In May or June each year, the Ninecooks cooking groups and I play calendar bingo. Finding dates when all, or most, of the group members can gather is challenging, especially with four groups and a total of 40 calendars to sync, but just like the National Football League, we've done it. We'll be back in the kitchen starting in mid-September.
Before I propose menus for our
upcoming group cooking dates, I'm reviewing the responses to a brief questionnaire I sent out in the Spring to the two longest-running groups, The #1 Cooking Group and the Wednesday Lunch Group (1-1/2 years), to get a sense of what's working, and what could work better.
Are our menus enjoyable? Too much or too little cooking? Too much or too little learning?
Too much or too little chicken???
(Okay, I know the answer to that one!)
The #1 folks — the original nine cooks — have been cooking together, every 4-6 weeks, for four years. Unlike any of the other Ninecooks groups, most of the #1 Group were friends before we started cooking together; my husband and I were the new kids on the block, and cooking was a wonderful way to get to know people in this geographically spread-out community.
Friendship and familiarity make for a family-like atmosphere in the kitchen, with many lively conversations going on (the continuing tales of local library boards and our arts organization, plus the usual catching-up on family news and work, and, truth be told, the occasional bit of gossip) as the cooking gets done. Sometimes we're busy up until, and beyond, the moment when our spouses arrive to help with the eating. Other times, we're more leisurely. And when I haven't planned the menu well, we have too much waiting-around time.
So, overall, how are we doing?
And, what might we do differently in the coming year?
Here's what The #1 Cooking Group had to say....
1. We'll be cooking slightly less frequently, every 5-8 weeks. This has a bit to do with my own schedule and the difficulty in finding available cooking dates, but a few people do welcome the less frequent commitment.
2. Most everyone appreciates the mix of menus and skills learned. Several feel that we do too much: "I can't get my hands into the pot." Most would prefer fewer variations on a theme (ah, yes, too many tamales!). Generally our cooking sessions focus on mastering a skill, technique, or ingredient, but a few people said they'd rather create entire meals (main course, salad, dessert) — more like a dinner party, I guess. Some would like to concentrate on just one dish each time, like the time we spent all day shopping for fish and making Toulouse-Lautrec's bouillabaisse. (That was a fun thing to do.)
3. When asked about particular skills they'd like to learn or improve, almost everyone mentioned knife skills. Also deboning (not my forté, so we'll need a guest chef), and soup/stock making. I say yes to all that.
4. Several people requested more Asian and Latin cooking. I'm all for it. One asked for less cumin. (No. Sorry.)
5. To my surprise, a few expressed interest in "fast" cooking, or dishes that can be cooked ahead and frozen, plus ways to use more convenience foods (good quality store-bought sauces, for example). I'm more of a slow-food gal, so I'm not sure I'm the one to organize this. How about making our own sauces that can go into the freezer and become the basis for homemade fast food?
6. People like getting information about food sources, new or specialized ingredients (and sampling those ingredients), and local markets.
7. In the past, we've taken one field trip each year, to a local ethnic or specialty market, and then returned to the kitchen to cook with what we purchase. Most people enjoy this, but do not want to substitute field trips for cooking sessions. (When I tell them about the Indian spice market I'd like to visit, they might change their minds.) Some people prefer exploring markets on their own.
8. Most everyone enjoys having guest chefs, but all said they would not want guest instructors more frequently than we now have them (once or twice a year). We've been fortunate to get some wonderful chefs come to teach us cool stuff, like how to make mozzarella and flatbreads, but the group seems to like my way of teaching, too. Isn't that nice?
9. Though all are better cooks than I am, when asked if they would like to teach our cooking sessions, most answered, emphatically, "No!" Four are willing to teach all or part of a menu; Korean cooking and scratch cakes, specifically, were mentioned.
There you have it.
All in all, we're a pretty happy group, but some tweaking is in order. That's the fun of cooking groups — like the food we cook, the groups are organic, growing and adjusting according to the changing interests of the participants. My role as den mother is to try and find ways to make our cooking group experience enjoyable for everyone, so here are my ideas for The #1 Cooking Group:
1. Create full-meal menus. Instead of focusing on one technique or ingredient, we'll make a complete meal each time. Sometimes the star of the show will be the entreé, other times the dessert, or maybe a side dish with a fun new ingredient. This will mean that most of the time we'll make only three or four dishes, which simplifies the grocery shopping. And the "whole meal" approach will appeal to those who like to look at individual recipes in the context of an entire menu.
*Note: After they're road tested by our cooking groups, many of our group cooking menus are available on the Ninecooks website.
2. Divide our cooking time. The first 1-1/2 hours of cooking time will be the "lesson"; the final hour will be devoted to assembling the dishes that complete the meal (salad, sides, fruit desserts, etc.). In that way, those who already know how to make the dishes we're highlighting, or simply aren't interested in the lesson part on that day, can still enjoy the camaraderie of cooking together, and those who are more interested in learning about the techniques, ingredients, or process can come at the start. (For you #1s, that means "lesson" at 4:00, assembly at 5:30, eaters at 6:30.) The planning will be a challenge for me, because I'll have to work out the cooking order ahead of time, but I'm willing to give it a try.
That's the other thing about cooking groups. We'll try anything! If our kitchen experiments, menu plans and improvisations work, great. If not, we giggle, and move on.
If you're in a Ninecooks group, please share your suggestions and feedback. And if you're part of a cooking group in your own community, let us know how you get together and cook with friends.