LAYERED WITH RICE, CHICKEN, AND SOME FLAVORFUL SAUCE. ONE BITE AND ITS HEAVEN. ALSO YOU CAN MAKE 1 TO 2 DAYS AHEAD AND HEAT UP THE DAY OF. ONE OF MY BEST CASSEROLES I WHIPPED UP OUT OF THE CUPBOARD TO TAKE TO A BUFFET AS A GUEST…LEFTOVER RICE, STRIPS OF GREEN CHILIES, MOZZARELLA, PARMESAN CHEESE, AND SOUR CREAM LAYERED IN A BEAUTIFUL CASSEROLE I GOT ON THE WILLIAM-SONOMA DISCOUNT TABLE–IT WAS DEVOURED AND EVERYONE WANTED THE RECIPE. REALLY SIMPLE. CASSEROLE SIDE DISHES ARE IMPORTANT FOR VEGETARIAN BUFFETS AS THE MAIN DISH.
RULES…EASY TO SERVE, NOT SLOPPY LIKE A STEW WHERE YOU NEED BOWLS TO BALANCE ON YOUR LAP, MEAT THAT NEEDS A KNIFE TO CUT, OR SUCKING OUT CRAB LEGS FROM THE SHELL. THE RIGHT SIZED PLATE IS IMPORTANT AND NOT FLEXIBLE LIKE THOSE THIN PAPER PLATES UNLESS YOU HAVE THOSE STRAW CHARGERS TO PUT THEM ON TO STABILIZE. THERE ARE A WIDE VARIETY NOW TO CHOOSE FROM—EITHER PLASTIC OR RENT CHINA. I ALWAYS HAVE REGULAR SILVERWARE LIKE FROM A RENTAL COMPANY AND CLOTH NAPKINS OR BIG THICK PAPER. THE RICH FEELING MAKES A LOT OF DIFFERENCE WHEN YOU EAT. YOU FEEL A BIT SPECIAL.
Other things are whether you have any traditions you particularly like for potlucks or disaster stories you can recall (yours or someone else’s)?
THERE SEEMS TO BE ONE PROBLEM FOR EACH PARTY. I CAME TO EXPECT THAT, NO MATTER HOW MUCH WORK I PUT INTO THE PLANNING AND HOW MUCH TIME I WENT OVER THE LISTS. SOMETHING LEFT UNDONE–AN OVERCOOKED DISH, FORGOTTEN SERVING PLATTER, BROKEN STOVE, A FALLEN POWER LINE THAT BLOCKS THE ROAD SO GUESTS CANT GET TO THE PARTY ON TIME, NOT ENOUGH GRILL SPACE. ONE BUFFET I MADE CIOPPINO. I LEFT ALL THE SEAFOOD IN THEIR SHELLS…CRAB, SHRIMP, LOBSTER TAILS. IT WAS A TOTAL MESS FOR THE DINERS WHO WERE SITTING ALL OVER THE LIVING ROOM AND EATING OFF THEIR KNEES. JUST NOT ENOUGH HANDS TO SHELL THE FISH AND REAL MESSY WITHOUT WET HAND TOWELS FOR CLEANING UP. IT WAS ALSO IN TOMATO SAUCE WHICH STAINS WHEN IT SPLATTERS. IT MIGHT HAVE WORKED IF THEY WERE SEATED AT TABLES. DISASTER. I NEVER MADE THAT AGAIN FOR A GROUP.
ANOTHER IS VEGETARIANS. THERE ARE SO MANY TYPES AND YOU NEVER KNOW HOW THEY WILL RESPOND, ESPECIALLY IN MIXED COMPANY WITH MEAT EATERS. SOME PEOPLE ROLL WITH IT, OTHERS ARE RESENTFUL OR OFFENDED. BE SURE TO QUALIFY WHAT TYPE OF VEGETARIAN…REGULAR VEGETARIAN IS VERY DIFFERENT THAN VEGAN AND ASK ABOUT GLUTEN FREE AS WELL, WHICH IS NOT NECESSARILY VEGETARIAN. AND NOW THERE IS PALEO, WHICH IS NOT VEGETARIAN BUT LOW CARBO, SO HOLD THE WHEAT BERRY OR FARRO SALAD.
AS A CATERER I TRUSTED VEGETARIANS THE LEAST OF ALL MY CLIENTS WHEN PLANNING THE FOOD. YOU NEVER KNEW WHAT THEY WERE GOING TO EAT. I DID A WEDDING AND THE GROOM WAS THE ONLY ONE TO EAT MEAT. I GOT SOME SMOKED DUCK SAUSAGES JUST FOR FOR HIM, THINKING NO ONE WOULD GIVE IT A THOUGHT. LO AND BEHOLD, THE VEGETARIANS OBVIOUSLY ATE DUCK AND WIPED OUT THE DELICIOUS SAUSAGES FIRST THING! THE GROOM DID NOT GET ANY AND HE WAS PISST OFF. THE GUESTS WERE SO HUNGRY THEY MADE A TOTAL MESS OUT OF THE TABLE IN THEIR HURRY TO PILE THEIR PLATES. EVEN THE TABLECLOTH WAS ASKEW. EVERY BIT OF FOOD WAS EATEN EXCEPT FOR A FEW THINGS LIKE A COLD CARROT MOUSSE. IT WAS A BUFFET THAT GOT OUT OF CONTROL. IT HAPPENS. IT WAS STILL A MEMORABLE PARTY.
ONE FANCY SIT DOWN BUFFET I DECIDED TO DO CORNISH GAME HALVES. I GOT TO THE SITE AND THEY WERE STILL A DASH FROZEN. I THAWED THEM IN WATER IN THE SINK, THEN HAD TO DEBONE THEM. THEY STILL HAD TO BE GLAZED AND ROASTED. I WAS WORKING LIKE MAD WAY BEHIND SCHEDULE. AS A RESULT THEY WERE STILL ROASTING AT DINNER TIME. CLASSIC MISTAKE. IT ALL SHOULD HAVE BEEN PREPPED BEFORE AND JUST ABLE TO TOSS INTO THE OVEN. DO AS MUCH AHEAD AS YOU CAN TO AVOID A MESS AND TIME CRUNCH.
ALWAYS MAKE MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU WILL NEED. THINK ABUNDANCE. IT IS FAR BETTER TO HAVE LEFTOVERS FOR THE CLIENT OR YOURSELF THAN TO RUN OUT OF FOOD. THIS CAN HAPPEN WHEN SOME OF THE FIRST DINERS COME BACK FOR SECONDS BEFORE EVERYONE HAS BEEN SERVED. IT IS A NIGHTMARE AND AS THE HOST YOU WANT TO RUN AND HIDE. I WENT TO A BUFFET THAT A FRIEND OF MINE WHO OWNS A DELI PUT ON FOR HER CHURCH AND CHOIR RECITAL. FOOD RAN OUT AFTER ONLY THREE-FOURTHS OF THE DINERS GOT THROUGH THE LINE. THAT MEANT A QUARTER GOT NO FOOD. IT WAS AWFUL. I BELIEVE I WAS HELPING HER SERVE AND I GOT NOTHING TO EAT AS WELL. SHE WAS CUTTING CORNERS TO CUT COSTS AND IT ENDED UP COSTING HER IN REPUTATION. NO ONE FORGETS EITHER. BETTER TO ERR ON THE SIDE OF TOO MUCH THAN TOO LITTLE.
Since you’ve done the bread book, too, I’m curious what you think about taking bread to potlucks. My experience has been it gets very little attention. If it’s good and people eat it up, they seem to think it came from a store.
HOMEMADE BREAD IS ALWAYS APPRECIATED SINCE MOST PEOPLE DON’T BAKE BREAD. I ONCE MADE A BIG BEAUTIFUL BASKET OF CLASSIC BISCUITS FOR A POTLUCK. TO THIS DAY I STILL HAVE NO IDEA WHY NO ONE ATE THEM. THEY JUST WERE NOT POPULAR, BUT IT WAS A BUFFET HEAVY ON STARCHES-RICE, POTATOES, DAL, BEANS, BREAD, LASAGNE, GYOZA DUMPLINGS. MAYBE I NEEDED TO PUT SANDWICH MAKINGS NEXT TO THE BASKET. OR SOME HONEY BUTTER. THE BEST BREADS TO BRING TO A POTLUCK ARE FOCACCIA AND CHALLAH, WHICH IS A RATHER FLAT LOAF. EVERYONE LOVES THOSE TWO. I USED TO GET A BAKERY TO MAKE ME LITTLE, QUITE SWEET KNOTTED DINNER ROLLS WHICH WERE POPULAR AS WELL. ROLLS ARE MUCH EASIER TO HANDLE THAN SLICED BREAD. BUT ON THE WHOLE YOU ARE CORRECT, BREAD AS A LOAF IS AN UNDERSTUDY TO THE SALADS AND MEATS ON A BUFFET TABLE UNLESS YOU ARE MAKING SANDWICHES. IF YOU WANT TO HAVE BREAD, SERVE A HORIZONTALLY SLICED BAGUETTE AND TOP IT WITH SOMETHING WARM, LIKE CRAB MIXED WITH MAYO AND GREEN ONIONS, MOZZARELLA AND ARTICHOKE HEARTS, OR JACK CHEESE AND BLACK OLIVES. SOMETHING DEATH DEFYING IN ITS LUSCIOUSNESS. SERVE IT AS AN APPETIZER BRUSCETTA IN HUNKS WHILE PEOPLE ARE HUNGRY. THEY LOVE IT.
Any other rules of thumb you’d care to talk about would be great.
MY ALWAYS TIPS FOR SUCCESS:
•Contact the person coordinating the event to assess if you can bring anything you want or if there is a theme or special category to guide your choice.
•Always ask how many guests to prepare for. Since there are many dishes on a potluck table, a small casserole will feed double the amount than if you were preparing it at home as a main dish.
•Be sure to also ask about guests’ special dietary needs and known food allergies. Ingredients like pork, shellfish, coconut, garlic, or peanuts can be disastrous if someone is allergic. If you are on a special diet, bring a dish you can eat in case you cannot eat anything else on the buffet.
• Go for a dish that is appetizing to a wide range of palates. When in doubt, simplicity is the best strategy for cooking for crowds. Don’t pass up straightforward, savory, down-home food–or one of your special favorites– just because you want to impress.
•The most successful potluck creations have been those in which all the ingredients and flavors are easily recognizable and not messy to eat; even the hungriest buffet guest will pass up a dish that mystifies. Some of my favorites: Tortellini pasta salad, baked corn pudding, scalloped potatoes, cold sliced filet of beef with a cold sauce, stuffed-under-the-skin boneless chicken breasts (cut in half), a big pile of chicken drumsticks (great for kids), cold prawns with the tails on, layered vegetable and/or meat casseroles with cooked rice, any manner of enchiladas, baked beans, great big crudite plate with one or two dips, and for dessert, an oversized platter of homebaked cookies or chocolate-dipped strawberries.
•Consider contributing a fully-prepared dish that is served at room temperature so you will not have any last minute on-site preparation.
•Search out and purchase basic, practical serving platters, casserole dishes, and bowls in advance for your favorite dishes. For over-sized rectangular casserole dishes that are also able to go into the freezer, I prefer the French Emile Henry line, as their glaze is so heavy it is virtually non-stick and they come in lovely lush colors. I am always on the lookout for large size white casseroles and platters.
•Transporting food is a tricky business. You need to plan carefully, pack well, and often, drive carefully as well.
•Be prepared to give the recipe for your dish is someone asks.
•After placing your dish on the buffet, enjoy yourself and eat hearty!
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.