If the thought of organizing a dinner party conjures up pictures of days slaving over a hot stove and a beautifully set table complete with starched linens, sparkling china and polished silver -- put the thought aside. No longer is it necessary or even expected for a host to make an entire meal alone. This is the decade of communal cooking and progressive provisions, where potluck is de rigueur.
It's little wonder that gourmet clubs -- the quintessence of cooperative cuisine -- are burgeoning across the country. They offer an ideal way of keeping in touch with friends on a regular basis, with everyone sharing in the cooking, and homes rotated among the members.
When I first moved to Baltimore, I joined a gourmet club as a means of making friends and acquiring new recipes. Our group consists of five couples who meet for dinner four times a year. Since each menu is planned around the freshest and most prevalent ingredients available, we call ourselves the Four Seasons. When one couple is unable to attend a dinner, the host couple has the privilege of inviting another one in its place.
Our club is unique in that all the female members gather at the host's home the day before the party to cook. At the beginning of the week, we meet for a short planning session to pool our ideas and recipes and choose the menu. Each of us is responsible for buying the ingredients for one recipe and getting a copy of it to the members after the dinner. With all of us cooking together, we complete the entire menu in less than four hours -- it's amazing how fast a meal can be assembled with 10 hands participating in the work. Our group has dispelled the old myth that too many cooks spoil the broth. In our case, we are all so busy that if there were fewer cooks, there would be no broth.
Most other gourmet groups I am familiar with operate on a potluck basis, with each guest bringing a dish. Sometimes the hostess picks the theme and the entree, and each couple brings a recipe to complement it. The rules for putting together the menu and food are secondary to the social aspect of the evening and the main goal, which is to have fun.
A gourmet club offers the ideal opportunity to experiment with new recipes; my group is a very adventuresome one. As a result, we do not always serve dishes worthy of duplication -- but overall, our average is a pretty good one. The baked fish stuffed with spinach and napped with sauce verte and creamy lemon rice pilaf are two of my favorites. They are so simple to prepare that I find myself making them often, both for my family and friends. Choose any fresh whole white fish, such as trout, whitefish or snapper, and you will have enough stuffing for about 4 pounds of it. The stuffing may be made a day ahead, but the fish is best filled right before baking. It can then be served hot or at room temperature.
The tangy rice, accented with lemon rind and juice and bound with cream, makes a perfect partner for any fish dish. It can be made a day ahead and reheated in the microwave.
If you are a chocoholic searching for a new fix, look no further: Fudge truffle ice cream torte is your answer. A ribbon of ice cream (chocolate if you are really passionate), sandwiched between two different but equally rich fudge layers, is a chocolate devotee's dream. The bottom tastes like a flourless chocolate torte and the top -- well, it's pure fudge. The fact that the completed dessert can stay in the freezer for weeks, ready and waiting to be served, enhances its gastronomic value.
And should you decide to take part in a co-op dinner or begin a gourmet group of your own, you'll be glad to know that each of these victuals are vehicle-tested. Self-contained and sturdy, they all travel well and will leave no lasting remnants in your car.
Baked fish stuffed with spinach
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 (3- to 4-pound) whitefish or 4 (10- to 12-ounce) trout or 2 (1- to 2-pound) snapper, book filleted (center bone removed with head and tail left on)
1/2 to 1 cup dry white wine
1 bag (10 ounces) fresh spinach (set aside 1/2 cup leaves for sauce verte)
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
2 green onions, with tops
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 2 teaspoons dried dill
1/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
grated rind of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Wipe fish and lightly salt and pepper inside.
To make the stuffing, clean spinach. Bring about 1 inch of water to a boil in a large skillet. Cook spinach, stirring, until wilted. Squeeze out excess water. Remove to a cutting board and chop into small pieces. Place in bowl and stir in remaining ingredients. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Open fish on work surface. Spread stuffing over one side. Fold second half over. Season top with salt and pepper.
Place in shallow casserole(s). Pour 1/2 cup wine into pan. Cover with foil. Bake small fish for 15 to 18 minutes and large fish for 20 to 30 minutes or until the flesh is opaque. The timing will depend on the thickness of the fish.