The most elaborate potluck I ever went to was my own wedding, to which each guest brought a dish in lieu of gifts. We feasted on truffled pea soup and caviar tea sandwiches.
At the other end of the potluck spectrum was my daughter’s second-grade graduation breakfast, a festive hodgepodge of child-made scones, store-bought red velvet doughnuts and boxes of hot coffee.
Both parties were total successes, with a perfect mix of dishes appropriate to the occasion. That’s because they had the most important potluck ingredient in common: a strong organizer.
The secret of a great potluck isn’t good cooking. It’s careful planning.
A potluck host is like a choreographer whose role is to create a dance rather than a mosh pit, distributing the burden of the cooking so no one has to work too hard and giving guests a chance to shine by allowing them to show off their very best dishes. The host is also in charge of the flow of the meal, keeping track of what everyone is bringing to make sure there’s an interesting selection without any duplicated dishes.
“As a potluck organizer, I’ve learned that it works out better if I’m a little dictatorial about assigning dishes,” said Amy Thielen, the author of the 2013 cookbook “The New Midwestern Table.”
Thielen grew up in northern Minnesota, where potlucks were pretty much the only parties people gave. Her strategy is to make the central meat dish, then assign the rest of the meal according to people’s strengths, asking her friend with the clay oven to bring his homemade bread, the friend with the vegetable garden to bring pickled asparagus.
“I’ve learned the hard way that a hands-off approach can result in four kinds of cucumber salad,” she said.
Kristin Donnelly, who wrote the 2016 cookbook “Modern Potluck,” prefers to be slightly more relaxed. She suggests setting up an online sign-up sheet (she uses Google Docs) that everyone can view, but with broad categories — dips, salads, desserts — so that guests can help shape the party and bring dishes they’re excited to make.
“As a host you do want to do some planning, but you don’t want to give in to your inner control freak,” she said. “When your guests can see what everyone else is bringing, they’ll self-edit and you won’t get six platters of deviled eggs — at least you probably won’t.”
One thing hosts do not have to worry about is facilitating conversation among strangers. The very nature of the format gives guests an easy icebreaker: the food itself, who made what and how you got it there. Deviled eggs always have a backstory.
As for being a good potluck guest? Donnelly recommends that you think about logistics before signing up for your dish.
Will you go to the party from home, where you can pull a warm casserole from the oven? Or will you be at work, and need to make your dish the night before? If that’s the case, a grain salad or cheesecake bars hold up well when made in advance.
I usually volunteer to bring a fluffy salad made with hardy greens (baby kale, mature spinach, radicchio) that can hold up well for a few hours, and I dress it right before serving. It’s colorful, light and goes with almost everything. It’s also one of the less glamorous things you could make, so it often gets overlooked by cooks seeking a more stunning presentation. But it’s always gone when the party is over.
No matter what you bring, it’s best to garnish your offering in situ, especially those grain or potato salads, which can get a little dull sitting in the fridge.
“A squeeze of lemon, some olive oil and some fresh herbs right before serving really takes things up notch,” Donnelly said.
As for the casserole, that nearly indispensable classic of the potluck table, both she and Thielen are big fans of the 9- by 13-inch baking pan, which you can use for anything from vegetable tians to peach cobblers and is easy to carry, wrapped in foil and nestled in a cardboard box to keep it warm.
The photographer and food blogger Leela Cyd loves 4- to 6-ounce glass canning jars, which make transporting individual servings of chilled soup or chocolate pudding easy and eliminates the need for plates.
Her favorite? “Greek salad in a Weck jar,” she said. “You layer the heavier things first: the feta, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and dressing. Then you put the lettuce on top and people shake it just before they open the jar.”
I like the 2-quart Ball jars for carrying watermelon lemonade or iced tea to a party, since you can seal the tops, then use a small ladle to serve.
If all goes smoothly, guests get to linger over a varied and delicious spread, and hosts are left to enjoy the fact that they are giving a party and did not have to cook everything themselves.
Cyd advises hosts to reinvest all that saved prep time in the other details that make a party memorable. For her, that means picking flowers for the table. For me, I might actually get a chance to take a shower before guests arrive. Always take a moment for yourself, she said: “It will make you happy.”
Pickled Deviled Eggs
Yield: 12 servings
Time: 30 minutes, plus overnight pickling
12 large eggs
1 1/2 cups rice vinegar
6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 1/2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt, more as needed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 large red onion, halved and very thinly sliced
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Flaky sea salt, for serving
1. Put eggs in a large pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to immediately transfer to a bowl filled with ice and water. Let cool, then peel.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine vinegar, garlic, sugar, kosher salt, peppercorns and 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and stir in onions.
3. Spoon half of the onion mixture into a 2-quart jar or heatproof container. Add eggs and pour remaining onions and brine over the top. Let cool. Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 3 days.
4. Remove eggs from onion mixture and cut in half lengthwise. Scoop yolks into a mini-food processor or blender. Add 1 tablespoon of the pickling liquid, mayonnaise, mustard, pepper and a large pinch of kosher salt. Process until smooth. Spoon into egg halves, sprinkle with flaky sea salt, top with some of the pickled onion and serve.
Tomato and Zucchini Casserole With Crisp Cheddar Topping
Yield: 8 servings
Time: 1 hour
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed, more for buttering casserole dish
1 1/2 cups whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup fresh basil or mint leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes, cut into 1 1/2-inch wedges
1 pound slim zucchini, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, more as needed
1/2 cup high-quality pitted black olives, roughly chopped
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh chopped oregano or marjoram
3/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Pinch cayenne pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees and butter a 9- by 13-inch casserole dish or 2-quart gratin dish.
2. In a food processor or blender, purée the ricotta, basil and garlic.
3. Toss tomatoes, zucchini and 1 teaspoon salt in casserole to combine, then spread into an even layer. Dollop with ricotta mixture and scatter olives evenly across the top.
4. In a medium bowl, combine flour, oats, cheese, oregano or marjoram, lemon zest, cayenne and a large pinch of salt. Use your fingertips to work in the 5 tablespoons butter; you should end up with small clumps. Scatter clumps over vegetables, then drizzle liberally with olive oil.
5. Bake until golden and bubbly, 35 to 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.