November 2010

WEB EXCLUSIVE Collective Good Taste

More than just an excuse to get together and eat, cooking clubs encourage members to expand their culinary repertoires

The first rule of cooking club is You do not talk about Cooking Club. That is, unless you want to be barraged with requests to join. So before I break that rule and talk about the lovely group with whom I meet monthly to cook and eat, I will first say this: Apologies, but with 12 cooks in the kitchen, our club is fully committed.

The nice thing about being asked about our club so often—usually following a Travel Channel rerun of our appearance on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern—is that we’ve inspired many others to start their own clubs. Because unlike the less accessible tentacles of the L.A. foodie craze (as in, Red O velvet rope, Kogi barbecue truck, underground-supper secret locations and the like), all a cooking club requires is like-minded people committed to expanding their kitchen confidence.

Our coterie has morphed into that since its beginning in 2002 as a group of single gals who were sometimes more focused on drinking than cooking. Now we’re a mix of single and married professional women and moms with a shared passion for food and friendship.

Here’s how we work it: The theme changes each time, varying with the season and whim of whoever is hosting that month, but the format is almost always the same. The menu is planned over email; each member’s dishes are partially prepped at home; the final touches are done together; and we exchange recipes and tips while sharing our elaborate meal, dinner-party–style. And whether it’s Cinco de Mayo, a field trip to see Julie & Julia followed by an offscreen simulation or our annual New Year’s Resolution Diet meeting, our cooking club is as much about entertaining one another as it is learning about the menu at hand.

Our most recent meeting, which convened at my house, was a Go-To Dinner Party theme—or an exchange of each member’s signature recipes of favorite dishes and tips “to impress without stress.” Unlike cooking from the Mario Batali cookbook, say, or creating an Indian-food feast (both of which we’ve done), this menu was bound to be less cohesive, despite our emailed group effort to round it out with the right proportions of vegetables, starches and mains.

Hell, the go-to recipes with which I had initiated the discussion—marinated grilled flank steak and arugula salad with Manchego, almonds and quince-paste dressing—didn’t go together, even though I make them all the time separately. Oh well. It would be more of a mishmash of tastes, from which we would glean a passel of party tricks to take home.

With the idea of avoiding a high-decibel, crowded cocktail hour in the kitchen, I strategically placed a tray of Prosecco cocktails with peach and raspberry ice cubes, along with some edamame dip and rice crackers, outside on the terrace on a tableclothed folding table. (My first go-to tip: Always have one of these tables on hand.) It was a nice try—no one wanted to miss anything, so I ended up bringing the drinks and nibbles into the kitchen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my cooking club, it’s to roll with the punches. When you entertain, things never go 100 percent according to plan. (That, and don’t leave a frittata uncovered on the counter, or the dog will eat it.)

I was right about the volume—at least for the always chaotic catch-up/last-minute-prep/demonstration part of the evening. Over requests for whisks and platters and knives, and among Twister-like maneuvers between the makeshift workstations in my kitchen, friends Megan Bycel and Jessica Hazelton were giving a report of their recent 40th-birthday trip to Napa with Alix Jaffe, who was then forced to clang a knife against her glass mixing bowl to get attention for her Caesar salad demonstration.

Lulu Powers, a caterer and the author of Lulu Powers Food to Flowers: Simple, Stylish Food for Easy Entertaining, was enthusiastically snapping photos of Jessica’s decadent tagliarelle with truffle butter, which had been adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics: Fabulous Flavor from Simple Ingredients. Lulu’s mini-BLT hors d’oeuvre wasn’t quite ready, so she suggested we dig into Jessica’s pasta immediately, which we did—slurping the creamy noodles out of coffee cups while Alix composed her salad, sticking with the theme of the night by espousing the merits of prewashed romaine hearts, regular olive oil versus extravirgin and a coddled egg. Heather John—contributing editor at Bon Appétit and founder of the blog Foodinista—and I peppered Alix with questions about the salad and took notes on our recipe sheets.

Once all of the dishes were ready, we set up a buffet, filled our plates and assembled around the dinner table. Nicki Jaeger interrupted the oohs and aahs over her chicken piccata to raise a glass to the three club members who couldn’t make it that night. Other toasts—to me, to us—followed. Everything grew quiet when the group took its first bites. Just as quickly, the silence was broken, and the food praise and tip talk resumed.

“This is the best Caesar ever,” said Alex Maggioni, who had made roasted brussels sprouts with bacon as a go-to recipe and tip rolled into one. “Brussels sprouts are not the most popular veggie,” she said, “but I picked them because I love them—and that’s my dinner-party tip: Cook what you love to eat.” A cacophony of similar quips were forthcoming. “Set the table the night before!” “Always serve a cocktail upon arrival!” “You can never have too much ice!”

Later, as we cleared and cleaned, I assisted the two dessert makers in the kitchen, and the others settled back at the table. Heather had made a polenta pudding cake, onto which she was dolloping spoonfuls of mascarpone and grappa-berry compote. It was a recipe she had discovered in the test kitchen at Bon Appétit and perfected over the years. “I like to make this recipe for dinner parties, because it can be done ahead of time and made year-round, thanks to the frozen berries,” she said.

Meanwhile, Clarke Osborne was placing slices of her southern pound cake (“I like to make this recipe for dinner parties, because I can eat it for breakfast the next morning!”) on the plates next to Heather’s, feeling slightly embarrassed for its comparative simplicity and worried that it might be undercooked. As the three of us carried the desserts out to the group, Clarke composed herself and announced, “My entertaining tip comes from Julia Child: No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.”

And with that, we dug unapologetically into our desserts as another food pause descended upon the table. It was quiet, save for the gentle clink of silverware and satisfied “Mmms,” until someone asked, “When are we meeting next?”

I almost forgot. The only other rule of cooking Club is Never leave cooking club without setting a date for the next cooking club. This is one rule we never break.