I have slightly mixed feelings about potlucks.
Part of me finds them stressful and inconvenient. Normally, when I make that much food, I expect to eat it for the next several days, or at least for the next day’s lunch. Also, because my husband’s a professional cook, there’s always a lot of personal pressure to live up to people’s expectations.
Fortunately, another part of me adores them. I love the process of watching other people eat my food, knowing I’m sharing my hard work and creativity. The very act of sharing food, which is deeply intimate, builds relationships like nothing else. There’s a reason why so many religions and cultures have holidays revolving around meals, and the best conversations I’ve ever had have been between bites. Potlucks are like mini-holidays, even if you aren’t celebrating anything specific.
On Wednesday, we held “Pastafest” at work to benefit the Combined Federal Campaign, the charity campaign through the federal government. (If you’re a federal worker and haven’t donated yet, you definitely should!) As the name implied, it was a potluck that focused on pasta and pasta products, including spaghetti, cold pasta salad, and farfalle (bow-ties) with cilantro among others. I brought macaroni and cheese with tomatoes and red peppers – see the recipe below – which turned out quite well. Someone said to complement my husband and I answered brightly, “He didn’t make that! I did!” Being recognized for an accomplishment outside of my work skill-set enhanced my confidence in both my work and cooking.
The food was all quite good, but the aforementioned sense of community was more rewarding. The program I work in is part of a much larger office. While I talk to the four other members of our small team daily, I rarely get the chance to spend time with the other employees. But even though we work on different areas, we’re all striving towards the same goals and share many of the same values. Putting down all of that work baggage and talking to each other on a personal level was refreshing.
And of course, it was whipped cream on the hot cocoa that the event was for charity. We ended up making more than $300!
It’s not the first – or last – time we will do an event like this. I’m so glad that my workplace recognizes the importance of community-building. The fact that they allow it to evolve naturally, rather than trying to force it, speaks to my managers’ depth of understanding. If you don’t have potlucks at work, I recommend organizing one sometime. You never know what hidden talents people may have or where the conversation may lead.
Do you enjoy potlucks? If so, what is your favorite memory of a potluck?
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
3 cups milk
1 yellow onion, finely diced
2-3 cloves garlic (depending on your fondness for garlic)
1 red pepper, finely diced (fresh or roasted, see directions)
8 ounces of chopped, canned tomatoes, well-drained
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Good amount of salt and pepper (see directions)
1 large egg, beaten
6 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded
6 ounces of fresh Parmesan, shredded (not the stuff in the green can!) – for the sake of full disclosure, I only used Parmesan for about 1/3 of the cheese when I made it, but in hindsight would have used more
3 tablespoons butter (semi-optional)
1 cup panko bread crumbs
In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the pasta to al dente. To quote my husband, quoting someone else, the water should “taste like the sea.”
While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a separate pot over the stove. Whisk in the flour and mustard and keep it moving for about five minutes. Make sure it’s free of lumps. Stir in the milk, bay leaf, and paprika. Lightly saute the onion and garlic, being sure to salt and pepper it. You have a choice here with the red pepper. You can lightly roast in the oven (about 10-15 minutes) or you can saute it with the onion and garlic (somewhat faster). You can also use pre-roasted red peppers, in which case, you don’t need to do either. Add the onion, garlic and pepper to the butter sauce and salt and pepper generously. Simmer for ten minutes and remove the bay leaf. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese and the tomatoes. It’s best to taste the sauce here before you stir the egg in, if you’re concerned about those sort of issues.
Slowly stir the egg into the sauce. Fold the macaroni into the mix and pour into a casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.
Top the macaroni with the bread crumbs. The breadcrumbs can either be put on plain or tossed in melted butter beforehand (if plain, they won’t brown, but they’ll still taste good).
Bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and rest for five minutes before serving.