Food Groups

Cooking clubs are a way for members to serve up new recipes and lots of companionship.

February 06, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Candles are lighted, soft music plays and the heady smells of bacon and Gorgonzola cheese waft through the air as Sammi Strickland starts greeting guests in her Catonsville apartment.

They arrive, carrying covered dishes, and head for the kitchen, some stopping to pet Sputnik, the dog, on the way. Even though it is midmorning, a few people accept an offer for a glass of wine or a mimosa.

The conversation flows so easily among the dozen or so guests that it's hard to believe most of these people have never met before.

They're members of a recently formed cooking club, and they meet once a month to trade recipes, talk about food and share a meal. These days, when the comforts of home cooking and companionship beckon more than ever, such clubs seem to be gaining popularity.

"I've always liked to cook, and I thought it would be a nice way to try new recipes and meet new people," said Sami Klein of Columbia, who helped get the club started. (Yes, this club has a Sami and a Sammi, both women.)

Some cooking clubs form through other organizations, such as community groups or mothers' clubs. Some are simply groups of friends who meet every so often to socialize over a meal cooked together.

Aimee Pennington of Ellicott City, for example, started a cooking club through her local mothers' support group. The club is less than a year old and the rules are still evolving, but so far the group is rotating the meetings among the seven or eight members, she said.

The hostess supplies the ingredients, makes copies of the recipes, and then cooks the meal while the other members watch. At one meeting, member Kirsten Phalen made Chicago-style pizza. At another, Pennington demonstrated how to make minced chicken in lettuce wraps.

"It's kind of like those cooking shows, almost," Pennington said. Like the hosts of those shows, sometimes she'll make one dish in advance for club members to eat, and put together another for her audience.

"I really like cooking a lot,"

Pennington said. "Women and food go together. We like to socialize, and it's something you can kind of do with your kids there."

Diane Neas, a Baltimore restaurant consultant, belongs to a cooking club of about 15 women, all food professionals. The group, known as the Baltimore Women's Culinary Society, meets once a month to share a lavish feast cooked by the members, who include Regina Vitale, owner of Aldo's, and Margaret Sullivan, who produces cooking shows for Maryland Public Television.

"We gossip a little bit about what's going on in the industry. We talk about trends. All that stuff," Neas said.

The group, which started about 10 years ago, rotates among member houses, with the hostess choosing the theme. "Sometimes we cook there, sometimes we bring a completed dish," Neas said.

In December, the group always does a cookie exchange, and in February, it puts on a big sit-down dinner. In the spring, families of the members are invited for a meal.

The cooking club that met at Strickland's started through a Web site for Cooking Light magazine. Hundreds of such clubs formed throughout the country after the magazine ran articles in May 2000 and September 2001 about starting clubs through the cookinglight.com bulletin board. (Just go to cookinglight.com and click on "Supper Club Hub," then "Bulletin Boards.")

The first meeting of the Baltimore-area club was in September, at the Ram's Head Tavern in Savage. The group of five or six set some ground rules: They would rotate among member houses, cooking meals from Cooking Light magazines that revolved around a theme.

So far, people have been preparing the dishes at home and bringing the finished products to the host's house. But Maggi Smith of Pasadena, one of the club's founders, hopes the club evolves to the point where members of the club get in the kitchen and actually cook together.

For the meeting at Strickland's house, the theme was simply foods that would be appropriate for brunch. Guests brought such treats as French toast, sour cream coffeecake, ham and cheese frittatas and fruit cobbler. Strickland cooked Strata Milano With Gorgonzola from a recipe she found on the magazine's Web site.

Some of the recipes were modified from the original Cooking Light recipes. Judy Haynos of Baltimore, for example, made her frittatas with full-fat cheese. Strickland substituted a round sourdough loaf for the baguette in her strata recipe. And Marilee Sheton of Laurel used raspberries instead of peaches in her fruit cobbler because peaches were not available.

Before the meeting, members traded e-mails to make sure there were no duplications of dishes.

Of course, in every group there's a rebel, and this time it was Stephen Wolanski of Laurel. While everybody else's dishes boasted nutritionally correct profiles, Wolanski arrived with Mexican Tea Cakes that were far too sinful for the pages of Cooking Light.

"There's half a cup of butter in there," he said of the small plate of sugar-covered delicacies. The other guests laughed in mock horror.

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