Food — Holiday Potluck 101-Tips For The Kitchen Novice

Can you bring the side dish? Yes, yes you can

By Amy Diaz 

It will happen.

Whether it’s next Thursday’s Thanksgiving feast or some party in the coming weeks, no matter how hard you try, you will be asked to bring food.

I know what you’re thinking—you’ve got a plan. It’s strategic and well-thought-out and involves a web of dinner reservations, cocktail-centered events and promises from friends that this year’s holiday meal will consist of Chinese take-out.

Yeah, good luck.

Pick your poison

Bringing the food need not be a holiday catastrophe, even for the cooking-phobic.

When you see a pot-luck situation in your future, do not hang on the sidelines hoping you won’t be roped into bringing something. Take control early. The sooner you sign up for something relatively simple (the plate of veggies and dip) the harder it will be for someone to pawn off the turkey/ham/tofurkey on you and your oven.

A few suggestions on how to get the right task for you:

• Sign up for the dish you plan to bring at the first possible opportunity.

• The farther you have to travel, the fewer dish options available. This makes the I’ll-bring-the-wine option more sensible (though, those with a tight budget should be careful when making the wine offer; at about one bottle per two or three people, providing the vino can get pricey fast).

• Pick something you know how to make. Two hours before heading to your in-laws is not the time to get experimental.

• Be sure you’ll have enough time to shop for and prepare anything you volunteer to make. If work or school has you cramming the work in before the holiday, don’t offer to bring something that requires hours of careful tending.

Appetizers: The joy of going first

Don’t really want to partake in the pot luck? Raise your hand for the appetizer.

Appetizers come first, so nobody expects them to be filling. Also, guests are usually hungry enough to just be thankful for whatever is available. And impressive variety is possible with relatively limited effort.

Most appetizers will fall into one of the following categories:

• Chips and dip—No, I am not talking Lays and French onion here (though, if the bulk of the party is under 20 and over 14, go for it). There’s the corn chips (mix a bag of yellow corn and a bag of blue corn chips in a large wooden salad bowl) and salsa (provide mild, medium and salsa verde). Or, for a Middle Eastern flavor, check out the relatively varied selection of hummus and taboule in most area supermarkets. Set out three flavors of hummus (go red, green and white—OK, beige—if you feel particularly festive) and serve with pita chips.

• Cheese and crackers—There is a solid selection out there of cracker variety packs, invest in a few and you’ve got not only the shapes but the colors to make festive petals for the flower of the cheese and cracker plate. Generally, buttery crackers, not too salty, go with most cheeses though a nice rye cracker can add a bit of a kick. How to design a good cheese plate? Get a nice spreadable cheese to act as your centerpiece then cut up some cheddar, some parmesan or Asiago (a nice lower-cost parm alternative), some smoked Gouda and a pepper or otherwise flavored cheese. Cheese can be cut up in advance (though it will dry out, so cover or spend those awkward first five minutes of the party in the kitchen, engaged in a task).

• Veggies and dip—Looks colorful, also who’s going to complain about the healthy option? And now, thanks to the packaged-vegetable industry, a fairly impressive veggie plate can be achieved with very little actual chopping. In addition to the standard carrots, broccoli, celery and cauliflower, add olives (black and green are available in a variety of flavors in self-serve kiosks at most local supermarkets), snow peas and grape tomatoes. For dips, try a spreadable cheese, a ranch (which is surprisingly healthy with fat-free sour cream), a flavored oil or vinaigrette and or a hummus. Round out the plate with a little protein in the form of nuts—Spanish peanuts and honey-roasted, for that salty and sweet combination.

• Hors d’oeurve—Yes, technically, your other two options are hors d’oeuvres but you know what I mean. Puffs of something (cheese, crab, etc.), little hot dogs wrapped in dough, shrimp that have been seasoned in some way. These things involve cooking and usually some sort of skill. This does not mean the novice or hurried chef necessarily needs to go the route of reheated frozen snacks. (Though this method is available—most supermarkets have a house brand of finger foods that provide bulk cooking options, though keep in mind that chicken fingers heated up and then transported for 15 minutes will not taste as good on the other end. If you buy frozen treats, best to bake on location. Bring your own pans—most supermarkets sell cheap disposable cookie sheets—and non-stick spray. Also, if you really want to wow the crowd and don’t mind making a bit of a drive, Trader Joe’s in Tyngsboro offers a variety of more exotic appetizers.) One trick to making a hot hors d’oeurve is to make a full or even double recipe of a main dish and then cut it into small pieces. Spanekopeta, the Greek spinach pie, lends itself to this treatment best. Let sit for about 15 minutes after baking and you can squares about a third the size of a portion you’d normally serve as an entrée. Just keep in mind that you want your hors d-oeurve to be finger food friendly. So tiny tacos (wrap about a tablespoon of seasoned meat in a warmed flour tortilla and stick a toothpick through to keep closed) will work but tiny enchiladas, not so much.

Bread: The secret is in the buying

Nobody expects you to make bread.

And that pretty much sums up why you want this task.

• Order early—At Manchester area bakeries, the deadline to get bread for your Thanksgiving meal can be as early as the Friday before the big day. Do not just assume your bread seller of choice will have extra loaves, rolls or baguettes. Order as soon as possible and find out exactly when you have to pick up your baked goods.

• Bake accordingly—If you buy the half-baked bread variety at the grocery store, this will be another occasion when you want to do a little last-minute on-location snazzing up. Bread baked at the meal site will provide not only the “ahhhs” of butter melting on crispy-topped rolls but also that dreamy fresh-bread smell (a smell which will go a long way toward making people forget that your contribution took about five minutes of effort).

• Snazz up your bread—Want to show off without really doing much? Flavored olive oil (drizzle a small pool on one saucer for every two people) will help with that as will a little butter and freshly-minced garlic or chopped basil on inch-thick slices of bread, toasted for five minutes to dress up ordinary French or Italian bread.

• Know your audience—Sure, you like it, but are these really garlic-encrusted peasant-loaf people? For a crowd (10 or more) use the numbers to your advantage and provide a variety of loaves—a simple Italian, wheat and something more exotic (olive, garlic or a ciabatta topped with onions or peppers).

Side dish: Trying to get lost in the shuffle

Stuck with a side dish?

As long as it’s not stuffing (and really, shouldn’t the cooker of the bird cook the stuffing?), no sweat.

Just about any fresh vegetable cooked to a bright green (or yellow, depending), slightly al dente, with a little olive oil and a bit of salt will be wonderful.

Pre-clean and cut snap beans and toss with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle with salt, place in a disposable foil pan and cover with foil. Once at the festivities location, cook at 350 or so (the beans will cook just fine on the top of an oven cooking another dish) for about 15 minutes. Through in a few sprigs of rosemary to add a hint of another flavor.

A simple pasta dish? Cook up bow-tie or spiral pasta and toss with olive oil. Put pasta in its to-go dish and then add grape tomatoes cut in half, finely chopped basil, thinly sliced strips of red bell pepper and marinated black olives cut in half (marinated green olives or garlic-stuffed green olives also work). Toss lightly and then sprinkle with parmesan cheese or add soft mozzarella balls cut into pieces slightly bigger than a two chocolate chips. Works fine warm or cold.

For an impressive-looking, pleasant-tasting winter vegetable, bake a spaghetti squash for about an hour at 350, cut in half and remove seeds. Taking care not to puncture the outside of the squash, scoop out the yellow noodle-looking flesh of the squash. In a large bowl, toss with olive oil, salt, black pepper and, if desired, two cloves of minced garlic. Put seasoned squash back in shells, cover. Reheat briefly before serving.

Dessert: Score!

Whether you bake or buy, it’s hard to go wrong with dessert.

If you’re responsible for the pie, remember that most pies taste better the day after they’re made and plan accordingly. (Also, as with any baking, keep in mind that exotic ingredients might be harder to find at the limited number of convenience stores and small markets that stay open with the big boys close on holidays.)

Just about any fruit pie can be improved (and stretched to feed more people) with the addition of French vanilla or vanilla bean ice cream.

When cooking for a crowd, keep the pies simple—apple, pumpkin, berry, pecan. While a blend of flavors will light up the face of a foodie, finicky party-goers and especially children may wrinkle their nose at the sudden appearance of nuts, raisins or even chocolate in non-traditional places.

If the pies are taken care of (or not on the menu), try cupcakes or cookies. Both have the benefits of being travel-friendly and easy for people to eat without plates. If you are making the treats, stick to one or two varieties and make them easy to tell apart (chocolate frosting means yellow cake; white frosting means carrot cake).

If you are purchasing, you needn’t resort to the pre-packaged cookie mix. Most grocery stores sell two-bite-sized cookies, brownies and tarts in their bakery section that can be mixed and matched to provide a nice balance of color, flavor (fruity, chocolaty, nutty) and texture.

Of course, even if you show up with Oreos and Nutter Butters, no one will mind if you put your dessert energies in another area. A good-quality coffee with a shot of Godiva, Frangelica or Baileys is a dessert in itself.

- Amy Diaz

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