Modern Potluck EssentialsPotlucks don’t require tons of fancy equipment, but there are some tools that can make cooking for crowds easier. Here, a list of my kitchen faves:

Bowls with lids Sure, plastic wrap (or that re-useable beeswax-coated canvas plastic wrap alternative) works fine, but after buying a set of mixing bowls with lids, I’ve wondered how I’ve lived without them. I use a large one every time I go to a potluck. The smaller ones are perfect for sauces or storing leftovers. I have this colorful set of plastic bowls made by Oxo, but you can also find glass bowls with plastic lids.

Rimmed baking sheet A true workhorse, these are the pans pans I use almost daily for roasting vegetables, baking focaccia, and catching drips under fruit desserts. They’re also great landing spots for things like meatballs as you finish rolling them or sheets of pie dough that need to chill or just-boiled lobsters that are cooling. I mostly use these pans for prep and cooking, not serving, but for potlucks, I’ve been known to bring a slab pie right on the pan. The best part: These pans rarely cost more than $20, so while you’re buying one, you might as well pick up two. My favorite size are the half sheet pans. 

Parchment paper This heatproof paper is great for lining your baking sheets and certain baking pans. It helps prevent sticking and makes clean-up a snap. Plus, parchment can help you lift out and neatly slice baked goods that would otherwise be served from the pan, like bar cookies.

9×13 pans In Modern PotluckI devote a whole chapter to these multi-purpose pans, and I keep a small collection of them around for different purposes. For example, my aluminum one work best when baking bar cookies and large cakes because they tend to create the best bottom crusts. (Love this metal pan with a lid!) Glass pans, like Pyrex, are inexpensive and great for casseroles because they heat evenly and you can see the bottom and edges. Ceramic and enameled-cast-iron are the best-looking pans: They go from oven to table beautifully. Prices here can range widely, depending on the material and the maker. One of my favorites is the large baker from Emile Henry. 

Enameled cast-iron Dutch ovens These are investment pieces, for sure, but after you cook in them, it’s hard to use anything else. The enamel coating is the perfect surface for getting a great crust on meat, and the heavy, nearly airtight nature of the closed pot really holds heat and moisture in. I have a small one (2 quart) for cooking beans and grains and a larger one (5 1/2 quart) for braises and stews. Both are made by Le Creuset.

Slow cooker Because I’m in love with my Dutch oven and all of the flavor it helps me build, I tend not to use a slow cooker for actual cooking. As a serving tool, however, you can’t beat a slow cooker. They can keep food hot that needs to be hot, with nothing more than a power outlet. Crock Pot’s Hook Up Systems are perfect for people who entertain large groups or potluck regularly.

Casserole carrier As a former New Yorker who had kitchens that ranged from dollhouse-sized to just plain small, I’ve always found single-use items, like a casserole carrier, a bit silly. But if you’re a regular potlucker and casserole-maker with room to store extra stuff, these insulated carriers are definitely handy. A friend recently tipped me off to this Cook’s Illustrated story about insulated food carriers. The winner: The Lasagna Lugger from Rachael Ray, which kept food hot for a whopping three hours.

Easily portable cooler Soft coolers with shoulder carry straps (like these aspirational ones) make it easy to bring cold dishes to potlucks, even when traveling on public transit.

And, of course: 

Sharp chef’s knife If you like to cook, and you shop at the farmers’ market, a good quality chef’s knife or a Japanese-style santoku with at least a 6-inch blade is a worthy investment. And keep it sharp! It will save you incredible amounts of time during prep and bring you more joy as you cook. I don’t play favorites with brands—knives are often like the wands in Harry Potter. The right one will find you and it will just feel right. To buy one, head to any good quality kitchen store, including Williams Sonoma or Sur La Table. These shops also often offer sharpening services.

Large cutting board Little is more frustrating than trying to prep stew or salad for a crowd and chopping on a minuscule cutting board. Get one that’s at least 16 inches wide, and I promise, you will find more happiness in the kitchen. My current favorite board is this black walnut one, which doubles as a carving board.

Modern Potluck cookbook

Wow! I can’t believe that in less than three months, Modern Potluck will be out in the world! I’m thrilled. Plus the book is now available for pre-order. Hurray!

I’ve written a lot about my book journey, and in my first post, I touched on why I wanted to do a potluck book: Because the genre of food was in serious need of an update. While many of us are more aware of international ingredients, like harissa, and otherworldly-looking vegetables, like sunchokes, we still tend to find the same old macaroni salads and creamy soup-based casseroles at potlucks. Most of the dishes in my book (besides the few that contain a respectable amount of mayonnaise) are lighter and brighter, with lots of fresh vegetables (and some Instagram-worthiness, to boot). Essentially, I wrote Modern Potluck to give people updated, foolproof, crowd-pleasing recipes that will hold up on the buffet table and are a little bit impressive.

I also love the idea of potlucks because they solve a major problem: In a world where we are all overwhelmed by work and other obligations, bring-a-dish-style gatherings give us low stress ways to come together over a meal. I used to love to throw a dinner party—one for which I’d shop and cook all day. These days, with a small child, that type of entertaining doesn’t work for me, and going out is hard as well. My new friend, Sarah Grey, wrote about how she fostered the community she was missing in her own life by starting something profoundly simple called Friday Night Meatballs. Each week, she and her husband cook meatballs and her friends fill in the rest of the meal. Essentially, it’s a potluck! Her award-winning essay launched a phenomenon, and two years after it was published, she still hears from people who are inspired by it. My book is for those who want to start or continue a similar type of tradition but who are too fickle (like me) to cook the same dish week after week.

Finally, potlucks are a great way to gather people with food intolerances and those who love them. While we eat more adventurously than we did in the past, many of us are more restrictive about what we eat than ever. In my book, I code recipes as vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free and use a wide range of ingredients that appeal to many different tastes. In my own life, I cook for people who, for various reasons, don’t eat red meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, any meat, dairy, gluten, onions, various vegetables and anything spicy. Depending on whom I bring together, the only overlap in the Venn diagram that would be called “What These People Eat” could conceivably be sunflower seeds and black beans. Instead of trying to figure out an entire menu around these limitations, I prefer to pass the work onto my guests. “Make something you’ll eat! And let’s get together.”

Lucky for me, I eat all of it.

P.S. And if these reasons aren’t enough to get you to potluck, how about the fact that potlucks can change the world. It’s true: After George Clooney threw a $100,000 per plate dinner for Hillary Clinton, fans of Bernie Sanders got together and created #Dinewiththe99. Regardless of your political leanings, you have to find this kind of grassroots activism inspiring.

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My parents seemed a little perplexed when I said I’d cook my own birthday dinner, cake and all. But really, I just wanted an excuse to bake from Yossy Arefi’s new book, Sweeter Off the Vine. I was sure I was going to make myself her celebration cake—three tiers of fudgy chocolate cake, which, for the book, she encases in a pink-cloud-like raspberry frosting. I knew how good that cake would be: Last year, I was actually with Yossy on my birthday because she was photographing my book. And because she truly is a generous soul, she baked it for me.

In the end, it was hard to justify making three layers of cake for six people (and, to be honest, I’m not quite sure how to cut the recipe into thirds), so I’m saving that one for my daughter’s birthday. Lucky girl.

After day-dreaming about the roasted rhubarb pavlova, the tangerine cream pie, and so many of the other inspired sweets in this book, I settled on a pistachio pound cake. Baked in a loaf pan, the cake looks humble but has a fantastic nubby texture and deep flavor, thanks to the ground pistachios standing in for almost half of the flour. Pleasantly dense and not too sweet, a thick slice is the perfect bed for fragrant, juicy strawberries. It’s the type of grown-up dessert I love.

Yossy macerates the strawberries for the cake with lavender buds, a lovely addition but one I skipped because of my anti-lavender crowd. I also skipped whipping cream, instead topping the slices with dollops of mascarpone. One great thing about this cake is that it’s just as delicious, if not even tastier, the next day, making it just as good for breakfast as it is for dessert.

Sweeter Off the Vine by Yossy Arefi

Click to buy the book!

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Beet-Avocado Salad with Hard-Boiled Eggs and Pepitas

During the week, lunch can be a disastrous time. Without a plan, I find myself pushing off eating until my blood sugar is so low, I can barely see straight. Then I down a few spoonfuls of peanut butter and an apple, feeling slightly lightheaded until dinner. Or, worse, I go out and get some kind of over-the-top sandwich that leaves me feeling sluggish all afternoon. I’m sure this sounds familiar.

When I take the time at the beginning of the week to cook a batch of lentils or grains and prep some vegetables to use throughout the week, I eat lunch most days like a superhero.

I recently came across the recipe for chef Cathal Armstrong’s favorite salad in Food & Wine’s March issue and was immediately struck by how perfect it is for work-at-home lunches. It’s full of brain-boosting healthy fats and the main components—the beets and hard-boiled eggs—can be prepped ahead. Instead of the onion and scallions called for in the original, I add Lars’ Own crispy fried onions, which aren’t exactly healthy, but man, are they tasty. I also toss in some sliced radish and fennel for extra crunch.

The original F&W recipe wasn’t photographed, so it might have easily gotten lost. I hope this convinces you that this salad is definitely worth making!

Beet-Avocado Salad with Eggs and Pepitas
 
I wrote up this recipe to show how I approach it as a work-from-home lunch that I eat over several days. I prefer to slice fennel and radishes just before I'm about to eat them but if you want to prep them in advance or serve 4 portions of this salad at once, start with a whole fennel bulb and 8 radishes (or one large watermelon radishes). To keep them extra crisp, refrigerate them in a bowl of ice water.
Author:
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • To prep early in the week:
  • 1 pound beets (I prefer golden beets)
  • 4 large eggs
  • ¼ cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • For each salad:
  • ½ avocado, chopped
  • 2 radishes or 4 slices of watermelon radish, cut into matchsticks
  • ¼ bulb of fennel, thinly sliced
  • 4 cups mixed greens
  • 2 tablespoons toasted hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fried onions
  • Flaky salt and freshly ground pepper
Instructions
  1. Cook the beets to your liking: I prefer to steam them in a small amount of liquid until tender, 20 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the beets. You can also wrap them in foil and roast at 450°; this usually takes at least 40 minutes. After the beets cool to warm, slip off the skin and cut the beets into bite-sized pieces. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. Boil the eggs: Bring a pot of water to a boil and carefully lower the eggs into the water. Cook for 8 minutes if you like a slightly sticky yolk or 10 minutes for truly hard-boiled. Drain and cover with cold water. When they're cooled, drain again and refrigerate until ready to use.
  3. Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk the sherry vinegar with the mustard. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the olive oil until incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  4. To assemble the salad:
  5. In a bowl, toss one-quarter of the beets with the avocado, radishes, fennel, greens, pepitas and one-quarter of the dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Peel and half or quarter one of the eggs and arrange it on top. Sprinkle with the fried onions and enjoy.