Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Harvest Potlucks

Vivid colors, garden-fresh flavors, and easy presentation
characterize the foods I love to bring to gatherings.

by Renee Shepherd

I go to lots of potluck gatherings – lunches, tailgate parties, dinners, meetings, church events, casual brunches and last year, even a potluck wedding celebration! It’s a great way to enjoy a wide variety of delicious and colorful dishes all made by loving hands. Sometimes someone assigns appetizers, entrees, salad and dessert, but just as often everyone brings their favorite special dish and it's always amazing to see how a complete meal usually appears with little or no planning. I really look forward to these events as places to taste and enjoy new flavor combinations. Best of all, you can meet the cook and learn any special preparation tips involved if you want to make one of the dishes you particularly relished.

Potluck events are a good way to share the work of food preparation and wonderful icebreakers when there are guests who don’t know each other. Potlucks lend themselves to casual get-togethers and enable the hosts or organizer to relax and enjoy the guests without worrying about the expense and time involved in the planning and food preparation. It’s a great way to enjoy friends and family and there’s always more than enough great food for everyone!

To help make potluck preparation easy, I always look for extra inexpensive serving dishes and utensils whenever I go to garage sales; that way I don’t have to worry if I leave behind the plate or spoon I brought with my dish. Other times I put a piece of masking tape with my name written on it in magic marker on the bottom of my serving dish or underneath the handles of spoons to ensure I can pick out my tableware at the end of the event.

Here are some favorite take-along recipes to bring to your next communal feast. These dishes can all be made ahead, include colorful, healthy fresh ingredients and don’t involve a lot of complicated preparation. They all have been hits for me over recent years and I enjoy sharing these recipes with others in the best potluck tradition!

Mediterranean Salad is quick and simple to put together. The flavors of olives, capers and pickles add a zesty richness to the crisp-steamed fresh carrots and cauliflower and are enhanced by a simple vinaigrette that melds all the tastes into a great ensemble. This is the kind of salad I love to offer at a gathering – vivid colors, lots of flavors and easy to eat!

Last summer I went to a potluck at my friend Harvey’s where I enjoyed the stuffed mushrooms my recipe Harvey's Special Spinach, Ricotta and Basil Stuffed Mushrooms is based upon. They were so juicy and delicious I had a really hard time not eating more than my share! These great finger foods can either serve as a scrumptious appetizer or make a satisfying main dish. Their creamy filling combined with fresh spinach, basil and savory sun-dried tomatoes is an unbeatable combination of flavors that complements the meaty flavor of the baked mushroom caps.

My Broccoli and Cashew Salad always gets finished down to the last spoonful. Broccoli’s natural sweetness pairs perfectly with the nutty, rich taste of cashew nuts and is set off by the spicy note of cilantro, all bound with the delicious creamy dressing.

My Middle Eastern Stuffed Peppers feature juicy bell peppers stuffed with a filling of lamb, fresh mint, pine nuts, orzo (little rice shaped pasta) and feta cheese. The sweet flesh of the pretty ripe pepper halves sets off the flavors of the tasty filling that will gently remind you of the exotic places and great food of the southern Mediterranean.

Pea and Toasted Walnut Pâté is a tasty vegetable based dip that will surprise you with its depth of flavor. Fresh peas and toasted walnuts along with hard boiled egg, sautéed shallots and fresh thyme combine to make a consistency, texture and nutty flavor just like a rich pâté.

Chunky Chicken Salad with apples, dried cranberries and toasted nuts is one of my favorites to bring to potluck affairs with its flavors of dried fruit, cinnamon and sweet white wine deliciously contrasting with the tartness of sour cream and a touch of horseradish, all tossed together with crunchy apple chunks and freshly poached chicken breast pieces. The contrasting sweet/tart flavors are hard to beat.

Carrot and Kohlrabi Slaw is a great new way to go beyond coleslaw as I’m always looking for new twists on this classic standard. In this one, the lovely color and crunch of orange carrots are combined with shredded kohlrabi bulbs, whose flavors of sweet apple/nutty turnip marry perfectly with the carrots in a light dilled cream dressing.

I’ve made Harvest Pumpkin Cobbler dozens of times, often by request, as my friends and family remember it always and ask for it often! Easy to assemble, the topping ingredients go in first, then the filling. As the cobbler bakes, the topping rises to the top to form a wonderful crispy caramelized layer over a temptingly rich pumpkin filling, a combination that is quite irresistible. I find this dish much quicker to make than pumpkin pie and more warmly appreciated as a new sweet treat.

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