Monday, January 2, 2012

Pot Luck Etiquette

Okay, okay.  I know this post is a day late and a dollar short.  Truth is, we're still adjusting to having an infant around and well, it was the holidays.  However, this information is fresh in my mind, having come off of a round of pot-luck family parties through the holidays, so I'm going to go ahead and get it in writing now and we'll dig it out again around Memorial Day when it's once again seasonally appropriate.

So what do I mean by Pot Luck Etiquette?  Well, maybe it's not so much etiquette as it is things to make life easier on both you and the host.  These are things I've learned over the years by both bringing dishes myself and having hoards of people show-up at my own home with their own dishes.  I thought it'd make a great list of helpful hints.  I hope you find it helpful...

Bring Serving Utensils and Dishes
Your average home is not stocked with 20+ large serving spoons or more than a pair or two of tongs.  Same goes for pot holders, mixing utensils, and serving bowls or platters. Help your host out by bringing everything that's needed to plate and serve your dish.  If you're bringing soup or something that requires bowls, bring disposable bowls and spoons as those are usually in short supply at most gatherings.  Label everything so it finds its way back to you.
Bring Leftover Containers and a Plastic Bag
Often, when you're ready to leave, leftover food remains in the dish that you'd love to leave for your guest to enjoy.   If you bring disposable leftover containers, you can transfer the food and leave the containers instead, allowing you to take your good serviceware home (provided you don't see the person often enough to retrieve it later).  A plastic bag lets you transport the dirty dish home without making a mess or asking your host to wash it.
Pre-Heat or Cool The Food
As someone who frequently hosts parties, I can't tell you how unsettling it is to have 20 people arrive all at once with 20 dishes that either need to be re-heated or re-plated.  Meanwhile, you're trying to put the finishing touches on the main course and keep eveything hot and greet everyone as the arrive.  There just isn't enough oven or microwave space to go around and people are underfoot.

If you're not traveling far, pre-heat food that is intended to be served hot and transport both cold and hot foods using insulated traveling bags to keep it warm or cold without needing your guest's oven, microwave, or fridge (the latter of which is usually packed to the gills just before a party).  Some "take and go" dish and bag systems even include a microwavable or freezable pad to help keep the dish at the correct temperature.

Slow cookers are also an excellent way to carry and serve your food.  Just check with your host ahead of time and make sure a plug will be available near the serving area.  If it needs extensive reheating, arrive earlier than other guests and offer to lend a hand while your dish reheats.  Bring your own extension cord!

Presentation is Still Important
Want to be that guest that always gets asked to bring a signature item to the party?  Don't sacrifice presentation for convenience:
  • Home baked (or even bakery-bought) cookies look ever so much more festive and delicious when displayed on a nice ceramic dish instead of paper plates or cheap disposable plastic platters.
  • Salad looks best on a nice platter or bowl with dressing in a glass cruet instead of grocery store packaging.
  • Cake pedestals are not only great for just about any dessert (cupcakes, cookies, pies, pastry), but they add height to the table and take up less of a footprint than a 16-inch platter.  Since they tip in the car, consider arriving early and arranging the food on the pedestal at the party.
  • Nothing is more elegant and easy than a trifle in a pedestal trifle dish.  Invest in one for around $10-15 and I guarantee you'll use it over and over.
  • Were you asked to bring drinks?  In addition to the usual soft drinks, consider bringing a glass pitcher and the makings for a simple mixed beverage like Sangria (wine, fruit, & sugar over ice), wine spritzer (wine and fizzy water or ginger ale), mimosa's (orange juice and sparkling wine), etc.
My Favorite Dishes
Here are just a few of my favorite dishes to bring along to a pot-luck:
  • Trifle - A simple combination of cake, pudding or mousse, chunks (crushed candy, chocolate chips, etc.), and whipped cream layered in an attractive glass bowl or trifle dish.
  • Wings - Chicken wings, tossed with your favorite sauce or marinade and cooked in a slow cooker.
  • Antipasto Platter - A beautiful arranged salad with lots of great Italian ingredients.  Actually, any arranged salad.
  • Any Side Dish the Host Requests
  • A Mixed Beverage (see above)
  • Cookies, Homemade Candies, Candied Nuts, and other munchies
My Favorite Products
Here are a few of my favorite products for transporting and displaying pot luck foods:
  • Slow Cooker - Every household should have one, IMHO.  If you're going to use it for pot lucks, choose a model with an insulated carrying case.
  • Pyrex Portables - This is a line of baking and casserole dishes from Pyrex that come with matching insulated carrying cases and heat/cool packs.  Start with a 13x9 baking dish and expand from there if you need to.
  • Inexpensive Serviceware - If you do a lot of pot-lucking, keep a few inexpensive plastic serving spoons, pie servers, or inexpensive tongs around specifically for that purpose.  Think dollar store finds.  That way, if they get misplaced or don't make it home, you won't cry about losing your favorite heirloom service piece.
  • Label Maker - I like having a label maker, such as those found in office supply stores, around the house for labeling things that travel to other peoples' houses (or day care, school, the office, etc.).  Find one that offers plastic-coated labels as they tend to wash off slower than paper-based ones in the dishwasher or sink.
  • L.L. Bean Boat and Tote Bag - This may sound silly, but I have two of these, purchased on the cheap as customer returns at the Bean Outlet (who cares that they have someone else's initials on them), and I use them EVERY time I'm going to a party with food.  They're big enough to fit my 5 quart dutch oven or slow cooker crock in, they're heat resistant, sturdy enough to tote even the heaviest of items (if you can lift it, it'll hold it), and they're just the right size to wedge on the floor in the back seat or, in a pinch, sit it on the back seat and buckle it in like a child (I'm not joking...I do this all the time).  Go for the extra-large one with the short handles (you can't sling a crock-pot laden one over your shoulder, anyhow).

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