Aren’t picnics and barbecues awesome? If you live in the north-east like me, you probably cherish the few weekends a year when it’s warm enough to plan to eat copious amounts of food outside with everyone you know. And the fact that most of these gatherings are potlucks, with everyone signing up to bring something snackish, sweet, savoury or boozy, makes it even easier to extend the guest list. But it’s all of these unique circumstances that make the summer potluck different than, say, bringing a pie to Thanksgiving or some cheese and crackers to a wintery holiday fête. Food that needs to stay outside for hours, feed friends of friends you’ve never met who may have dietary restrictions, and be made in triple the quantity than you’re used to making for your family parties takes some thought. Even…

strategy!

Maybe you already have yours down, but in case it helps, I thought I’d share my summer potluck strategy and suggestions.

  1. Simple. You want simple. While you might be trying out a fun new recipe, this probably isn’t the time to try the one that calls for 20 ingredients, unless you happen to have all 20 in your house. Opt for things that will cook quickly too, since you may have to prep and cook ingredients in batches and you don’t necessarily have time to triple your cooking time just because you’re tripling the recipe.
  2. While you’re still narrowing your choices, consider all of the special circumstances and any restrictions. How are you going to transport those from-scratch ice cream sandwiches (you are SO going to be the hero of the picnic)? Can what your making stand the hot sun all day, safely, or is there a way to keep it on ice? Is everything you need in season right now? And something I keep learning the hard way: more people than you think might not be able to eat nuts, not just those with nut allergies but nursing women and very young kids might be staying away too. Lastly, don’t forget the context. If the affair is super casual, save your delicious but slightly fussy-to-eat specialties for another time.
  3. Plan it out which starts with reading and scaling the recipe fully so that it meets your needs. This is a situation where many of us seek out a new recipe and already we’re messing with it–tripling it, maybe making substitutions and hoping for success our first time. Read it so there are no surprises and so you can think through what you might not need to double or triple. You might want to increase the salt gradually and taste as you go instead of multiplying what’s called for. You might need a lot more oil, and time, to fry double the amount of eggplant, etc.
  4. Buy, wash and prepare as much as you can the day before, to give yourself as little to do on the day of as possible. Some exceptions: you don’t want to wash berries any earlier than you have to, nor toss a delicate salad in dressing, and raw garlic that sits in a marinade overnight, unless it’s supposed to, may overpower everything else by the time you are ready to use it. But you can certainly cook most sauces the night before and you can get all of your containers and serving pieces washed and ready to go. It never hurts to write a list* of everything you need to bring too, like any additional condiments or garnishes for your dish. (*I know. Nerd alert.)
  5. Bring it all together. It’s game day, you’re done cooking early, everything is packed and you? You look great. How did you have time to do your hair like that? You should congratulate yourself, pour a drink and sit, smugly, while your partner runs around looking for a pair of shorts to wear that he doesn’t have to iron. Or…

…your reality will look like mine always does and you will be very, very late to this summer blow-out, despite all of these noble efforts. You’ll arrived looking rushed, mascara on only one eye since you stopped mid-task when you realized you’d forgotten to put your contact lenses in first. You’ll try ignoring that new oven burn on your left elbow and wonder why you thought it would be a good idea to bring cream puffs to a barbeque when you hate to bake–yet you’ll yell at James for asking out loud what you were just thinking.

Still, you know that the reason your parents and aunties are so good at pulling this off is that they have a lot more practice at it than you. The strategy is still a good one and you’ll get better at executing it each summer.

happy canada day and happy 4th of july, everyone! have a fun, delicious long weekend.