SINGLES SUPPLEMENT: No-excuses recipes transform potluck into an occasion

The singles potluck is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., half an hour after you get in the door from work. Just as you're taking the lasagna out of the refrigerator and putting it into the oven, the phone rings.

It's the guy bringing the guacamole and nachos. He needs directions.

The phone rings again. It's your mother, with advice.

You clear off the countertops, line up the paper plates and peek into the freezer. No ice!

The doorbell rings. It's David, with beer and soda. He's early. You send him out for ice.

By 7 p.m., you have 17 guests, four pasta dishes, three green salads, six desserts, two loaves of bread and no appetizers.

By 7:15, when 22 famished guests crowd around two tables digging into the mushroom-leek lasagna, the guacamole arrives.

Ah, potlucks! Those affairs can be great or ungepachkit, depending upon the ability of the host to put up with the unexpected and the ability of the guests to bypass supermarket macaroni salad and create a tantalizing dish.

Singles potlucks can be even more chancy because some guests claim stovaphobia, perhaps in reaction to kitchen-slave mothers who went berserk before holiday dinners.

I've been there. In a former life, I was a bonded, certified kitchen slave. Now, I prefer potlucks, but I also appreciate guests who make an effort. Soda doesn't count.

So I called Rebecca Ets-Hokin for suggestions to pass on to the cooking-impaired. Rebecca, who is executive director of HomeChef Cooking Schools, is the daughter of Judith Ets-Hokin, who founded the schools and HomeChef Kitchen Stores in San Francisco and Corte Madera.

The company recently held a potluck during a staff retreat.

"Of course, you can't imagine a better party," said Rebecca. "Judith, my mother, was kind of appalled when we thought of the idea of a potluck. She's never given one. But after all this fabulous, wonderful food, she said she'd never cook [a large meal by herself] again. I think it's a wonderful way to entertain. Today it's totally acceptable. And the quality of food is much better because people are making their best dishes."

How to avoid potluck disasters? "I think you should bring the food ready to eat, [requiring] at most, some time in the oven. It's not a cooking class."

Rebecca designed several easy suggestions for a dairy or vegetarian summer potluck. Everything transports beautifully.

Twice-Baked Potatoes

Serves 8

4 Idaho potatoes (about 8 oz. each), scrubbed

2 Tbs. unsalted butter

6 Tbs. creme fraiche

fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 Tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 Tbs. chopped chives

2 oz. coarsely grated cheese (smoked gouda, sharp cheddar, Italian fontina)

2 oz. melted unsalted butter

Hungarian sweet paprika

Bake potatoes in a preheated 450-degree oven until they are soft, about 1 hour. Cut each potato in half horizontally. Scrape out flesh of the potato, being careful not to pierce the shell. In a mixing bowl, mash the potato pulp with a fork. Add butter, creme fraiche, salt, pepper, parsley, chives and cheese; combine well.

Place potato mixture in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Fill each potato shell with some of the mixture. Brush with the melted butter and sprinkle on the paprika.

Shortly before you are ready to serve, place the potatoes on a baking sheet. Bake them in a pre-heated 450-degree oven until they are warmed through and golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Do-Ahead Method: After filling the potato shells and brushing with butter, stuffed potatoes may stay 5 days in the refrigerator or up to 1 month in the freezer.

Light Version: Substitute 1/2 cup yogurt cheese for the butter and creme fraiche. Replace the 2 oz. of high-fat cheese with 1-1/2 oz. of freshly grated parmesan.

Wild Rice and Hazelnut Salad

Serves 6

Salad:

5 oz. wild rice, cooked and drained (about 3/4 cup raw)

3 oz. hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (about 1/2 cup raw nuts)

5 oz. dried cherries

1 small fennel bulb, cut into small squares

1 crisp apple, cut into small squares

1 tsp. fine sea salt

1 tsp. finely ground black pepper

Hazelnut vinaigrette:

4 Tbs. fresh orange juice

4 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. balsamic vinegar

6 Tbs. hazelnut oil

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1 tsp. sugar

3 green onions, finely chopped

1/4 tsp. fennel seeds, toasted and crushed

1 Tbs. chopped orange zest

1 Tbs. chopped chives

1 Tbs. chopped basil

1 Tbs. chopped Italian parsley

In a large bowl, combine the wild rice, dried cherries, fennel, hazelnuts and apple. Combine vinaigrette ingredients in a bowl. Whisk well.

Toss salad with about half the vinaigrette, adding more as needed. Add the salt and pepper before serving. If made in advance, you will need to add more vinaigrette before serving. Serve at room temperature.

Ratatouille

Serves 8

1/4 cup olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes, salted and drained

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch squares

2 jalapeño peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 yellow squash, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 Tbs. sugar

24 ripe cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tsp. coarse sea salt

1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

3 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion, garlic and drained eggplant and sauté for 5 minutes. Set aside.

Place the peppers, squash, sugar, tomatoes, salt and pepper in a 3- or 4-quart clay casserole. Spoon the sautéed onions, garlic and eggplant over the vegetables in the casserole, and bake in preheated 375-degree oven for 1 hour, or until all the vegetables are cooked. Remove the cover and allow the vegetables to cook for 30 minutes more. When cool, stir in the cilantro. Serve warm or cold.

Cook's Note: To salt eggplant, lay the eggplant on a flat surface and sprinkle generously with coarse sea salt. Allow to stand for 30 minutes, then rinse thoroughly with cold water and pat dry. Salting the eggplant removes its bitterness and sliminess, and it will not need as much fat when it's sautéed.

Cherry-Apricot Crumble

Serves 6-8

1 lb. cherries, pitted

1 lb. apricots, pitted and cut into 1-inch pieces

3 oz. sugar

2 Tbs. unbleached white flour

1 Tbs. vanilla extract

2 oz. unbleached white flour

3 oz. rolled oats

3 oz. brown sugar

1/4 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg

6 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted

2 oz. chopped walnuts, toasted

Toss together the cherries, apricots, sugar, 2 Tbs. unbleached flour and the vanilla. Place the fruit in a clay baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine the 2 oz. of flour, oats, brown sugar, salt, nutmeg, butter and walnuts. Mix until crumbly and spread over the fruit.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, until the fruit is tender and the topping crisp. Serve warm with whipped cream, or at room temperature.