Hosting the Potluck of Your Dreams

Be bossy. Be prepared. Serve Margs.

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The night before the party, I planned to change the title of this piece to "Why One Should Not Host a Potluck." The "everyone contributes" model is not my normal entertaining MO. In fact, my style is a bit more obsessive. Once, I built a dozen elaborate gingerbread houses for a "casual" Swedish Christmas–themed get-together (as if that weren't enough, I also house-cured all the fish). On another occasion, I re-created a German biergarten for an Oktoberfest-themed birthday party, complete with pretzel-shortbread party favors, all for my miniature dachshund George. Meals at my parties tend to be laborious affairs; think homemade pasta, ramen bars with a million ingredients that went into the stock, and extravagant tiered cakes (I know, annoying!). A more laid-back approach doesn't come naturally.

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Therefore, as the potluck approached, the control freak in me was anxious about the unknown, and I felt guilty asking my friends to help. Am I putting everyone out? Will they be annoyed that they have to cook?

Now that I've come out on the other side, I can say with confidence: potlucks are a fantastic, simple way to entertain. Because I wasn't buzzing around the kitchen doing a million things, I was able to really hang out with my friends. I could actually debrief on the joys and trials of motherhood with Kate and Melissa and hear about girlfriends' latest successes without missing key details. Normally, I'm in and out of conversations, too busy multitasking to ever hear the beginning, middle, and end of a good story. Too often, the time and money it costs to throw a party can make everything too stressful, and it gets in the way of the true reason for such gatherings: to spend time with the people you love.

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Here are some ground rules, and some easy recipes, that you can use to create your own love-and-friend-filled potluck:

Make it a theme party.

Establishing a theme will create a cohesive menu and help avoid a potentially discombobulated assortment of dishes, such as baked beans alongside someone's homemade sushi. The theme can be as simple as picking a regional cuisine — e.g., Italian, Mexican, Greek, Middle Eastern, Thai — or something a bit more creative. Think comfort foods, "breakfast for dinner," or even unlikely holidays like St. Patrick's Day, Earth Day, or Bastille Day. If you run with a crew of foodie friends, consider choosing a favorite chef or cookbook, and have everyone pick and execute a dish!

Assign smart.

Divide the menu into categories like beverages, appetizers, salad, entrée(s), starchy sides, veggie side(s), and dessert. Then, assign accordingly and wisely. My friend Melissa is a new mom, so I gave her the easy assignment of wine, and my friend Julianna is an awesome cook, so she was game to bring a main dish or multiple sides. If you're unsure, ask what people love to make, to further ease any pressure; it turns out my friend Kate is known for her salads, while Mary prefers to make desserts. Whatever you do, don't assign the appetizer to the friend who is always running late.

Also important: tell everyone how many guests are coming and what other people are making. For example, if someone's bringing dessert, let them know that there are two or three other people bringing sweets as well so they don't make too much (not that you can ever have too much dessert!).

3. Don't be afraid to be a little bossy: communicate your needs.

Ask guests to please bring their food ready to serve in a serving dish with a serving utensil, requiring minimal last-minute attention. Potlucks are meant to simplify entertaining, so someone who shows up needing to do a lot of prep work or with a million containers that need washing defeats the purpose. Also critical? Ask guests if anyone needs to use the oven once they get there.

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4. Be prepared.

Set up a simple, self-service bar with glassware, ice, pitchers of water, and wine. If you are feeling ambitious, make a signature cocktail (or, better yet, assign one). This way, guests can help themselves and you don't have to play bartender. Put a simple snack out — I served Ina Garten's rosemary cashews and olives — so the hungry can hang in there until the eating starts.

5. Set the scene.

- Candles are your best friend. I often rely solely on votive candles to create atmosphere for my parties. Go nuts and place them everywhere.

- Create your tablescape. A monochromatic palette or single variety of flower is a boon to any novice florist. If you don't have the time or money for flowers, consider seasonal fruit or vegetables as centerpieces. Use what you already have on hand, or buy something you'll want to eat later in the week. Scatter with candles to create a table runner, and for extra flare, cut some of the fruit open to display different textures. When in doubt, a simple bowl of lemons is just perfect.

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- Queue up a playlist. If you have a friend who's super into music, consider asking them to create one for the night as their assignment, instead of a dish.

Now kick off your heels, relax, and send us pictures of your perfect evening!

Here are some go-to recipes from Annie for your potluck:

SPICY MARGARITAS

Makes 8 cocktails — you might need a double batch!

1 cup fresh lime juice

1 cup mint simple syrup

2 cups spicy tequila (see below)

1 serrano-chili pepper

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 bunch mint

To make the cocktail:

Combine lime juice, simple syrup, and spicy tequila in a pitcher and stir. Pour over ice to serve. Enjoy!

To make spicy tequila:

Broil a serrano chili until it starts to color. Slice the charred chili and muddle it. Combine one 750-milliliter bottle of silver tequila with the muddled chili, and let steep for 4 minutes. Strain the chili out, and return the tequila to the bottle.

To make mint simple syrup:

Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat, and simmer until the sugar has dissolved. Throw one bunch of mint into the pot and turn off heat, letting the mint steep for 20 minutes. Strain out mint.

Notes:

The tequila can be made in advance and keeps forever. The simple syrup can be made in advance and kept in the fridge, covered, for up to three months.

HERBED SALMON BAKED ON ROCK SALT WITH RED-ONION-CAPER VINAIGRETTE Adapted from Wildwood, by Cory Schreiber.

Serves 8.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

¾ cup olive oil

¼ cup red-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 red onion, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons capers, drained

1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil or tarragon

1 teaspoon salt

¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the salmon:

4 pounds center-cut salmon fillet, skin on (one 4-pound piece or two 2-pound pieces)

4 tablespoons mixed minced herbs such as tarragon, basil, parsley, and chives

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes

Extra-virgin olive oil

Rock or kosher salt for lining pan

To prepare the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, and mustard. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. The vinaigrette can be made up to 2 days in advance.

To prepare the salmon: Lightly rub the salmon with olive oil and then season aggressively with salt and pepper, plus a touch of red-pepper flakes. Then lightly pat the fresh herbs over salmon, covering all the flesh. At this point, the salmon can be covered and refrigerated overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cover a large jelly-roll pan or a rimmed cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Pour rock or kosher salt into the pan, covering the surface completely. Place the salmon, skin side down, on the salt. Bake in the oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until opaque on the outside and slightly translucent in the center. This method of cooking allows the salmon to cook through without becoming dry.

To serve: Use a wide spatula to remove the salmon from the salt, removing the skin in the process. Spoon some of the red-onion-caper vinaigrette over each portion, and serve.

Annie Campbell is a chef and party planner in Los Angeles. Her boutique catering company, Annie Campbell Catering, creates bespoke, seasonal menus for everything from cozy dinners to over-the-top soirées.

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