Potluck Survival Guide

cheeselogfinal[Jump right to the recipes: Honey-Cheese Spread, Prosciutto-Wrapped Dates, & Spring Pasta Salad]

Last weekend a bunch of Austin food bloggers got together to share great food and to make real world connections. A wonderful time was had by all at Penny De Los Santos’ beautiful home as we tasted the most amazing range of food from curry-spiced cookies to vegan samosas from the owner of local Kula Catering to some of the best tacos I’ve had in a very long time from Mando of Taco Journalism. Some of the attendees have put together fantastic recaps of the event with some amazing photography, so I’m going to leverage (that’s marketing speak for be really lazy and not do it myself) their posts for those who want a download on the day’s activities:

  • Addie Broyles, Statesman food writer goddess and organizer of local bloggers (and this event) put together a lovely recap and gets extra points because she included a really big picture of my sunflower and goat cheese dish in her post aptly titled: Who woulda guessed? Food bloggers like potlucks.
  • Logan from Boots in the Oven makes reading about the event almost as fun as being there. He also does justice to the beauty of Penny’s house in both pictures and words.
  • Michelle Cheng’s photo gallery showcases the variety of the food and the bloggers behind it.

All-in-all the event was very satisfying for both the stomach and the soul.

However, when I first accepted the invitation for the party the first thing I experienced was…anxiety. Not only was I going to have to cook for a collection of food bloggers whom I respect for both their food and writing prowess, but I had to cook for a potluck which in-and-of-itself has a whole collection of issues to contend with. For about two weeks I was truly flummoxed. And then, as if my mental hamster wheeling over the food blogger event wasn’t enough, I was invited to an Easter potluck to be held a short week later.

Typically menu planning and recipe selection come easily to me. My biggest challenge is usually excluding dishes I want to make to create a menu that’s manageable for me and my guests’ pallets. After some thinking about why I was thrashing about these two potlucks so extensively, I realized that the nature of a potluck was really to blame.

The Problem with Potlucks

Don’t get me wrong, potlucks are great for a whole host of reasons:

  • The host doesn’t have to bear the whole burden for cooking (and financing) the event.
  • A range of food and culinary styles come to the table to create what can be a truly great experience.
  • Their communal nature helps set the stage for party goers to connect. Everyone at the party has at least one thing in common: prepping a dish for the party.

Even so, when it comes to prepping food for the party, potlucks present a not-so-nifty collection of challenges:

  • The food has to be prepped ahead. This narrows the possibly recipes down considerably. Recipes that include the words “serve immediately” are out.
  • The food had to hold for both transport and serving. When you combine transit time, milling time when you first get to the party, and the time it takes everyone to serve themselves at a party, potluck dishes need to be able to hold their own for quite a while. In my mind, this immediately eliminates any food that uses mayo or eggs, and possibly chicken depending on the preparation because the last thing I want to do is make give a whole group of people food poisoning. I can hear it now “Oh yeah, that was the food blogger event when the Everyday Foodie made us all sick”. Ugh.
  • The food has to travel well. Unless you’re hosting the potluck (and then you’re in your own kitchen and none of this really applies to you) you have to get the food from point A to point B more-or-less in good shape, so delicate or fragile food may not be the best choice.

The good news is all of these challenges are completely manageable with just a little know-how and planning. As I finalized my plans for both the food blogger and Easter potlucks, I kept track of the tactics I employed to overcome potluck problems and find the perfect dishes for each occasion.

Potluck Solutions

In the end, surviving a potluck comes down to following a few simple strategies:

  • Let the ingredients be the star. A defining characteristic of potlucks are lots of different dishes that may not necessarily go together well. Rather than add fuel to the fire with a complex dish, consider recipes with 5 or fewer ingredients and then buy the best possible ones you can lay hands on and/or afford.
  • Choose recipes that do well at room temperature. Cheese dishes are great for a party because cheese is actually best at room temperature. Cured meats, nuts, veggies, and some hearty fruits also do well at room temperature. Vinaigrettes are the best dressings for potlucks because they handle sitting out much better than mayo-based dressings.
  • Select recipes that can be prepped ahead. The last thing you want to be doing while you’re trying to get out of the house for a party is cooking a full recipe from start-to-finish. If you can put most or all of a recipe together 12-24 hours in advance you’ll have the time you need to focus on a great dish and prepping for the party.
  • Make enough for everyone. Find out from your host how many people will be at the party and plan to serve that many plus 20% more. There’s nothing worse than standing at the end of the line and missing out on a dish because there wasn’t enough to go around.
  • Don’t forget presentation. Just because you’re serving at a potluck doesn’t mean you can’t have a pretty presentation. Consider how you’d serve the dish at home and think about how you might replicate that at the potluck without sacrificing your best china or having to arrive 2 hours early. I have a collection of high-quality plastic presentation dishes specifically for serving at potlucks. They are durable and I won’t be heartbroken if I lose one along the way.
  • Plan for transportation. Consider how you’ll get your dish to the potluck, particularly if you have to keep it warm or cool. Remember that you can assemble your final dish at the potluck so package elements separately if necessary and put them all together when you get there.
  • Be kind to your host by bringing everything you’ll need to plate and serve your dish. At a lunch recently a dining companion told me she’d hosted a potluck party for 30 people and almost none of them had thought about serving the dishes they brought, so she was left scrambling at the last minute. To avoid this plan to bring:
    • A serving dish which is probably different from the one that will get your food to its destination.
    • Serving utensils.
    • Garnishes and final seasonings.

Given all of these strategies, the dishes I chose for my various potluck events included:

  • Sweet-’n'-Salty Honey Cheese Spread
    from Southern Living magazine. With only three ingredients (plush garnish) this recipe provides a great opportunity to showcase great goat cheese and honey. I choose local Pure Luck goat cheese which is some of the best you’ll ever taste and Tupelo Honey. An imported orange blossom honey would have been nice as well. With this dish, tasters get to experience high-quality ingredients they may or may not have had before, which is a great gift to give to anyone. This dish holds well at room temperature, lends itself to pretty plating, and travels well (plan to plate at your destination). It also has a make-ahead component and is almost silly-easy to put together. You can roll the goat cheese in sunflower seeds a few hours before the party and finish assembly and garnish at the party.
  • Prosciutto-Wrapped Dates with Marcona Almonds and Manchego Cheese. Dates stuffed with nuts and cheese then wrapped in pig meat are a classic appetizer that can be elevated to amazing when you choose great ingredients. Prosciutto de Parma, Marcona almonds, and artisan manchego cheese are best-of-the-best ingredients that come together to create taste experiences. These taste great right out of the oven or at room temperature. You can assemble these up to 24 hours in advance and refrigerate. Cook them for 10 minutes just before you leave for the party and transport in a warm carrier or consult with your host and possibly cook them on-site, but only if you ask first.
  • Spring Pasta Salad. Sometimes the oldies but goodies are perfect for a potluck because they are comfortable and expected by the crowd. My mom has been making the pasta salad for potlucks since I was a kid and it’s always well received. You can make it up to 12 hours in advance and take advantage of whatever fresh product you have available at the time. It scales easily to feed a few or a bunch of people and you can make it visually interesting by choosing a fun pasta shape. We simplify the recipe even further by using bottled dressing, but you can just as easily use your favorite vinaigrette. Because this recipe is mayo-free it holds well and it’s easy to transport. For serving, pile it on a beautiful platter, toss on some parsley sprigs and you’re done.

Prosciutto on Foodista Learn more about prosciutto

Recipe: Prosciutto-Wrapped Dates with Marcona Almonds and Manchego Cheese

Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Makes: 30
  • Prep Time: 30 min
  • Cook Time: 10 min
  • Weight Watchers™ Points: 1 each, 5.5 for 4

Ingredients

  • 30 pitted dates, (about 8 oz.)
  • 4 oz. good quality manchego cheese, cut in to ¼ in. cubes
  • 30 marcona almonds (about 4 oz.)
  • 12 thin slices prosciutto (about 3 oz.), each cut into 3 long strips, for a total of 36 strips

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Using a sharp knife, cut through one long side of each date so it opens like a book for stuffing. Be careful not to cut the date fully in half.
  3. Place one cube of cheese and one marcona almond side-by-side in the open date.
  4. Wrap the stuffed date in a strip of prosciutto and place seam side down on a baking pan.
  5. Repeat with remaining dates, almonds, cheese, and prosciutto.
  6. Roast the dates for 8-10 minutes or until the prosciutto is crispy and the cheese begins to melt.
  7. Serve warm or at room temperature.

datesstep1Recipe for Success

  • Not every date in your package will be the right size for stuffing and you’ll probably lose a few to breakage, so start with two packages to find your 30 best dates and expect to have a few leftovers. They’re great on salads or for snacking.
  • Every strip of prosciutto will not necessary cooperate with the rolling process which is why the recipe calls for a few extra slices of prosciutto. Consider the leftovers treats for the cook.
  • You can stuff and wrap the dates up to 24 hours in advance. Bake them just before serving or porting to a potluck.

Recipe: Spring Pasta Salad

Details

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Serves: 8-12
  • Prep Time: 40 min
  • Cook Time: According to pasta package directions

Ingredients

  • 2 medium carrots, cut into ¼ inch slices
  • 1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 8 oz. package pasta in the shape of your choice
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 medium yellow bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 English cucumber, chopped
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 cup. shelled edamame, cooked according to package directions and drained
  • ½ bottle (or so) of your favorite bottled vinaigrette or Italian dressing
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Bring a big pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
  2. Blanch the carrot slices and asparagus pieces for about 2 minutes. Scoop them from the boiling water and shock in ice water to stop the cooking. Don’t discard the boiling water as you’ll use it for the pasta.
  3. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain the pasta and coat lightly with cooking spray to prevent sticking. Let cool to room temperature.
  4. Combine the pasta and all prepared vegetables in a large bowl and toss lightly to combine.
  5. Add ½ cup of the dressing to the pasta and vegetables and stir to coat. Add additional dressing in small amounts until all of the pasta and vegetables are lightly coated with dressing.
  6. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste (if needed).

Recipe for Success

  • Use whatever shape pasta that strikes your fancy. Have fun with it. You can also use whole wheat pasta to make the dish more fiber-rich.
  • You can make this salad up to 12 hours ahead. Store in the refrigerator before setting out for service.
  • The combination of veggies in the recipe is my favorite but you can use any combination you like. Try for a mix of colors, flavors, and sizes. Some other good options include broccoli, green peas, other colors of bell pepper, and red onion. You could also narrow the selection down to a single color (cucumber, edamame, and asparagus for example) for a more focused taste and look. Also, try tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and cubes of mozzarella cheese for a take on a traditional salad.
  • Watery vegetables can make this salad watery, which is why I use grape tomatoes and English cucumbers. If you want to use a regular tomato or cucumber, seed them first to keep the water content down.
  • Don’t dress this salad until the pasta has cooled or it will look greasy. The type of pasta you use and your personal preferences will guide how much dressing to use. Be careful not to over-dress the salad. If you make the ahead, plan to add a bit more dressing just before service because the pasta will absorb the dressing over the course of a few hours.
  • I use bottled vinaigrette for this recipe because it’s easy but you can absolutely make your own. Like many of my other recipes, this recipe is more of an approach than a recipe. Make it your own with the pasta, veggies, and dressing of your choice.

8 Comments

  1. Thanks for the nice shout out about the write up. The cheese and dates were delicious! Nice potluck tips- I think lots of folks will be needing them with our lovely current economy.

    • Natanya Anderson /

      You’re welcome. I was so glad to be able to point to your lovely photos and witty words.

  2. Nice work, Natanya! I experienced the same anxiety (it even caused a small rift between Ian and me) when planning what to bring. You’ve done a great job with hints on how to do it well. I’ve already recommended your nut and cheese log to people as a simple potluck idea…

    • Natanya Anderson /

      Addie – it makes me feel so much better that you had the same anxiety I did; it helps to not be alone in these things :-) Thank you for bringing local bloggers together in person – it’s made us all better I think.

  3. TheRebecca /

    This post is fabulous! I’ve been invited to and have invited others to several potlucks lately and am always looking for new easy-to-transport, easy-prep, and stays-fresh contributions! That goat cheese log roll looks great, and I’ll probably post it on my blog (and trace it back to you as my source :) ) one day when I get to make it and take it to a potluck myself! My new blog is about entertaining, others and yourself, in Austin and beyond. Feel free to take a look around at http://www.Rebeccammendations.com!

    • Natanya Anderson /

      Rebecca – I’m so glad that the information was helpful. I hoped that others could benefit from my mental thrashing and save themselves some stress over their next potluck. Your blog is beautiful, BTW. I’ve added it to my feed reader.

  4. wow great post and I adore those dates

    • Natanya Anderson /

      I’m glad you liked it! The dates are really good and work well for a crowd – including those people who think they dont’ like dates.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Make-Ahead Super Bowl Hors D’oeurves & Appetizers « Fête & Feast - [...] Prosciutto-Wrapped Dates These are one of my go-to appetizers for any party because they are so easy to make, ...
  2. Picnic Fare: Fast, Easy, and Elegant Appetizers : Fête & Feast - [...] been almost exactly one year since the Austin food bloggers got together for our first ever potluck, so it ...
  3. Menu Plan Monday ~ June 14th - [...] dishes.  I love the variety of food, so delicious!  Anyway I found this great post called the Potluck Survival ...
  4. The Fête & Feast 4th of July Survival Guide : Fête & Feast - [...] Potluck Survival Guide [...]
  5. Make-Ahead Super Bowl Hors D’oeurves & Appetizers : Fête & Feast - [...] Prosciutto-Wrapped Dates These are one of my go-to appetizers for any party because they are so easy to make, ...