Your BYO best

Guests leave the gelatin behind and bring more sophisticated food to the new potluck table

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By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / June 3, 2009

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The system of eating communally began long before the recent worries over finances. It started many thousands of years ago, when the real concern was whether there was enough food to go around. If you slaughtered an animal or harvested a crop, everyone shared in the bounty.

For as long as any of us can remember, this free-form method of sharing food has served every community: at church suppers, family celebrations, and end-of-year parties for the soccer team, dance class, school choir, and kindergarten.

Much more recently, potluck graduated to nicer occasions. If a dozen friends are gathering for supper now, you're likely to eat a salad from one of the guests, loaves of bread from another, dessert from a third. It's not just to lift the financial burden from the host. When cooks share the tasks of a dinner, one person isn't toiling away in the kitchen for a day. Well-arranged potlucks spread the cost and the work around. And guests are taking their responsibility seriously. The new potluck table is nothing like the old community suppers. While a church smorgasbord is certainly fun (and a howl when gelatin dishes are neon-colored and flecked with canned fruit), those old-fashioned recipes rarely appear at smaller, more intimate parties. Today's food is sophisticated, even if every ingredient is familiar. Dishes are stylish and style, after all, costs nothing.

Make your contribution beautiful and add flair to the dish or the presentation to make it slightly unusual. Save big plastic bowls that go from the fridge to the table and disposable foil pans full of wings for pregame fare.

The bread salad here is nothing new - many cuisines around the Mediterranean have dishes that mix stale or toasted bread with vegetables - but this BLT panzanella is tossed with tender leaves of arugula and crisp pieces of smoky bacon. Pulled pork sandwiches are also familiar fare. Use dark-meat chicken in place of pork, top each serving with homemade slaw, and tuck the shredded meat and crisp vegetables into mini slider buns for a sweet look.

Rice salad often looks like confetti, but make a few adjustments and the bowl is quite elegant. Resist adding too many vegetables and instead of turning them into teensy pieces, cut them into all kinds of shapes. Curvy strips of tomato will nestle beside diagonal slices of carrot and celery. You get a variety of tastes and plenty of crunch in the mix.

For dessert, buy a tart, or try your hand at one. This easy dough is mixed in a bowl and pressed into a fluted French pan. Fill it with lots of pine nuts, squares of chocolate, and a surprisingly thin layer of custard.

Every group of friends has one good-natured soul who will offer to play host. If you're that person, you get to decide how the guests can chip in and share the workload. You can, of course, just see what you get. That's the old-fashioned way and no one's ever gone home hungry if there's a table full of pasta salads and desserts and little more.

Or you can assign courses. Say you have a friend who grows everything and a garden spilling over with unusual lettuces this time of year. That's an obvious salad assignment. Bread can be one contribution, appetizers another. You'll know enough not to give the hopelessly late friends the task of bringing hors d'oeuvres (they always promise to come on time and somehow never do).

And be kind to those who never have enough time to cook or just dislike the kitchen. They can bring wines (see Page 19), cheese, or a special iPod playlist. Or they can amuse you in the kitchen while you transfer beautiful salad greens from the plastic bowl they arrived in to your favorite serving dish.


Food styling: Preparing rice salad

Video: Food styling

Food Editor Sheryl Julian and food stylist Lisa Falso prepare the dishes for the photographs featured at the top of this page (including rice salad, above).