The potluck clincher

| 28 Dec 2015 | 06:37

The phone call leaves the hostess shaking her head and mumbling obscenities. “Reservation for 14 please, although we may be just 12. We’d like to eat early, but one couple may be late. One in the party is gluten-free, another is vegan. You have gluten-free pasta, but what about something vegan? Is the restaurant BYOB? Can you seat all 14 of us at a round table so we can talk? I hope you won’t mind if we get a little loud… By the way, is it possible to get separate checks?”

While some restaurants have come close, none have met all our requests. It’s usually the vegan dish and always the round table that trips them up. Our solution is one with roots dating back to the Middle Ages – forgo the restaurant for an improvised gathering of a shared meal, or potluck dinner. Of course an unplanned menu may mean three rice dishes or four variations on mac and cheese, but as long as there’s dessert no one objects to a few extra carbs.

A family-sized pot pie is comforting and substantial – an iconic meal for a group of hungry friends. I’ve deconstructed this one, ditching the traditional pastry altogether, replacing the cubes of russet potatoes with thinly sliced rounds to form the top crust. Beneath the crispiness is a filling bubbling with flavorful herb gravy, chunks of mushrooms, celery, carrots, parsnips, leeks and seitan, a protein rich meat substitute made from wheat gluten. If you’re avoiding gluten, omit the seitan, double the mushrooms and add navy or cannellini beans. I’ll be serving this crowd pleaser at an annual potluck dinner in just a few weeks. Gluten-free and vegan dishes will be served early and kept warm for latecomers. Glasses will be filled with handcrafted beer and wine and no one will care if we laugh too loud.

The tradition of potluck is as relevant now as it has been for centuries, beckoning us out on a frigid Saturday night in February to break bread around a communal table, no matter oval or square, rectangular or round.

Deconstructed veggie pot pie


2 Tablespoons olive oil plus 1 teaspoon for brushing potatoes

1 shallot, diced

¼ teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic, minced

1 Tablespoon fresh thyme

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 leeks sliced into ½” rounds

2 parsnips scrubbed and sliced into ½’ rounds

2 large carrots scrubbed and sliced into 1/2’ rounds

2 ribs celery sliced into 1/2’ pieces

6 ounces cremini mushrooms, quartered

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups vegetable broth

¼ flour

Seitan cut into ½’ cubes, about 2 cups or

2 cups navy or cannellini beans

1 large russet potato, peeled and thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large pot on medium-high heat and add olive oil. Sauté the shallots with the salt on medium heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme and rosemary and sauté 1 minute longer. Deglaze pan with white wine then add all the vegetables and the broth. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender, being careful not to overcook. In a small bowl combine ¼ cup flour with ½ cup water, whisking until smooth. Add to the pot and cook uncovered, stirring until thickened. Season with pepper. Add seitan or beans and cook an additional 5 minutes. Pour into a large casserole. Place potato slices in a circular pattern over the top, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and bake uncovered 45 minutes or until potatoes are browned.