Dishes for backyard consumption should be accessible and familiar yet interesting enough to perk up the taste buds. Now’s not the time for grand experiments or exotic concoctions, but a little novelty — an unexpected flavor profile, say, or an ethnic twist — can go a long way.
“I generally gravitate toward bringing something a bit atypical that’s still a crowd pleaser,” says Tara Mataraza Desmond, author of the forthcoming cookbook Choosing Sides (Andrews McMeel, 2013), which features an entire chapter on parties and potlucks and another on warm-weather cooking.
Some of her favorites include a cilantro-flecked rice with corn and black beans, citrus wheat-berry pilaf with currants and almonds, and other grain salads. She’s a big believer in non-mayo-based cabbage slaws, which can sit for a long time and which absorb sharper flavors beautifully, whether it’s Korean or Mexican spices.
“A slightly unusual dish can also be a conversation starter among guests who don’t know each other,” says Dan Macey, a Bucks County-based food stylist and recipe developer.
“Memorial Day is the kickoff of the summer and it symbolizes everything that’s fun,” says Ann-Michelle Albertson, culinary director of the Albertson Cooking School. “Whether you’re a guest or a host, the idea is to keep it easy and low-maintenance.”
Hewing to seasonal flavors is always a good idea, and particularly so at the start of summer, when fresh produce is bountiful. “When I go to barbecues, I love to bring a strawberry icebox cake my grandmother used to make,” Albertson says. “Strawberries are just coming into season, and it’s light and refreshing — always a hit around Memorial Day.” Though her grandmother made the cake from scratch, it can easily be made with a shortcut: Purchase an angel-food cake and combine store-bought whipped topping and strawberries to fill and ice it.
Another surefire winner, Albertson says, is a corn salad (perhaps more seasonal for the Fourth of July or Labor Day) studded with edamame and dressed with a champagne vinaigrette, which is a fresh, crisp, and colorful addition to a spread. Occasionally, she will add chunks of sausage to make it a heartier dish.
Desserts can be very simple — fresh fruit tossed with a bit of sugar, and some cookies or brownies are usually perfect for a summertime gathering. Grilled fruit with whipped cream is a nice alternative if the host is amenable to scraping down the grates post-burgers.
Communication with the host is key: Cookouts may be casual, but there’s still code of etiquette to maintain. “I think it’s important to be considerate about time and space,” Desmond says. “Don’t make anything that will need accommodation from your host. Don’t plan to bring anything that needs to be heated up or refrigerated at their home. Make sure you ask what else is on the menu and if there are any people who have specific aversions or health needs.” If your dish needs to be kept cool, as in the case of certain salads, Desmond suggests bringing your own cooler or an ice sleeve to secure around the bowl. And be sure to let your host know ahead of time if you’re bringing something grillable.
As a host, Macey has seen his fair share of potluck faux pas. “There’s the case of the guest who volunteers to bring a salad and then shows up late. I’ve had a guest bring a batch of brownies in the pan and they just left them on the counter for me to cut.” He suggests that guests always bring their food on their own platters with their own serving utensils, to save the host any trouble. Even better is to bring your own Tupperware and offer to leave the leftovers with your host.
If you want to leave empty-handed, however, remember this cardinal rule of the cookout: Nobody will ever, ever turn down deviled eggs. Macey embellishes his with crumbled bacon tossed in hot sauce. “If you bring them, you will never have leftovers, and that’s a guarantee.”