#89 | Bring It!
Tried and True Recipes for Potlucks and Casual Entertaining
By Ali Rosen
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Ali Rosen: I'm Ali Rosen, and my new book is Bring It! Tried and True Recipes for Potlucks and Casual Entertaining.
Suzy Chase: You have been nominated for an Emmy for your show Potluck, and two IACP awards, and named a Forbes 30 under 30. Plus, Thrillist once said that you had one of the coolest jobs in food. I love it. Now, your new cookbook, Bring It!, is all about potlucks and casual entertaining. Talk a little bit about that.
Ali Rosen: Well, this book is really the culmination of everything I've learned in my career. I'm so lucky to do my show, where I get to talk to chefs, and cookbook authors, and creators all day. And I was just excited to share some of what I've learned, and my recipes. And so, the book is really all about answering that question of, "What can I bring?"
Because you know, the dinner parties that we do today, I think are really different to the formal parties people used to have. Everybody's always bringing something, people are always coming together by bringing different dishes. So, this book is 100 recipes that can kind of answer that question.
Suzy Chase: So, let's start off with talking about how to use this cookbook. In particular, the badges. How do we use those?
Ali Rosen: The badges were really important to me because as somebody who kind of flips through a cookbook a lot, as you obviously do, I ... You know, sometimes I'm looking for something specific, and I don't know whether it's going to fit into that category. And when I, as I started testing recipes, I really sort of found that, when you're bringing food to an event, or to a dinner, they kind of need to fall into one of three categories, or in multiple categories.
One is "day ahead," because you oftentimes have to go to an event, and you need to make it ahead. One is "fridge to table," because oftentimes, there isn't an oven there, you need to just be able to bring something and have it come straight from the fridge. The third is "30 minutes or less," because we all kind of run out of time when we're cooking, and we need something to be quick.
So, I wanted to divide the book in that way, and some of the recipes fall into all three categories, some of them don't fall into any. But it's kind of a good way, as you're flipping through the book, to really figure out if there's something in particular you need, that it's there.
Suzy Chase: So, in the cookbook, you wrote, "There's an art to a meal where all the food is made ahead and brought in. It should be an orchestrated dance of different cooks and different kitchens all coming together at one table for a meal that feels both cohesive and simple." That's easy for you to say. So, how do we ensure that this meal is successful?
Ali Rosen: Well, I think the most important thing is planning. You know, I think that when people think of potlucks, they think, "Okay, great, I'll just tell everybody to bring something, and then it'll be fine." And then, you know, you end up with like six salads and three desserts, and nobody has a main course.
So, you can get out of a lot of the cooking by having everybody bring different things, but you, at the very base level, need to kind of give people direction. You know, assign people, say, "Okay, you're making the salad, you're making a meat, you're making a vegetable side, and you're making the dessert." And then that gives people the context.
You also want to give people the context of what they have to cook with. Do you have oven space? Do you have fridge space? Do they need to bring their own utensils? Do they need to bring a knife, if it needs to be cut? Those kinds of things that just, kind of, thinking through how you're going to set it up, and who's bringing what, will save you a ton of time on the back end, because then you're not scrambling to figure out who's bringing what.
So, especially in today's age, I mean, there's so many great programs online or through email. You can just have people check a box. And I think that organization from the outset can make a potluck feel really cohesive, even though different dishes are coming out of different kitchens.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of setup, going to potlucks, there are always the hurdles of transporting the food, storing the food, and issues with the food sitting out. What are your tips for that?
Ali Rosen: I think the biggest thing is not to overcook. You know, a lot of people think, "Okay, I'm going to make this dish, and then it's going to be totally done. I'm going to cover it, and then I'm going to transport it while it's hot." And what people forget is that food keeps cooking, especially if it's covered, even if you're only traveling 15 or 20 minutes to somebody's house.
So, you really have to think through, if you need to reheat something, you want to let it completely cool down, uncovered, before you put it in the fridge. You want to undercook it a little bit, so that when you put it back in the oven, you don't overcook it. And you just want to think through whether you can serve it at room temperature or not. Because I find that, at a lot of potlucks, people get so worked up about serving hot food, when there's so many great dishes that you can serve at room temperature.
The flip side of that is, of course, food safety. If you're having an outdoor picnic, and it's really hot outside, and it's the summer, you do want to make sure that you're only taking things out of the fridge right when people are ready to eat, because you also don't want it to sit around all day. Not just for food safety reasons, but because you don't want the food to start looking sad. You know?
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Ali Rosen: So it changes everything.
Again, it's, so much of it is just sort of thinking through the dish as a whole, rather than just the cooking piece of it. People think through the recipe, and they don't think through the steps from getting it from point A to point B. And that can be really easy, you just have to plan ahead.
Suzy Chase: As a mom, I find that potlucks are a bit of a competition. Like, when our kids get together, it's always like, "Hey, I made this chicken blah blah blah," and then I brought hummus.
Ali Rosen: Right.
Suzy Chase: So ...
Ali Rosen: Yeah. I usually bring the wine in those cases. Like, "Well, I'm sorry, here's your wine."
Suzy Chase: "And I have cups, too."
Ali Rosen: Yeah, exactly. "I brought cups."
Suzy Chase: So, you have a show called Potluck, that I have been watching here in New York City since it launched in 2013. You talk food and drink with various chefs, cookbooks authors, and restaurateurs. Did you get any inspiration for your cookbook from your show?
Ali Rosen: Oh my god, I get inspired every day. You know, I had an untraditional background into food. I actually started my career in news production, and then I moved over to food. So, I don't have that culinary school background that a lot of people who are journalists or in the food industry have.
And I always like to say, "I went to the greatest cooking school in the world," which is, I get to learn from chefs every day. When I have a question about something, you know, I then find somebody to teach me how to do it, and that's a segment for my show. I mean, this afternoon, I'm going to a bakery to talk about how to make perfect scones, because I really want to perfect my scones recipe.
So, I feel like I have a fun perspective, because I still come at it from the perspective of a home cook. I don't have that classical training. So, I feel like my recipes can approach things in the same way that everybody at home does. I mean, I am a mom, I'm busy, I'm always trying to find a quick and easy way to do something. But on the other side of that, I've just been so lucky to learn from all the best people in the industry.
And a lot of the book mentions that. There's a watermelon ribs recipe that has this watermelon sauce that was inspired by, I did a segment with Floyd Cardoz, who has a new restaurant now, the Bombay Bread Bar. But he had a fish with a watermelon sauce, and it just inspired me to say, "Ooh, I'd love to do a watermelon sauce on something. Ooh, how about ribs?"
So, so many of my recipes are kind of like, I'll taste something or try something, or learn a technique from a chef, and it just kind of takes off from there. So my show has really inspired the book, just because I get to learn every day, which is pretty lucky.
Suzy Chase: That's exactly how I feel with this cookbook podcast. I'm just a mom, and a home cook, and I learn something from every cookbook.
Ali Rosen: Right. But that, I think that makes you ... It's funny, because you know, there was this moment, sort of early in my career, where I thought about, "Oh, I should really take time away and go to culinary school." And I'm glad that I didn't, because I think that there's a very big difference between cooking in a restaurant kitchen and cooking at home.
And I think that a lot of people today, this is why so many blogs are popular, and podcasts, and people who don't come at it from a traditional background, because we're all just trying to make things work. We're all just trying to make something that works for our family and our kids, and we don't have, you know, 20 people prepping the ingredients for us. And we're not buying in bulk, and we're not making things in the same quantities and sizes, and we're not making the same recipes over and over and over again.
So, restaurants have a totally different perspective than people cooking at home. And so, when I look at cookbooks, the cookbooks that I love, they do tend to be from people who come at it from that angle. Because that's the perspective that I have when I'm looking at a cookbook, and I'm trying to come up with something for dinner, or for a party. And I'm just like, "God, I just want to have something that's easy, but everybody thinks is really impressive." That's always the goal.
Suzy Chase: You know, I never thought about having a theme for my potluck. That is brilliant.
Ali Rosen: Yeah, well, I think people want to have a direction. Like, oftentimes, I'll get invited to something, and they'll say, "Oh, bring a dessert." And I'm like, "Well, what kind of dessert? What else are people bringing? Is somebody else bringing a cake? Should I bring a cake? Should I bring cookies? Is somebody else going to bring cookies?"
I mean, I think that if you have a theme, you can give people ... First of all, you can give people an exciting way to kind of explore a new cuisine, or a new topic that they've never really thought of before. And we kind of all do themed potlucks even when we don't think about it, right? Like, Thanksgiving is kind of a themed potluck.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Ali Rosen: You know, Easter is often a kind of a themed potluck. I mean, we have a lot of holidays that we think of as potlucks. And then, there are some holidays, like Cinco de Mayo, or Saint Patrick's Day, where we tend to cook other cultures' foods because we've sort of adopted these holidays into our own.
But there's no reason to not say to your friends, like, "Hey, let's have a potluck. You know what, let's all do Italian food." Or, "Hey, let's all do great summer vegetables right now, 'cause that's what's in season." You know, there's no reason to not give people a direction to go in, because then, again, even though everyone's cooking in a different kitchen, you're going to have a meal that actually feels cohesive, rather than like, "Well, over here we have quesadillas, and over here we have cheesy pasta." Those are two kind of similar things, but they're totally different.
So if you just say, "Hey, let's all make Mexican food today, and you're going to bring the guacamole, and you're going to bring tortillas, and you're going to look in some cool cookbook that you have for a recipe we didn't even know existed." I mean, that can kind of create a fun theme.
And, when you talk about that competitiveness among potlucks, it actually sort of brings people together, if everybody feels like they're kind of in it together, doing something new, they're not bringing the thing that they always bring. It kind of creates a fun element for it.
Suzy Chase: You had a lot of cookbook authors give you great advice. One in particular was Dorie Greenspan. What advice did she give you for this cookbook?
Ali Rosen: Oh my goodness. Dorie is my hands-down favorite cookbook author. I have every one of her books, and I use them constantly. And she just has been such a guiding force, not just because I love her books, but because every time I've asked her for advice, she says yes. Which is exactly why people love her books, because she's so generous.
And mostly, her advice was just to make sure that you pay attention to every piece of it. Because with a cookbook, when somebody buys a book, they're not only paying whatever they're paying for the book, but they're also buying ingredients, they're investing their time.
And so, at every stage of the book, it was so important to me to make sure that every recipe worked, every photo looked exactly like what it could look like. All the photos ... We ate all the food, after we made it, for the photos, for the book.
So, the best advice that I've been given is just, don't ever hand over any part of the process. You know, work with people, I have a great team of people collaborating on this book, from the editor to the photographer, to the food stylist and prop stylist. But you just want to make sure everything works and looks great.
Because at the end of the day, you're only as good as the worst recipe in the book. So, when somebody goes to make it, if it doesn't work out for them, it doesn't matter than 99 out of 100 recipes are great, 100 have to be great. So, I've learned that from talking to authors like Dorie, and everybody else who's been so generous with their time.
Suzy Chase: Popcorn. I've never thought about bringing popcorn to a party or potluck. You have five different flavored popcorn recipes in the cookbook. Describe those.
Ali Rosen: Yeah, I'm a little bit of a popcorn fanatic. I tend to have it like every afternoon. And I love adding flavors to my popcorn. I think that when we think of adding flavors, we think of that, kind of like, caramel popcorn in the mall, you know, when you buy those tins that come in like, butter, cheese, and caramel. And that, I mean, that's kind of complicated to make.
So, I just, for many years, have had ideas about adding flavor to popcorn without making it too heavy, and without making it difficult to carry. So, the book has five different recipes, and they kind of range from a pizza flavor, which is tomato paste and some dried basil, and sprinkle in some Parmesan cheese, to sweet versions, cocoa powder and sugar.
And so, it's really these different recipes that are using flavors, but it's not quite as heavy as what you would think. And so, it's great to bring to a party, especially like a Super Bowl party, or an Oscars party, where everyone's kind of sitting around watching something.
And it's also great as a gift. If you want to go to somebody's home, and they're making dinner, and they haven't asked you to bring anything, it's a great little gift. You know, you find a little bag, you put it in, you tie it up. And they don't have to eat it right then, but it's kind of a fun extra thing to bring. And everybody likes popcorn, so why not?
Suzy Chase: So talk about the recipe testing process.
Ali Rosen: Yeah, the recipe testing process for this book was really fun for me, because I have two siblings, and they both live here in New York with me, and they both have wonderful significant others. And every Thursday night, we would get together and they would test recipes. And I would, you know, spend the whole week working on new things, and tweaking things, and by Thursday it was like, "All right, I've got this down, this is going to be great."
And then, they'd give it the thumbs up or the thumbs down. And they all have really different palates, they have different things that they like. My brother is very meat and potatoes. My brother-in-law is very, you know, he doesn't like cheese, he doesn't like this, he doesn't like that. My sister likes really comforting, homey foods. My brother's girlfriend doesn't really like seafood. I mean, it was like, if I could find dishes that they all liked, I felt like, "Okay, this is a winner."
And there were a lot of recipes that didn't make it in the book, 'cause they weren't that great. And then, I had a team of people testing all over the country. You know, I put out a call on Facebook, and just said, "Hey, anybody want to try some recipes?" And I had 50 people from all over the country and all over the world saying, like, "Yeah, I'm game."
And so, these recipes were really such a labor of love, and tested, tested, tested, tested, tested. Because, you know, every time you tweak it, it can get a little bit better. And so, I just was so lucky to have so many friends and family kind of make sure that this book really worked. Because I think that's what we all want, when we buy a cookbook. We want to believe that every recipe works. And it's not always the case, so that was the most important thing to me.
Suzy Chase: Over the weekend, I made your recipe for pistachio and anchovy pasta, on page 93. In the description, you wrote, "Sometimes the best meals happen when you least expect it." How did this recipe come about?
Ali Rosen: Yeah, this was one of those just lovely, serendipitous moments of, I was on a trip to Italy with my husband, and we were driving. And we were just so hungry, and we stopped and parked the car in a town called Siena. We just were like, "Okay, we're just going to sit down at the first restaurant we see," thinking it would be kind of a throwaway meal, which is sort of disappointing when you're on vacation in Italy, but we were just so hungry.
And we sat down, and we ordered this pistachio-anchovy pasta, and it was like a revelation, because it wasn't too heavy on the pistachios, it wasn't too heavy on the anchovies. You know, you might not even notice either ingredient at first, but it was just kind of like a pesto-like sauce on this pasta. And it was so perfect, and I just thought, "Well, god, this has to be something that you could make at home," because it seemed so simple, but it's so flavorful.
And it's turned into one of my favorite recipes in the book, because I just, to me, the best kind of recipe is a recipe that takes less than 30 minutes that also people are really impressed by. So, I think that one was just one of those where, it was just the total lightning bolt of inspiration, of like, "Hey, why haven't we been combining pistachios and anchovies all this time?"
Suzy Chase: For dessert, I made the strawberry sandwiches on page 196. I was really surprised to see that this was from a Japanese recipe.
Ali Rosen: Yeah, I mean, that was another sort of ... Just, you know, you learn so much when you travel. And I was in Japan a few years ago, just on vacation, and I was sort of expecting it to be like a sushi and ramen bonanza, and the thing that I was so surprised by was how much Japanese food and culture we don't even see here, that doesn't make it here.
And one of the things that I just sort of fell in love with was that the Japanese love sweet sandwiches, which is not something we really think of. You know, we tend to think of a sandwich as being in the savory camp, but actually, if you have a piece of light white bread, it's kind of like ...
You know, the strawberry sandwiches is kind of like a strawberry shortcake in a different form. The bread, it's kind of just the vehicle, and then you have the strawberries and the whipped cream. I mean, as you saw here, this is a recipe that, yeah, it's great when strawberries are really in season.
But it's still fun, you know, if you can get strawberries, and you can make some good cream, it's a really fun, messy, gooey, lovely recipe. I made this for my sister-in-law's baby shower recently, and it was just so fun, 'cause people are picking it up, and surprised, and it just kind of makes people smile.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Ali Rosen: So, my website is potluckwithali.com, which has all of my segments with chefs, and recipes from chefs, and some of my own recipes. And then, on social media, I am Ali_Rosen, A-L-I-underscore-R-O-S-E-N. Because if you find the regular AliRosen, it's a bikini fitness model who's taken my name.
She must wonder why she gets tagged in food photos all the time. People will say to me, "Oh, I tagged you in something." I'm like, "Nope, that's my Florida-based doppelganger, who focused on a different, is definitely focused not on eating strawberry sandwiches at the moment."
But yeah, that's where you can find me online, and yeah, every Thursday on NYC Life for any listeners that are in New York. But you can watch the whole show online, as well.
Suzy Chase: Now I'm ready to tackle the next potluck, picnic, or dinner party. Thanks, Ali, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Ali Rosen: Thank you so much for having me. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram at CookerybytheBook, Twitter is @IamsSuzyChase, and download your Kitchen Mixtapes, music to cook by, on Spotify at CookerybytheBook. And as always, subscribe in Apple podcasts.