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Originally published Friday, July 12, 2013 at 12:02 PM

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Fun with potlucks: Nancy Leson has ideas to go

The summer potluck season is in high gear. Here are some ideas for the next get-together.

Seattle Times food writer

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WHAT DO you bring to a summer potluck?

Please tell me it's not one of those big vegetable platters from your local grocery store.

For me, it depends on where I'm going, who's invited, how busy I am and whether or not I'm willing to turn on the oven.

I've been known to show up with a pair of home-roasted chickens and a carving knife because, really, haven't you had enough supermarket fried chicken at potlucks?

With the stone-fruit and berry season in summer swing, I like to bake fresh-fruit galettes — those rustic, butter-crusted tarts I'm so proud of. Or at least I was, until I took a couple to a friend's potluck recently, tried a sliver and realized there was a reason it was a slow-mover: I'd sprinkled salt instead of sugar over the pastry. I can still see people staring in my direction and whispering behind their hands: "Nancy Leson made those! Aren't they awful?"

To err is human. To bring it to a potluck? Not divine.

I've got a friend who stocks her freezer with beef tenderloin so she's always got one around to thaw, grill, slice and serve to a crowd — room temp — with horseradish cream sauce and store-bought dinner rolls. (A great idea.)

One of my greatest ideas — at least according to my kid, who's begged me to make these for every school potluck or summer-camp picnic he's ever attended — was "Mom's mini hoagies." That easy out had its genesis back in his grade-school era, when as part of an "International Day" celebration we were asked to contribute a dish that reflected our family's cultural heritage.

Figuring kids wouldn't be too crazy for chicken soup with matzoh balls (or, from his dad's tribe, Irish oatmeal), I high-tailed it to Albertson's for five big loaves of fresh French bread, several pounds of inexpensive deli meats and cheeses, plus a couple bunches of leaf lettuce, and went to work. Once assembled, I placed pairs of toothpicks down the length of those giant sandwiches and sliced each into "sub"sets: mini hoagies for 50!

You know how some people's potato salad is so good, everyone begs for the recipe? That's my friend Kathy, who adds in chopped kosher dills, red onion, spicy Dijon and an ungodly number of hard-boiled eggs.

But everyone brings potato salad to a potluck, so why not try something different?

Buy a quart of dried medjool dates, score them, pull out the pit and stuff each with a thin slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Chunk some seedless watermelon and toss it with crumbled feta.

Or prepare this festive salsa, which tastes as good on its own as it does with tortilla chips.

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times' food writer. Reach her at nleson@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

Nancy's Fiestafied Grilled Corn and Tomato Salsa

Serves 12

8 ears corn, husks removed

Vegetable oil

1/2 cup lime juice

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 clove minced garlic

1 1/2 cups diced sweet onion

2 jalapeños, minced

4 cups diced tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

1 cup chopped cilantro

1. Remove any corn silk, lightly brush corn with oil, then grill, turning occasionally until the kernels are golden brown. Cool, then slice the kernels from cob (holding the cob upright over a pie plate or a rimmed sheet pan).

2. Mix lime juice, spices and garlic in a small bowl.

3. In a large bowl, combine corn, onion, jalapeños, tomatoes, black beans and cilantro.

4. Add lime-juice mixture to corn mixture and thoroughly combine. Salt to taste.

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