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!

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Cooking Up a CSF Feast with a Jody Adams Bluefish Recipe

Grilling the bluefish

Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranite Glaze

Michelle and I spent six woman-hours last night cooking a delicious dinner featuring the bluefish from our final Community Supported Fishery (CSF) delivery for the August 2010 season. The six hours doesn’t include the time I spent trolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods looking for pomegranate molasses (couldn’t find it so we made our own from pomegranate juice), chicory (must not be in season, so I bought other greens), and whole coriander seeds (not in stock, had to make do with ground coriander).

Cooking molasses

Cooking down the pomegranate juice into molasses

The pomegranate glaze features the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, garlic, red onion, mint, coriander seeds and orange zest, and it’s a delicious complement to bluefish, which I always think of as a very “fishy” fish because it’s so dark and intense. Although the molasses has sugar in it, there’s only a hint of sweetness in the sauce.  The rich flavor is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the bluefish.

The reason the dinner took so long to make—besides making the molasses from scratch—was that it was actually five dishes. In addition to the bluefish, the recipe called for “Dukkah,” garlic yogurt sauce, farro, and “Fiery Greens.”  While the entire recipe is not online, there’s a link for the fish and a similar yogurt sauce at starchefs.com.

Farro with carrots, celery and onions

Farro, which I’ve never made at home before, is a delicious healthy grain that reminded me of barley, although the grains are larger and toothier.  Adams adds the farro to a sauté of onion, celery, carrots and garlic and cooks it with chicken stock—we used veggie stock—and bay leaves.

Cooking the greens

Fiery Garlic Greens featuring broccoli rabe and arugula

The greens are blanched and then sautéed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. The Dukkah is an Egyptian seed, nut and spice mix of blanched almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and coconut, all of which have to be separately toasted and then ground together.

The Six Hour Recipe

Dinner was worth the wait!

The mixture of all these tastes on the plate—sweet, spicy, fishy, oily, salty, bitter—was what made it worth the effort.

Besides the recipe, the other star of the evening was the bluefish from our CSF, Cape Ann Fresh Catch. I was delighted to open my email on Tuesday and find that the fish of the day was a gorgeous two-pound bluefish fillet. I picked up my share at Community Servings, cut it in half, carefully wrapped the pieces in plastic wrap and freezer bags and froze them. When we opened one of the packages, we defrosted it and it was still beautiful and as good as fresh.

Our CSF bluefish

Beautiful fresh bluefish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF

This is the first time that I’ve belonged to a CSF, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to support local, sustainable fishing and learn a little about the ups and downs of the industry. Each week, we get an email telling us what they’ve caught, the boat that caught it, a little information about the fish, a recipe, and a blog post.  Over the six weeks, we’ve enjoyed a variety of fish, including hake, fish dabs and bluefish.

The catch—no pun intended—is sometimes there is no catch.  Deliveries have been cancelled due to quality issues and weather. While as a CSF member, you share the risk with the fisher folk, Cape Ann has made an extraordinary effort to provide us with the best possible fish each week.

If you’re lucky enough to live in their delivery area, I encourage you to sign up for Cape Ann’s next season, beginning November 1,  or check out this list of CSFs around the country.