Melting pot is main dish for potlucks of the '90s

July 10, 1996|By Steven Pratt | Steven Pratt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

When you cook up a pot of something to take to a summer picnic or party, you'll be part of a great American tradition. Since the time of the pioneers, when neighbors gathered to build barns, bring in the harvest, celebrate a wedding or console the bereaved, people have brought dishes to share.

War shortages and the Great Depression compelled Americans to exchange what few victuals they had. Later, in the 1940s and '50s, church and school suppers -- where attendees brought food and took "potluck" with each others' concoctions -- were weekly occurrences in some towns.

One popular evening get-together among young professionals in the last two decades has been a dinner to which people bring dishes reflecting their ethnic origins.

"Even though many of today's young people don't know much about cooking because their parents didn't teach them, there's an increasing pressure to entertain and to cook something," says Sue Hoffman, vice president of programming for the TV Food Network. "It's like the old potluck dinners but very multicultural," she says. "People think nothing of mixing Japanese with French or Italian."

Ethnic diversity was the rule in the several hundred casserole, salad and covered-dish recipes that flooded our office for our recent contest. Participants were asked to submit a favorite recipe for a dish that could be carried to a community gathering or picnic. And the result was a melting pot of flavors from Creole to Chinese, Mexican to Mediterranean, Jewish to Japanese, Polish to Puerto Rican.

Often they were mixed in one dish, as in the case of the winning recipe, a blend of Eastern and Western flavors.

Top honors went to Dapeng Ren. He is a 67-year-old Chinese immigrant who became fascinated with food while traveling throughout China as a translator for a French travel agency.

His vegetarian pasta with two Chinese sauces is a beautiful and subtle arrangement of fine-cut fresh cucumbers, peppers, carrots, mushrooms and bean sprouts served over spaghetti. One half of the "East meets West" dish is coated with a peanut sauce, while the other is bathed in a spicy red chili sauce.

Vegetarian pasta with two Chinese sauces

Makes 16 servings

2 pounds spaghetti noodles

2 tablespoons Oriental sesame oil


1/4 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons each: creamy peanut butter, light soy sauce, Sanxi black vinegar (see note)

2 tablespoons Japanese miso paste, see note

1 small garlic clove, minced


3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons Sanxi black vinegar (see note)

2 tablespoons each, minced: fresh ginger, green onion

1 tablespoon each: minced garlic, sugar, red chili oil, see note

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns, roasted, ground (see note)


1/2 pound fresh mung bean sprouts

2 medium cucumbers, seeded, shredded

2 medium carrots, peeled, cut into matchsticks

2 medium red bell peppers, cut into matchsticks

4 large mushrooms, cut into strips or thinly sliced

1 cup cilantro, chopped

Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain well, then transfer to a large bowl and toss with sesame oil. Set aside.

For peanut sauce, blend olive oil with peanut butter in small bowl, then stir in remaining peanut sauce ingredients. Set aside.

For Sichuan sauce, mix all sauce ingredients in small bowl. Set aside. Blanch bean sprouts in boiling water 15 seconds, then rinse with cold water and drain.

To serve, toss pasta with vegetables and divide. Toss half with peanut sauce and half with Sichuan sauce. Serve on opposite ends of a platter sprinkled with cilantro.

Note: These ingredients may be purchased at an Asian specialty market. Balsamic vinegar may be substituted for the black vinegar. To roast the peppercorns, place them in a small skillet and place over medium heat; cook, shaking pan occasionally, until aromatic and color barely changes, about 2 minutes. Cool, then finely grind in an electric spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

Per serving: 325 calories, 485 mg sodium, 9 g fat, 52 g carbohydrates, 0 mg cholesterol, 10 g protein

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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