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Some Call it Cookbook Club. We Call it Family Meal.


Some Call it Cookbook Club. We Call it Family Meal.

A family meal that celebrates the chefs behind the recipes and the home cooks dishing them up.

The plump salmon steaks hiss the moment they kiss the cast iron, sitting atop a campfire stove – the beginnings of a family meal. A few feet away, halved peaches and plums get their own kind of charred treatment over a Weber grill. Inside, every burner in the kitchen is occupied—fennel and potatoes, tomatoes from our garden, goat cheese and carrots, all dancing between that thin line of seared and scorched.

Almost every piece of equipment at my friend’s house that gives off heat is in use. If the centerpiece candle provided just a touch larger flame, one of us would be sautéing veggies over it.

On this night, everybody cooks. It’s not a dinner party, as most think of a dinner party. This is different. Some call it a cookbook club. Others call it simply a cooking club. My friends call it family meal.

Once a month, we all agree on a cookbook or chef, and then each of us select a recipe or two to prepare and contribute. Our crew likes to choose cookbooks and chefs that stretch our abilities in the kitchen or nudge us to explore unfamiliar cuisine.

Sure, the finish line delivers delicious food that you wouldn’t typically dish up at home. But it’s about more than that plated end-game. It’s about the experience—the journey—from choosing your recipe to washing that last dish.

It’s a safe space to try a challenging recipe or an unfamiliar cuisine.

First, there’s the moment you select a chef or cookbook, debating how much of a culinary challenge your crew is up for. The daring recipes from David Chang’s Momofuku? The easy-to-execute, yet life-changing veggie dishes from Chef Yotam Ottolenghi? The unfamiliar Moroccan recipes of Chef Mourad Lahlou. Or a safer, crowd-pleaser like Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa? I’d suggest selecting a chef or cookbook that offers enough of a challenge for those shoulda/coulda/woulda-chefs in your group (we all know at least one) as well as more accessible recipes for newbies.

Then there’s that joyful hunt for lesser-known ingredients that leads you to the Asian market, the Latin grocer, or that out-of-town produce stand you’ve been meaning to explore. (And bonus: these ingredient quests double as an opportunity to become good friends with the stock boys at your local grocery store, as they help you navigate the store’s less popular aisles.)

It’s a living, breathing gallery, that happens to go great with red wine.

Then, it’s time to cook. A meal like this can only be prepared in that music-on, glass-of-wine-poured, dishes-can-wait kind of cooking. I’m one to follow a recipe to the T. I read over the instructions before I shop for ingredients and again before I start cooking and about four times more while working through the recipe. By contrast, my husband is confident enough in the kitchen to take risks. He’ll add extra cayenne, or less salt, or substitute one out-of-season ingredient for another in-season ingredient.

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The joy of creating, together.

And finally, the best part, you all gather. Our family meals are almost always outside, even if it means blankets over our laps on a November night or doused in bug spray on a humid summer afternoon. The dishes are lined up. The wine is poured. The kids are sufficiently distracted with Legos. And while everyone impatiently starts dishing up, each hollers a sentence or two about the dish they prepared. There’s always a critique about what they might change for next time or a complaint about having to drive over the county line to find a particular ingredient. (For my last recipe, I went on a failed pursuit for pomegranate molasses.)

We sit and enjoy this dinner that somehow tastes better than anything we could order at even our favorite restaurant. How is that possible? I remember asking that question the last time we were gathered around beautifully burnt dishes dreamed up by Argentine Chef Francis Mallmann, published in his Seven Fires cookbook. I think the secret ingredient is the joy of creating. The dozen people seated at our friend’s patio table took time to choose a recipe—that fit their tastes, skill set, and even personality. And then did their best to craft a delicious dish. And now we all get to share our creation with one another.

It’s a living, breathing gallery, that happens to go great with red wine.

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