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I have a bad habit of isolating myself this time of year. Part of it is practical. My busy work season is April through November, so during these chilly months, I like to hunker down and get some neglected projects and tasks accomplished. But after spending long stretches of time working from home, with only my husband to break the quiet, I find that I need a little socialization. That’s when I put the out the potluck call.
All it takes is a quick email to a bunch of friends and, suddenly, a communal meal comes together. Sometimes we plan to do a Sunday morning brunch. Other times it’s a basic shared meal on a Thursday evening. It’s as much about contact and community as it is about the food.
I do have a couple of guidelines when it comes to cooking for a potluck. If I’m hosting, I always like to provide a dish that contains both a protein and a vegetable. That way, if the only other things on the table are wine, bread and dessert, I still feel like it’s a fairly balanced meal.
In the past, my most-reliable main dish was a pasta bake, with crumbled turkey sausage, whole-wheat spirals, tomato sauce and lots of sauteed spinach or kale. If vegetarians were going to be present, I’d divide the pasta into two pans and keep the sausage out of one of them.
These days I’m finding that more and more people are trying to avoid the pasta, so I’ve been searching for a new potluck meal. One that I tried recently that I really like is Rachael Ray’s Chicken and Green Bean Casserole. It’s essentially a from-scratch version of a cream of mushroom soup casserole from the ’50s, but it’s satisfying, easy and can feed a crowd. Make it for your next potluck or Weekender.
Before you start cooking, read these tips:
— Rachael instructs you to blanch your green beans before adding them to the pan. If you like your beans to have a bit more bite, add them to the sauce raw. I found that there’s enough heat exposure to cook them through and then there’s one less pan to wash.
— If you can’t find the Boursin cheese that the recipe suggests, try a garlic and herb goat cheese. It will give you the same creaminess with a slightly more assertive flavor.
— This dish reheats beautifully, so make it the night before your event and just bake it off before serving.
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her second cookbook, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces, is now available for pre-order.