Join the Club (And Pass the Pepper)
When I first came to work in the Southern Tier (1963, in fact) there weren’t very many good, innovative restaurants around. (I remember two okay places). And that, my friends, is the understatement of the year! And for singles there wasn’t much to do. Oh, there were the Friday evenings at the bar in Corning’s Baron Steuben Hotel. And I joined a ski club. Now let’s see, what else? In desperation, a few of us took up cooking at home. Why not share our prowess or disasters with others? We decided to jazz things up a bit and make a “group meal each month.” After all, the area has some great wine, so why not cook some good things to go with it?
The Singular Gourmet
“Yes,” I say immodestly, “I came up with that name,” and early on there might have been about twelve of us. Singular meant we were single. We added and subtracted members based on newcomers, folks who heard about us, or when members were promoted out of the area or simply lost interest. (I might add that at least a couple of marriages came out of this.)
The idea was that someone was “it”—a.k.a. “the host”—for the month, and we planned a year ahead. We were a pretty “with it” group—well traveled, or at least well read. This host-of-the-month picked a cuisine, and researched the recipes that would work with the main course the host provided. These could be sides, desserts, or drinks. Members would volunteer, alone or with other members, to make the recipes the host had copied on the office Xerox machines. The date would be decided on, and off we went.
Sometimes the theme would be based on the ethnic background of the host, or simply food that he or she enjoyed cooking or eating. Often, family dishes dominated, and phone calls to parents, grandparents, or cousins, etc., would produce the menu for the evening. We did all sorts of things. I remember some of the settings: a picnic at the polo field in deepest Big Flats/ Horseheads, the women decked out in wide-brimmed straw hats fit for Ascot. Another picnic was at the boat launch on the east side of Seneca. We did a barbeque on the shores of Keuka Lake another time.
We changed the way we picked a host. We put the names of members in a hat and drew the names for each month. My turn came up. I recall it was mid-winter, so I opted to do a lamb dish. (I’d given up trying to find lamb on local bistro menus.)
I Go to Pot
On my next visit to a housewares store I picked up a couscousier, and I still have this bit of kitchen bling. I must have read about it in a cookbook or magazine. It’s two roundish pots with a cover that fits the top or bottom pot. It may be aluminum, stainless, ceramic, or pricey copper. The top pot has colander-like holes on the bottom and this fits over a similarly-shaped pot. The idea is to add raw couscous to the perforated top pot and place it over a stew, fragrant with Moroccan spices that flavor the tiny precooked pasta. The pan is also great for steaming vegetables or chicken thighs or fish, etc.
Is the pot necessary? Frankly, no, but it was a not-too-expensive conversation starter and just exotic enough to make the gathering memorable. The food tasted great, and, fortunately, testing the recipe, I had another batch of the dish in the ’fridge that we reheated. There wasn’t a cooked couscous bit left. These days you’ll find an assortment of this kind of pot for sale online, along with recipes.
I also played bridge with a prof from Corning Community College and another couple from the college. She cooked one week, I cooked another. at was a challenge, because we were both working, so we had to plan menus that came together quickly. Another challenge: one of the profs was allergic to shell sh and chicken. I remember his chiding me for cooking sausage. It was a small version of a “culinary club” but lots of fun.
More Ways to Organize
In checking the Internet for ideas for “cooking clubs,” I came across a fascinating site I never knew existed. It’s called “Meetup,“ and all I can say is “How long has this been going on?” I went to the site and was blown away, as they say, as it includes hundreds of topics that you can investigate. I clicked on “Book Clubs,” where you can narrow your search for soul mates to sites like “Coffee and Books,” “Classic Books,” “Novels,” and more. “Career and Business” has extensive sub-topics and there’s “Cars & Motorcycles,” “Dancing” (of all kinds), and even “Gourmet Cooking.” “Cooking and Dinner Parties” and “Cooking Classes” are listed and include “Vegan Pot Luck” and “Vegetarian.” By the way, there is a local club for the former listed when you type in local zip codes.
Back to Reality
Let’s face it, it may take a while to assemble a group to cook and share. It requires talking to friends, shop owners, local chefs, even farmers with seasonal stands who, themselves, may not enjoy gabbing about cooking but who know someone who does. In turn, these folks may know others who’d be good prospects. At a preliminary meeting (figure out whether to hold it at a home or restaurant and the timing, etc.) come up with some guidelines. Do you want a sort of potluck and have folks bring what they feel like cooking and sharing? Sure, you may have three macaroni and cheeses—I’ve been to more than one potluck when this happened—but who cares? After all, the idea is to enjoy the company of friends old and new as well as the food.
There are professional cooking classes around town, especially those in Corning this winter/spring. Go to the Internet and type in www.171cedararts.org and click on “Culinary.” The people who attend are good prospects for your group. BOCES is another good source.
Okay, you have some interested people, now what do you do? Again, I went to the Internet and there it was—a plan for the first meeting of your new culinary crowd. Here are some of the topics for discussion I found:
- Decide on a meeting date. It’s best if you can identify “first Monday of the month,” for instance.
- What’s your theme? Is it baking, party or family cooking, ethnic emphasis? If it’s the latter, try to get a list of these desired cuisines and a source for ingredients that may be hard to find. Perhaps it’s preserving foods or making preserves. Maybe it’s candy making. Cooking with herbs and spices is a sure fire hit, especially if those herbs and spices are a bit exotic.
- Will participants be bringing a dish to taste and talk about, or ingredients and recipes to cook on site?
- Discuss funding for expensive ingredients.
- A personal favorite idea: book club meets cooking club. The host chooses a cookery book, new or older, and each member reads the book—via library or lending among members—and chooses a recipe to cook. The host provides notes on the author—previous books, education, hometown, etc. This needn’t be one book; each member could cite his or her own favorite, bring a dish and a bio, and be prepared to discuss the food and the author.
- Depending on the members, you could plan an occasional visit to farms, farm stands, or area restaurants including, it is hoped, a visit with the chef or the grower.
What’s in a Name?
Of course you’ll have to come up with a name for your group, and I enjoyed reading about several of them. New Jersey has a “Food, Fun and Friendship Over 40” group. And I’ve noted others that are restricted by age. Three clubs in Seattle were listed: “Chocolate Meetup,” a more prosaic “Let Us Cook Together Meetup,” and a lollapalooza called “The Pot-Licking Cookbookers.” That says it all, doesn’t it?
St. Louis has a cleverly named group called “Best Food Forward.” And then there are the “Chaos Cookers” in New York City and another for twenty-to-thirty-somethings called “My Dinner Parties.” I can hear distant wedding bells, don’t you? As you can see, there are lots of ways to go with the idea. But let’s set down the aim of such an organization. I found this paragraph in reading the Meetup information: (fill in the name you’ve chosen)...is an organization of “like-minded individuals that brings people together to do, explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive.”
Ina and Jeffery
Speaking of love matches, I just picked up a copy of Ina Garten’s newest cookbook, Cooking for Jeffery. Ina is “The Barefoot Contessa,” the name of the shop she once owned in the Hamptons, and Jeffery is a PhD in administration at Yale. Jeffery has loomed large in all her TV shows (the famous chicken for her fella’s return home on Fridays). And you’ll find pictures of her wedding and shots of the couple from forty-plus years ago. I like her television program, and I like her books. They contain information about appetizing food, include well-written recipes, and her personality is expressed on every page. Here’s a good example. Since I already mentioned couscous, let’s use Ina’s take on this delicious side dish. It would be a perfect addition to any meal in a cooking club.
Ina’s Couscous with Pine Nuts and Mint
Ina explains that couscous isn’t a grain. “It’s actually like pasta,” she writes. “It’s a granular semolina that is precooked and dried so all you have to do is simmer some stock, stir in the couscous, cover and let it sit for 10 minutes.” Then add whatever you have to complement it. In this dish, it’s pine nuts and mint.
- 2 Tbsp. good olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 c. chopped yellow onion
- 3 c. chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 1 1⁄2 c. couscous
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1⁄2 c. julienned fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
- 1⁄2 c. pine nuts, toasted (see note)
Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan (one with a cover) over medium heat. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Stir in the couscous, 1 tsp. salt, and 1⁄2 tsp. pepper and remove from the heat. Cover the pot tightly and allow the couscous to steam for 10 minutes. Flu the couscous with a fork (I use a carving fork) and stir in the mint and pine nuts. Taste for seasonings and add about 1 tsp. salt, depending on your taste and the saltiness of the stock, and 1⁄2 tsp. pepper. Serve hot.
Note: Toast pine nuts in a dry sauté pan over low heat, tossing often, for 5 to 10 minutes. They brown quickly.