Potlucks take on a new purpose; tips to get them right out

A few potluck dishes I prepared at my family's house in Connecticut on Sunday. ( Photo by Jill Capuzzo )

On the third Saturday of the month, about 200 Southern Californians trek to a San Diego farm just north of the Mexican border for what might be the country's biggest monthly potluck. In Nashville, it's the third Thursday when residents from all parts of the city come together to share dishes they've prepared, preferably using ingredients from their own gardens. Then there's the annual summer food bloggers' potluck in upper Bucks County that has become such a major event that it draws sponsorship from prominent food corporations.

No longer just for church gatherings, family reunions, or company picnics, potlucks have become a popular networking tool, whether that means rubbing elbows with those one might not otherwise encounter, sharing in a purpose or cause, or making professional connections, with some social-media self-promotion thrown in for good measure. Of course, it's still a way to share one's creations, not to mention the burden of throwing a party.

The community brought together by Pam Anderson at her farm in Riegelsville each summer is like-minded: about 75 food bloggers from throughout the Northeastern U.S. What began as a one-day gathering five years ago has grown into a weekend event sponsored by corporate heavy-hitters like KitchenAid and Kerry Gold, looking to connect with influential food writers. For the bloggers, "it's a chance to reinvigorate and get your juices flowing," Anderson said. It's also an opportunity to show off their talents with the dishes they bring.

It's like a potluck on steroids, said Anderson, who writes a blog with her two daughters, ThreeManyCooks.com, that recently became the source of a cookbook by the same name. "It's their reputation. They want to provide something that people are talking about, taking pictures of, and posting on Facebook or Instagram."

Not all potlucks aspire to a greater purpose. Many people will gather at potluck picnics this weekend to commemorate the Fourth of July.

Voorhees food blogger Donna Pilato says potlucks fit today's busy lifestyle, offering an easy way to host a large gathering without bearing the full cooking burden. Still, Pilato believes that some rules are in order, for the host and for the guests. "Management is the most important thing a host does," said Pilato, former entertaining expert for About.com and author of theDeliciousDozen.com blog. "You shouldn't be directing people to bring filet mignon, but you need to coordinate, or you'll have six Mexican dips and nothing else."

Invitations to potlucks are most likely to arrive via the Internet, where it's also easy to assign categories of dishes or tasks for those who don't cook (bring paperware, drinks, extra chairs). There are free websites that aid in this process, such as PerfectPotluck.com, with online sign-up sheets and recipes.

Hosts might make the main course, letting guests know what it will be so they can build around it. However, offering up one's place and everything that goes into holding the party is enough of a contribution, said Pilato. In assigning dishes, one should take into account guests' capabilities. Recognizing that not everyone is a great cook, Nancy Vienneau, a former caterer and cofounder the Nashville potluck, said she has encouraged those who don't cook to at least pick up something from a local vendor to support neighborhood businesses.

Dishes should be ready to serve when they arrive, and guests should not assume the availability of oven time or refrigerator space, though hosts should save space to refrigerate dishes that could spoil if kept out in the sun too long.

With dietary restrictions or food preferences now playing a major role in people's consumption habits, pleasing all tastes is nearly impossible. So Pilato suggests telling guests who have specific dietary needs to "bring what you prefer to eat that you can fill up on." Labeling dishes as gluten-free or containing nuts or other potential allergens is a considerate gesture.

Guests should not bring their food in dishes they expect the host to wash out and return. Nor should they retrieve their half-eaten dishes at the end of the party unless the host suggests it, or better yet, sets out storage containers and invites guests to take whatever they want.

"What you've contributed, you've contributed," said Pilato. "And that means the host gets a nice meal the next day."

Stacked Raspberry and Beet Salad With Raspberry Vinaigrette

Makes 8-10 servings

1/2 pound mixed salad greens or frisée, divided

6 beets, roasted and sliced, divided

6 ounces goat cheese, sliced and crumbled, divided

2 pints fresh raspberries, divided

For the raspberry vinaigrette:

1 cup black or red raspberries

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

A few grindings fresh black pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil


1. Place half of the salad greens in the bottom of a clear glass bowl. Layer half of the beet slices in a circle on top of the greens. Sprinkle with half of the goat cheese, then with half of the raspberries. Drizzle with the raspberry vinaigrette. Repeat the stack, finishing with the vinaigrette.

2. To prepare the vinaigrette, place the raspberries and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Gently cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries release their juices and the sugar dissolves. Remove the pan from the heat. Allow to cool.

3. Pour the raspberry mixture into a food processor fitted with a chopping blade. Add the vinegars, salt, and pepper. Pulse together. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until the mixture is thickened and emulsified. Taste and adjust for sweetness, acid, salt, and pepper.

   - From "Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook"


Per serving (based on 10): 345 calories; 8 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams sugar; 27 grams fat; 18 milligrams cholesterol; 172 milligrams sodium; 7 grams

dietary fiber.

Glazed Lemon-Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

Makes 35-40 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

31/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 large egg

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups all-purpose flour

For the glaze:

1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 to 3 tablespoons water

Fresh rosemary sprigs for garnish

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed for 3 minutes. Add the zest, rosemary, egg, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt, and beat for 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl. At low speed, add the flour, and mix just until combined. Do not overmix. Roll the dough out between 2 large sheets of parchment paper to 1/4-inch thick. Chill the dough for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

3. Cut the dough using your favorite cookie cutters. Place the dough shapes onto baking sheets, and bake for 16 to 18 minutes or until the edges are golden. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

4. To make the glaze, combine the confectioners' sugar, olive oil, and lemon juice in a medium bowl. Add enough water to achieve a spreadable consistency. Drizzle and spread the glaze over each cooled cookie, and top with a fresh rosemary sprig.

- From "Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook"


Per cookie (based on 40): 156 calories; 1 gram protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; 17 milligrams cholesterol; 93 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.

Mixed Olive Salad

Makes 8-12 servings

2 medium garlic cloves

1/4 cup capers

1 cup drained ripe black olives

1 cup drained pimento-stuffed salad olives

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup finely chopped celery hearts


1. Mince garlic cloves in a food processor. Add capers; pulse to chop. Add olives, vinegar, and oregano; pulse to chop again.

2. Turn out into a medium bowl; stir in olive oil and celery. (Can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several weeks.)

Per serving (based on 12): 101 calories; trace protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; no sugar; 11 grams fat; no cholesterol; 284 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.


Makes 24 to 30 hors d'oeurvres

1 cup mixed olive salad (see accompanying recipe)

1 package (8.8 ounces) tandoori naan

5 thin slices each: pepperoni, capicola, and salami (about 11/2 ounces of each)

4 thin slices each: mozzarella and provolone (about 3 ounces each)

1/4 large red onion, thinly sliced


1. Make mixed olive salad.

2. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position, and heat oven to 350 degrees. Lay naan directly on rack and heat until warm and starting to crisp, 5 to 6 minutes.

3. Spread each naan with ½ cup of the mixed olive salad. Then layer the meats, cheeses, and onion on one naan in the following order: pepperoni, mozzarella, capicola, red onion, provolone, salami (or shrimp). Cap with the other naan to make a large sandwich. Trim edges to form an approximate 8-by-6-inch rectangle or oval. Time permitting, wrap sandwich tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Cut into bite-size squares or wedges, and serve.

Per square (based on 30): 86 calories; 3 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; no sugar; 6 grams fat; 6 milligrams cholesterol; 183 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.

Shrimp and White Bean Salad

Makes 4 servings

12 ounces cooked shrimp, cut into bite-size pieces

2 cans small white beans, drained

1 cup medium diced seedless cucumber, lightly sprinkled with salt

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes, lightly sprinkled with salt

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped coarse

1/4 medium red onion, sliced thin

3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Ground black pepper


1. Place shrimp, white beans, cucumber, tomatoes, feta, olives, red onion, and oregano in a medium bowl. Add oil; toss to coat. Add vinegar and light sprinkling of pepper; toss to coat. Adjust seasonings and serve.

- By "Three Many Cooks"


Per serving: 639 calories; 48 grams protein; 70 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams sugar; 20 grams fat; 196 milligrams cholesterol; 510 milligrams sodium; 17 grams dietary fiber.