Democratic, delicious and easy, potlucks encourage people to get together and enjoy good food without one person having to take on a big culinary to-do. For chef, cookbook writer and food activist Jamie Oliver, who is keen to get people into the kitchen, promoting potlucks seems like a natural cause.
The British-based Oliver is behind Food Revolution Day, celebrated this year on May 16. The third annual global day of action aims to get the next generation excited about making home-cooked meals. As part of that initiative, Sobeys is sponsoring Canada's Biggest Potluck Party, which encourages families and friends to cook and eat together.
Food Revolution Day is a response to some discouraging culinary trends. For example, on average, only 18 per cent of Canadians have at least one meal a day prepared from scratch ingredients. A recent Canadian survey also suggests that basic cooking skills and overall kitchen confidence are on the decline. More people are turning more often to processed, prepared and fast foods, which are often soaked in fat, sugar and salt.
Holding a potluck is a great way to get people excited about cooking. Sobeys is offering potluck recipes and tips on their website (www.betterfoodforall.com), as well as a bonus incentive: When potluckers post and share food photos on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtags #PotluckChallenge and #FRD2014 before May 16, Sobeys will donate money to the Children's Aid Foundation's Cooking Toward Independence Project.
The best potlucks are easy -- and easygoing -- events. In general, even slightly scrambled, last-minute potlucks tend to more or less work out, thanks to a general feeling of goodwill.
(Some potlucks do take eccentric turns. I once hosted a women-only dinner where by some freakish coincidence everyone brought white food. That was a tasty but pale potluck. I attended another where everyone was asked to bring their favourite childhood comfort food, resulting in a table covered with grilled cheese sandwiches, canned chicken noodle soup and grape Jell-O. That was a nostalgic but totally vegetable-free potluck.)
Sobeys has a few pointers for taking some of the luck out of potluck, while still keeping a casual feel. Hosts should try to get a rough head count, so everyone can estimate portion sizes. (Don't feel that your casserole has to feed every single person, though, which can result in crazy potluck overload. Remember there will be several choices.) Hosts can also ask guests to sign up for courses, so there's a balance of appetizers, mains, sides, salads and desserts.
Guests, meanwhile, should think of recipes that can be transported easily and arrive more or less ready to go. (Newspaper can be an effective and cheap way to insulate hot foods en route.) And don't assume that the host will have fridge room or serving tongs or equipment to whip cream, since there will be a lot going on in the kitchen. Guests might also want to include a stand-up cardboard label with the dish's ingredients, to alert anyone dealing with food allergies.
And of course, probably the most important rule for any good potluck is just to have fun. Enjoy the good food and the good company. The following recipes are all from www.sobeys.com/en/recipes.
Almond and Olive Hummus
1 x 540 ml (18 oz) can chick peas, drained and rinsed
125 ml (1/2 cup) natural almonds
125 ml (1/2 cup) lightly packed, drained stuffed Manzanilla olives
2 cloves garlic
30 ml (2 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil
10 ml (2 tsp) red wine vinegar
1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt
1 ml (1/4 tsp) pepper
Approx. 175 ml (3/4 cup) water
125 ml (1/2 cup) lightly packed parsley leaves
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine chick peas, almonds, olives, garlic, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. With the motor running, gradually add water until mixture is smooth (you may need a bit extra to achieve desired consistency). Add parsley and pulse until finely chopped. Serve as a dip with fresh-cut vegetables and whole-wheat pita wedges or use as a sandwich filling. Store leftovers in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Makes 675 ml (23/4 cups).
Tester's notes: I love the addition of almonds and olives, which kicked up the flavour of classic hummus. I had a little trouble calibrating the texture, though: my mixture went from thick to overly thin very quickly, so be careful when adding the water.
Strawberry and Arugula Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette
1.5 l (6 cups) fresh strawberries, washed, dried, hulled and halved
30 ml (2 tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil
30 ml (2 tbsp) aged balsamic vinegar
5 ml (1 tsp) salt, or to taste
5 ml (1 tsp) pepper, or to taste
750 ml (3 cups) loosely packed arugula, washed and thoroughly dried
30 ml (2 tbsp) sliced fresh mint
In a large bowl, combine strawberries, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Just before serving, add arugula and mint to strawberry mixture. Gently toss to combine and serve immediately. Serves 8.
Tester's notes: With a range of sweet and sharp flavours, this is a strawberry salad with a garnish of greens, rather than the other way around. I couldn't find good arugula so I subbed in baby kale, which has a similar peppery taste. If taking this salad to a potluck, pack the strawberries, with the oil and vinegar, separately from the greens. The berries can macerate a little and their juices will mingle with the vinaigrette. Pack the greens in the serving bowl and toss just at the last moment, so things don't get soggy. Adding the strawberries to the greens, rather than the other way around, can keep you from overdressing the salad.
Chocolate Pretzel Cookies
250 ml (1 cup) salted butter
175 ml (3/4 cup) brown sugar, firmly packed
125 ml (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
5 ml (1 tsp) pure vanilla extract
375 ml (11/2 cups) all-purpose flour
250 ml (1 cup) medium unsweetened coconut
125 ml (1/2 cup) large flake oats (not instant or quick oats)
5 ml (1 tsp) baking soda
250 ml (1 cup) classic mini twist pretzels, broken into pieces
125 ml (1/2 cup) semi-sweet chocolate chips and chunks
125 ml (1/2 cup) puffed rice cereal
Preheat oven to 190 C (375 F). In a large bowl using a hand mixer on medium speed or a whisk, cream together butter and sugars until light and fluffy, then add the egg and vanilla. Mix until just combined. In a medium bowl, combine flour, coconut, oats, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture to butter mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon until combined. Blend in pretzels, chocolate and cereal until just combined. Drop about 30 spoonfuls of cookie dough, roughly 5 cm (2 inches) apart, onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Bake in centre of oven, 8 minutes for chewy cookies, 10 minutes for crisp ones. Cool on wire racks. Makes about 30 large cookies.
Tester's notes: I didn't want to buy a whole box of puffed rice just for this recipe -- I hope Jamie would approve of me avoiding food waste -- so I just upped the chocolate. Sobeys offers a blend of classic chocolate chips with square chocolate chunks, but you can sub in just chips or just chopped chunks of baking chocolate if you like. The addition of pretzels is kind of unusual. I thought the pretzel pieces were an easy way to achieve that salty-sweet thing, but my daughter remained unconvinced.