Gourmet Potluck -Winter 2008

by: Susan Simon

photography by: Terry Pommett

It wouldn’t be stretching the truth to call the gathering of the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors, convened to celebrate the Mayflower passengers’ first successful harvest in their new home, America’s first potluck meal.            

The participants contributed their special dishes to create a perfect meal. While Thanksgiving is the first American potluck dinner, the words “pot luck” date back to just slightly before the party in Plymouth with a late-16th-century entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, when the meal was partially described as “that pure sanguine complexion of yours may never be famisht with potluck.” This no doubt references the pot of food always at the ready over most kitchen fireplaces.

A potluck meal can be defined in two ways. The first meaning, and the one most commonly used, is when you’re invited at the last minute to dine with someone and told that the meal will be “potluck” – you’ll be taking a chance and eating whatever’s available in the proverbial pot. The second explanation is that “potluck” is a meal composed of food prepared by contributing guests. Sometimes, especially in the middle of the country, this kind of meal is also called a covered-dish supper. And that’s what the meal becomes, a series of similar casserole-style dishes put together with too many rich ingredients, so that the contents hold their shape and flavor for an extended period of time. This kind of meal often lacks in variety as participants construct pans of macaroni and cheese, tuna-noodle casseroles and lasagna with alacrity. A potluck meal need not be a hodgepodge buffet. If the host controls the luck, designs the meal and assigns appropriate dishes to each guest, potluck can take on a whole new meaning and an elegant meal can be achieved.

There is no time of the year more suitable to potluck entertaining than the wintertime holidays. It’s a time of the year when people are particularly interested in connecting and sharing each other’s company, but it’s also a time of extreme activity. So, if you expect one person to create an elegant meal and then manufacture it, you are asking that person to give up at least a day and a half of precious time. Instead, consider becoming the host of a dinner party, an elegant dinner party to boot. As the host, make it your job to number-one, plan the menu, and then assign each component of it to the guests along with a copy of the recipe that they’ll be making; and, number-two, arrange a beautiful table setting with all the appropriate decorations. That’s enough for you – remember the clean-up? Even with all the guests pitching in to help with the dishes, etc., there are always day-after things to do. Also keep in mind the equity factor when assigning dishes. Some dishes may require more expensive ingredients than others, while some may require more actual prep time than others. Think about balancing an easier or less-expensive dish by asking those guests to add a bottle of wine to their contribution. This way the guest who makes the salad can bring a bottle of wine and so can the guests who make the potatoes and spinach.

Nantucket is rich with fresh produce through late fall and early winter, making it easy to design an elegant dinner for eight and incorporate as many local ingredients as possible into the menu. The results are potluck disguised in gourmet attire. Ask guest number one to provide for the cocktail hour with spicy cranberry-juice cocktails and cheese wafers. The included recipe will instruct you to make your own juice from the island’s native berry. The juice, fragrant with holiday conjuring spices like cloves and cinnamon, mixes with rum to make a congenial cocktail – or it can be drunk neat. Fannie Farmer’s time-honored recipe for cheese wafers contains just a hint of cayenne pepper that helps make them the ideal appetite teaser.

Assign the soup course – curried parsnip soup – to guest number two. Parsnips came to the U.S. from Europe at about the same time as the Pilgrims. To avoid what some people think of as a bitter flavor, choose parsnips that are small to medium in size. They’ll actually be surprisingly sweet. The curry accent in the soup is a nice balance. Think about whom among your guests enjoys working with fish and then ask them to make Salmon Mustard Martini in parchment. This style of fish preparation is a no-brainer for a potluck meal. The fillet gets coated with seasonings, then wrapped in a neat parchment-paper packet. It’s marinated in the parchment for at least eight hours and up to 24 hours, adding tremendous flavor to the fish. You make it and then relax until it’s time to leave for the party. What could be easier to transport? The salmon gets cooked at high heat for 12 minutes just before serving.

Roy Finamore’s Party Potatoes from his book “One Potato Two Potato” are the quintessential, portable mashed potatoes. You whip them up when you make them and due to the other added ingredients, they can be relied on to stay light and fluffy.

“Bring them in the pan (to the party), throw them in the oven, and bingo, they’re hot and ready,” Finamore says. Surely there’s a mashed-potato aficionado on the list who would love to make this version – and bring a bottle of wine. What kind of wine? Put aside any prejudices about only serving white wine with fish. Salmon easily pairs with a full-bodied red. There are numerous good island wine merchants with outstanding selections in that category who will be happy to make suggestions. It’s the holiday season. Red is nonpareil. Spinach “Mess” is a potluck spinach preparation. This mess, which is the literal translation from the Italian pasticcio, is made in a loaf pan, inverted, and then cut into slices for serving. For this dinner the dish’s cook could invert the loaf upon arrival, cut it, and then place the slices on a baking sheet that can be reheated along with the potatoes. Of course, the spinach-maker should bring a bottle of wine too.

The salad course is deliberately simple, designed to cleanse the palate and ready it for the upcoming dessert. The Tunisian-style “poor salad” involves simply rubbing garlic on crunchy lettuce leaves and then dressing them with a tiny bit of olive oil and salt. It’s the easiest task that you’ll assign. Without a doubt there’s just the right person among your guests for the job: the one who says she’s not a cook! Ask this person to not only bring a bottle of wine but an interesting herb tea as well. Finish off the dinner with the same island cranberries that started it – this time on top of cheesecake. Cheesecake is another ideal, portable potluck addition to a meal. This one is baked the day before, then refrigerated in the spring-form pan in which it was cooked. The pan makes the best delivery container. Pack the cooked cranberry topping in a plastic container and assemble the dessert just before serving. Coffee and tea, especially a tisane or herb infusion, would complete the meal in grand style.

Use this menu as it is or as a template for your upcoming dinner party. With thought and the right planning, potluck becomes a superior and downright more comfortable way of entertaining.

Susan Simon is a cookbook author and food columnist for The Inquirer and Mirror. 


Spicy Cranberry SIPPERS

From “The Nantucket Table” by Susan Simon

This recipe makes enough juice to give each of 8 guests one drink. You might consider doubling the recipe for a party of eight.

1 pound cranberries 1 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks, about 2 inches long 1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon cardamom pods 6 cups water
1 orange, sliced 1 lemon, sliced
White rum

  1. In a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan, combine the cranberries, sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves and cardamom with the water. Simmer with the cover askew for 45 minutes. Let cool. Strain the juice into a jar or pitcher. Chill before serving.
  2. To serve: Use tall glasses filled with ice. Pour a shot of white rum into each glass. Fill the rest of the way with the juice. Garnish with orange and lemon slices.

Cheese Wafers

From “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” revised by Marion Cunningham

Ms. Cunningham rightly says about these biscuits, “Good to have at hand in the freezer: just cut slices from the frozen tube of dough.”

1⁄4 pound butter, softened 1 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne 1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups grated cheese – use sharp cheddar Salt to taste

  1. Combine all ingredients. Make two rolls about 11⁄2 inches in diameter. Wrap in plastic film and refrigerate at least 8 hours. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Slice the dough into thin wafers and bake 6-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the wafers. Watch closely to see that they don’t burn.

Curried Parsnip Soup

From “The Nantucket Holiday Table” by Susan Simon

An optional garnish of parsnip chips really elevates this soup to the category of special occasion. Serve the soup in small bowls or cups.

1⁄4 cup basmati rice 4 cups water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 onion, coarsely chopped 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 1⁄4 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces 
1 rounded tablespoon good-quality curry powder
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth 
6 rounded tablespoons plain whole-milk yogurt
Parsnip chips for garnish

  1. Put the basmati rice in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and add the water. Cook the rice until it’s “overcooked,” 10-15 minutes. (The rice grains should be inflated to the point of splitting). Drain and reserve.
  2. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan or stockpot over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil and sauté the onion and garlic until the onion is translucent. Add the parsnips, reduce heat, and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and stir to completely combine. Stir in the broth. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the parsnips are soft. Remove from heat. Add the cooked rice and let cool.
  3. Pour the soup into a blender 2 cups at a time and purée. Return the puréed soup to the pot. Simmer gently to reheat.
  4. Serve hot, each serving garnished with 1 tablespoon yogurt and a half a handful of parsnip chips.

Parsnip Chips

4 large, thick parsnips, peeled 2 cups vegetable oil
Salt for sprinkling

  1. Use a mandoline or vegetable peeler to make long, thin strips of the parsnips.
  2. In a medium skillet or heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the oil to 350° F. Fry the parsnips until they are golden and curled, 4-5 minutes. Remove from the oil with a wire mesh strainer and shake away excess. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Let cool. Carefully pack, between paper towels, into a paper bag to transport.

Salmon Mustard Martini

Parchment preparation is so successful with fish because it has the opportunity to marinate for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours, and then it’s steamed inside the paper bundle without allowing a drop of natural juice to escape. This recipe is called “mustard martini” because the topping ingredients include gin and vermouth. The alcohol burns off with the cooking, leaving only the various herb-like flavors from the gin and vermouth. As good as this fish is hot, it is almost better left over for breakfast with poached eggs.

1 cup Dijon mustard
1⁄4 cup dry white vermouth 
1⁄2 cup gin
2 tablespoons nonpareil capers 
1 teaspoon freshly-ground white pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil 
Parchment paper twice as long as the fish
1 salmon fillet, 2 to 21⁄2 pounds, deboned and skinned
10-12 sprigs fresh dill, the fuller the sprigs  the better

  1. The day before or at least the morning before the fish is to be served, make the mustard sauce. Add the mustard, vermouth, gin, capers and white pepper to a bowl and stir thoroughly until a smooth sauce is achieved.
  2. Oil the parchment paper. Place the salmon in the middle of the length of paper. Coat with the mustard sauce. Cover with the dill. Enclose the fish by folding the paper over from the sides, then the top and bottom, which should meet in the middle. The edges should be made into a small double fold. Now you can fold the double fold into small overlapping folds along the top edge - or simply staple it closed. Refrigerate the packet on a baking sheet or platter for at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. Remove 1 hour before cooking.
  3. Preheat an oven to 500° F. Cook the fish for 11 minutes. The parchment paper will turn golden brown. For dramatic effect, put the parchment bundle on a serving platter, bring it to the table and slash it open in front of the guests.

Party Potatoes

From “One Potato Two Potato” by Roy Finamore

Because you whip the potatoes with an electric mixer, they are light and fluffy. Not only can you make these potatoes up to 2 days before serving, but you can rest assured that they will taste as good when reheated as they did when you made them.

3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and chunked 
Coarse salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces 
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1⁄2 cup sour cream at room temperature 
2⁄3 cup milk, warmed
Freshly-ground black pepper 

  1. Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with cold water by at least an inch, add a good pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover part-way, and cook until the potatoes are very tender. Drain and return them to the pot. Set over medium heat for a minute or two, shaking and stirring so the potatoes don’t stick, until they are floury and have made a film on the bottom of the pot.
  2. Remove the potatoes from the heat and break them up with a hand-held electric mixer on low speed. Gradually drop in 6 tablespoons of the butter and beat until it is absorbed. Refrigerate the remaining butter. Continue with the cream cheese and sour cream, beating after each addition. Beat in the milk, adding a little at a time. You want the potatoes to be fluffy and light; if they seem to be getting too wet, don’t add all the milk. Season with salt and pepper. If you don’t have an electric mixer, use a hand masher to start and then use a wooden spoon to beat in the butter, cheese, sour cream and milk. Beat the milk into the potatoes one-third at a time, beating vigorously after each addition.
  3. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and spoon the potatoes into it. Smooth the top, and then with a spatula or fork tines, swirl or score the surface of the potatoes to leave little peaks that will brown up nicely during baking.
  4. Refrigerate, covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days before baking.
  5. Heat the oven to 350° F. 6. Dust the top of the potatoes with paprika. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons butter into small pieces and scatter them over the surface. Bake until the potatoes are heated through and the top is lightly golden, about an hour. (Expect it to take only half the time if the potatoes haven’t been refrigerated.) Serve hot.

Spinach Mess

From “Contorni: Authentic Italian Side Dishes For All Seasons” by Susan Simon.

The recipe calls for hard-cooked eggs to be sunk into the spinach batter so that the lovely, bright-yellow yolk surrounded by white will decorate each slice of the cooked loaf. For this particular dinner, the eggs have been left out. The dinner is already rich with other ingredients including many eggs in the dessert. 3 pounds spinach, thoroughly rinsed and tough stems removed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter 
1 onion, finely chopped
1⁄2 teaspoon salt 
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg 
1 cup torn bits of the white part of dense Mediterranean-style bread
1 cup whole milk 
2 eggs
1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, using the moisture that has remained from rinsing, add the spinach in batches until it has all wilted. If the leaves seem too dry, add a quarter-cup of water at a time as needed. Remove from the heat, drain, pressing out excess moisture, and let cool. Finely chop.
  2. In a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Sauté the onion until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and pour into a large bowl. Let cool.
  3. In a small bowl, soak the bread in the milk. Squeeze dry and crumble the bread into the spinach mixture. Lightly beat the raw eggs. Add to the spinach mixture the Parmesan and fold together.
  4. Preheat an oven to 350° F. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Spoon the spinach mixture into the pan. Put the loaf pan into a baking pan and add hot water to the baking pan to reach halfway up the sides of the mold.
  5. Bake until the spinach mixture starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Remove from the oven and invert onto a platter. Serve hot or at room temperature, cut into slices.

Poor Salad, Tunisian-style

From “Insalate: Authentic Italian Salads For All Seasons” by Susan Simon

This simple salad is the ideal bridge to dessert. It comes from the author’s friend, Paolo. You may need to double or even triple the lettuce. It depends on the size of the heads. Here’s the recipe:

“My dear Susan, I’m sending you a salad recipe. It’s the simplest one in the world. A head of crunchy lettuce (Boston or Bibb would be nice). Separate the leaves. Rub a clove of garlic on every leaf. Dress with a drizzle of oil and a tiny bit of salt.

It’s very tasty – I hope that you’ll like it.”

Cranberry Beach Plum Cheesecake

From “The Nantucket Holiday Table” by Susan Simon

This is cheese and fruit supreme. There’s no sugar in the vanilla-scented cheesecake so the sweet-tart topping will be just what it takes to satisfy your dessert craving.

For the topping:
4 cups cranberries, rinsed and picked over
1 cup beach-plum jelly or red currant jelly 
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1 1⁄2 cups sugar

For the crust:
2 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs 
1⁄3 cup sugar
1⁄3 cup butter, melted

For the Filling:
1 pound cream cheese at room temperature 
1 pound whole-milk ricotta
1⁄2 cup sour cream 
10 eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

  1. Make the topping: In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the cranberries, beach-plum jelly, zest and juice of the orange, and 11⁄2 cups sugar. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, then refrigerate until cake is served.
  2. Make the crust: In a bowl, combine the cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter. Stir to combine. Firmly press the mixture into the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan. Set aside.
  3. Make the filling: Preheat an oven to 375° F. In a large bowl combine the cream cheese, ricotta, sour cream, eggs and vanilla extract and stir vigorously. Pour the mixture into the pan and bake for an hour, or until the top is slightly brown and the edges are beginning to pull away from the side of the pan.
  4. Refrigerate the cake for at least 12 hours before serving. To serve, release the cake from the pan. Place on a platter and cover the top with half of the cranberries. Let the juice drip down the sides. Use the remaining cranberries to top individual servings. 

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.