It’s open potluck and picnic season here in the Northwest. We made it past July 4th and right on cue the outlook is for the sunny perfect weather we’ve all been waiting for. No one likes to brag but given what’s going on in the rest of the country, I’d say we’re pretty lucky to be entering what Cliff Mass calls “meteorological nirvana”. I’m sure many of you have more important things to think about than what to bring to your next potluck but somehow I can feel our collective priorities shifting to getting outdoors and enjoying every possible moment as often as we can. When we’re in it, summer feels like it’ll go on forever but we all know, well, let’s not even talk about that.
Here are some of my favorite potluck dishes that go with the FLO — fresh, local, organic — criteria. Our seasonal produce lends itself to simple picnic food, a big bowl of unadorned berries or cherries is a perfectly acceptable in my book. In no way do I want you to feel like you need to look much further for ingredients than your own garden or local farmers market. Make it easy, fast and inexpensive and trust me, you’ll enjoy yourself just as much as if you spent lots of money and time laboring over a complicated dish. Maybe even more.
In the drink category, rhubarb cocktails and mocktails are my first choice this time of year. Fresh rhubarb is available everywhere and it has just the right amount of pucker to make it a really interesting addition to a g&t, a margarita — even lemonade becomes a special party drink with a little rhubarb added. My latest favorite way to make Rhubarb Simple Syrup is to boil 1 cup of water/ dissolve 3/4 cup superfine sugar/ take off the heat and add 2 or 3 stalks of thinly sliced rhubarb/ cover and let it sit for at least an hour/ Strain and keep the rhubarb and the syrup separately. This method leaves the fruit much more intact and crunchy, good for muddling or just added as a garnish.
Chips and salsa seem to be the picnic appetizer of choice and for good reason — almost everyone loves them, kids included. If you want to add a homemade touch, you can make a fruit salsa using peaches, cherries or even blueberries. Fruit salsa is also excellent with grilled fish, if that’s on the menu. Expect lots of double-dipping.
Green salads have a potluck category of their own and my specialty in that department has to be a classic Caesar Salad. And yes, I use a raw egg and anchovies but no one has ever turned it down yet. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to make too much of this popular salad. If you happen to have some fresh tender kale, it can make a good addition to or substitute for romaine lettuce.
Grain salads are a great choice because you can make them the night before and they improve as the grains and veggies marinate. If you’re traveling or have a busy day, go with grains. I’m still in love with the tabbouleh I wrote about a few weeks ago.
If burgers, fish tacos or hot dogs are on the menu, someone simply must bring some kind of slaw to the table. Lately, I’m partial to conehead cabbage slaw with an Asian-style dressing. Check here for that and other delicious slaw recipes.
If you’ve been assigned the vegetable category which is separate from the salad category, I’d go with a vegetable casserole like this Summer Squash Casserole. It’s a great way to use up your excess squash from the garden and kids seem to love it, even if it is a vegetable.
To me, fruit salads are verging on dessert. Later in the summer, melons will begin to appear at the farmers market. Watermelon with cucumbers and feta cheese make a lovely salty sweet combination that will be a welcome addition at any picnic table. After all, having grown up in the South, I can’t imagine a picnic without watermelon, but call me fussy — I always prefer my fruit cut up into bite-sized pieces.
Speaking of dessert, since I’m not much of a baker, I’ll leave that category to people like Sally who are much better at it than I am. In a pinch though, I do have a few relatively fool-proof recipes that have come in handy over the years like these Chewy Chocolate Cookies. Part of what keeps me from baking them is knowing how many I’ll eat myself.
Now you should be almost ready for your first potluck of the season. I know I’m heavy on the fruits and vegetable recipes but I’m assuming there will be some sort of communal main dish, probably on the grill. Just pull out the summer tablecloth, put some flowers in a vase, email a bunch of friends and you’re good to go. Whether the potluck host is organized enough to assign categories or it’s just a free-for-all, it all seems to work out in the end. Have fun and let the summer begin!