Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof at the Potluck

by Nicole Kimberling

Tue 15 Dec 2020 - Filed under: Free Stuff to Read

This is LCRW Cooking Columnist Nicole Kimberling’s fourth column for LCRW and was originally published in LCRW 30. (It’s a different world, the past.)

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet No. 30 cover - click to view full sizeIf in your lifetime you ever make any friends, join any organizations, or have any children, chances are you will be required to attend a potluck. Part minefield, part gladiatorial arena, this bring-a-dish event is a place where home cooks test their recipes against the heartless democracy of fellow eaters. At the end of the meal, you do not want the leaden and congealed uneaten casserole that you brought sitting there as evidence of your culinary failure.

But if this has happened to you, console yourself—not all shunned offerings are the result of bad cooking. Even chefs fail when they forget to consider where they are and what they are supposed to be doing. Here are some guidelines that may help.

First, ponder the event you will be attending and who you are trying to impress.

The most common forms of potluck are friendly gatherings and institutional events. When hosts want food at an event without actually paying for it, the potluck springs to mind as a natural solution. Each form of potluck has its own pitfalls. Invitations to large events are often accompanied by commands like “bring a dessert or salad” that terrify One Dish Wonders whose specialty lies in neither course.

Understanding for whom you cook is paramount. When events involve children’s organizations you are ingratiating yourself to whichever coach, teacher, nurse or mentor is in charge of the child you care about. In this case, just pick an easy recipe that follows all instructions regarding forbidden content, such as peanuts, chocolate or vodka and then label whatever dish you make as though you were attempting to avoid a lawsuit: This dish contains tree nuts, wheat, eggs, honey, corn, and shellfish.

For those attending a work gathering, the target is the boss. Cater to her tastes. Remember, this party is about demonstrating that you understand hierarchy. My only advice is to do some research and then don’t fuck it up by attempting self-expression. You will fail the moment you start thinking of the dish as yours. Believe me.

Whereas the institutional event is a pass/fail test of competence, the friendly potluck is a battle, fraught with competition and sexual tension. Every day reputations are made and egos shattered on the laminate-encased particleboard of crappy kitchen counters everywhere.

I don’t know what sort of friends you like to make, but chances are if you are reading this now, at least part of your social circle includes either indie hipsters or nerds.

No two groups of humans are harder to feed. Skinny, hungry, self-conscious people who not only have no fear of impolitely refusing food—but seem to genuinely thrive on the act of food refusal. Vegans, the gluten-sensitive, recovering alcoholics, foodies with unrealistically high standards, over-thinking geeks . . . the list of potential dissatisfaction goes on and on.

The bad news is you can’t please them all. No mortal can. At every potluck there will be those guests who would ask Jesus for gluten-free loaves and Chinese vegan fish steak. Now for the good news: you may feel free to ignore the burden of sating these outliers. They’ll be happier not eating anyway.

For the rest of the guests I suggest my friend Justin’s Chipotle Yam Enchiladas.

Gluten-free*, alcohol-free and vegetarian, this dish has sustained hundreds of partygoers through countless hours of drinking, toddler-wrangling and detailed conversation about the relevance of fixed-gear bikes.

  1. Figure out how large to make your food. Find a baking pan and take a look at it. How many yams will fit in there in a single layer? Buy that many. If necessary, take baking pan to store and put yams in it to measure volume. While at the store buy corn tortillas, an onion, chiptole sauce, garlic, at least a pint of heavy cream, mild white cheese, such as Jack and a bunch of cilantro.
  2. Roast Yams. Stab raw yams with fork, then wrap in foil and cook in 400° oven till soft. Check at 30 mins, then every 10 mins thereafter. Slip yams from skin into bowl. Add splash of cream. Mash pulp with utensil of choice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Reduce heat in oven to 350°.
  4. Chop onion and 1–2 cloves of garlic and sautee in whatever fat you prefer. Onions should be brown at the end. Add sautee to yams.
  5. Chop and add cilantro to yams as well—about a handful per 9 x 12 baking area.
  6. Thoroughly lubricate baking dish with fat of choice.
  7. Fill tortillas with about ¼ cup yam mixture. Roll into cigar shape and place snugly into baking dish. Really cram them in.
  8. Make sauce. Sautee one more clove of sliced garlic in fat of choice, add at least 1 cup heavy cream. Add chipotle, salt and pepper to taste. If sauce is too spicy, add sugar to cut heat.
  9. Pour sauce over enchiladas. Sauce should cover them completely by about ¼ of an inch. At this point the dish should look soupy. If sauce looks skimpy, pour more cream over the top.
  10. Bake, uncovered for 20–30 minutes until sauce is reduced and bubbling throughout. While this is happening, grate cheese.
  11. Sprinkle enchiladas with scant amount of cheese, then switch oven to broil to brown the top of the dish. Under no circumstances should you walk, or even look away from the dish as it is broiling. The transformation from beige to brown will take seconds once it begins.
  12. Remove enchiladas from oven, cover and transport to potluck venue. Be careful driving.
  13. Present dish and claim you invented recipe yourself. Justin won’t mind. He’s on your side.

* Remember for this dish to be gluten-free the chipotle sauce must be gluten-free. Check the label. Also bring the bottle with you. This will allow adventurous eaters to add more spice, while also allowing paranoid diners to authenticate your claims.