Making Potluck Dinners Even Easier


Photo by Ellen Silverman

To try Seven-Hour "Spoon" Lamb, click here for the recipe.

I've been so busy lately that I can't seem to see my way to giving a dinner party. The solution was proposed recently by my friend Burt Wolf, who has his hands full with a television show, hosting boat tours in Europe, and a small child. "Let's do dinner, potluck", said Burt.

Potluck is an age-old tradition: each person brings a dish to forge a meal. If everyone pitches in, the burden falls on no one. The better the cooks, the better the fare will be. And just about everyone has one great dish in their repertoire.

The secret of potlucks is that they work best if you plan them a bit, so you're assured of getting a complete and satisfying meal. The ever-brilliant Burt emailed my boyfriend David and me the number of a free conference call service; just punch in the code and we'd find each other.

"Gee," said Burt when we'd all gathered on the call, "This is what conference calls should be about. What to eat is much more interesting than business."

So we began, listening to our hunger, free associating what we'd like to eat and would enjoy making, until we had the ultimate stress-free menu:

    • Sally: Seven-hour "Spoon" Lamb ("It's still chilly out; I can make it while I'm working; I can't mess it up hauling it uptown to Burt's in a taxi. The first big dish of winter."

    • Burt: Gratin Dauphinoise ("A friend in South West France always served some great, gooey potato dish with the lamb he cooked in his fire place. Kind of like scalloped potatoes")

    • David: Celery Root Puree (A new cook's "best vegetable dish")

    • Natalia (Burt's wife): Baked apples with whipped cream ("A new recipe she wanted to try, where the apples are peeled, sliced horizontally, and stacked")

    • Burt and Natalia: Steamed French beans (We ended up forgetting them)

    • All of us: wine

We all knew the menu we'd plotted wasn't cut in stone. We were just roughing out the elements, figuring who-does-what of the general categories (side dishes, dessert, etc). Each one of us could have switched gears on a whim and brought a different dish, to surprise the others.

Our simple conference call potluck lasted for hours and proved as good as any meal we could get in a restaurant. It is a perfect approach to a stress-free dinner party. And everybody got to take home some lamb and potatoes for the next day. I warmed some shredded lamb in its juices and served it with crushed new potatoes, for an impromtu lunch, as shown in the photo above.

Recipe: Seven-Hour "Spoon" Lamb

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

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