THE POTLUCK dinner, of course, is only as good as the cooks contributing to it. A Twinkie sensibility won't get you the kind of sacher torte they served in old Vienna, no matter how many people are involved.
Given a clutch of true food aficionados, though, the potluck approach, with every guest bringing a dish, is the easy way to feast -- the kind that took place at the last meeting of the Washington chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier.
Les Dames, a group of women food and wine professionals dedicated to excellence in the metier -- and to more opportunities for more women in it -- includes cooking teachers, restaurateurs, food writers, caterers, wine experts and merchants of gourmet edibles and equipment. Discount my enthusiasm for it if you will; I confess to being the president. Let the potluck pots speak for themselves.
The wines, brought by Carol Palmer, included Beringer Chardonnay 1979, Sebastiani Eye of the Swan 1981, Cavit Pinot Grigio 1979 and a Castello di Uzzano Chianti Classico. For the exceptionally sturdy, there was also a De Montal armagnac.
Here are some of the standouts among the dishes arriving with Les Dames.
PHYLLIS FRUCHT'S INSALATA DI MARE (Marinated Squid Salad) (8 to 12 appetizer servings) 3 pounds squid, cleaned and cut into 1/2-inch rings (tentacles left whole or halved) 1/3 cup fresh lime juice 1/2 cup olive oil 1/4 cup chopped shallots 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 chili, chopped (optional) Oregano and chopped parsley to taste 2 avocados, diced or sliced
Marinate squid in lime juice, olive oil, shallots, garlic, seasonings and chili for 4 to 24 hours, covered and refrigerated. Drain and reserve marinade. Place squid in boiling salted water and cook 1 minute. Drain and return to marinade until serving time. Refrigerate if desired. Place, with marinade, over avocados and toss before serving.
CAROL MASON'S GRATIN OF FENNEL AND TOMATOES (8 to 10 servings) 3 to 4 heads of fennel, trimmed 1/3 cup olive oil 1 cup onions, sliced 1 teaspoon garlic, minced 2 16-ounce cans tomato wedges, drained 1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth Salt and pepper to taste Cayenne and a pinch of sugar 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs 1 teaspoon orange zest 1/2 teaspoon garlic, crushed 1/2 cup parsley chopped
Cut the fennel into pieces, lengthwise, about 1/2-inch thick. Heat oil in a large frying pan and cook the onion and garlic together until softened. Add fennel and cook over moderate heat, turning from time to time, until it softens. Drain tomatoes well and add to pan with wine. Increase heat to high and cook, stirring frequently, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, cayenne and sugar to taste. Transfer vegetables to an ovenproof serving dish. Combine cheese, bread crumbs, orange zest, garlic and parsley and sprinkle over fennel. Bake in a 450-degree oven until fennel is hot and bubbling and the top has crisped and browned lightly, about 10 to 15 minutes.
LISA YOCKELSON'S VEAL AND WILD MUSHROOM LASAGNE (12 servings) Pasta Dough: 4 eggs 3 cups flour (preferably unbleached)
Meat sauce: 2 ounces dried porcini (Italian wild mushrooms) 1 onion, chopped 2 ribs celery heart, chopped 2 carrots, peeled and chopped 4 tablespoons butter 1 pound ground veal 1/2 cup vermouth 1 cup light cream 2 cups tomato pure'e (fresh) 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg Salt and freshly ground white pepper
White sauce: 9 tablespoons butter 6 1/2 tablespoons flour 3 cups light cream 2 cups heavy cream 3 egg yolks
To assemble: 4 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
Place flour in a large bowl, making a well in the center. Crack eggs into well and work mixture with hands until all flour has been incorporated. Roll dough very thin, by hand or pasta machine, and cut into pieces about 4-by-14 inches. Drop the sheets, a few at a time, in boiling water for 5 seconds, then remove to a bowl of cold water. Lay out on towels to drain.
To make meat sauce, soak dried mushrooms in 1 1/2 cups warm water until tender. Drain, pouring liquid through coffee filter. Reserve liquid. Soften onion, celery and carrot in butter. Add veal and cook over high heat until it loses its raw color. Pour in vermouth and reduce to half. Add cream and simmer 5 minutes. Add tomato pure'e and simmer 3 minutes. Chop mushrooms coarsely and stir in, along with filtered soaking liquid. Season with 1 1/4 teaspoons salt and grindings of white pepper and nutmeg. Simmer, uncovered, 4 hours, adding water as necessary to keep from burning.
To make white sauce, melt butter in a heavy pan. Remove from heat and stir in flour. Return to heat and cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add creams, whisking together. Return to heat and whisk until thickened. Bring to a boil, then simmer 3 minutes, stirring. Beat egg yolks in a bowl, add a little of the white sauce. Remove the white sauce from heat and stir in all of egg mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
To assemble, place a little of the veal and mushroom sauce on the bottom of a 14-inch lasagne pan. Dot with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Place on a layer of lasagne strips (2 or 3). Add a bit of meat sauce, drizzle the white sauce and sprinkle on cheese. Continue building layers in this fashion until all lasagne strips are used. Top with remaining white sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Bake lasagne in the upper third of a 400-degree oven 15 to 20 minutes or until top is lighly golden and bubbling.
CAROL CUTLER'S PUMPKIN SURPRISE (15 servings)
The surprise within this pumpkin can be as variable as you like, within reason, said Cutler, suggesting you choose firm-fleshed fruits with flavors that complement each other. Even a few raisins can be tossed in. Cutler added candied orange peel simply because she happened to have some on hand. 7- to 8-pound pumpkin, preferably with stem intact 15 coconut cookies or ginger snaps 3 apples, unpeeled, quartered, cored and thinly sliced 3 bananas, peeled and sliced 1 cup pineapple tidbits, juice reserved 6 tablespoons brown sugar 3 cups orange juice or apple cider 1/4 cup orange or other fruit liqueur 1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger 1 tablespoon oil
With a sharp knife, cut a lid off the pumpkin and set aside. Use a heavy spoon to scrape out the seeds and fibers until the inside of the pumpkin is smooth. Place on a baking dish or large pie dish that can be taken to the dining table.
Crumble 5 cookies into the bottom of the pumpkin, then layer in a third of the apples and bananas. Drain the juice from the pineapple into a bowl and reserve. Place a third of the pineapple over the bananas. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar. Repeat again with 2 more layers of alternating fruits, cookies and sugar. The final layer should be cookies and sugar. Do not completely fill pumpkin shell; there should be an inch unfilled at the top.
To the reserved pineapple juice, add the orange juice or apple cider, liqueur, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Beat juices together and pour over the fruit and cookies. The liquid should be barely visible through the top layer of crumbled cookies. If necessary, add a little more orange juice. Replace the lid on the pumpkin, making certain it fits well. Pour oil onto a paper towel and rub it over the surface of the pumpkin to give it a shine.
Bake in a 325-degree oven for 3 hours or until the pumpkin flesh is soft. The baked pumpkin should be served warm but not piping hot. Present at the table as it is, providing 2 spoons for serving. The fruit and pumpkin pulp are scooped out together.