Potlucking Like It’s Your Job

My friends and I have a lot of potlucks. We haven’t had as many recently, but last summer, we had them weekly on Friday nights, and I thought it was a great way to hang out. It’s cheaper than going to a restaurant, exposes you to interesting creations, and hopefully gives you something to be proud of. Having done a few, I have a few suggestions for potlucks, both in planning and cooking.

In terms of planning, I think the most important thing is to have a theme. This might range from something conventional, such as “Chinese food” to something quirky, such as “food that looks like other food.” Great potlucks often involve a lot of discovery, and constraints often generate very creative results. Otherwise, potluckers may fall back onto their tried-and-true recipes and not take advantage of the opportunity to explore their next big dish.

Second, it helps to either assign or publicize choices for courses. Horror stories of potlucks usually involve little diversity in food, and unless you were planning a lasagna cook-off, you might get tired of lasagna by your 4th serving. My friends and I used a Google Spreadsheet, where we could record location, time, theme, attendance, and dishes in advance to help out with organization. Other than the token amount of trolling that must come with the internet, it worked well to keep the meals diverse.

Once the logistics are out of the way, you can focus on your personal contribution to the meal. Although you might be shooting for creating the perfect meal, potlucks have unusual constraints that make some meal choices better or worse than other. Specifically, you want to serve food to many people after carrying it to the desired location. Depending on your choice of dishes, these constraints may be detrimental.

First, you need to be able to feed everyone who attends. You might have a great recipe for creme brulee, but when you only have 6 ramekins, you might end up a little short. On the other hand, remember that everyone will be bringing food, so you actually don’t need to contribute that much. The rule of thumb to make as much as you could eat personally doesn’t really work, since at least I don’t have a good sense for how many a meal’s worth of cocktail shrimp is. It all depends on what the distribution of courses is, but factor that into how much you make.

Second and furthermore, your meal should be easily distributable to those who like your meal more and less. Even if you have enough to feed everyone, personal-sized portions may leave many bread bowls half-eaten and burger-loving stomachs partially sated.  In general, food that requires a serving utensil are good, and food that is taken whole is suspect.

Third, your meal should be okay if left to sit for an hour or more. Between transportation, late arrivals, and general merriment, it can often be a long wait before your dish gets eaten, and that shouldn’t be a problem. I myself have failed this test many times, and although I feel industrious cooking while others are chatting, it’s a bummer to not be involved in the party that a potluck is. So, things that can get cold and can’t be revived by the microwave, such as most things crispy or a lot of meat, may not turn out very well by serving. You’ll get sympathy for your meal, but wouldn’t you rather have a delicious dish. The rules here obviously vary, depending on what the kitchen situation is at the potluck location. Most salads are fine if plopped in the fridge, it’s usually not a problem to bake something on the spot (as long as it doesn’t require too much checking), and soups can be kept at a simmer.

So those were a lot of rules, and I haven’t given you many good choices. Here are a few that I think work well:

  • just about any cold salad. Leave the nuts, other toppings, and salad dressing to mix in just before serving
  • soups and stews. You’re supposed to let them sit anyways, and most can be warmed on the stove or nuked at the last minute
  • cookies. I’ve found that by dessert, most people are usually stuffed, and cookies are a small enough offering that everyone will take at least 1
  • do it yourself foods of any variety. Offloading cooking to the consumer makes your life easier, allows everyone to customize as they desire, and usually means that the components can be left to sit for awhile beforehand

Happy potlucking!

Deep Fried Day

(Author’s Note: I’ll be moving my food writing from the group blog back to my own blog now that the summer is over and I’m trying to keep my writing regular)

Beginning the summer after my freshmen year of college, I have hosted an annual deep-fried day. Having heard of delicious deep-fried twinkies and snickers from the Texas State Fair, I insisted that I could do the same, and for the past 3 years, I have worked on my technique. As of yesterday, I think it finally paid off.

The theme for our weekly potluck this past week was “deep-fried food” to continue my tradition. Sensing that others might be tired of this, I presented this as an opportunity to think of other things we might deep fry, traditional or not. It worked out perfectly, with falafel, goat-cheese wontons, fried cheese in a salad, and sweet potato fries as good options. What worked best about it, though, was that all of these required different sauces and ingredients to accompany the deep-fried bits. Our dessert, though, was twinkie, oreo, and snicker-ful.

Given the improvement that we’ve managed over the years, I thought I might put together a few thoughts on deep frying. I tried to organize them, but the topics overlapped too much, so it’s just paragraphs.

You can use just a regular pot to do it and use a canola or vegetable oil for it. You can buy a deep fryer, but it isn’t necessary as long as you’re careful. As far as the size of the pot, I have been using something about 8 inches. Bigger takes a lot more oil, and smaller doesn’t give you enough space (though don’t worry about that too much as I will explain soon.
Have a thermometer with you and try to keep the heat between 350 and 375. You can be on the 350 for things that need to cook through but won’t soak too much grease (falafel) but hotter on the things that will soak it up (oreos). On my slow electric burner, I can get to 375 below medium, so you don’t need to crank the heat too much.

What will happen, though, is that when you put things in the oil, the temperature will drop. Thus, my strategy for deep frying has been to keep the heat just below medium until I get to the desired temperature. Immediately after adding things to fry, I turn the heat up a little, then watch the thermometer. When I start approaching the original temperature, I bring the heat back down.

As far as adding things to the pot, always do batches so you know how long things have been in the oil. If you try to stream items in and pull them in and out over time, you can’t maintain a steady temperature. Similarly, try to keep the batches small (that’s why an 8 inch pot works) so that the temperature doesn’t drop too much.

As far as adding and removing things, dumping in with a slotted spoon (even plastic) should work just fine. I tried to move things in and out with chopsticks before, but gripping battered food will coat the chopsticks in a layer of fried batter quickly. As far as other equipment goes, have lots of paper towels around and try to pat dry things immediately after coming out of the pot. Things cool very quickly, so don’t be too afraid about burning yourself on the food.

For the batter, pancake mix works just fine. It should just barely be thick enough to coat things. Make sure all surfaces of the food are covered, but don’t worry too much about getting a thick coat; as soon as it hits the oil, it’ll puff up and harden.

Go slow with it. You can only eat so much fried food, but you’ll feel better about it if you spread it over a few hours. Or maybe even days. As long as the oil doesn’t get too hot and go rancid, you can reuse it a few times.

And to be intentionally didactic, make sure you do it safely. A pot of oil can ruin your day quick. Keep the lid nearby in case you need to cover the pot at any point. Don’t put water/ice/water-based stuff into the oil, or else it might begin to sputter.

You can google around to look for things to deep fry (pretty much everything), but here are a few things I or my friends have done. Most are successes, but failures are notable too

  • twinkies – they work fine even if you don’t freeze them. Batter and top with powdered sugar.
  • oreos
  • PB & J sandwiches – battered. It’s delicious
  • Snickers – I’ve only done frozen before, but I think that’s the way to do it
  • Onions & mushrooms – great with BBQ sauce
  • gummy worms – these disintegrated quick, but liquified gummy worms are delicious
  • ice cream – haven’t done, but I hear it’s delicious. These take preparation
  • falafel – good as a meal on its own. Pair with traditional things
  • sweet potato fries
  • goat cheese
  • fried wontons

4 things I learned at Bing

This past quarter, I spent one morning every week in a classroom at Bing Nursery School, basically working as an assistant teacher for a class I was taking. The class focused on the development of young children (3 to 5 years old), and our journal entries (posted on this blog) and weekly discussions were structured around our experiences in the classroom. Going into the class, I only cared about the children’s cognitive development: their ability to make inductive leaps, learn new skills, and progress towards literacy. I quickly learned that there’s a lot more to school than just how children think: they also interact with each other, develop emotionally, and become a complete person. As a teacher, I learned a few techniques with dealing with different situations. Some are a little cliche, others depends on the naivety of children, but all are good to know for children, if not people in general. I don’t know whether these are really useful in real life, but you can kind of see where I think the extensions are.

1. Don’t pose a question if you don’t intend on giving them a choice.

It’s typical politeness, I think, for people to pose orders as questions. “Would you open the door for me?” “Can you grab that book off of the shelf?” It turns an order into a request, and you expect them to be polite enough to follow through with it. Often, it actually is a request, but in a classroom, there’s a hierarchy, and orders are meant to be followed. When posed as a question, however, an order might be declined. “Would you like to clean this up?” “No.” Well, there’s not much left after that.

Instead, give a limited choice. Children live in a controlled environment, and they do appreciate having choices or power*. To appeal to this and make them far more compliant, give a smaller choice. “Would you like to walk to the toilet, or would you like to fly to the toilet?” It sounds silly, but it totally works. At the end of the day, we needed to clean up the blocks, and the children had built 2 prisons. Instead of telling them to clean up directly again (they had already been told), I instead asked, “Would you rather put away this big prison first, or the small prison first?” Things got cleaned up quickly.

2. Don’t give judgmental feedback on creative activities.

Bing is an unstructured, play environment, so children are free to move between activities. Within those activities, many are creative in nature, and even in more structured activities, they’re allowed to make what they want of it. We’re very careful never to assume or judge a painting or other piece of art. I think the classic joke is a child showing a parent a painting, and when the parent says, “What a nice cat!”, the child responds, “It’s a dog.”

Admittedly, it’s sometimes very hard to tell, and frankly, not everything is good. To tell them, “Your picture is amazing!” or something positive like that sends the wrong message. In creative activities, they aren’t working towards receiving praise; they should be working towards developing their own abilities and creativity.

Instead, make observations about what they have accomplished. Since Bing is so focused on developing skills, you can absolutely respond to what they show you, or engage with them during creation, by discussing what they’re doing. “I noticed you blended the colors along the edge here.” “Your circles are rounder here than they are over here.” “You used a lot more finer lines around the head here.” This way, the children are attending to what they’ve done and the specific techniques that they can compose into a creative piece.

3. Always explain why.

Schools have a lot of policies, and Bing’s #1 policy is to always be safe. Different teachers have different comfort levels for what the children do, but when they hit a boundary, we have to be firm, but also explain why. We don’t want children running inside because it’s crowded and there are lots of things they may break or hurt themselves on. We don’t take toys that other children are playing with because it’s not a sustainable way to play, especially if it happened to the taker his or herself. And for the teachers, it’s a good reminder why policies and rules exist.

An interesting extension of this is that rules don’t always have to be consistent in all situations. Many books recommend absolute consistency, but frankly, the world isn’t consistent, and rules exist in context. For example, running is bad above for the reasons mentioned, but is fine outside in the grass area. The children seem to do pretty well with these rules as long as they have a reason.

4. Don’t worry about screwing up.

In the first 2 weeks, we got lots of suggestions on how to deal with the children, and most of them were “don’ts,” not “dos.” I myself ended up being very paralyzed by this and slowly needed to recover a more natural interaction with the children. When I mentioned this to one of the instructors for the course later, she recommended simply that I not worry about it.

A lot of what I posed above are also “don’ts,” but frankly, most of the time, it doesn’t matter. If you say that a sand castle is “very nice,” you’re not going to permanently hurt the child. If you can’t resolve a conflict between two children or tell a child something that isn’t true, it’s fine. They’ll get over it, and it’s life.

 

So those were some of the things I learned. It was a great experience being able to discuss techniques and topics, then immediately try them out in the classroom, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that. For any Stanford students, psych 147 is highly recommended.

*in early education, people seem to agree that boys pretending to play with guns is a manifestation for this need for power; I don’t entirely know how I feel about that

How I Beat High School

I like to think I “beat” high school. I can look back on those four years and feel proud of what I accomplished, and I’m going to the college I want to go to, the one I thought was too good for me.
Based on that, here’s what I think I did to be successful, however late that lesson came. I hope someone can benefit from what I’ve figured out.

1) I didn’t let opportunities get past me.
Somewhat a lie. This was a lesson in progress. If there was something I wanted to do, I took a shot at it. For example, I had held out for two years against the UIL calculator team. I thought it was pointless and a waste of time. By the time senior year came, I was in Scott’s room when she offered to have me try out for it. For 15 minutes, I can afford to take the chance that it might be cool, and we ended up 2nd at region, 7th in the state. True, you might only go into something with a half-hearted effort, but it might pay off. Just like so many other things in life, the worst thing that could happen is that they say “no”.

2) I Slept.
For the first two years of high school, if I didn’t have a specific activity to keep me up, I went to sleep before 9:30. After that, it started to slide, but I held myself to a midnight bedtime. The one time I stayed up to finish an assignment ended up totally not being worth it, since it was taken for essentially a completion grade.
I remember a then senior mentioning to me during my sophomore year how he would stay up until 2 in the morning doing nothing. While that doesn’t sound too unusual to me now, I was quite surprised. Since then, I’ve had my late nights, though I kept those few.
Sleep doesn’t sound the most exciting; I wish I needed an hour or two less every night. That’d mean another hour or two of work or fun. But I do. And when I didn’t, I paid for it.
The thing I know for sure about it though is that it isn’t worth it staying up to do school work. It really isn’t that important. Homework can either be forgone or mashed into classes. Studying can be mashed into classes. Even if it was important, staying up doesn’t work out. If I were to stay up for another hour, I would maybe get about half-an-hour’s worth of work done, and have to make up an hour of sleep, usually during class. Makes more sense to me to do that work in class. And that’s easier to hide than sleeping. Though I’ve seen some awesome sleeping tactics…

3) I got ahead.
Thank my dad for this one. The best thing to make school easy and free time to do other stuff is to get exposure beforehand. I didn’t even get a lot of the stuff he taught me the first time, but when it came up again, it was a breeze.
This one also kind of ties into #1 (take opportunities). So many extra-curriculars are designed to test students at a higher level than they’re at. In striving for those, I made life easier later. After-school Computer Science practice freshmen year turned CS2 sophomore into a breeze, and when my dad’s help in math ran dry junior and senior year, it was okay. I had touched on the concepts in math contests.

4) I got busy.
I’m sticking to the belief that the best work I ever did was when I was the most busy. Any band kid can tell you that marching season is incredibly intense, and band students don’t have nearly as much time as they’d like. That forced me to manage my time the best I could and do as much as I could. Procrastination just wasn’t an option. If I had free time, I would probably put it off again and again, with the distinct likelihood of never doing it. When I was busy, I didn’t have the chance to put stuff off. I knew I would never have other time, so I did it.
I also found that booking things back to back, or with an overlap, helps too. If I have 15 minutes before two different activities, it’s unlikely that I’d use that time wisely. I’d probably just blow it, since there wouldn’t be enough time to get serious on anything. By booking things tight during this past marching season, I felt like I was getting a lot done and not wasting time.
The flip-side of that is being over-booked, and not having time enough for everything. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me. Maybe I don’t work hard enough, but it always seemed like there was more fluff in my life that I didn’t have to do that I could cut.

5) I tried to prove myself.
I met lots of extremely talented students during high school. Talking with them between classes or whatever, I knew they “had it”. Unfortunately, it’s disappointing that many of them never took the time to shine.
Anytime I learned anything, I took the opportunity to prove it. Pre-AP classes may be Pre-AP, but they’re better named SAT2s, because that’s the level I needed to take those tests(I wish I had taken the french one now). I knew I could make region band, so I didn’t let laziness keep me from practicing to do that. It never seemed like a bad idea to let a test or contest quantify what I had done.