Tips for hosting a fun, painless potluck

LOS ANGELES "If you're the hostess and you organize the potluck, my feeling is you have to organize the buffet before the food arrives," explains chef and food stylist Denise Vivaldo, the author of "The Entertaining Encyclopedia."

Vivaldo knows how to pull a potluck party together. She advises being direct with guests.

"I think you kind of have to be the general, or the quarterback of the big game. Otherwise you're going to have a problem," she says.

That's because Vivaldo has seen even the well-intended show up with unprepared groceries, or even the wrong foods -- like three macaroni salads and no dessert.

So as the host, you should know your guests' abilities and assign them dishes that they enjoy or want to make.

As for the culinary challenged, Vivaldo says they can participate by bringing flowers, fresh herbs or even something cute, like fun napkins.

As the host, it's your job to lay out your buffet with select pieces and fill them with hot water -- if needed -- until guests arrive.

Why hot water?

"[When] guests come with potatoes or casserole, toss the water out, the tureen is already warm," explains Vivaldo.

You should plan for any roadblocks, like the no-show who promised to bring veggies. Keep a bag of microwave green beans on hand to top with crunchy onions.

Also be prepared when someone in charge of sweets fails the assignment.

"People are going say, 'Where's the dessert?' So I will also stash a dessert in my freezer just in case the person responsible for the pie doesn't bring it," said Vivaldo.

Vivaldo asks guests to write their name on tape and stick it to the bottom of the plates they bring so they can be returned easily. Or, advise your guests to bring food in disposable plastic ware, so there are no worries about getting it back.

Finally, here's a neat trick for quickly cooling a bottle of wine. First, put it in a /*Ziploc*/ baggy. Then stick the bottle into ice water. The ice will chill the bottle quickly, and the Ziploc keeps the label intact.

That covers the host. But Vivaldo has some tips for those bringing the food, too:

  • Don't assume you can come to the party and prep your dish at the already-busy kitchen
  • If you are bringing something in a nice pot, you should for ask (or bring yourself) utensils to go with it for serving
  • Stick with the dish you volunteered (or were assigned) to bring, so the meal has balance
  • Call if you aren't coming so they can make other arrangements for that particular portion of the buffet
  • Offer your hostess the leftovers unless he or she wants to send them home

A paperback copy of "The Entertaining Encyclopedia" can be found at for $16.47.

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