Good friends and good food

NEIGHBORS

March 26, 2004|By Lisa Kawata | Lisa Kawata,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHEN Susan Costenbader remembered that she forgot to get ice, it was 6:45 p.m. on a Saturday night and her eight dinner guests were due to arrive in 15 minutes.

Her husband, Jay, was sliding fish sticks and chicken nuggets into the toaster oven for the children. A few spoonfuls of applesauce on the side, and both kids were happy and occupied.

Then Jay Costenbader remembered the ice in the garage freezer. With the problem solved, the North Laurel residents were ready for their Gourmet Club friends. Soon all would soon enjoy a menu of fresh gazpacho, grilled rosemary steak and a lime-flavored ricotta creme.

"We like to entertain. It's a good-food, good-friends kind of thing," Susan Costenbader said.

Her love of parties and fine food was passed down to her by her father, Robert Johannesen, a chef in Philadelphia. Before becoming parents, Susan and Jay Costenbader entertained often. Six years ago, the couple found themselves spending most Saturday evenings at home, despite the early bedtimes of their young children. As it turned out, their friends were doing the same thing.

When a high school friend told Susan about the home dinner club idea, the Costenbaders decided to start one. They invited four couples. Two included men who worked with Jay Costenbader; the other two couples included women Susan had met playing racquetball and in exercise class.

"We could share the burden of planning, cooking and cleaning and we'd have five parties a year, and each couple only has to host one party," Susan Costenbader said.

Nearly 30 parties later, the five couples have brought the tastes of the world to their tables. And they've had a lot of fun.

About 7:15 p.m., Dave and Amie Littmann arrived with the appetizer -- thinly sliced turkey rolled in lettuce leaves, slathered with cilantro mayonnaise. While the Costenbaders made drinks, Joe and Nancy Kearney, whose salad course would be eaten later, stood around the butcher block island chatting with Christine and Peter Burrows and Peter and Audrae Hughes.

Joe Kearney sniffed the lettuce-wrapped appetizer before taking a bite. The ladies shook their heads. Kearney is a "meat-and-potatoes man."

The evening's attire was aqua and pink, or salmon, even for the men. The party's theme was "resort casual," Susan Costenbader said. Its menu came from The South Beach Diet by Dr. Arthur Agatston.

Costenbader designed turquoise-and-white invitations, which included recipes she chose from the book and assigned to each couple. As hosts, the Costenbaders provided the entree -- steak, spinach-stuffed mushrooms and a dish called Surprise South Beach Mashed Potatoes (cauliflower pureed to look like whipped potatoes.)

"I made that recipe in advance," said Susan Costenbader. Although she acknowledged not liking cauliflower, the recipe won her approval -- and a place on her party menu.

When the club started, the couples picked countries as themes, sampling food from Spain, the Middle East, Ireland and the Caribbean. Not all the recipes turned out successfully. The cooking methods were sometimes difficult, and the recipes didn't always match the members' culinary expectations. Susan Costenbader recalled some Middle Eastern meatballs "that weren't too appetizing."

The friends also found that they spent days searching for an exotic, and sometimes expensive, spice but used it only once.

"We're gravitating back to more comfortable themes and food selections," Susan Costenbader said.

About three years ago, the club added costumes to their parties. "It makes it more festive, more like an event," Susan Costenbader said.

They wore football jerseys to a tailgate party and 1920s-era clothing to a gangster-type, murder-mystery dinner. A Renaissance night required long gowns for the women and tights for the men. That evening's fare was eaten out of bread troughs, sans utensils.

As the children have grown -- there are 12 among the five couples -- the club has added a family weekend to their schedule of get-togethers.

The club does have a few rules. For instance, spouses can't sit together around the table. "It makes for more interesting conversation," Susan Costenbader said.

Although soccer games and their children's antics were more often the topic than headlines in the news, the couples were free to wander into more adult subjects over glasses of wine (also worth talking about) as the chatter flew right to left and over the table.

"It helps to have somewhat compatible personalities -- and not all the women do the cooking," said Audrae Hughes.

In their matching aqua shirts, the Costenbaders whisked the soup bowls from the table and replaced them with steaks large enough to cover each dinner plate. The cauliflower, not a hit with Joe Kearney, was served in glasses.

The Costenbaders have enjoyed their dinner club so much that they started a second club two years ago with a different set of friends. They called it The Seasons Dinner Club, because it meets four times a year.

"Eating is a universal interest," Susan Costenbader said.

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