The aroma of cinnamon and spice fills the air as vibrantly as the crimson clouds of a winter sunset. We’re huddled around the warmth of a fire, balancing plates piled high with seasonal delights of kale & cranberry salad, winter squash casserole and glazed ham. Old friends are sharing new stories over glasses of hot Swedish glögg and fresh-from-the-oven gingerbread.
At the kitchen table, some guests have found a steadier perch from which they dunk chunks of hearty homemade bread into bowls of creamy oyster stew laced with sherry. Laughing children run by, pausing to shake out handfuls of spiced pecans from a mason jar on the buffet. The kitchen is a symphony of sounds: clinking plates, utensils and crock-pot lids mingle with the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of guests discovering new recipes and dishing out longtime favorites.
My community of friends and family has gathered for a casual communal feast to celebrate the season. Winter is a perfect time to indulge in the pleasures of a potluck; everyone brings a dish to share and no one person shoulders the burden of entertaining. Everything from holiday celebrations, to Sunday suppers, to impromptu dinner parties is made easier when the meal is a group effort.
A Community of Cooks
My circle of friends has shared many a celebratory meal together, turning us into self-proclaimed potluck professionals. Each of our potlucks is unique, reflecting the season or celebration in its own special way. An end-of-summer potluck party at the beach featured plates of spring rolls & Chinese chicken salad, and sandy little hands grasping s’mores cookies at sunset. An autumn birthday campout brought a potluck of vegetarian chili, cornbread and butternut squash & chard soup. No matter the reason or the season, our potlucks always combine good company with great food.
During winter, a season filled with many opportunities to entertain, a potluck gathering offers a relaxing alternative to the traditional dinner party. Simply invite a few friends to bring their favorite dish to share, then light a fire, pour some wine and settle in for some laid-back fun.
The joys of a communal meal extend beyond the convenience of shared responsibilities (and expenses) to include the benefits of building and nourishing community. When you share a contribution at a potluck, you’re sharing a piece of yourself that nurtures others. And just as the individual food contributions come together to create a complete (and often grand) meal, these individual shared pieces of ‘self’ also unite, creating a collective bond and kinship.
My community of cooks has enjoyed so many potluck meals together that we are now able recognize one another in the foods we prepare. At a Mother Blessing potluck last spring, I knew, without words, that a perfectly-shaped, crusty raisin walnut bread had been crafted by the meticulous and artistic hands of my dear friend Rose. And I would guess, at any given gathering, that a seasonally-inspired comfort food dish was prepared with much consideration and loving intention in Laura’s kitchen. Insights such as these, gained through the cooperative spirit of a potluck, have nourished and fortified our community.
Planning a Communal Meal
The term potluck was originally used in Colonial America. When people visited a home or inn and they were served whatever was cooking in the pot over the fire – this was called taking ‘pot luck’. Over time, the tradition of potluck was carried on as a way of building community and sharing fellowship.
This winter, keep the spirit of the potluck alive and host a communal meal to celebrate the joys of the season. A holiday celebration, a New Year’s brunch, a Valentine’s dessert buffet, or a simple winter dinner by the fire are all good reasons to gather friends and family for a celebratory feast.
Give Direction For casual gatherings, encourage guests to bring whatever they desire –crowd-pleasing specialties and treasured family recipes are good places to start. For more formal gatherings, like a holiday dinner, a potluck plan can ensure traditional foods and favorites are included and not duplicated. Ask each participant to bring a specific appetizer, side dish, dessert, etc.
Set the Scene Set a casual, yet charming tone with a white paper table runner (raid your kids’ easel paper or use freezer paper) and markers for guests to label their contributions right on the runner. Add a few candles and an arrangement of seasonal fruits or flowers to create an easy and festive winter display. Keep the flow with a separate counter or table for beverages. And if necessary, consider a special area designated just for kid-friendly offerings.
Share the Pleasures One of the joys of a potluck is watching what manifests on the table and realizing that, somehow, it has all magically come together to create a magnificent meal. Enjoy all the delights of your communal meal – savor the food prepared by loving hands, revel in the company of friends and family, and appreciate all the makings of a well-nourished community.
Winter Potluck Recipes
Contributed by Heidi at The Swede Life
2 cups water
1 piece orange rind
1 small piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
5 whole allspice
2 cardamom pods, bruised
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 (750-ml) bottle red wine, such as Burgundy
1/2 cup sugar
Combine all ingredients except sugar in a pot over medium heat. Bring mixture to a simmer, being careful not to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in sugar until it dissolves. Strain mixture before serving; serve warm. Provide small bowls of blanched almonds and golden raisins for guests to add to glögg if desired. Makes about 1 quart.
*For a kid-friendly/nonalcoholic version, use water or orange juice, and substitute 3 cups Concord grape juice for the wine. Omit sugar, and follow glögg directions.
Balsamic Figs with Goat Cheese
Contributed by Laura at Snip & Snail
1 qt. fresh black mission figs
1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese
1/8 cup aged balsamic vinegar
Wash figs and slice in half. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil. Place figs on baking sheet, open sides facing up. Place a dollop of goat cheese and a drizzle of two or three drops of balsamic vinegar onto each fig half. Bake for only five minutes. Indulge. Share.
Roasted Butternut Squash with Bacon
Contributed by Laura at Snip & Snail
1 large butternut squash
4 slices bacon
4 sprigs fresh sage
Fresh black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Peel squash and scoop out the seeds. Cut into 1″ cubes and put into a large bowl. Coarsely chop bacon, sage and shallots and mix with squash. Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle fresh black pepper lightly over mixture; stir well to coat. Place mixture in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil. Bake for about half an hour, or until squash is tender and bacon is cooked. Let sit for a moment before serving to allow the aroma of this dish to explore your home.
Festive Oyster Stew
Contributed by Marcy at Hello Sunshine
1/2 cup butter
2 12-ounce containers fresh shucked oysters, undrained*
1 quart half-and-half**
Salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper (optional)
Cocktail sherry (optional)
Using a fine strainer, drain oysters from liquor (reserve liquor) to remove any bits of shell or sand. Warm half-and-half and reserved liquor in a pot (keep temperature below simmer). Separately, melt butter in sauté pan over medium heat. Place drained oysters in hot butter, cooking only until edges of oysters curl (oysters will toughen if overcooked).
Add sautéed oysters with cooking liquid to pot of warmed cream. Heat stew only to point of simmering (boiling stew will cause milk to curdle.)
Salt and pepper to taste. Ladle stew into warmed soup bowls. For a festive touch, top with a pat of butter, a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and/or a splash of cocktail sherry. Serve sherry on the side, allowing guests “spike” the flavor of the stew themselves.
*On a budget? Canned oysters make do. **Counting calories? Use whole milk and reduce butter. Serves four, or more if using as an appetizer.
Kale Salad with Cranberries & Walnuts
Contributed by Liz at A Natural Nester
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 pound (1 large bunch) young kale (such as dinosaur or lacinato)
3 ounces (about 4 cups) arugula or baby mizuna
1/3 cup Kalamata olives
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 small sweet red bell pepper
1 T olive oil
1 T walnut oil
2 T aged balsamic vinegar, plus more to taste
1/2 t sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 pound blue cheese, crumbled, to garnish (optional)
Pour about one-half cup boiling water over the cranberries and leave them to soften until you are ready to toss the salad, at least 15 minutes. Wash and dry the kale, slice away & discard the stems. Stack the greens and roll them into tight bundles, then slice very thinly for a shredded look (you’ll have about six cups of shredded kale, which will shrink when tossed with the oil and vinegar). Place the kale in a large bowl. Wash and dry the arugula, cut off any tough-looking stems and cut it in short pieces. Toss the arugula with the kale.
Slice the olives off their stones and cut them in slivers. Core and seed the red pepper, quarter it lengthwise, and cut it in matchsticks. Toss the olives, nuts and pepper with the kale. Drain the cranberries, then toss with the kale. Toss in the olive and walnut oils, the vinegar and sea salt. Taste and correct the seasoning as needed; just before serving, add the crumbled cheese.
Makes about 12 cups of delicious, festive-looking & sturdy salad, perfect for toting to a potluck. (Recipe adapted from Love Soup by Anna Thomas.)
Contributed by Rose at The Laughing Monkey
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 t pumpkin pie spice
1/2 t salt
1/2 cup sugar or agave nectar (increasing cornstarch to 5 Tablespoons if using agave)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a small casserole dish, or four individual ramekins placed on a baking sheet, in case of overflow. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until set. Serves four; double or triple the recipe for a crowd.
Liz Sniegocki, freelance writer and mother of two girls, is working on a memoir chronicling the friendship of her “community of cooks.” She blogs about her tribe, mothering, writing and mindful living at A Natural Nester.
Photography by Marcy Chapman, professional artist and mother to the author. Marcy blogs about living creatively in paradise at Hello Sunshine .