Whether you call it a pot luck or a covered-dish gathering, there's usually an amazing array of food on the table. From multiple kinds of casseroles, potato salads, fruit salads, baked beans, and assorted entrees, the variety and flavors seem limitless. Often people bring their favorite dishes - potato salad, macaroni and cheese, deviled eggs, salads, fried chicken, and homemade desserts.
Whether it's a community covered dish or a home party, when you are asked to bring food, select a recipe that travels well and won't slip and slide in transit. If it's a cold food, wrap it in cold packs and place in a cooler. If it's a hot food, use a thermal carrying case. The best recipes are easy to assemble when you're on site or are not any work at all, writes Ann Bryn in What Can I Bring? Cookbook (Workman, $14.95).
The right recipe also fits the guests. For a Super Bowl party, easy-to-eat foods, snacks, and chili are traditions. If children are included in the party, pick foods guests will enjoy. Think about whether there are vegetarians or people with food allergies.
The best dishes should taste delicious as well as look appetizing. Even the simplest food - fresh vegetables, a few good cheeses, olives, and pickles can make a stunning platter. Use one of your party plates or serving dishes.
Think about the distance you have to travel and don't carry any dish in the car that will spoil. If your journey takes more than two hours, buy your contribution to the party at the destination city.
Among Ms. Bryn's suggested "Grab and Gos": Put store-bought pimiento cheese in a pretty bowl and surround it with green grapes, green celery spears, Granny Smith apple wedges, and endive spears. Or buy a log of goat cheese and garnish it with a spoonful of chutney, coarse black pepper, chopped fresh herbs, or olive tapenade. Serve with crackers. Or chose an assortment of olives - green, oil-cured, and kalamata - and salted roasted nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans.
When hosting a potluck, organize your menu, advises author Francine Halvorsen in Crowd-Pleasing Potluck (Rodale, $19.95). If you are having 10 to 12 people, plan on two to three appetizers, one main dish, two sides, a salad, good bread and butter (or extra-virgin olive oil), condiments, two desserts, and beverages. If the number is doubled, plan on three to four appetizers and double the main dish, or have two or three main dishes, three sides, a large salad, and three desserts.
Double-check what your guests are bringing. It's OK to ask them to bring a specific item or category of food such as a salad. Be sure you will have enough space in the refrigerator for what they are bringing, or enough electrical outlets if they need them for their dish.
If you are bringing a dish, be sure to be on time, so that party-goers can enjoy the food at the appropriate time.
What Can I Bring? has an index with time-tested categories such as "To Feed a Crowd"- Antipasto Pasta Salad, Currey's King Ranch Chicken, and Cheesy Garlic Bread, and "Something Kids Like" - Home-Fried Chicken Tenders and Potluck Baked Beans.
Recipes in the Crowd-Pleasing Potluck include Sausage-and-Peppers Pasta Casserole and Shells Stuffed with Broccoli, Ricotta, Pine Nuts, and Raisins. Dessert bars such as Apricot Squares are welcome at any gathering.