Even though the season is on the wane, there's still time for a summer potluck. In fact, consider having one over the Labor Day weekend.
One small pitfall, even of the most casual get-together, is that potlucks often feel like unofficial cook-offs, with every attendee acting as judge. This only bothers me when I go home with leftovers -- the unmistakable sign of potluck failure.
One particular offering forced me to start taking potluck planning more seriously: the lemon-cornmeal-zucchini cookies that only the 2-year-old loved. I stand by those cookies -- they were delicious -- but I should have known better.
No one is going to go for a cornmeal-zucchini cookie when there are pies around, and at this particular party, there were six of them.
I'd also broken another cardinal rule of potlucks, eloquently summarized by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette food writer Gretchen McKay: "You need to make something a little different, but not so different that no one knows what it is." Even I have to admit that a cornmeal-zucchini-lemon cookie sounds a little strange.
The next year, at the same gathering, I skipped dessert (too many pie makers at that party). Instead, I brought a spicy cantaloupe salad, recipe courtesy of chef Bill Fuller's column in the Big Burrito Restaurant Group newsletter. Sweet cantaloupe, corn and cherry tomatoes were assertively seasoned Thai-style with jalapenos, garlic, onion and fish sauce, finished with lots of chopped mint and cilantro and a sprinkle of roasted peanuts.
I didn't even get to have seconds of that one.
Fruit tarts are simple to put together and always make a big splash at parties. One of my favorites is a lime tart with blueberries and blackberries, which turned out as pretty as the picture in Bon Appetit magazine.
A Greek salad bulked up with black-eyed peas and crunchy pita chips proved surprisingly popular at several gatherings (the summer's best heirloom tomatoes are key to this recipe).
What general principles can be drawn from my experiences?
Dessert is more memorable and people request the recipe more often. But that doesn't mean you can't screw it up. Light, fresh and rustic are the key to popular potluck desserts. Stick to tarts, pies, crisps and simple cakes.
But not everyone can bring dessert, so if you're stuck with a savory side dish, use the freshest, most spectacular seasonal ingredients you can get your hands on: Corn, tomatoes and fresh herbs need very little to transform them into mouthwatering dishes. And melons, stone fruit and berries often make an even bigger impact in a savory dish than a sweet one (see that cantaloupe salad).
There are stealth moves as well. If you know you'll arrive early, bring hors d'oeuvres. Everyone is hungrier at the beginning of a party, so these dishes are almost invariably devoured.
My husband likes to bring the fixings for a cocktail, though that sometimes backfires, as he'll have to spend the first half of the party mixing drinks. Pitcher cocktails, on the other hand, can be assembled in advance and are quick to disappear.
Strategies are no different for those with dietary constraints. Whether you're a vegetarian, gluten-intolerant or allergic to nuts, you can and should bring something that fits those specifications. But if you'd like people to remember your dish as something more than peanut-free, avoid recipes that approximate dishes you can no longer eat.
It goes without saying that you should bring your own serving bowl and, if possible, serving utensils. If people have to think too hard about how to get something onto their plate, they're liable to pass it right by.
Finally, resist the urge to double or triple that recipe, unless you've been specifically asked to make pasta salad for 25. While it may not look like a huge portion in your own kitchen, it will magically multiply in size the second you leave.
If a dish doesn't go over well, shrug it off, make a note and move on. The nice thing about a potluck? By next week, no one will remember what you made anyway.
How to transport pies and tarts
You can invest in a pie or cake carrier, but I don't have endless storage space, so I prefer to use items I already keep around the kitchen.
For pies and tarts measuring 9 inches or less, I place a cork trivet in the bottom of a large Dutch oven, place the pie or cake on the trivet, then put the lid on the pot. It will be completely protected until you arrive.
Recently, for a larger tart, I tucked the trivet and tart into a large skillet, then wrapped the whole thing in several layers of plastic wrap -- more wasteful, but essential for protecting the tart from debris.
(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
There are a lot of bad sangrias out there, but that's no reason to reject the genre. This sangria gets all its sweetness from fruit and orange liqueur, while spicy ginger and fresh herbs make it taste even more refreshing.
-- China Millman
6 cups assorted fruits (such as mango, pineapple, cantaloupe and apricot), sliced or