Pot luck dinner parties – the stress-free way to entertain

Above all else, dinner parties are my absolute favourite occasion to get together with good friends and meet new people.

Nothing (perhaps apart from a campfire) will draw people together so naturally than the anticipation of a well-cooked meal.

And the warm, convivial, relaxed vibe of potluck dinners, trump even the most well-organised, brilliantly conjured three-course masterpiece.

With minimal organisation and responsibility required of the hosts and the guests, pot lucks are a win-win.

The host’s responsibilities are reduced to providing a few pre-dinner snacks, space in the oven for warming up dishes and ensuring there are enough glasses, plates and cutlery to go around.

There’s no agonising over a suitable menu or catering for everyone’s finicky dietary requirements.  No trying to appear effortlessly organised while juggling cooking with meeting and greeting guests and pouring drinks.

While the host will certainly still be in the kitchen finding space to put everything and directing people to the utensils draw, everyone else naturally pitches in as well, removing that sometimes awkward divide as the harried cook tries to focus on a dozen tasks, and guests mill about uncertainly, feeling powerless to help.

You don’t even have to be a good cook, because everyone has a signature dish they can whip up.  I was at a pot luck a couple of years ago, where someone rocked up with pre-cut vegemite sandwiches, and in a coup de grace pulled out a bag of crunchy potato chips!   Reminiscent of shared lunches at primary school or what?

Instead of the host pulling out all the stops and spending a fortune putting on a mean spread,  the cost and the labour is shared by all.  And there are never any awkward silences at a pot luck dinner because everyone gets to take turns demonstrating their culinary prowess and explaining where they sourced the organic blueberries for their blueberry pie with the handmade pastry.

Only to be outdone at the last minute by the late arrival bearing vegemite and chip sarnies.

And once you’re all wined up, and the last guest has finally arrived, everyone eats.  Standing up, sitting down – anything goes – except for the shuffle around the table trying to find your place, only to find yourself wedged between the two biggest bores for the entire evening.

I hope I’ve made my case for pot luck dinners convincingly enough and in time for a dinner party renaissance this winter.  The first for the season is on Saturday.  I can’t wait for the rest of the invites to come pouring in.




Survivor: Kiwi Camp Ground

Great views near Wharariki.

Great views near Wharariki.

Camping is not meant to be complicated, just plenty of eating and drinking broken up with walking, napping, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, reading – whatever floats your boat really.

What can get complicated are the inter-personal relations between people who have gone camping to “get away from it all”, only to find themselves parked up next to complete strangers with only thin walls of canvas separating them.

After just returning from 10 days of camping where we were stuck between a weird couple with three terriers (henceforth known as Three Dogs) and a family with two terror children (Ogre Beasts) I wonder if other campers have similar stories, or if it’s “just us” that have the problem.

Morning coffee view

Morning coffee view

Pakawau Beach Park, in Golden Bay is pretty cool.  You’re metres from the beach, and allowed campfires and dogs, two pretty rare occurrences at camping grounds these days.  New Years Eve was beautiful, an evening of complete calm on the water.  We were watching little fishes streaking along the surface of the water, fleeing from prey, signalling the start of some big game fish coming into the Bay to spawn.

Killer Bonnie

Killer Bonnie

“Three Dogs” were walking their terriers along the beach, and our black lab, Bonnie, wanders up to say hi and have a sniff.  Next thing there’s a heck of a commotion; yapping and snapping and growling.  Then Mrs Three Dogs is confronting us by the fire.  “What’s going on?” says she.  “Is there one rule for us and one rule for you?”   “What do you mean, what rules?” asks Mikey.  “All dogs are  to be on leashes in the campground,” says Mrs Three Dogs.  “First we’ve heard of it,” Mikey replies.  “Besides we’re not in the camp ground, we’re on the beach.”  Half an hour later the camp manager comes down.  Bonnie has been described as being “territorial” and “picking fights”.

That was a tasty morsel, where's the next small white dog?

That was a tasty morsel, where are the other two?

“I can see she’d be pretty intimidating,” he says with a wink as Bonnie lies stretched out by the fire with her big pink tongue lolling out.  He’s so right.  The two most commonly-used adjectives used by people describing Bonnie are “good-natured” and “beautiful”.  And yes, I get that not everyone agrees, and I respect that not everyone is into dogs.  But Dog people are different.  Dog people understand not all dogs are going to get along, just like humans.  A bit of sniffing and tail wagging to show they like each other, or teeth baring and growling to convey their disapproval is their way of communicating.  Needless to say, it was pretty awkward around Three Dogs after that.

The Ogre Beast incident also happened on New Years Eve.  Everyone had been collecting driftwood and building bonfires in preparation for night fall.  Up come a group of young lads of no more than five years old, who started helping themselves to our stack of firewood.  We indulged them with a couple of bits each, thinking it was pretty cool they were getting into the spirit of it all.

Campfirin' and chillin'

Campfirin’ and chillin’

Next thing they’re back.  “Our bonfire’s bigger than yours/better than yours/yours is dumb/you’re an idiot blah, blah, blah” one of them is saying.  Completely flabbergasted, we ignored them hoping they would go away, until they went to grab more wood, and I’m like, “no way buddy, you can get your own.” (Read:  You little shit.)  They returned several times, having a go, and we just wanted to rub there smart little faces in the sand and watch them cry big lumps of snotty, gritty tears. The little brats just kept on going,  until I made to go and tell their Dads and they ran off.

After midnight their Dads ended up coming over to our campfire to party on, and I hit one of them him up about their smart-alec kids.  “I know,” he cried “I can’t control them.”  And they are only five!  Fucking hell, I hope I don’t meet them in the future.  Fortunately, I don’t think Daddy Ogre Beast remembered that conversation the next day.

It wasn’t all bad though, here’s my pick of some of the best moments.

IMG_0522Best wine:  Neudorf Pinot Rose 2012 – luscious cream and fresh strawberries.

Best meal:  Fresh Green-lip mussels three ways. 1. Steamed ‘a la naturale’. 2. Smothered in a salty, creamy green curry sauce. 3.  Smoked in a sweet & salty marinade.  Beautiful.

Best adventure:  Mountain biking and caving in the rain and mud in the Aorere Valley.  Choice!

Jet skiing

Jet skiing

Best fun:  Jet skiing for the first time – if you haven’t done it before and you ever get the opportunity, don’t shy away.  It’s dead easy.  Don a life jacket, push a button, press the throttle, and enjoy the wind in your hair and the salt on your lips.

Best song:  Gold Canary by Cloud Control:

10 things never to not triple-check before leaving on your camping trip

nikau2 22-06-2012 5-20-37 PM

With only four days left before we leave for a two-week camping trip in Golden Bay, it’s not surprising I’ve woken at 3am with my mind buzzing with a swarm of things I have to do before we go.  Besides getting myself organised and ensuring we’ve got enough food to survive on, I’ve got a whole bunch of Christmas related dos to organise/attend/survive before we leave.

Sweet slumber

Sweet slumber

So after the big build up to Christmas, (which incidentally also includes my birthday a week before – just so you know) the idea of lounging around and sipping (plunger) coffee in the morning sun, or 3pm naps in a warm tent is entirely beguiling.

But while happiness is entirely a state-of-mind thing, I’ve learned through experience there are some small things that can make a camping trip that much easier, simply by going the extra mile when packing your gear.  So take heed campers, save yourselves unnecessary hassle and make sure you pack the following:

1.  Enough food – I’ll be honest;  I love cooking and I’m quite particular about what I  eat, even when camping, so I’d much prefer to organise the menu myself than risk being served up sausages, bacon and bread for 14 days.  But  there’s been a few times when I haven’t packed enough food much to the dismay of poor Mike, whose appetite seems to double when we’re on holiday. So to avoid rationing out food every day, like some sort of food nazi, I’ve found it much easier to pack extra dry goods including crackers, cheese, salami, wraps, canned beans, tuna, pasta, tomato sauce, that are easy to prepare and eat, but won’t spoil if they don’t get used.  And chocolate, you can never have too many cakes of chocolate.

2.  Spare batteries – I know it kinda goes without saying, but take more than you think you’re likely to use.  Because batteries come in weird numbers, like 4xAAA, when my head torch only requires three, I end up with all these batteries floating around that may or may not have been used.  Sure they’re another expense, but suck it up, because they’re worth it – and again they’ll keep for the next trip if they don’t get used.

3.  Can opener – Buy one especially for the camping kit, don’t try to pack it before you leave because you’ll never remember it.  We carry a Swiss army knife in the camping kit now, because the fail safe can opener and other gadgets usually come in handy.

Beach fire

Beach fire

4.  Lighter/matches – Basic.  Try cooking your food without a lighter.  Or how about that campfire on the beach you’d been planning?  Granted there’s never a lighter far away in a busy campground, but there’s no worse feeling realising you don’t have the means to cook your food or heat water.  Chumps.

5.  Pack of cards – This small item helps while away the lazy hours between sunset and bed, and is one of very few things you can do within the confines of a tent, when it’s pouring with rain out.  Cards prompt conversation, help sharpen your wit and provide hours of entertainment, heated competition and stormy debates.  A camping trip without them is like not having enough food.  It’s just wrong.

6.  Toilet paper – When I asked Mike for some input into this blog, this was top of his list.  All the comforts and benefits of the humble bog paper go without saying.  Just make sure you’ve got some tucked away, and you’ll be the hero of every camping trip.

7.  Spare footwear – I’ve been caught out by this so many times, it’s getting ridiculous.  But who could foresee that you’d burn your only pair of footwear when drying them out too close to the fire – on the first day?  Or that it would rain every day of your camping trip?  Of course you don’t even entertain the thought of such things happening, but if you don’t plan for it, chances are you will get caught out.  Just pack the gumboots even though you won’t use them.   Trust me, you won’t regret it.

8.  Fuel – Cooking, car and boat.  Check them all!!

9.  First Aid Kit – You definitely need to be prepared to care for someone in the very high likelihood of minor bumps, scratches, sprains, splinters, sunburn, headaches and dehydration and also for more serious injury, including burns, deep cuts and allergic reactions.  I check and update our first aid kit regularly and find that antiseptic wipes, rubber gloves, strapping tape and sterile dressings are the most commonly used items.

10.  Christmas presents – Waking up in the great outdoors on Christmas morning?  It won’t be much of a Christmas if you forget the pressies, especially when you see your fellow campers pulling out their new unicycles, kites and parasols.

Well that’s it, while not exhaustive, take from it what you will.  Wishing you all the best weather and very merry times these summer holidays.