The Best and Worst Potluck Dishes

By on Monday, July 11th, 2011

(Banner photo courtesy Katnip)
If you are like most Americans, you’ve had your fill of potluck suppers: questionable Jello molds and fly-ridden macaroni salads atop red-and-white-checked tablecloths.

Photo © Anna B. Brawley

The bologna with American cheese on white bread; the fatty chips; the salmonella-ready fried chicken that’s been perched on a paper plate for hours in the hot sun; you know it all too well.

Is there a reason we are so lame at potluck participation? Can’t we think of a good dish to make that keeps well, tastes good and doesn’t look like everybody else’s? There must be another way to do it.

You know–with style.

Turns out, we were onto something: American chefs have exceptional ideas for what goes on our plate once we join Aunt Margaret and weird Uncle Lou out at the barbeque.

Vegetarians Rejoice

Irvine, Calif.-based Chef Ray White with the Veggie Grill says he’d bring his trademark Nacho Lasagna to a potluck.

Chef Ray White changes up plain old lasagna with a spicy nacho twist that could set church ladies' pants on fire.

He says where Americans go wrong with potlucks is thinking processed versus fresh ingredients. “There are creative ways to serve natural, whole foods,” White says. “A few examples of this would be roasted beets served chilled with balsamic vinegar or sliced garden tomatoes with capers, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. All [could be] served on a bed of whole and wild grain rice.”

White, whose Veggie Grill boasts seven outposts in the Los Angeles area, naturally promotes good health–it’s his business. (Hence the name.)

Veggie Grill's Ray White says fresh potluck does not have to be an oxymoron.

So when he says Americans use an excessive amount of fried and processed foods, should this be taken with, uh, a grain of salt? No–omit the extra salt. And he wants us to steer away from too much fatty ham or macaroni salad.

“A healthier choice would be seasonal vegetables, fruits and nuts; or grilled sweet corn, squash, and bell peppers (which make an excellent side for your potluck sandwiches),” he says. Chopped fresh strawberries, blueberries, apples and bananas mixed with chopped almonds and walnuts topped with agave are also tasty choices, says the chef. “All of the fruit ingredients should be mixed together and topped with agave to taste,” he suggests.

Hitting it out of the field

Chef Nikki Cascone is the envy of Yankees lovers everywhere: the Bronx Bombers actually created a position for her in 2005 as the stadium’s director of food and beverage service. Since then, this classically trained chef – who studied at the Culinary School in Atlanta before blossoming alongside James Beard award-winning chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Shaun Doty and Anne Quatrano–has carved a niche for herself on a national scale by appearing in 2008 on Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

It's either a fun dessert or a satisfying quinoa salad when Chef Nikki Cascone comes to the party. Photo © Ken Goodman

All that said, this New Yorker and new mom thinks outside the Pyrex dish when going to a potluck. She usually brings a salad or in many cases, a dessert because it’s more of a novelty for her. “I like to make dessert, and [perhaps because] I’m not a skilled pastry chef I just have fun with it,” she says. She makes espresso pot de crèmes (little pudding cakes), which are always a hit.

But when she’s not on dessert detail, she sticks to her standard Quinoa Salad. “I turned all my family and friends on to this. When I was pregnant, it was a new way to get protein. I add orange segments, sweet peas, a little bit of shallot and cilantro, and then put a bit of juice from the orange segments with a dash of salt (for dressing).”

This type of cold salad holds up well and complements grilling, says Cascone. It’s also tasty with shrimp.”I make a summer salad with shrimp poached in olive oil and chilled,” she explains. “Add some watermelon, cukes, cilantro, lime and mint and you’re set.”

One of the tricks to this summer salad is balsamic reduction–reducing the amount of balsamic vinegar by roughly a half so that it becomes syrupy and pours well.

Salads are also a good choice because one needn’t be as concerned about food poisoning. Observe the “four-hour window,” says Cascone. Pay particular attention to your meats and use common sense. Keep everything out of the sun.

When it all goes south

But when you really want to learn about a potluck, head south on the Mississippi.

Chef Chris Lusk of New Orleans’ Café Adelaide at the Loews Hotel agrees that NOLA’s is the best food in the nation. (Granted, he was prodded on this point by one very biased Cajun-lovin’ journalist.)

Keep it simple but make it delicious is Chef Chris Lusk's advice for a potluck dish.

Lusk lauds some of the choices White mentioned about keeping it fresh and healthy–but he’s far from averse to all things meaty. After all, Lusk grew up on a farm. Louisiana magazine even quoted him as saying he always thought meat came in paper because that’s how it was growing up; plastic-wrapped meat at supermarkets was a jolt.

He laughs, remembering his upbringing and the potlucks coordinated by family. His best potluck memory is probably “eating at my grandparents on the holidays, with everyone bringing dishes. These weren’t the fanciest, but [oftentimes] ingredients were culled from the garden. Fresh fruits and vegetables were freely available.”

These days, Lusk would probably bring some of his famous crawfish enchiladas to a potluck. “It’s something simple, which people really seem to enjoy,” he says. Simplicity, in fact, is key to the successful potluck.

“People tend to over-think potlucks,” Lusk says. “A choice should not be something overly flavorful or too heavily seasoned; nothing too weird. The potluck choice should have mass appeal.”

That said, asked what sets New Orleanians or Southern food apart from the Yankee table, he says: “I don’t think seasoning is quite [as extreme] up north.” And yes, he agrees, “I definitely think we do have the best food. It’s really hard to have a bad meal in New Orleans.”

Written by Laurie Wiegler

Laurie Wiegler is a Connecticut-based journalist who has written frequently about green living, science, and the environment for a range of publications including Toque, Slate, Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, The Hartford Business Journal's Green Guide, AARP and Examiner.com. www.lauriewiegler.com

6 Comments

  1. Katie Stork says:

    RT @toquemag: "Why are we so lame at potluck participation?" http://tinyurl.com/6at3rxu

  2. Chef Chris talks dishes and tips for great potluck-ing with @toquemag this month: http://t.co/9Pasf3x

  3. Thanks for inspiring us to have a party, hope our guests find a great dish for our potluck dinner. http://fb.me/15RJMr3k0

  4. Peter says:

    The Best and Worst Potluck Dishes from @Toquemag http://ow.ly/5DRjr

  5. Thanks for inspiring us to have a party, hope our guests find a great dish for our potluck dinner. http://fb.me/15RJMr3k0

  6. The Best and Worst Potluck Dishes from @Toquemag http://ow.ly/5DRjr

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