8 Tips For What to Bring to a Potluck

Each dot represents a vote for a favorite dish in this cooking competition.

Trying to figure out what to bring to the next potluck?  Read on! The PescoVegetarian Times has conducted an experiment to determine which items at potlucks are most popular.

Elyse Cherry's "Happy Chriswanukah!" cake was a runner-up in the store-bought category.

Yes, Michelle and I turned our annual ChrisKwanukah holiday party into a friendly cooking competition this year. Everyone got a chance to vote on their favorite dish in four categories: best appetizer, best main dish, best dessert, and the popular wild card category, the best “Yes, I made it! I made my way to the store to buy it” store-bought item.

While not exactly a controlled lab test, the PescoVegetarian Times did allow meat dishes to compete–strictly in the interest of science, of course.  What’s more, the results were tabulated by my neighbor, Judy Glaven, who’s a PhD scientist, so hopefully some magic science dust got sprinkled over the data.

Here–in unscientific order of importance–are my tips:

1.      Come early. The first entrants got to put their dish in the best places on the table and more people got a chance to sample what they made.  I thought Jacquie Bishop’s “Celtic Cod and Veggie Soup” was one of the best dishes, but because she was a late arrival, hardly anyone tasted it. Several worthy chefs didn’t even make it into the contest because I accidentally missed their entries (sorry, folks!)

2.      Make it a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The winning appetizer, which we unfortunately did not photograph, was Amelie Ratliff’s beautiful “Stuffed Endive.” She made three different dips, which she spread in individual endive leaves and fanned out on a large round platter.  In addition to looking good, you could kind of guess what you were about to eat. It was also light and healthy, which enabled our guests to feel entitled to eat at least one extra dessert. (This dieting tip only works if you don’t look at the scale the next day.)

Phoebe O'Mara won in the main dish category for her sweet and sour meatballs.

3.      Old favorites (especially with a twist) are always a hit. Our neighbor, Phoebe O’Mara, brought sweet and sour meat balls, the main course winner. As a pescovegetarian, I was unable to taste her entrée, but I heard it was great.  Of course, she had a bit of an advantage, as she lives next door and was able to bring her own crock pot with her.

4.      Shrimp sells. All of the shrimp dishes, including Evelynn Hammonds’ “Shrimp Pesto Pizza,” which she assembled and baked at our house, went fast.  Of course, she was one of the first people to arrive, proving tip #1.  Kate Raisz and Stephanie Stewart’s “Shrimp with Feta” also got eaten, along with the shrimp cocktail that Michelle and I provided.  (As hosts, Michelle and I were not allowed to enter the contest, although I’m proud to say quite a few people wanted to vote for the Moroccan (Kwanzaa) Chicken, Lemon Couscous, Spinach and Chickpea Curry, and the three kinds of latkes we made.)

5.      Any kind of meat is a winner. Evan Williams made a “Helvetican Pot Roast,” which was also a hit, as were the aforementioned meatballs and chicken.  I’ve always associated Helvetica with a typeface rather than food, but apparently Helvetica is also the Latin name for Switzerland, and this was a Swiss-inspired dish. Who knew?

6.      Don’t apologize for what you made. Quite a few of our guests, including one of our winners, looked sadly at their dishes and said, “It didn’t come out as good as I hoped. Don’t put it in the contest,” yet I heard many of these same dishes praised.  Chin up. Think about the crap that people eat McDonald’s every day.  Whatever you brought it is bound to be tastier.

This fabulous array of desserts included the winner, Dick Lehr's Mocha Cake, in the top left.

7.      There’s always room for dessert. Between the home-made and the store-bought ones, there were at least ten desserts, and our guests almost managed to eat them all. The hands-down winner in the home-made dessert category was Dick Lehr’s delicious Mocha Cake.  It was so good that people didn’t believe he made it.

8.      If you can’t cook, bring something fabulous. There was lots of competition in the store-bought category, from the fabulous platter of sushi from JP Seafood that Glenda Buell had delivered to some wonderful wine.  The winner, Jon “Satch” Satriale, not only worked the crowd, asking them to vote for him, but hedged his bets by bringing cannolis from both Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry in the North End.  My personal favorite was the “Happy Chriswanukah!” cake pictured above, which was “brung” by Elyse Cherry. She was embarrassed that Chriskwanukah was misspelled, but I say, see tip #6!

And the winner of my ultimate Latke contest is…

A Menorah

A menorah is lit during Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights."

I look forward to Hanukkah every year because it gives me a free pass to eat fried food without guilt. During the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” Jews are practically commanded to eat fried foods to commemorate the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE.

Although Jews have probably been making some form of fried pancakes for a couple of millennia, the first latkes certainly didn’t contain potatoes, since the potato is a product of the New World–specifically Peru–and has only been available in “the old country” for about five hundred years.  [The Peruvians are still really serious about potatoes – they grow hundreds of varieties, and they even have an International Potato Center, which I hope to visit someday.]

The box grater: my latke tool of choice.

My grandmother Frieda made latkes, but, unfortunately, I didn’t inherit a latke recipe from her.  She grated the potatoes by hand, and my father told me she used to joke that her ingredients included a bit of scraped knuckles.  In her memory, I always use a box grater when I make latkes.  Even though it’s more work, I prefer the texture of hand-grated potatoes.

Since I don’t have a recipe that’s been handed down for generations, every year I hold a contest in my kitchen seeking out the ultimate latke recipe.  The recipes are all pretty similar: they call for potatoes (or other root vegetables), some type of starch (usually flour or matzoh meal), eggs, onions, and, of course, oil.  If you use enough oil, they’re pretty easy to make.  The trickiest thing about making latkes is making sure you drain the liquid out of the grated potatoes before frying, since they are actually quite watery.

This year, I decided to commemorate the origin of the latke by trying out some non-potato recipes.  At the Boston Vegetarian Society vegan cooking class that Michelle and I attended last month, Chef Didi Emmons demonstrated her “Root Vegetable Latke” recipe.  She says you can use any root vegetable, but she favors parsnips and beets, so that’s what I made when I cooked them at home to kick off the first night of Hanukkah.  Since this was a vegan recipe, there were no eggs, and she used arrowroot powder instead of floor.  Add minced onion, salt and pepper, and fry! The resulting pancakes were thin and colorful, full of long lacy edges that picked up the oil while frying, which made them a delicious vehicle for sour cream. But I missed the potato flavor.

Pancake

Butternut squash and Honeycrisp pancake

In late November, I was delighted to find an article in the Wall Street Journal in which Katy McLaughlin asked five noted chefs to share their pancake recipes.  I tried out the Butternut Squash and Honeycrisp Apple Pancakes recipe from Chef Jake Martin of Fenouil in Portland, Oregon.  I was surprised at how hard it was to grate butternut squash by hand, since you can peel it with an ordinary kitchen peeler. If I ever need to grate butternut squash again, I’ll break tradition and use a food processor! It was also hard to find Honeycrisp apples, although eventually I spotted them lurking in the organic apple bin in the grocery store.  The grated squash and apple get sautéed, along with chopped yellow onion and minced shallots.  Martin uses Panko bread crumbs as the starch, which makes the pancakes more substantial, like a burger. Although I liked the consistency of these pancakes, Michelle and I agreed they were too sweet to serve as an entrée.

Beet, carrot and potato pancakes

For my final contestant, I decided to bring some potato back into the mix, so I made another Wall Street Journal recipe:  “Beet, Carrot and Potato” from Chef Eric Greenspan of the Foundry in Los Angeles.  It combines beets, carrots and Yukon gold potatoes with red onions (half are sautéed, half are grated and added raw), along with the traditional flour and eggs.  Not surprisingly, these tasted the most like the traditional latkes I love, since they contained actual potatoes.

And the winner of the ultimate latke contest is…none of the above!

My standby is still the traditional, 100 percent potato latke (although I may walk on the wild side and make sweet potato pancakes). I enjoyed making the recipes, however, and will definitely try some of the techniques again, such as sautéing some or all of the onions, or using Panko bread crumbs.

I suspect the recipes I tried are a bit healthier than the potato ones, since they contain vegetables. But in the end, anything you fry in oil is not a health food, and, after all, isn’t that the point? During Hanukkah, it’s all about the oil.

[Box grater image credit: CreativeTools.se PackshotCreator CreativeTools.se PackshotCreator Box grater.jpg|thumb|description]