Consider a potluck for Labor Day weekend

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.

SUMMER SANGRIA

(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 cut into chunks

1/4 cup thinly sliced peeled fresh ginger

1 to 1-1/2 cups fresh basil or mint leaves

1/2 cup orange liqueur, such as Cointreau

1 bottle crisp white wine, such as sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)

Ice

In a large bowl or pitcher, combine fruit, ginger, basil or mint, and orange liqueur. Mash gently with the back of a wooden spoon until basil is bruised and fruit releases juices. Add wine and lemon juice and stir to combine. Refrigerate 1 hour (or up to 1 day). To serve, fill eight glasses with ice and top with sangria.

Serves 8.

-- marthastewart.com

LIME TART WITH BLACKBERRIES AND BLUEBERRIES

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The contrast between the pale green curd and the dark purple and blue berries makes this tart as visually stunning as it is delicious. Since these berries are used raw, you'll want to make sure they are truly ripe. You could also use all blackberries or blueberries if only one type is available.

-- China Millman

Lime curd:

3 large eggs

3 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup fresh lime juice

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces

Crust:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup sugar

1 large egg yolk

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 large pinch of salt

Topping:

2 6-ounce containers fresh blackberries

1 6-ounce container fresh blueberries

1 tablespoon blackberry jam

For lime curd: Set fine metal strainer over medium bowl and set aside. Whisk eggs, egg yolks and sugar in another medium metal bowl to blend. Whisk in lime juice. Set bowl over large saucepan of gently simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water). Whisk constantly until curd thickens and instant-read thermometer inserted into curd registers 178 degrees to 180 degrees, about 6 minutes. Immediately pour curd through prepared strainer set over bowl. Add butter to warm strained curd; let stand 1 minute, then whisk until blended and smooth. Press plastic wrap directly onto surface of curd, covering completely. Refrigerate until cold, about 4 hours. Lime curd can be made up to 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.

For crust: Using electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in medium bowl until well blended, 1 to 2 minutes. Add egg yolk; beat to blend. Add flour and salt and mix on low speed until mixture resembles large peas. Using hands, knead in bowl just until dough comes together.

Transfer dough to 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Break dough into pieces, then press dough evenly up sides and onto bottom of pan. Cover and chill 1 hour. Can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Uncover crust and bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Cool completely in pan on rack.

For topping: Remove sides from tart pan and place crust on plate. Spread lime curd evenly in baked crust. Arrange blackberries in 2 concentric circles just inside edge of tart. Mound blueberries in center of tart. Place jam in small microwave-safe bowl. Heat in microwave until jam is melted, about 15 seconds. Whisk to loosen and blend, adding water by teaspoonfuls if thick. Brush jam over berries. Tart can be made up to 8 hours ahead. Chill uncovered.
 

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