Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in Nov/Dec BayBuzz magazine.]

Tis the season for gatherings and nothing says gathering like a Boxing Day sale, a fire alarm drill or a potluck meal.

The shared meal, or bring-a-plate occasion, is a heart-warming affair. A perfect way to show loved ones, friends, workmates, and strangers how much you care. Not just the care you have for them but also for your own culinary flare.

For the potluck is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate your skill, clever ideas and of course your beautiful crockery and serving spoons. Indeed, the choice of bowl may be just as important to some as their choice of clothes. They wouldn’t want a gaudy red platter clashing with their salmon chinos!

To others the thought of making something to contribute engenders panic. Either due to lack of interest or ability, lack of time, or awareness that trying to sneak in with yet another bag of coleslaw at a BBQ is going to be frowned upon.

Whether you’re a budding food stylist or a time-poor vegan whose kids eat all of the sausages and won’t touch your tabbouleh, a little guidance from the host is helpful.

Spontaneity needs to be well planned. I say pots yes, but luck? No thank you.

Curation is essential for an enticing spread that will be well balanced. If you’re hosting, learn to play the game and, for minimal expense and effort on your part, you’ll have a Grammable feast to delight and amaze.

Failure to curate becomes a recipe for four rice salads, three bags of mesclun, two pots of hummus, and a spinach and tinned-salmon quiche. Nobody wants that. Plan the potluck and crush your guests’ impromptu ideas like mint leaves in the mojitos.

Take into consideration the fiscal and culinary strengths of your guests. It can be tough for non-cooks. Also consider that some will want to bring whatever is in their fridge while others will shop at only the best places in order to tell you all about it.

There are those who will bring a bag of budget sausages and eat a lot of steak. Those who will stop at the petrol station for a few bags of chippies.

Those who will pick up a bargain bucket of chicken or a bachelor’s handbag (a hot roasted chicken in a bag from the 4 Square).

And don’t forget the guests that always make the same dish regardless. You know, “Aunty always brings her pissaladiere.”

So where did this potluck idea start?

For me it started in 1992 when I was a new immigrant and invited to a BBQ in Hastings. I asked what we could bring, to which the answer was “whatever you want to eat and drink”.

What? ! I didn’t get it, having spent the previous three years in Italy where one had to be very careful taking food or drink to a friend’s house to avoid giving offense. “Why did you bring wine? Isn’t our wine good enough?”

Thirty years on I have to say that I like the idea of sharing the load and taking a plate to a party. My go-to, unless I have been tasked with a particular dish, is a plate of eggs for a lunch function. Hardboiled and halved, cracked pepper and flakey salt. Job done. Or for that extra special occasion mix the yolks with mayo and curry powder or mustard and pipe back into the halved whites.

So here’s the trick to perfect, easy to peel eggs: put the eggs in cold water with 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Bring to the boil. As soon as the water starts to boil, turn the heat off. Leave the pot on the element for 8 minutes of gas or 6 minutes for electric. Next cool the eggs by running cold water over them. Change the water as soon as it feels a little warm. Crack the shells all over and start peeling from the fat end. Next halve the eggs lengthways and pop the yolks into a snap-lock bag. Add mayo and curry powder to the bag and mush it all up. Pop the whites into another bag and head off to the party.

Once there grab a plate from the cupboard, lay out the egg whites, snip the corner off the bag with the yolk mixture and pipe the yolky mix into the whites. Finish with a flourish of chopped parsley which you miraculously produce from your pocket and take the applause.

The party ends and, unless well planned, there is enough food left to warrant Nourished for Nil sending a van. Do you take it home or do you leave it there? Do you scrape it onto the host’s plate so that you can take yours? Who washes up? How long will rice salad keep in the fridge?

Logistics aside we’ve all had a great time … roll on next year! Same routine but it’s now your turn to host. Which means two days cleaning the house, but the wonderful opportunity to plan the best meal. 

Ian Thomas is a caterer and formerly free range egg farmer, cooking demonstrator, and manager of a commercial food production business. He specialises in cooking paella.


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