For folks in the "northern heartland," a term Andrew Zimmern and his foodie friends have coined to define their place in Midwestern food and culture, potluck meals aren't just the latest trend; they've always been a part of how people gather for meals. "It comes from our hardworking farm heritage family-style dishes, big portions, hot dish [casseroles]—that's how we are, and it's how we all still socialize," says Zimmern.
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So when he invited some of Minneapolis' top chefs and food influencers to celebrate the Fourth of July, it made sense that each would use a DIY approach for their dishes. On the menu: grilled lamb with homemade flatbreads and freshly blended sauces; sprouted quinoa for a garden salad; beet-cured salmon; sweetened buttermilk curd for berries; and more—quintessential examples of a cook-from-scratch mind-set that Zimmern says hasn't changed much since early settlers from Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy came to the area. "We have never not been DIY; it's in our DNA."
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The Cooking Method
From sides to main, Zimmern relies on the grill for his recipes, which anchor the meal. Lamb cooked over coals (Zimmern prefers hardwood charcoal) is timed to finish as guests enjoy drinks and starters, and corn gets a smoky roast for his snap pea salad. Cooking flatbreads on a saj (a griddle he brought back from Syria) set over the grill is the final step.
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Family and friends gather for a hometown celebration. Stacey Kvenold, husband Steven Brown (chef and owner of Tilia), and daughter Sonia (seated); Corinne DeCamp and husband Mike DeCamp (executive chef at Monello and Constantine); Jamie Malone and partner Erik Anderson (chef of Brut); Doug Flicker (chef and owner of Piccolo) and wife Amy Greeley; Andrew Zimmern; Lily and her mother, Tracy Singleton (owner of Birchwood Cafe).
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Tips for Pulling Off a DIY Potluck Menu
Make It Ahead
Choose dishes that do most of the work up front, mostly hands-off. Methods like curing (salmon), proofing (bread), sprouting (grains), or freezing (fruit juice ice cubes) require a minor amount of prep time but offer a very big payoff.
Assess Equipment Needs
Find out what guests need to finish or serve their dishes once they arrive. Determine if anything needs warming (like a dressing) so all the dishes can be served together. Clear a space just for guests, with the tools they need ready for them.
Finish on the Spot
Usually, potluck parties are casual and communal, so it's OK if some last-minute cooking occurs at the party. Let guests take part: Assign simple tasks (like grilling corn) and make room for people to gather and chat.
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Erik Anderson's Charred Zucchini Salad
Fresh, local produce needs little more than a punch of heat or a salty-sweet dressing to transform into a compelling side dish. Choose dishes that work cold or warm and can stand up to summer heat.
For this zucchini salad, Erik Anderson (chef of Brut) uses lardo for part of the fat in the dressing. It's seasoned and cured pork fat somewhat similar to bacon. Find it at specialty markets or at almagourmet.com. Or substitute an equal amount of rendered bacon (16 ounces chopped bacon will yield 3.5 ounces needed for this recipe).
Anderson also uses sweet and sour teardrop chiles, which are a cross between a jalapeño and a cherry pepper. If you can't find them, substitute mild pickled peppadews.
Steven Brown (chef and owner of Tilia) uses beets to bring earthy flavor and bright, bold color to cured salmon, which he serves on sourdough toasts with fromage blanc, hard-cooked egg, radish slices, and a few drops of tangerine-infused oil. Feel free to sub store-bought smoked salmon that's thinly sliced. You can also go low-carb and serve the salmon on long cucumber slices.
Tracy Singleton's Sprouted Quinoa with Marinated Veggies
Sprout a grain like quinoa (it takes time but almost no attention) for a pleasing bite and a nutrient boost. Add veggies and nasturtiums and marigolds (flowers optional) for a peppery kick.
This raw-food dish needs planning and patience, but the payoff is a salad that pops with each crunchy bite. Tracy Singleton (owner of Birchwood Cafe) says using cooked and cooled quinoa instead of sprouted quinoa is a fine shortcut, but the salad won't be 100% raw.
Doug Flicker's White Balsamic-Marinated Berries with Sweet Buttermilk Curd
Keep to the simplest ingredients, like fresh berries and buttermilk, for an irresistible, refreshing no-bake dessert. Doug Flicker's (chef and owner of Piccolo) dessert is a mix of sweet, tart, and tangy sensations. Honey granules are available at specialty markets or online retailers like Amazon.
You can double this recipe to serve a larger crowd. Use 2 bowls to freeze the buttermilk, and thaw simultaneously in 2 colanders. There is a considerable amount of whey once the buttermilk thaws. Don't toss it all; Flicker recommends using it for an added boost in smoothies or adding it to cream soups and sauces for a tangy touch of acidity.
Strawberry and Watermelon Punch with Lime and Tarragon
You can buy strawberry puree or make it yourself: Blend 16 ounces thawed frozen strawberries in a food processor. Strain through a fine sieve; discard seeds. Serve Mike DeCamp's (executive chef at Monello and Constantine) refreshing punch with or without alcohol.