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Published: Tuesday, 5/11/2010

Potlucks an easy, creative way to entertain

BY NATALIE HAUGHTON
LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

If you're invited to a potluck party this season and want to cook, don't fret about what to take. 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 revolve around 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 co-workers, not only easing 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 a special 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.

Mr. Kimball has been involved with potlucks at all types of town events for more than 20 years in Vermont, where he resides, 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 adds. 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," suggests Mr. Kimball. "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 Broccoli Chicken Ziti 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-scatch white cake streaked with strawberry gelatin, followed by the Apple Slab Pie, an easily prepared double-crust apple pie made in 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 far as potluck etiquette goes, "bring the ... dish finished, not in progress," emphasizes Mr. Kimball. Also, be sure to take utensils for serving the dish. And don't forget to take your plate or dish and utensils home.



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