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How to host a potluck

(article, Matthew Card)

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For years, I avoided hosting potlucks at my house, preferring instead to spend the day in the kitchen whipping up the whole meal. Since I’ve become a father, however, my social obligations and amount of free time have changed, and throwing potluck parties has become an integral and enjoyable part of my life.

As we celebrate the Year of the Recession, the holiday potluck party looks more and more appealing. Potlucks are less expensive and more low-key than a traditional host-does-it-all party. But before you start sending out invites, keep in mind that a successful potluck still requires planning.

h3. Guests, menus, and details

Not only do you need to come up with a manageable guest list, but you'll need to figure out a rough menu and delegate dishes accordingly. And if you don't have enough party supplies (and can't stand the idea of buying disposable dishware), scavenge thrift stores or consider renting plates, cutlery, and glassware.

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Picking a menu theme can help unify the meal — and avert disaster, such as the notorious potluck I attended that featured four starchy pilafs, lasagna, tikka masala, potato salad, and a host of cookies and quick breads. I went home with a fierce stomachache.

Winter holidays tend to have traditional themes — latkes for Hanukkah, a roast of some sort for Christmas — but you can pick a theme that suits you. Just don't get too ambitious, for yourself or your guests; if nobody in your circle regularly cooks Thai food, for example, don't plan an all-Thai party. The same goes for non-cooks: Don't put too many demands on them.

Announce your chosen theme and, at the same time, divvy up the dishes equitably so you don’t end up with only starches or desserts. Do this systematically: Figure out how much of each course category you think you'll need, from soup to nuts, and then assign out the dishes. Spreadsheets can help — seriously! — if it’s a big gathering and you need to track not only who's coming but who's bringing what (two people bringing appetizers, for example) and how big each dish is supposed to be (two appetizers serving 8 people each). Tell everyone to bring a bottle of wine or other beverage, too.

[%image reference-image float=right width=450 caption="Potluck doesn't have to mean free-for-all."] 

h3. The host with the roast

Don't assign out the anchor dish, such as a large roast or the vegetarian main course; as the host, it’s your job to provide this. A roast can be expensive, but there’s a moderate-priced option: boneless pork loin, which is packed with flavor, moist, and fairly lean. Your butcher should be willing to cut a loin roast to any weight you need; I think four pounds easily feeds eight or more people.
	
While the meat’s good on its own simply roasted with salt and pepper, chances are it will sit around for a while and dry out as the guests mingle. To keep it moist both in the oven and on the table, I stuff the loin with an Italian-inspired mix of slow-cooked fennel, onion, and garlic enlivened with fennel seed, chile flakes, and lemon juice. (The flavorings are loosely based on porchetta, the whole roast pig common as street food throughout Italy.) The filling is spread on the entire loin and rolled up jelly-roll style, making the meat look more festive than a simple slab of pork.
	
The pork loin must be split open, or butterflied, before it can be stuffed, but with a sharp knife and steady hand, butterflying is easy work. If you find it intimidating, your butcher should be willing to do it for you. The roast benefits from being prepared a day or three ahead of time, so plan wisely and think ahead. On the day of the event, simply throw the roast in the oven early enough to be done in time.

To match the roast, I like to make a large batch of simple roasted potatoes flavored with herbs and garlic. Minced or sliced garlic will burn in the high heat required to brown the potatoes, so I choose instead to roast the garlic wrapped in protective foil, then squeeze the soft, sweet cloves out of their husks, mash them to a paste, and toss this with the cooked potatoes. The potatoes can be started as the roast finishes browning.
	
A bright, piquant relish will add flavor to both the meat and potatoes, as well as anything else anyone brings. Red peppers tend to be well-priced in the fall and winter, and once roasted and diced, lay the perfect foundation for a simple herb-and-caper-laced relish. Like the roast, the relish is best prepared a day or two ahead of time, freeing up the cook the day of the event to clean the house or run last-minute errands. To bulk out the relish a bit and provide a contrasting texture, I borrow liberally from the Italians and add toasted breadcrumbs. There’s not much the pepper relish doesn’t taste good on.

Finally, your guests can fill in around the middle, bringing appetizers (perhaps a spiced goat cheese or a white bean spread), a simple green salad, and dessert.

Should your party be a hit, save those spreadsheets as well as popular recipes; you'll find yourself using both again and again.

p(bio). Matthew Card is a contributing editor to Cook’s Illustrated and writes a monthly column for the _Oregonian.


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