By Maddie Rix
The potluck or “bring-a-dish” dinner is a popular concept among my friends, and apparently a pretty big deal in the States. If you don’t know what it is, it’s a dinner party where everyone brings a course or dish.
Now, that makes it a great way to get together and have a fun, plentiful evening that doesn’t break the bank, but believe me – I have attended and hosted my fair share of potluck dinners and I can tell you they don’t always work out. Without a little forward planning and communication, you will almost certainly end up with six pasta bakes.
With that in mind, here are my top tips for hosting and attending a potluck dinner, because both have their (fun!) challenges:
Hosting a potluck dinner
As the host, it is your responsibility to ensure that everything runs smoothly – even though you have no control over what your guests are going to bring.
My top hosting tip is to set a theme for the evening, because no one wants to eat lasagne and curry in the same meal. Inspire your guests with some interesting ideas: suggest Middle Eastern sharing platters; pick your favourite chef and get everyone to cook one of their recipes; base your evening around seasonal produce; or stick to a one star ingredient like ricotta or chillies.
As well as giving your guests a genre of food to work within, it is a good idea to give them some guidelines. Put a couple of people on meat and fish duty, a couple of people on carbohydrate dishes, and the remaining guests to do sides and salads – throw in a couple of nibbles and desserts and you are on your way to a collaborative masterpiece.
You’re probably better of asking people to bring all necessary equipment and utensils with them. Find out how many people need to do last-minute prep in your kitchen and who will need to heat their dish up. Most importantly, make sure you have enough plates, cutlery and chairs – I once spent an evening sitting on the floor eating out of a mug with my fingers.
Attending a potluck dinner
As a guest of a potluck dinner, your aim is to bring the dish that everyone goes mad for. Presentation is key, so think about how you’re going to serve it and bring everything that you need to make it look amazing. Don’t cook anything that spoils when made in advance, or where cooking times are vital… basically don’t attempt to make pan-fried sea bass with a beurre blanc. Think of dishes that hold well and can be easily heated through. Slow-cooked joints of meat are an excellent choice: cook a marinated shoulder of lamb on a low heat for 4-5 hours, wrap it tightly in a double layer of foil and make it airtight with cling film, allowing it to rest while you transport it. Shred up the meat just before serving and sprinkle over some fresh herbs, pistachios and pomegranate seeds to create a spectacular centrepiece.
Another way to stand out at a potluck dinner is to think outside of the box. People generally bring carb-heavy, filling dishes that will feed lots of people with minimal effort. Instead, think up something light, nutritious and full of flavour. An exciting salad can be an unexpected hit. Bring all the components to the party and assemble and dress the salad just before serving to give it maximum freshness. Try Jamie’s smoked salmon and beetroot salad or something exotic like his crunchy Keralan salad. The great thing about salads is you can fit them in to any type of meal, so whatever theme your host throws at you, you can produce something exciting and delicious.
My final tip for a top guest dish is to create something interactive. People love wrapping, dipping and eating with their fingers. You could serve your slow-cooked lamb (see above) with some warm flatbreads and harissa-spiked yoghurt to really elevate it. Why not try some crispy potato skins with cheese, and a fresh guacamole for people to scoop up? Or even something as simple as a platter of chargrilled sourdough, a bottle of olive oil for drizzling, cut garlic cloves for rubbing and a delicious assortment of fresh toppings for the ultimate make-your-own bruschetta.
Have any of you had had any memorable pot luck dinner experiences? Do you have any other tips that you would like to share? If so, just pop a comment in the box below, you’ll help me out as well as everyone else!