If you're invited to a potluck party this season and want to cook, don't fret about what to bring.
There are more than 100 classic and heirloom favorites in the recently released Cook's Country Best Potluck Recipes, from the editors of America's Test Kitchen. Chapters focus on brunch, salads, slaws, hot sides, casseroles, game-day favorites, slow-cooker dishes, centerpieces, and desserts.
"Potluck is an old-fashioned way of cooking for a bunch of people," says Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of Cook's Country and Cook's Illustrated, who was instrumental in assembling the cookbook.
"I think potlucks are more prevalent when people have less time, not less money." In the last five or 10 years, people often have a potluck when they just have dinner with another couple, he adds.
Potlucks are a good way to entertain or gather friends or coworkers, easing not only the shopping and cooking for the host, but the food costs and stress as well.
If you're the host or coordinator, you can let contributors bring whatever they like, suggest what's needed, or assign a specific dish. Potlucks can be built around a specific or ethnic theme or an occasion like a holiday, birthday, reunion, graduation, or tailgate party or picnic. A host can even supply a recipe, if participants don't have a good one. Be sure to suggest the number of servings to bring.
Kimball has been involved with potlucks at all types of town events for more than 20 years in Vermont, where he lives, including an annual ox roast in August and his own family's pig roast a couple of weeks later.
"Much like 19th-century barbecue, a potluck dinner is the ultimate social leveler, a glue of sorts, that brings people together from all walks and then sets them down at the same long table where they discover common ground. A potluck supper has one other great bonus - it is much like attending an auction preview; one finds treasures one didn't expect, gems among the more pedestrian offerings. I suppose this is why someone once married the term 'pot' with 'luck.' "
The food in the book is meant to be shared. "The goal was to take the 'luck' out of potluck to make sure that every recipe was either exceptional or at the very least, pretty darn good."
With potluck fare high on the list of Cook's Country magazine readers' favorites, lots of familiar creations have been tested, revamped, and updated to make sure they deliver great taste, he says. Among them are Ultimate Seven-Layer Dip, Southern Corn Pudding, Zesty Smoked Salmon Cheese Ball, Spicy Spaghetti Pie, Barbecued Shredded Beef Sandwiches, and St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, to name a few.
"Make something that is totally different than anyone else is going to bring," Kimball suggests. "Stick with a familiar category - pasta salad or casserole - but do it differently or a variation on the theme."
For instance, "barbecue macaroni salad sounds awful but is actually very good." Or try the Tex Mex Enchilada Casserole, using homemade enchilada sauce, or Chicken Broccoli and Ziti Casserole with a creamy cheese sauce.
"In my opinion, the best kind of food to take is always the dessert, hands down. It is hard to go wrong with dessert." His current favorite is the Strawberry Poke Cake, a tender from-scratch white cake streaked with strawberry gelatin, followed by the Apple Slab Pie, an easily prepared double-crust apple pie made on a baking sheet with store-bought pie dough. The Texas Sheet Cake, with much more chocolate flavor than in the original recipe that's been passed around for years, is another good choice, but it's very rich, he notes.
"It used to be cooking was very competitive, so at a potluck people would bring their best dish. Today I think a lot of people don't know how to cook or have lost the pride of cooking so they don't care about the food."
As for potluck etiquette, "bring the bloody dish finished, not in progress," Kimball emphasizes. Also, be sure to take utensils, and don't forget to take your plate or dish and utensils home.
24-Hour Picnic Salad
Makes 12 servings
1 medium head iceberg lettuce, cored and chopped rough (about 6 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 medium red onion, sliced thin
6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
4 celery ribs, sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
1 cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, and sliced thin
1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled
11/2 cups crumbled blue cheese
For the dressing:
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons hot sauce (Frank's RedHot Original preferred)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
1. For the salad, place half of the lettuce in a large clear glass serving bowl and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Rinse sliced onion under cold water; pat dry with paper towels. Layer onion, eggs, peas, celery, bell pepper, and cucumber over lettuce. Add remaining lettuce to bowl, sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and top with bacon and cheese.
2. For the dressing, mix together all the dressing ingredients and spread evenly over top of salad. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or up to 1 day. Remove plastic wrap and toss until the salad is evenly coated with dressing. Serve.
Per serving: 537 calories, 22 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 46 grams fat, 169 milligrams cholesterol, 1,535 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Chicken, Broccoli, and Ziti Casserole
Makes 8 servings
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 slices high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into quarters
8 garlic cloves, minced, divided
21/2 cups grated Asiago cheese, divided
1 pound ziti
1 onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups whole milk
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
3/4 pound broccoli florets, cut into 1-inch pieces
1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Pulse bread, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1/2 cup Asiago, and melted butter in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 10 pulses. Transfer to a medium bowl; set aside.
2. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta and cook, stirring often, until nearly tender. Drain pasta and rinse with cold water until cool. Set aside.
3. Wipe pot dry. Melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter in pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 6 minced garlic cloves and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in flour and cook until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in wine and cook until liquid is almost evaporated, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in milk and broth and bring to a boil. Add chicken and simmer until no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Off heat, stir in remaining 2 cups Asiago until melted.
4. Microwave broccoli in a large bowl, covered with plastic wrap, on high power until bright green and nearly tender, 2 to 4 minutes. Stir broccoli and pasta into the chicken mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.
5. Sprinkle mixture evenly with reserved bread crumbs. Bake on rack in middle of a preheated 400-degree oven about 20 to 25 minutes, until sauce is bubbling around edges and topping is golden brown.
Per serving: 653 calories, 43 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 598 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Coleslaw With Peanuts
Makes 6 servings
1 (16-ounce) package refrigerated coleslaw (shred ded cabbage and shredded carrots)
1 1/2 cups shredded red cabbage (purchase already shredded in package in produce section)
3/4 cup finely sliced celery
1/3 cup finely chopped green onions
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Garlic pepper to taste
1 cup dry roasted peanuts
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine coleslaw, red cabbage, celery, and green onions.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together wine vinegar, water, sugar, seasoned salt, garlic powder, and oil. Mix dressing with coleslaw; stir in garlic pepper and peanuts and toss well. Refrigerate until serving.
Per serving: 288 calories, 7 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, no cholesterol, 237 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Easy Saltine Toffee
Makes about 24 servings
4 ounces saltine crackers
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 to 2/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1. Line a 10-by-15-inch jellyroll pan with no-stick foil. Place crackers side by side in a single layer on foil.
2. In a medium saucepan, combine butter and sugar. Heat to boiling, stirring or whisking often. Boil 3 minutes over moderate heat (without stirring). Immediately pour over crackers and spread to cover evenly and completely. Bake in a preheated 375- to 400-degree oven about 5 to 6 minutes.
3. Remove from oven and sprinkle top evenly with chocolate chips. Let stand 5 minutes, until melted (or return to oven for 30 to 60 seconds to melt, but watch very carefully). Spread melted chocolate evenly over top and sprinkle with nuts, pressing lightly into chocolate. Cool completely. Then break into pieces.
Per serving: 236 calories, 2 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 21 milligrams cholesterol, 109 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Texas Sheet Cake
Makes 24 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sour cream, room temperature
2 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the icing:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
1. For the cake, grease an 18-by-13-inch rimmed baking sheet or sheet pan. Whisk flour, granulated sugar, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl. In another medium bowl, whisk sour cream, eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla together.
2. Cook chocolate, oil, water, cocoa, and butter together in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth, about 5 minutes. Off the heat, slowly whisk in flour mixture until just incorporated. Whisk in egg mixture until combined. Give batter a final stir with a rubber spatula to make sure it is thoroughly combined. Scrape batter into prepared baking sheet, smoothing top. Gently tap the sheet on counter to settle the batter.
3. Bake cake on oven rack in middle position of a preheated 350-degree oven 18 to 20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
4. For the icing, during the cake's last few minutes of baking, cook butter, cream, cocoa, and corn syrup together in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Off heat, whisk in powdered sugar and vanilla until combined. Spread warm icing evenly over hot cake and sprinkle with pecans.
5. Cool cake in pan to room temperature, about 1 hour, then refrigerate until icing is set, 1 hour longer. Serve. (The cake can be wrapped with room temperature before serving.) Makes 1 (18-by-13-inch) sheet cake.
397 calories, 4 grams protein, 49 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 59 milligrams cholesterol, 87 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.