by Emma Chow
I love a good potluck gathering; the assortment of home made dishes from different chefs makes an interesting spread that doesn’t necessarily match, but is invariably fun and delicious to eat. It’s definitely the easiest and cheapest way to entertain; when each guest can be assigned or asked to bring a dish they’d like to make, you only have to make one thing yourself, and make sure there are nibbles and drinks. Too easy! Perhaps the best pot luck gatherings I’ve ever been to are the one’s held by Philipino families, where traditional Asian flavours, Spanish influences from the colonial days and new favourites garnered from other cultures make a fantastically clashing spread. Creme caramel sits side by side with traditional coconut desserts and proper plum pudding Roast pork with crackling and turkey are eaten with spicy fried noodles and home made spring rolls. It’s mad, wonderful and delicious. Our family Christmases have been potluck affairs for a long time. When there were two of us chefs in the family, it used to be a little competitive. Now it is much more happily sedate. Consider asking friends and family to make their favourite dishes next time you host a Christmas gathering. In the meantime, if you’ve been invited to one of these wonderful events, here are 9 categories of dishes to consider and consult with your host. If you’re hosting this year, instruct each guest to bring one or more of these for a complete spread and less work for you
Rationale: A few loaves of home made, or good quality crusty store bought bread really complete the meal, and ensure fussy eaters are catered for. If you’re going to a gathering on the day of Christmas, keep in my that no shops will be open, so making fresh bread from scratch would be a great option for you. Bread is really cheap to make, easy once you get the hang of it, and is really impressive at a gathering.
2. Crackers, dip, cheese and crudites:
If you’ve been assigned this category, then make sure to be generous with your provisions. It can look really measly to buy one or 2 packets of crackers and a dip, when someone else went to the effort of making a whole glazed ham or a trifle. Make sure your selection covers different dietary requirements (make sure you get at least a pack of gluten free crackers or more if you know that guests or hosts don’t eat gluten), get a range of shapes and sizes (grissini, round wafers, and square crackers look cute), and make or purchase dips over a range of flavours, fun colours (beetroot purple, beige hoummus, green pesto), and ensure that you make/buy at least one or 2 without dairy. For crudites, if you can’t be bothered cutting vegetables into sticks, you could just buy small vegetables like Dutch carrots, baby radishes and miniature cucumbers. With cheese, get at least 2 varieties, one soft and one hard. Get blue if you must, though not everyone will thank you for it.
3. The Fruit Platter:
Rationale: You say to your host, “hey why don’t I make the fruit platter” and they realise that they forgot that fruit is an awesome dish to have and rarely remains at the end, so they are eternally grateful to you and always invite you again. Everyone loves snacking on fruit, particularly children, and a common parent rationale is that if kids have eaten nothing but sweets, a bite of meat and some fruit, then it’s not all bad.
In all my chef jobs, my employers always told me that when constructing fruit platters or using fruit garnishes, the key to making it look good was to get various levels of height: high things, mid level things and low things. So I tend to construct a fruit platter with fanned slices of triangle cut watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe for the high stuff. Cheeks of mango with the skin on, cut in half with the crosshatching done also looks good. Slices of orange with the pithy white bit from the center cut away, halved stone fruit, kiwi fruit skinned and cut into quarters length-ways, spears of pineapple and bunches of grapes are great for mid level stuff, and scattered berries, whole cherries and currants look cute for the smaller stuff.
Rationale: Don’t be the one bringing the bowl full of chopped up lettuce leaves with hunks of tough to chew carrot, quartered tomatoes and slices of raw onion. You can do a step better than that, and with results that look great, taste great and are less likely to leave people’s breath stinking and stomachs churning. Try a simple salad of mixed leaves like rocket, spinach, mesclun, endive and robust cos lettuce leaves, with some thin slices of grapefruit, sliced cucumber, and blanched snow peas. Also give this simple caprese salad a go; suddenly salads went from boring necessity to delicious focus.
2 tubs of bocconini balls or a nice couple of large balls of proper buffalo mozzarella
8 roma tomatoes
large bunch of basil leaves
olive oil and salt and pepper
- Remove the cheese from the water and drain briefly on paper towel, rip the balls apart slightly with your fingers. If using large mozzarella, tear chunks off and toss them into your salad bowl.
- Cut tomatoes into thick slices or chunks, as you like. Add to the salad bowl.
- Pick the basil leaves from the stalks and add to salad. Don’t discard stalks. These are great for chopping thin along with garlic and onion when making a pasta sauce.
- Garnish the salad with slugs of good olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. The salad is the colour of the Italian flag, and is really the taste of summer and sunshine in a salad. It’s still good the day after it has been made, if not better.
5. Side Dishes:
These can be carb heavy dishes like potato gratins, pastas, rice dishes, stuffings, or things like roast vegetables, an egg dish or other fanciful vegetable dish. With enough side dishes of varying texture, cooking method and flavour, you may only need one main dish.
6. Main Dish:
This can range from meat, seafood to vegetarian, depending on guests, your own diet, and your host’s preferences. This is also where you can provide the most assistance to your host, significantly reducing their stress levels, and also possibly stealing their thunder. But that tends to happen anyway, at a potluck gathering. One piece of beautifully roasted meat, a glazed ham, fresh or cured fish platter, prawns, a vegetarian tart or pie; something worthy of a centerpiece. When 2 or 3 people each tackle a main dish, the meal comes together easily and beautifully with the major effort spread out. If your dish is meant to go with a sauce like cranberry, mayonnaise, mint, gravy and the like, don’t assume they’ll already have it there. The number of times I’ve witnessed an awkward moment where a guest says “Surely you have mint jelly? Everyone does?” and the host declines with embarrassment.
I differentiate between sweet treats and desserts. I figure that dessert is a dish that you know you must absolutely wait until after lunch/dinner to consume; things like trifles, cakes, custards, and basically any sweet that is presented in one piece and will be noticeably diminished if you remove a serve. Treats include cookies, slices, brownies, sweets and tarts that come individually portioned; I’ll feel fine about scarfing 2 cookies before eating lunch but feel pretty bad if I scoop a serve of chocolate mousse. It’s nice to bring 2 platters of treats; flex and show off your baking skills. Home made marshmallows go down well with children, and fruit mince pies make for traditional fare.
As stated above, your layered creamy desserts, cakes, custards, ice creams, jellies, whole pies, puddings and the like go in this category. I feel that if you are making one big dessert dish to feed all that are gathered, you only need to bring this, as it’s a lot of effort and time. Bonus points if you make something that does not require refrigeration, because with all the meat, seafood, salad and drinks that need to be chilled, space is going to be scarce.
9. Coffee, Tea and other Drinks:
Maybe you don’t consider this a category. More often than not the host chooses to provide the drinks, perhaps in a bathtub cleverly filled with ice and bottles of beer and fizz. Such an effort should not go unnoticed; I know if I were to serve drinks from our tub, I’d have to spend a day scrubbing it first. People generally already have coffee and tea at home too, but not every guest drinks black tea, and it’s nice to have a range of black tea strengths and herbal teas and a quality of coffee above Nescafe for the special occasion. My partner brings fresh bags of coffee to every gathering he attends, also bringing his stovetop coffee pot and a hand cranked grinder in case they don’t have the equipment needed. This also usually involves him volunteering to make coffee and tea for everyone, which gives the host a nice moment to sit down and enjoy the company. My partner’s eldest brother, a handsomely busy single man who is unused to cooking, is often assigned drinks, and is very good at picking a selection of soft drink, juice and mineral water that satisfy both grown up and childish tastes.