How to start your own cookbook club — and why you’ll want to
If you like the idea of joining a book club but would really rather not debate pacing and character development in the latest best-selling novel over overly garlicky spinach dip, there’s another option: a cookbook club.
In a cookbook club, you still get to see friends, while gathering to commune over and discuss a book. But the food is better. And you don’t have to read that 350-pager (that no one ever gets through). If you’re doing it right, you are reading the book, but it’s faster. And it’s still a joy, if the author has a story to tell, like my group’s first choice, the wonderful “Taste of Persia” by Naomi Duguid.
Participating in such a club also forces you to cook from the cookbooks you buy. How many have you bought and never gotten around to trying? See? And you get to have a dinner party at a table full to groaning, but you only made one dish (or two or more for the more ambitious). You’ll try books you may not have considered picking up. Along with the title above, my group of six friends has cooked: “Ad Hoc at Home,” Thomas Keller’s supposedly more approachable effort, but still highly chef-y; “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” the second cookbook by Slanted Door chef/owner Charles Phan; and “Smitten Kitchen Every Day” by Deb Perelman. Dorie Greenspan’s just-released “Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook” is next. (I’m making the carrot rillettes below and maybe a savory tart. We’ll see.)
Books from this season I would nominate for future club dinners include: “Carla Hall’s Soul Food” by former “The Chew” co-host Carla Hall; the widely praised “Season” by Nik Sharma; my friend Chandra Ram’s upcoming “The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook” (OK, not all of us have an Instant Pot, so that might get vetoed); and “Zahav” author Michael Solomonov’s latest “Israeli Soul.”
To get you started, here are some things we’ve learned along the way to cooking the books — a highly opinionated guide, that in spots casts aside dumb advice offered by some other media outlets.
How to communicate: If I have one more Google doc to manage, I’ll die (puke, scream, smash a crumpet). We use email. The string can get long, but we manage. But, yes, if you’re the super-organized type, create that online doc.
Keep it small: I laughed when I read advice to make cookbook groups 25 members. What an organizational nightmare. Limit your group to six to eight people: large enough to try a number of dishes in a book, small enough to manage the dinner party.
Not a potluck: You’ll consult one another and pick a range of dishes across appetizers, entree, sides and desserts. A potluck means you end up with the luck of the draw. This is not that.
But, but: What if you picked a dessert book for one session? Or an all-apps book? Those would be fun change-of-pace parties. (But maybe not this season’s “Cheese Balls”; too much, you’ll get sick.)
Challenge yourself: A 30-ish member of another cookbook club told me that her fellow cook-the-bookers all avoid harder dishes. I don’t get it. This is the time to attempt something tricky or a new technique. You’re not cooking the entire menu, so you have more time than you might when prepping a typical dinner party, and should the dish fail, you have friends with whom to commiserate — and maybe curse the author.
Knock down barriers: Make it easy to get together. Be reasonable about how often you’ll meet. Monthly sounds like a death knell. How about bimonthly? Or quarterly?
Where to meet: We take turns hosting at one another’s condos and houses. No one cares if it’s a tight squeeze, or if we eat standing around the kitchen counter.
Choosing the book: Let the host choose. Assuming all of you have similar goals, no one is going to pick something wild like Rene Redzepi’s moss-dominant “Noma.” Also, the choice should be about discovery for every member. I would love to have our group cook from my friend Robin Mather’s “The Feast Nearby,” but I know that book already.
Getting the book: We all want to support cookbook authors, but buying several books a year might be too steep a price for some members. Plus, what if it turns out you don’t like the book? Share. Pick your dish then pass the book along. (This is another argument for leaving enough time between dinners: Doing so gives members a few weeks to get the book and pick a recipe.) Or pick up a copy at the library, or use e-books.
Hosting: I’ve seen advice on picking the right plates, neutral colors to act as the canvas for the food. Are you kidding me? Just use your everyday dishes. Don’t sweat it. You want some flowers on the table? Yes, nice. But this is not the time to go all Martha Stewart. Except …
No paper plates: C’mon. These are your friends. You can wash a few dishes. Besides, if your group is large enough, you are hosting but once or twice a year.
Be mindful of sitting time: Are you coursing the dishes (we do) or throwing everything on the table at once? The answer will affect your dish. My “Taste of Persia” dish sat too long, and the texture was compromised. My fault. I should have finished it at our friend’s house. Which leads to …
Oven privileges: Ask the host before you assume you’ll be able to throw your dish in the oven for 15 minutes to melt the cheese topping. What if she’s finishing her roast at 475 degrees?
Get equipped: Expecting the host to have a stand mixer to whip cream for your pie at the last minute? Check ahead. Whatever your recipe requires on site, make sure the host has it, or plan to bring it yourself.
Finally: Have more than one dessert. I mean, c’mon.
Finally, finally: Post about it. Take photos of your dishes, then post them on social media and tag the author. It’s a thrill when they respond! Even jaded food people (my group is mostly trained chefs) get geeked. Deb Perelman’s shout-out about how our dishes were so beautiful was sweet.
Prep: 40 minutes, plus standing time
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
From “Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook” by Dorie Greenspan. Both the rillettes and the spread can be made up to two days ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator. “For the mustard, use strong fresh mustard and use both smooth and grainy,” Greenspan writes. “Try to get French Dijon mustard — its flavor is best in this dish.”
1 pound carrots, peeled, trimmed
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds, chopped or crushed
2 ounces Comte or other nutty firm cheese, cut into small cubes
2 1/2 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard, preferably French
2 1/2 teaspoons smooth Dijon mustard, preferably French
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, optional
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons smooth Dijon mustard, preferably French
1 teaspoon grainy Dijon mustard, preferably French
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Bread, sliced (such as rye, baguette, country bread or multigrain)
Fresh cilantro leaves, optional
Extra-virgin olive oil, optional
1. For the rillettes, cut the carrots in half the long way, then cut each half in half (so that you have 4 long pieces per carrot), and slice each piece crosswise about 1/2 inch thick. (If your carrots are slender, you can just cut them lengthwise in half and slice them.) Season the carrots with a little salt and pepper and put them in a steamer basket over (or in) a saucepan of simmering water. Cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the carrots are crisp-tender — they should retain some of their crunch and be only a bit firmer than the cheese. Spoon the carrots into a bowl and season with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, a few turns of the pepper mill, the cumin and the caraway seeds. Let stand for 30 minutes.
2. Mix the cheese, both mustards and the olive oil into the carrots. Let the rillettes “ripen” at room temperature for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 hours, before tasting for seasoning and serving. (If you want to keep the rillettes for up to 2 days, cover and refrigerate.)
3. For the spread, if you’re using the mustard seeds, toss them into a small dry skillet and heat until they’re toasted, about 2 minutes. Turn the seeds out into a bowl, add the mayonnaise, yogurt and both mustards and stir to blend. Taste and season with salt and pepper if you think the spread needs it. (You can use the spread now, or cover and refrigerate it for up to 2 days.)
4. To assemble, lightly toast the bread and cover the slices with the spread. Top with the rillettes and, if you like, scatter over some cilantro. Drizzle over a little olive oil — or don’t — and, if the slices of bread are large, cut into smaller pieces. Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving: 228 calories, 17 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 22 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 6 g protein, 595 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
From “Smitten Kitchen Every Day” by Deb Perelman, who writes: “I like to think of this as a vegetable-rich (but not overwhelming, should you be trying to entice the hesitant) baked ziti where the ziti is replaced by giant beans.” Look for the gigante beans sold as fagioli corona or gigante/gigandes bean at an Italian or Greek grocery store.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
1 large or 2 regular carrots, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper or red pepper flakes
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup dry white or red wine (optional)
4 ounces curly kale leaves, chopped or torn
2 1/4 cups crushed tomatoes (28-ounce or 800-gram can minus 1 cup; reserve the rest for another use)
1 pound cooked firm-tender giant white beans
Up to 3/4 cup vegetable broth
1/2 pound mozzarella, coarsely grated
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, optional
1. Prepare the beans and vegetables: Heat the oven to 475 degrees. In a 2 1/2- to 3-quart (ideally oven-safe) deep saute pan, braiser or shallow Dutch oven, heat the olive oil on medium-high. Add the onion, celery and carrots.
2. Season well with salt and black or red pepper. Cook, sauteing, until the vegetables brown lightly, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for 1 minute more. Add the wine, if using, to scrape up any stuck bits, then simmer until it disappears, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the kale, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until collapsed, then add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the beans, and, if the mixture looks too dry or thick (canned tomatoes range quite a bit in juiciness), add up to 3/4 cup broth, 1/4 cup at a time. Simmer the mixture together over medium for about 10 minutes, adjusting the seasonings as needed.
3. If your pan isn’t ovenproof, transfer the mixture to a 3-quart baking dish. If it is, well, carry on.
4. Bake: Sprinkle the beans first with the mozzarella, then the Parmesan, and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until browned on top. If you’re impatient and want a deeper color, you can run it under the broiler. Finish with parsley, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 361 calories, 11 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 45 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 22 g protein, 412 mg sodium, 11 g fiber