Bring Your Own
Food prejudices die hard. Growing up, my family shared a summer place with my Aunt Delight and her kids. Well, Aunt Delight, who did her best to live up to her name, dedicated every Sunday night to a game she called "leftover potluck." She would fix up one plate each of whatever type of leftovers she could find and then call us to the table.It didn't matter where you sat, because every few minutes Aunt Delight would clang together a spoon and pot and everyone would rotate their plate to the right. Out of the five or six plates on the table, there were rarely more than two that we deemed tasty, and some were barely recognizable, but the game continued until somehow all the food got eaten.While my siblings and cousins laughed and teased as the plates went round and round, I hated this random, ill-paced approach to dinner. It always gave me a stomachache -- and then left me hungry before morning. For years after, I remained squeamish when it came to potluck anything.Fortunately, I spent my formative food years in big cities and never came near a potluck. You'd never ask friend to ride the subway to Brooklyn carrying a casserole dish, or flag down a taxi cradling a bowl of tossed greens. In New York, the closest we came to potluck was dining in the Indian restaurants on 6th Street, sharing our plates of curry, birani and dal. It wasn't until I moved to Vermont that I had to confront my potluck demons on a regular basis.In his book, The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, John Mariani defines potluck thusly: a meal composed of whatever is available, or a meal whereby different people bring different dishes to social gatherings. In the "Wild West," potluck meant food brought by a cowboy guest to put in the communal pot. This democratic, offhand approach to entertaining is a rural phenomenon. Indeed, when I was invited to my first Vermont potluck years ago, I expected green Jell-O molds with marshmallows, sticky-sweet baked beans, endless bowls of pasty pasta salad, gooey potato salads, canned three-bean salad -- all the worst of a cafeteria salad bar. So pale was my faith in the harmony of food sharing that I snacked on a cheese sandwich before leaving the house, just in case.But when I arrived and placed my platter of spring rolls on the table alongside all the other bowls, plates and baskets, I was stunned. There before me, arranged quite naturally as if someone had artfully composed the whole thing, was a feast. There were a few bowls of mixed greens topped with fresh flowers, crouton, or toasted nuts and flanked by grain and bean salads speckled with fresh herbs and vegetables. Further down there was an enormous platter of fresh-picked green asparagus, loaves of homemade bread still yeasty-smelling from the oven, a lovely golden crusted quiche, a caramelized onion frittata, and even a small mustard-crusted roast pork loin.I immediately regretted the cheese sandwich, now sitting like a lump in my stomach. I quickly found the host and asked if he had planned the menu and doled out assignments. Not at all. "Somehow it always works out," he assured me, "especially in the summer."Over the years, I have come to view summer as potluck season. In addition to the menu potential, with so much wonderful food around in friends' gardens and local farmstands, there's the other very practical aspect to potluck -- it's easier on the host in both time and funds.As the summer wanes, our collective Northern consciousness cranks us up to a sometimes frantic pace to do all the things and see all the friends that we've neglected all summer. We need to entertain and be entertained, but who has time -- or energy -- to host a lavish dinner party? Out of necessity, our get-togethers are best left casual and cooperative, making potluck the order of the day. Now's the time to hang out with friends, pull together whatever food you can muster, throw a few hot dogs -- or tofu pups -- on the grill, and be able to say "Yes, I had a great summer!"One of the more creative approaches to cooperative entertaining came in a recent invitation where the hosts embrace the concept of summer potluck in both content and philosophy. The invitation instructs each guest to bring a sacrificial offering to represent the way in which summer flew by. Suggested offerings are: the map for the trip you didn't take, the seed package you didn't plant, the siding you never put on the house É we all have something. And in addition to the symbolic offerings, of course, we're supposed to bring something edible, too -- bread, salad, dessert, etc.Years ago this "etc." would have sent a tremor of Aunt Delight to my gullet, but now I read it with eager anticipation. And you can bet I won't be eating any cheese sandwiches before dinner.SIDEBAR:WHAT TO TAKEDon't want yours to be the sixth garden-fresh tossed salad that shows up at the potluck? These easy-to-prepare alternatives are less likely to be duplicated.FRESH SPRING ROLLS(Makes 16 to 20 rolls)1 pkg. rice paper wrappers (8-inch round) 2 large carrots, shredded Lettuce leaves, such as Boston, Bibb or green leaf, torn into about 4-in. pieces 4 oz. thin rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 30 min., then boiled for 2 min. and drained1 1/2 c. bean sprouts3/4 c. fresh mint leaves2 T. roasted peanuts, choppedFresh chives and fresh cilantroSoak the rice paper wrappers, a few at a time, in a shallow dish of warm water until softened. Handle softened sheets very carefully and avoid having them touch one another. Place a wrapper on a work surface and pat dry with paper towels. Place a small piece of lettuce leaf in the center, followed by a spoonful of rice noodles, carrot, sprouts and mint. Sprinkle with peanuts, chives and cilantro. Fold the lower edge of the wrapper over the filling, roll once, then fold both side edges in. Finish rolling to form a neat cylinder. (You may need to practice rolling once or twice to get the hang of it. The most common mistake is to add too much filling.) Continue until all the rolls are made. Arrange rolls on a platter and cover loosely with damp towels. Serve with a favorite dipping sauce.ZUCCHINI-FETA PANCAKES(adapted from Joanne Weir's From Tapas to Meze) 1 1/2 lbs. zucchini, grated1 bunch scallions, minced6 oz. feta cheese, crumbled1/2 c. each fresh dill and fresh mint, chopped 1/4 c. parsley, chopped2 eggs, lightly beaten1/2 cup flourSalt and freshly ground pepperOlive oilPlace the zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let drain for 1 hr. and pat dry with towels. Stir together the zucchini with scallions, feta, herbs and eggs. Sprinkle flour over the top and stir in. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a thin film of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat (or use a non-stick skillet without oil). When oil is hot, drop tablespoons of batter into the pan an spread them to make 2-inch pancakes. Cook until golden brown, about 2-minutes per side. Serve at room temperature.BERRY BREAD PUDDING5 eggs2 egg yolks2 c. heavy cream1 c. milk2/3 c. sugar1 T. vanilla extractLarge pinch each grated cinnamon and nutmeg 8 cups loosely packed cubed or torn stale French bread with crusts 1 pint blueberries, or other mixed berriesWhisk together the eggs, cream, milk, sugar, vanilla and spices. Combine with the bread and refrigerate for 1 to 12 hours, or until the bread is thoroughly soaked. Fold in the berries. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F., and butter a 2- to 3-quart shallow baking dish. Pour the bread mixture into the baking dish and set in a roasting pan. Place the pan in the oven. Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to reach about half-way up the sides of the baking dish. Bake about 45 minutes, until the pudding is set and a knife inserted in the middle emerges clean. Remove carefully from the water bath and let cool. Serve at room temperature.