Food

Suppertime Sloth

I’m going to a potluck. Do I actually have to bring something homemade?

A vegetable platter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

What’s the laziest acceptable thing you can bring to a potluck?

Considering your apparent attitude, why not send your regrets and skip the potluck altogether? It doesn’t get any easier than that, and you might do the host and the other guests a favor. After all, who wants to be around a Lazy Susan who just waits for the good stuff to come her way without contributing something that shows that she has made an effort like everybody else?

But let’s be generous and assume you have real constraints on your hands and yet still want to invest some time and energy for the benefit of all. If that’s the case, here are some ideas.

Keep it simple and focused. Bring something that can stand on its own. If there really is no time for cooking, provide an elegant assortment of something that can be assembled on a platter. Choose one category and stick with it—curate the offering, as it were. For a cheese platter, hand-pick three or four cheeses (make sure they have contrasting textures and go from mild to sharp) and add some condiments (medjool dates, walnuts, fresh grapes, perhaps a quince confit, and assorted gourmet crackers). For a French charcuterie platter, buy thinly sliced French ham, saucisson, and perhaps a small pâté de campagne, plus cornichons, Dijon and coarse mustard, and a baguette to be sliced on the spot. An Italian salumi platter could have thinly sliced prosciutto, bresaola, mortadella, and salami, some pepperoncini (pickled mild peppers), olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and ciabatta bread. Or get a bit fancier with smoked salmon and smoked sturgeon, sour cream mixed with horseradish, sliced cucumber with sprigs of dill, and pumpernickel bread. You get the idea. A crudité platter would be a bit more involved—don’t ever buy pre-cut crudités, as they’re not fresh. Packaged “baby carrots” are not young carrots but small carrots that have been mechanically shaved to look the part, and some vegetables are better when blanched (sugar snaps, string beans, and broccoli). I would recommend bringing at least two dips—perhaps an aioli (good-quality mayonnaise fortified with lemon juice and freshly grated garlic) and a blue cheese dip (whiz together sour cream and blue cheese, perhaps a shot of cognac and a few pink peppercorns). And no, hummus, unless it’s homemade, is not an interesting option here.

The next level would be to bring some oven-roasted potatoes: Get the smallest fingerling or Yukon Gold or new potatoes you can find, drizzle them with olive oil, and roast them along with a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and some garlic cloves (with their skins) at 400 degrees F until tender when pierced and slightly browned. Season with flaky sea salt and sprinkle with ground—never grated—pecorino Romano. (Grating hard cheeses like Parmesan or pecorino results in rubbery hard strands. Instead, they ought to be ground to a texture of coarse meal using a food processor.) A quick sauce to serve on the side: Zap drained, jarred red bell peppers; marcona almonds; the roasted garlic (squeezed from the browned skins); some chili flakes; lemon juice; salt; and olive oil to a coarse semblance of romesco sauce.

You may also go to your local pizza parlor and kindly ask for one or two balls of raw pizza dough (they will sell it to you if you ask nicely). Spread it out on an oiled and polenta-dusted sheet pan, let it relax and rise a bit before making some indents with your fingers, and top the dough with a drizzle of olive oil and your choice of anchovies or capers, coarse black pepper, and whole fresh sage leaves; crumbled pecorino; or halved grapes—or, even better if you can find them, minuscule Champagne grapes and a generous amount of anise seeds (a wonderful combination dreamed up by the incomparable Jim Lahey). Bake at 450 degrees until lightly golden but still soft.

The key is to make a statement that shows that you have put some thought into this, spiced it up with originality, and minded its presentation. It does not need to be homemade, but it should have a somewhat elevated quality. As a final touch that your host will appreciate, bring along any platters or bowls you may need to set it out; the host may have run out of platters by the time you arrive, and there is truly nothing more off-putting than a row of plastic containers on a buffet. Gather them at the end of the party but leave leftovers with the host unless they insist you take them as well, in which case you can be a Lazy Susan at home the next day, with no one judging you for it.

My 3-year-old daughter is allergic to sesame seeds, tree nuts, and peanuts. I really like hummus and would like for her to be able to eat it. I’ve attempted to make it without tahini, and it has always turned out dry. Is there a way to make hummus without tahini and have it still taste good?

Hummus owes much of its unctuosity to rich tahini—sesame paste. Without it, it can feel like Sesame Street without the Cookie Monster. The most obvious choice would be to substitute sunflower or pumpkin seed butter, but your daughter might be allergic to those as well. So let’s make our own kind of hummus.

To prevent dryness, puree the cooked chickpeas (canned ones are OK, but rinse them first) in your food processor with boiling hot water, just enough until you have the desired consistency. Next, emulsify the base further by slowly adding some olive or, for a milder flavor, avocado oil, with the machine running—a good two tablespoons per cup. But since you’re already working with a food processor, why not boost this very basic hummus’ flavor and enrich its texture by adding an additional component such as a bit of roasted butternut squash (cut it in half; scoop out the seeds; brush it with olive oil and roast, cut side down, in a 400-degree oven until lightly caramelized and browned; scoop out the pulp; and use at leisure)? Or try broiled and skinned red bell peppers (place them under a low broiler and, turning them now and then, cook them until the skins are lightly charred all around; place them in a paper bag to steam and cool down before stripping off the skins and removing the seeds) or, moving into baba ghanoush territory, roasted eggplant (roast it whole in a 400-degree oven until browned and very soft, scoop out the flesh).

Don’t forget the spices. It is up to you and your daughter’s palate and openness to new flavors how they come into play, but lemon juice, grated lemon peel, raw or fried garlic, fresh herbs, fennel seeds, paprika, cumin and coriander, even a touch of honey are just the tip of the iceberg. And don’t forget the salt!

Finally, I would recommend making hummus at least once with freshly cooked chickpeas. Soak dried chickpeas overnight in well-salted water, rinse, and simmer without salt on a low flame until very tender (which admittedly can take up to two hours; keep them submerged by adding more water as needed); or look into using a slow cooker. It will make a world of difference in terms of flavor and teach you something about the sallow nature of canned goods. This may not become routine, but why not experience the real thing now and then? One must know the acceptable from the good and the transcendent; it enriches our lives. The payoff comes when you watch your daughter dipping sticks of celery, cucumber, or steamed broccoli florets into the homey hummus and happily munching on them while watching Sesame Street risk-free. Even the Cookie Monster would not turn it down.

This summer, I’ve volunteered to help oversee the preparation of a meal at a big group camping event (there’s a proper kitchen on-site with all the basic equipment at our disposal). I’m a very confident home cook, but I’ve never cooked for 60 people before! What are some good general tips for huge batch cooking, scaling up recipes, etc.?

Producing large quantities of food is very different from home or even restaurant cooking. Welcome to the world of catering, where compromise becomes a habit and perfectionism and creativity give way to pragmatism.

The secret to successful high-volume cooking lies first and foremost in good planning, organization, and teamwork. Think of yourself as a choreographer and your kitchen helpers as your dancers. In a good scenario, it can feel like a ballet where the cooking happens almost by itself. In a less favorable one, your day will feel like a chaotic accumulation of “interpretative” dances. Here are some helpful guidelines to be ready by curtain call.

Inspect the kitchen at least a day ahead and do everything you can to secure refrigeration space for your fresh produce (if it isn’t already provided). Also, discuss the right time for you to take over the space and communicate that you expect to find the kitchen clean and ready for you. Hold a quick meeting with your helpers before you get started. Give them a breakdown of your menu and plan of action and divide the tasks as clearly as possible. Articulate gently but firmly that everyone will be expected to always clean up after themselves and to fully complete a task before starting another.

Regarding recipes, I would recommend that you don’t scale them up but rather scale them down first. In other words, grasp their essence—and simplify them. Think horizontally: Avoid the stovetop and cook as much as you can using the oven (pray for large sheet pans, or arrange to get some) and the grill (if available), where things can be roasted or grilled side by side rather than piled up as they would in a pot (forget about stir-frying food for 60 people). As for items that have to be cooked or simmered—rice, potatoes, legumes, pasta, and stews or sauces—don’t ever add anything into the water before it has come to a full boil, lest it be denatured by sitting in it for too long before any real cooking begins. Or preheat water in a separate pot to add to the food (as in a stew that calls for starting with pan-frying aromatics).

If there is to be any dessert, it should be made first so it’s out of the way (large sheet cakes with a topping might be easiest to pull off, perhaps a tres leches cake). Next, all leafy greens should be washed, tumbled dry, and stored away until needed. Following that, have all vegetables—with the exception of onions and garlic (they may be peeled ahead of time but should never be cut in any way until they are needed, as they become smelly and bitter within an hour)—rinsed and peeled, cut, sliced, or chopped according to your needs. Following that, any meats or chicken must be cleaned and prepped and seasoned (I would stay away from messy marinades and stick to dry rubs or even just salt and pepper). Fish and seafood should be handled last.

Some cooking may be done well ahead of serving time, but keep in mind that not all foods take well to reheating (stews, beans, and lentils are OK, but reheated seafood is overcooked seafood). Risk serving things slightly undercooked or at room temperature. Be assertive in your seasoning: You’ll be surprised how much more of anything—salt, herbs, spices, oil—you will need to get to the same flavor profile you are used to.

Finally, be prepared to show your face and take a bow if applause erupts in the dining room once everyone has been fed. But your job isn’t done until leftovers are neatly stored away and the kitchen is once again spotless for the next day’s shift.