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Potluck protocol

When bringing food to a holiday party, be sure to mind your manners. Here are rules - and some recipes - for noncooks, novices and even showoffs.

By JANET K. KEELER
Published December 14, 2005


  photo
[Times illustration: Rossie Newson]

"What can I bring?"

The words slip from your mouth almost before you know it when you receive an invitation to a holiday cocktail soiree, potluck meal, office party or classroom gathering. The host (or teacher or boss) kindly accepts your generous offer and now you ask the question again, but this time it's directed at your inner cook in an exasperated tone.

"What can I bring?"

What you can bring is something delicious and thoughtful that reflects your ability in the kitchen. If your nickname is Emeril Jr., then by all means cook up a storm. Novice cooks, and even noncooks, should take advantage of prepared foods from the market and find an artful way to present them.

A plastic container of hummus and a box of crackers foisted on the host in a plastic grocery bag may ultimately be delicious, but it's not thoughtful. Find a suitable bowl and plate.

The basic potluck etiquette rules:

- Ask the host if there is something she'd like you to bring. If her desire is beyond your skill, admit it and suggest something else. And if that something is paper products, deliver them the day before the party or arrive a few minutes early. It is tacky to force guests to wait for plates or cups until you arrive fashionably late.

- Do not presume there will be room in the oven or on the stove to heat your contribution. Ask first. Better yet, arrive with your dish ready for consumption.

- Bring serving utensils or ask if she has enough. If you think you might leave early, tape your name to the bottom of serving dishes. Better yet, buy an inexpensive holiday platter and leave it.

- Always keep in mind that your offering should make the party easier for the host, not create work. For example, bring flowers for the table in a vase, not bundled in plastic and tied with a ribbon.

Those are the rules, now for the food.

For non-cooks who don't want to bring paper plates:

- Wine and other beverages, rolls or baguettes, veggie or fruit plates, and pies, cakes and cookies are all acceptable. Go the extra mile and find something interesting rather than the same-old, same-old from the grocery store. Get rustic bread or herb rolls from a bakery and seek out interesting desserts. We'd recommend the pumpkin cake or banana pudding from Butler's Barbecue in St. Petersburg (1100 94th Ave. N; (727) 577-3294). They're showstoppers for sure. Place your orders by Saturday.

- An antipasto platter can be put together easily with meat and cheese from the deli and pickled ingredients from jars. Drain and arrange marinated, roasted red-pepper strips, mushrooms, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, hot and mild peppers with salami slices and chunks of cheese in the middle of a platter and surround with crackers or bread.

- These days, everyone is eating sushi. Order a platter of California rolls from a favorite restaurant or your grocery sushi bar. Rather than bring it on plastic, ask the sushi chef to use your platter. Don't have one? Check out the housewares departments at TJ Maxx, Home Goods or Marshall's. Uncooked seafood sushi is not suitable for a potluck party unless you know it will be eaten immediately.

For novice cooks who want to be noticed:

- This apple dip will make you the hit of the party. And it's also good for children, with or without the nuts, depending on their tastes. Mix 8 ounces softened cream cheese with 1/3 cup of light brown sugar. Spread in the bottom of a shallow serving bowl. Top with caramel ice cream topping and chopped pecans. Serve with apple slices. (Sliced apples in bags are convenient and do not brown as quickly as fresh, even those sprinkled with lemon juice.)

- For a potluck brunch, make an overnight breakfast casserole. These eggy-cheesy-bready concoctions never fail to have guests scraping the baking dish for every morsel. The dish is put together at night, refrigerated and baked in the morning. If you don't have far to travel, it'll stay hot from your house to theirs. - The world's easiest confection recipe might just be the world's best. We can't say enough about brickle, a treat that starts with saltine crackers and ends with just a few crumbs on a cookie try.

For accomplished cooks with reputations to maintain:

- Spinach and Leek Gratin with Roquefort Crumb Topping will announce your presence with authority. This isn't kid stuff, but a lovely, flavorful side dish for a Christmas buffet dinner.

- Bring something different to the New Year's Eve party such as the makings for Bon Appetit magazine's Cranberry Kir, a champagne cocktail that celebrates two flavors of the season. For each drink, pour 2 tablespoons cranberry juice and 1 tablespoon creme de cassis (black-current liqueur) into a champagne flute. Top with chilled champagne.

- Caramelized nuts make a yummy addition to a cocktail party or would be welcome as a hostess gift in a festive tin. (Enclose them in a zippered plastic bag first to maintain freshness.) A recipe from the new Small Bites by Jennifer Joyce (DK, $20) is easy, but impressive. In a baking pan, mix 2 large handfuls of nuts (pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts) with 4 tablespoons maple syrup, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, then allow to cool on a nonstick surface. For an Asian flavor, add 1 tablespoon of soy sauce to mixture before baking.

Now you know what to bring, and you better believe you'll be invited back.

- Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com

Sausage and Egg Casserole

Butter

6 slices bread, crust removed

2 12-ounce packages bulk sausage (1 mild and 1 hot)

14 eggs

2 cups (1 pint) half-and-half

Dash of Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon dry mustard

10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese

Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.

Butter bread on both sides and place in casserole dish. Cook sausage and break in small pieces. Blot and drain well.

In blender, blend eggs, half-and-half, Worcestershire, salt and dry mustard. Grate cheese. Sprinkle sausage over buttered bread, then cheese, then pour the egg mixture over the cheese.

Refrigerate overnight.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

(If you use a metal pan, you can move it from the fridge to the oven. To be safe, take the glass pan out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you preheat the oven and then place it in the oven when you begin to preheat it.)

Serves 12 or more.

Source: www.cooks.com

Spinach and Leek Gratin With Roquefort Crumb Topping

5 tablespoons butter, divided

31/2 tablespoons horseradish Dijon mustard, divided

21/3 cups fresh bread crumbs from crustless French bread

1 cup crumbled Roquefort cheese (generous 4 ounces)

3 9-ounce bags of spinach leaves

1 8-ounce leek, halved lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise (about 3 cups)

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat. Mix in 2 tablespoons mustard, then bread crumbs. Saute until bread crumbs are golden, about 5 minutes.

Cool briefly. Mix in cheese.

Toss 11/2 bags spinach in large nonstick pot over high heat until wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer to sieve set over bowl. Repeat with remaining spinach. Press on spinach to drain.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in same pot over medium-high heat. Add leek; saute 4 minutes. Add cream, remaining 11/2 tablespoons mustard and spinach.

Toss until thick and blended, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to 7- by 11-inch baking dish. Top with bread crumb mixture.

Bake until bubbling, about 10 minutes.

Makes 8 servings.

Source: Bon Appetit, October.

Brickle

40 saltine crackers

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 12-ounce package chocolate chips

Chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cover rimmed cookie sheet with foil and spray lightly with nonstick coating. Place saltines in single layer on foil.

On stove, melt butter and brown sugar. Bring to boil and cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove and pour over crackers. Bake for 5 minutes.

Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Leave until melted (2 to 3 minutes). Spread the chocolate evenly over baked mixture and sprinkle with nuts.

Refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Break into pieces.

Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

[Last modified December 13, 2005, 10:11:05]


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