How to Select a Potluck Dish — A Great Big Meal

By: Marisa McClellan
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At least once a month, my mom calls strictly to talk potlucks (we talk every couple of days, but these potluck calls are different from our regular, rambling conversations). We discuss what she has in her refrigerator, the produce that's currently coming out of the garden and if there's any theme for the potluck that she and my dad are scheduled to attend.

Over the years, we've created massive couscous salads, wintertime braises that can be made for cheap and salads constructed from shaved zucchini and mint. Though I can't offer my potluck consulting services to everyone out there, here's what I have in mind when dreaming up dishes with my mom.

  • What's in season? Whenever possible, let seasonality help guide your dish choice. Last fall at a friend's monthly potluck, I tasted the most divine salad of tender lettuce, thinly sliced onion and wedges of sweet persimmon. It was perfect because each element was fresh, ripe and no more than a day or two from the farm.
  • Who's your audience? If you're attending an event and you know there will be lots of vegetarians there, consider bringing a meat-free dish.
  • Where's the potluck being held? If it's an outdoor event on a warm day, make sure to skip mayonnaise-heavy salads and coleslaw. If you've got your heart set on a slaw of some sort, dress it with an oil-based dressing to ensure no one goes home with an unhappy belly.
  • How long will the dish have to stand? Some potlucks have a short serving time, in which guests show up and are eating within just a few minutes. At others, the food will stand out for an hour or more as people come and go. If your contribution is going to spend a while on the table, pick something sturdy like a grain-based salad or sautéed greens.
  • Is there a theme? On occasion, a host likes to wrap their potluck around a particular event or book. Keep those suggestions in mind as you plan and cook.

Personally, I believe that a good potluck dish is one that combines a number of different components into a single dish. In the summer, this ends up being a pasta or grain salad that includes beans, chopped vegetables and a flavorful dressing to pull it all together. During the fall and winter months, I gravitate toward casseroles.

One such dish that I particularly like to cook up and share with friends is this Lazy Lasagna from Rachael Ray. It includes pasta, protein and vegetables for a well-rounded potluck contribution. It even makes enough that you could divide it into two portions and pop one in the freezer for a later meal or party. If you're strategic about your cooking, you can even make the whole thing in just two pots, which is always nice. The fewer dishes to wash at the end of the night, the better.

Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. She grew up attending weekly potlucks and even had a potluck wedding. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars . Her first cookbook will be published by Running Press in Spring 2012.

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