Have you ever had that night when you run in the door after work, and you’ve got one kid whining, “Mommy, I neeeeeeeeed help putting the train tracks together!” and the other kid’s sweaty because he’s just finished soccer practice, but refuses to get in the shower, and you only have 45 minutes until you have to return to the daycare for back to school night, and somehow you have to feed your kids so you tear open a box (or three) of mac and cheese and as you rip open the mysterious powdered cheese packet you realize that you’ve held on to the top but let the bottom portion with all the “cheese” in it fly half way across the kitchen, leaving a fine white dust all over the floor? You haven’t? Neither have I.
Oh…. wait a second, that was me the other night.
But you know something? It was okay. First of all, that boxed shells and white cheddar still counts as cooking in my book, although it may not in yours. I had to boil water, set the timer so my pasta was al dente, and measure out some milk. And little hands helped me stir from the step stool pulled close to the stove. It may have been rushed, but we still sat down to eat together as a family. My point is, it doesn’t always have to be gourmet to count as a home cooked meal. (And let’s be honest: most of the time, it isn’t.)
The second reason why I felt okay about all this is that I was coming off of this high from the night before when I had my first gathering of a new cooking club. I had been wanting to make this happen for years, and the right combination of factors finally made this come together last week.
A little background is that from 2008-2010 I was lucky enough to be a part of a local “supper club.” An eclectic group of people, we met once a month over a gourmet meal, rotating houses and responsibilities. I can’t take credit for the structure, but I think it’s one that can be incredibly successful and lots of fun, and I want to share it with you. Last week was the inaugural gathering of a totally new group, and my plan is to keep you all updated on what our meals and menus look like. If you want to “play along at home,” I hope this gets you inspired to try something new!
Here’s the premise: every month a group of eight people gets together at somebody’s home. The host is responsible for selecting a theme, cooking the entrée, setting the table and providing water, decaf and tea. Then there are six other courses that need to be covered: drinks, soup OR salad, appetizers, vegetables, starch and dessert. The eighth role is that of the “alternate,” who’s available to cover for whoever can’t make it. We’ve found most people don’t have dishes or space for more than ten people, so 8 is the magic number that let’s the host have a guest, and there to be one other guest spot that people can claim every month for a friend or partner. It’s such a fun event that we all want to be able to share it, and new personalities keep the conversation fresh.
The goal of our cooking club is to branch out and try something new, so it’s not a traditional potluck. You either have to try a new ingredient, new technique, new cuisine, or simply a new recipe, and challenge yourself by expanding your repertoire. The perk of doing this with a bunch of friends is that you have the joy of a dinner party, but with a whole lot less effort. When you throw a party on your own there’s planning, hours spent standing in the kitchen (or even days, ) the clean-up, not to mention the expense. This cooking club simplifies all that.
By only focusing on one dish, you really can get excited about what you’re cooking. As the host, the theme can be as creative as you want. In my original group, some examples were Spanish tapas night, Ethiopian night, grill night, tomato night and bacon night (where every dish had to include that ingredient, including the drinks and dessert,) and everybody cook from the latest issue of “Food and Wine” night. It pushed me to make my own paneer, find celery root and make a soup with it, cook tamales and mussels for my very first time, put pineapple on the barbecue, make profiteroles, and so much more. Not only that, I benefited from all the other fabulous recipes everyone else made! There’s a red lentil soup that another member made on our Turkish night and it’s one of my all time favorite freezer-friendly soups that I now make over and over again. I never would have known about it without the supper club.
Mostly, everyone prepares as much of their dish in their own kitchen as possible. Last minute touches, or time in the oven can happen at the host’s home, especially for the occasions when people want to actually plate their dish in a certain way, but in general we aren’t actually cooking together.
The evening starts off with drinks and appetizers. Typically, a fun cocktail is made, and then there’s wine for dinner. That said, the person on drinks can always go with something non-alcoholic, or reserve the creative part for an after-dinner drink instead. In terms of the wine, the goal is not to break the bank. (We’ve set a $12 limit per bottle.) By keeping track of what we’ve had, by the end of the year we’ve got a list of 12 whites and 12 reds that are reasonably priced and hopefully delicious. Because really, wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be fabulous.
As we sit down to each course, the people who made them explain what they are, where they got any specialty ingredients, and what they thought of the experience. And here’s the thing that’s a little different from every other dinner party: we talk honestly about the dishes and if they worked or not. It’s not all compliments, because we all want to grow and constructive feedback is really helpful. Every dish is not going to be a winner, and that’s okay. There’s still plenty on the table, so it’s nothing to stress over. The whole point is to have fun!
Another thing that is different is that all the members help clean as we go. In between courses, we take turns doing dishes so that the host isn’t left with it all at the end of the night. It takes getting used to (as the host it feels a little awkward putting “guests” to work at first,) but the payoff is amazing. Everyone is happy to pitch in, and being able to go to bed as soon as everyone leaves and know you’re waking up to a clean kitchen… Really, there are no words. Especially if you have an early start the next day.
Speaking of days, we are going to continue meeting on the third Tuesday of every month at 7:30. Because weekends fill up with family commitments, and Mondays are crazy as the week begins, this seems to be the ideal day. You can do your shopping on the weekend, and even prepare much of your dish if you need to, and everything will still be fresh on Tuesday when you run in the door from work or soccer practice. And this go-around, we’ve agreed that everyone arrives with a container to split any leftovers for our lunches the next day. Talk about bonus!
The schedule simply rotates so that everyone gets a chance at each course, and we don’t have to spend time negotiating who’s doing what. If it’s listed out, maybe it will seem clearer that everyone just moves down every month.
Soup OR Salad
Main Dish (The Host)
The host becomes next month’s alternate, the alternate takes dessert, dessert takes drinks, drinks takes appetizers, etc.
We’ve all got those nights when we just cook to get food on the table, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s rejuvenating and inspiring to take at least one night a month to make dinner something extra special. It helps give balance to those times when the packet of cheese goes flying across the kitchen, or all the nights when dinner just feels like another thing that has to get done. It’s an opportunity to slow down and remember what you love about cooking, or maybe even learn to love it. Enjoy a cocktail, try something new, eat well, and laugh with friends. That’s the making of a pretty awesome night.
I’ll share all the details of our first gathering (which was all things Israel) in the next week, so please check back in! And if you have ever participated in a cooking club or “supper club,” it would be great to hear about your experience. Or if you are now considering forming your own, let me know that too. I’d love to read about how you’ve done yours and exchange ideas!