Winning at party potlucks with creative dishes

July 4, 2016

You can never go wrong with veggies and a good dip for a potluck, like this Tzatziki.

Potluck is a competitive sport, at least when it’s done right.

You go to a potluck and you check out the competition. Gail brought some sugar cookies — that’s good, but it won’t be good enough. Gabe made some fried chicken. Everyone likes fried chicken, but no one ever raves about it. Danielle contributed a store-bought carrot cake.

Store-bought? Please. It’s like she didn’t even try.

And then you uncover your dish. You can tell by the delight in some of the guests — and the green-eyed jealousy in others — that you’ve done it. You’ve won the potluck.

It’s a good feeling.

All it takes to win a potluck is a little bit of time and a little bit of effort. If you use the right ingredients, you’re halfway there.

Most potluckers throw something together quickly at the last moment or they make it on the cheap. If a cookie is made with margarine instead of butter, you can be sure it is never going to win.

To truly impress at a potluck, especially if you know that other guests also realize it is a competition, you have to make something that looks as good as it tastes. And that is why, for my first blue-ribbon potluck dish, I turned to the best-looking potluck dish I have ever seen.

It was invented by my wife. We were going to a garden party, which is to say a party for gardeners, and everyone was encouraged to bring a dish with a garden theme. My wife brought a Garden in a Pan.

The bottom layer was refried beans, to represent the dirt. Placed on top of it were colorful rows of chopped vegetables, sour cream, cheese, salsa and guacamole to represent rows of plants.

When scooped up with a tortilla chip, it all made for a delicious, fresh, Tex-Mex dip. It’s kind of like a seven-layer dip, but horizontal.

I stayed with the idea of a healthful dip with my next dish, tzatziki. A bright-tasting Greek sauce made from yogurt and cucumbers, tzatziki is best known as the topping to gyros. But it goes well with any grilled meat, with shrimp or with baked potatoes.

And for the purposes of a potluck, it also goes well with crudités. Simply serve it as a dip along with carrot sticks, celery sticks, sliced red pepper and cherry tomatoes, and the other guests will appreciate how much you are looking out for their health and happiness.

If you’re truly trying to win at potluck — or if you know someone else is also trying to win — you may have to spend some money. And that means: shrimp.

Shrimp cocktail won’t cut it. Everybody knows shrimp cocktail. Everybody loves shrimp cocktail. But shrimp cocktail is too ordinary.

If you’re going to win with shrimp, you’ll have to go big — like the big flavors you find in Spiced Shrimp.

The flavors are actually simple: garlic, salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, olive oil and lemon juice. But when you put them all together and make sort of a paste to cover the shrimp, that’s when you get something notable.

The original recipe from the New York Times called for the shrimp to be grilled. And you could certainly cook them that way, if you really wanted to show off. But simply sautéeing them in a pan is easily good enough to secure a victory.

Bold flavors are the key to another sure-fire winner, too. When spiced nuts are done right, they tend to be addictive. The combination of salt and sugar and nuttiness makes them too good to pass up.

If you bring Rum-Glazed Pecans to a potluck, they are almost certain to be the first thing finished. With a satisfied smile (but only if you keep it to yourself), you will notice the other guests going back to the bowl again and again and again.

Why? Well, you begin with pecans, which you toast to a fragrant crispness. Then you glaze them with a combination of melted butter, brown sugar, vanilla and dark rum. When they are still sticky, you toss them in a combination of granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.

These are flavors that are made for one another. Make sure you grab some for yourself before they are all gone.

For one last dish to impress, I made a South Carolina standard, Country Captain Chicken. This is chicken slow-cooked in a tomato-curry sauce. It is a warming, homey dish, the kind of dish the other guests will think about for days.

It is also easy to make. It does take a lot of ingredients, but most of the cooking is done in a slow cooker. You just set it and forget it.

When the other guests ask you for the recipe, be sure to hand it to them with all the modesty you can muster. Winners never gloat.



Yield: 12 servings

1 1/2 (16-ounce) cans or 2/3 (31-ounce) can refried beans

1/2 cup guacamole

1/2 cup salsa, drained

1/2 cup shredded Mexican-style cheese

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 cup chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped scallions

1/4 cup sliced black olives

1/2 cup chopped orange bell pepper

Chives, optional

Spread the refried beans evenly across the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan. Make thin rows lengthwise down the pan of guacamole, salsa, cheese, red onions, sour cream, tomatoes, scallions, olives and orange peppers, to resemble a garden. If desired, cut chives in half and stick them in clumps between rows to look like a fence or other plants. Serve with tortilla chips.

Per serving: 143 calories; 8 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 12 mg cholesterol; 6 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 411 mg sodium; 79 mg calcium.

Recipe by Mary Anne Pikrone


Yield: 16 servings

1 English cucumber about 12 inches long, peeled

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups full-fat Greek yogurt, see note

1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried dill or 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Note: For best results, use full-fat (whole milk) Greek yogurt. Two percent fat is acceptable, but do not use nonfat yogurt.

1. Grate the cucumber into a mesh strainer. Sprinkle with salt and let sit in the sink or in a bowl to sweat out the moisture for 30 minutes. Squeeze out as much of the remaining moisture as you can with paper towels.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, dill, olive oil and vinegar. Add the strained cucumber and stir until combined. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Store in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours to allow the flavors to combine. Serve with crudites.

Per serving: 34 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 4 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 2 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; no fiber; 130 mg sodium; 37 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from OMGFood


Yield: 6 to 8 servings

1 large clove garlic

1 tablespoon coarse salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon paprika

3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 1/2 to 2 pounds shrimp, peeled

Lemon wedges

1. Mince garlic with salt; mix with cayenne and paprika, then make into a paste with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and lemon juice. Smear paste on shrimp.

2. Put the remaining 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick pan or 2 tablespoons in a large regular pan, and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring frequently, until done, about 3 to 5 minutes depending on their size. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold, with lemon wedges.

Per serving (based on 8): 152 calories; 7 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 182 mg cholesterol; 20 g protein; 2 g carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 1,537 mg sodium; 80 mg calcium.

Recipe adapted from the New York Times


Yield: 8 servings

2 cups unsalted pecans

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or 3/8 teaspoon table salt)

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 tablespoon rum, preferably dark

1 tablespoon butter

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the pecans evenly on the prepared baking sheet. Toast until fragrant and the color deepens slightly, about 8 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through. Transfer the baking sheet with the nuts to a wire rack.

2. Meanwhile, combine the granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice in a medium bowl; set aside.

3. Bring the rum, butter, vanilla and brown sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Stir in the toasted pecans and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the nuts are shiny and almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 1 1/2 minutes.

4. Transfer the glazed pecans to the bowl with the spice mix; toss well to coat. Return the glazed and spiced pecans to the parchment-lined baking sheet to cool. The nuts can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Per serving: 194 calories; 19 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 4 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 181 mg sodium; 20 mg calcium.

Recipe from "Cook’s Country Best Potluck Recipes"


Yield: 6 servings

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, trimmed

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 onions, chopped coarse

1 green bell pepper, stemmed and seeded

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 cup chicken broth

5 tablespoons tomato paste

1 (9-ounce) jar mango chutney, such as Major Grey’s

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons Madras curry powder (see note)

1 1/2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Note: Basic curry powder turns bitter after 6 hours in a slow cooker, but Madras curry powder will not.

1. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chicken and brown on both sides, about 10 minutes (you may have to do this in batches). Cool the chicken slightly on a plate, remove and discard the skin, and transfer the chicken to the slow-cooker insert.

2. Discard all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the skillet and return the pan to medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell pepper and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, broth and tomato paste and, using a wooden spoon, scrape up the browned bits from the pan bottom. Simmer until thick and smooth, about 2 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the chutney, garlic, curry powder, paprika, thyme and cayenne. Pour the mixture into the slow-cooker insert, submerging the chicken in the sauce.

3. Cover and cook on low until the chicken is tender, about 6 hours. Turn off the slow cooker, remove the lid and gently stir the sauce to recombine. Replace the lid and let sit for about 15 minutes to thicken the sauce before serving. If serving at a potluck, tear the chicken into bite-sized pieces, discarding the bones. If serving for dinner, serve over rice.

Per serving: 481 calories; 15 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 206 mg cholesterol; 41 g protein; 41 g carbohydrate; 32 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 516 mg sodium; 69 mg calcium.

Recipe from "Cook’s Country Best Potluck Recipes"



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